When I was scrolling through the daily alerts I receive from academic journals, I was struck by the title of one article in particular— The Role of Bisexual-specific Minority Stressors in Sexual Compulsivity among Bisexual Men.
My initial thoughts included: Do we really need to conduct research that perpetuates the stereotype that bi men are sexually greedy and/or sex addicts? That bi men are the ones who are shamelessly spreading HIV?
Upon reading the research, I realized the answer is unequivocally yes. There are bisexual men who do struggle with sexual compulsivity. That doesn't mean all bi men do. That doesn't mean we're all sex addicts or sexually greedy. It doesn't mean we're spreading STIs. It just means that some bi men have a more complicated and less healthy relationship with sex.
Dr. Nathan Grant Smith, of the Department of Psychological, Health, and Learning Sciences at the University of Houston, along with his colleagues, looked at some of the underlying reasons that contribute to sexual compulsivity, which is characterized by "excessive sexual thoughts or behaviors that lead to distress or impairment in social or occupational functioning".
In the study, Dr. Smith analyzed the survey answers of 937 bi+ identifying men. The survey covered a wide range of questions, exploring which factors contribute to internalized biphobia. For example, one of the questions asked, "People might not like me if they found out that I am bisexual."
The researchers speculated that not only hearing negative things about bi people, but also anticipating biphobic responses from both straight and gay folks would lead to internalized biphobia. And that this internalized biphobia then facilitates the pathway to sexual compulsivity.
In simpler terms, being bi men we hear negative things about us all the time: We're greedy, we're incapable of being monogamous, we're confused, we don't exist, etc. Then there are people who refuse to date us because of our (bi)sexuality. When we hear these things repeatedly from individuals, both gay and straight, we start to internalize these negative things about bisexuality and consequently, ourselves. Even if we don't begin to think these negative things about ourselves, we get stressed. We get anxious. We assume that we're going to be discriminated against in the future because we have been in the past. This, of course, affects how we think. It increases feelings of depression and anxiety (which is partly why bi folks have worse mental health outcomes than gay and straight folks).
Now, some folks deal with the internalized bi-negativity and stress with sex... lots of sex... Sexual compulsivity acts as an emotion regulation strategy, temporarily reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Dr. Smith's results indicated that the path to sexual compulsivity was exactly as he hypothesized. Experiencing biphobia and anti-bisexual sentiments did indeed increase negativity, which lead to sexual compulsivity.
There was, however, something unexpected revealed in the results. Discrimination from lesbian/gay men were significantly related to anticipated discrimination and internalized bi-negativity. However, discrimination from heterosexual folks merely approached statistical significance. Put another way, there was a more powerful effect when the discrimination was coming from lesbians and gay men than when it was from coming from heterosexuals.
I asked Dr. Smith why this might be the case.
We know that there's anti-bisexual prejudice and stereotyping from both heterosexuals and lesbians and gay men. But the results are somewhat surprising because we think about the community as the "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community". It's supposed to be a place that is a safe haven for people who are non-heterosexual. But we know from talking to bisexual individuals that oftentimes they feel marginalized or ignored or invisible in those spaces. The fact that it's supposed to be a welcoming environment but the reality that it's oftentimes not is probably more detrimental than experiencing that kind of discrimination from the heterosexual community.
In other words, we somewhat expect this discrimination from straight folks. But when we receive from other members of the LGBTI community — the community that's supposed to embrace and empower us — it hurts even more. It makes us feel like we don't belong anywhere and don't have a queer family.
I asked Dr. Smith what can be done to help bi men struggling with sexual compulsivity. He suggested a few ways the LGBTI community, researchers, and health professionals can better assist the specific needs of bi men.
First, he noted that bi and gay men should not be lumped together in research.
When that happens, unique issues facing the bi community are lost. Also, we need to help bisexual men develop more adaptive health behaviors and more adaptive ways of coping with stress — and not assume that the things that work for gay men are going to work the same way for bisexual men.
Second, he spoke of how mental health providers can better assist bi men. Of course, health professionals working with bi men need to realize and address the unique issues that underlie internalized biphobia. Dr. Smith noted,
Given that non-heterosexual sexuality is stigmatized in general, it's crucial that providers really are affirmative of bisexual men's sexuality and the different variations of what that looks like. There should be a balance between helping address the stress that comes with out-of-control thoughts or behaviors around sexuality but at the same time not stigmatizing bisexuality, because sexuality is a healthy and important part of everyone's life, including bisexual men.
Lastly, Dr. Smith concluded that lesbian and gay communities need to step up to the plate. They should no longer believe or spread vicious stereotypes about bisexual folks.
There are actually more bisexual individuals than there are monosexual gay men or lesbian women, but a lot of times they're rendered invisible. It's important for lesbians and gay men to be allies for the bisexual community and to speak up when bisexual peoples' identities are erased or stereotypes are thrown out in the community [and] in the broader culture.
I would just like to add, while bi discrimination and fear of bi discrimination may be a large contributor to sexual compulsivity in bi men, it's necessary that we — bi men — also do everything in our own power to develop more adaptive health behaviors and ways of coping with stress. If this is something that you find yourself struggling with, it's necessary to get into therapy and address the problem.
Alas, odds are that bisexual discrimination isn't going to stop in our lifetime, so it's necessary that we take matters into our own hands to protect our mental and physical health the best we can.