It has been known for the past few years that women who are bi experience higher rates of sexual violence than their straight and lesbian counterparts. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly half of bi women have experienced rape at some point in their lifetime. Additionally, approximately 75% of bi women within the United States report experiencing sexual violence, compared to 46% of lesbian women, and 43% of heterosexual women
Now approximately 5.5% of women within the United States ages 15 to 44 identify as bi and 17.4% report engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. In the United States, this estimates roughly 10 million adolescent and adult females identifying as bi and approximately 32 million women engaging in same-sex behavior.
Further, though less documented, research has begun to demonstrate that bi women face greater negative consequences following sexual violence when compared to lesbian and straight women. In other words, bi women seem to experience more struggles following sexual assault.
Despite the high and upsetting numbers, little research has looked at the reasons why bi women experience higher rates of sexual violence.
Dr. Nicole Johnson, of The Department of Education and Human Services at Lehigh University, recently published an article in the Journal of Bisexuality, which proposed multiple factors that contribute to why bi women experience higher rates of sexual violence, as well as why bi women may have worse mental health outcomes following sexual violence.
She thought these three factors in particular were the main contributors: substance use, hypersexualization, and biphobic harassment.
Let's go ahead and discuss each one of these in a little more detail, starting with substance use.
Studies have indicated that bi women actually struggle with substance use, not only more than straight women, but than lesbians, too. Often, those under the influence seem to be "easy victims" for perpetrators. Additionally, those who experience sexual assault under the influence may blame themselves, because they were intoxicated. This may be what's contributing to the worse mental health outcomes following sexual violence.
The second factor Dr. Johnson discussed involved how bi women are hypersexualized by men. She noted something that's not often discussed: Bi women often exist in a weird limbo state of being both invisible and hypervisible.
I asked Dr. Johnson to further explain this phenomenon because, in all honesty, it wasn't something I had recognized before. She explained to me,
Bisexual women are often invisible in representation in the media, LGBTI community, and general community. If bisexual women are depicted in the media their experience is often portrayed as a "phase" either on their way to coming out as lesbian or just "experimenting" before realizing they are actually straight. Unfortunately, this image is not reserved for the media, it is also often repeated within both the LGBTI and general communities, rendering bisexuality invisible. Alternatively, the media, and pornography in particular, have a long history of depicting women as "bisexual" while engaging in same sex behaviors for the pleasure of male on lookers. Recently, this experience, which has been labeled "performative bisexuality" has become common place in bars and at parties where two girls/women engage in same-sex behavior for the purposes of arousing men/boys. Many of these women/girl later denounce bisexuality, furthering the "invisible-hypervisible" experience of bisexuality.
So in essence, the actual bisexual identity of women is invisible, whereas their sexual behaviors (or how they express same-sex intimacy with other women) are fetishized, hypersexualized, and strictly for the male gaze.
Here's why this is problematic: Men have been trained to believe that bi women are for their viewing pleasure. This objectifies and dehumanizes bi women in the eyes of men. Thus, men view women who engage in sexual acts with women, not as a signal of bi identity or female sexual agency, but instead, as sexual commodities with which they can do what they choose.
Moreover, if individuals believe that a bi women's identity is an act for the attention of men, then they're probably going to be more likely to blame the survivor for the assault. (e.g., "You were being affectionate with another woman, but also flirt with guys. What did you think would happen?") Or, they may perceive bi women's report as a lie. (e.g., "Is this another attempt to get attention like when you kiss a girl?")
This form of victim-blaming can cause internalized biphobia and shame, which may contribute to the worse mental health outcomes we see in bi women who experience sexual violence.
The third and final factor Dr. Johnson states is "bisexual harassment". All of the negative stereotypes bi women face — they're greedy, promiscuous, incapable of monogamous commitment, unwilling to "choose" a side, going through a phase, etc. — may engender hostility toward, and dehumanization of, bi women.
Moreover, as Dr. Johnson noted in her paper, "Sexual violence enacted against bisexual women within intimate relationships may result from social constructions of bisexual women as especially worthy of distrust, jealousy, and other emotions and/or perceptions related to uneven power dynamics and hostility within the relationship."
I asked Dr. Johnson what she thinks can be done to combat the high rates of sexual violence and worse mental health outcomes bisexual women face following sexual violence.
The earlier we start talking about sex as a normal, pleasurable, and varied experience for both men and women the better. I believe a strong reason that men believe women's sexuality is for their viewing pleasure is socialization, or messages received from family, peers, and the media. We teach our boys, especially white upper to middle-class boys, that the world is their oyster. That they can achieve anything they want and not to take no for an answer. Alternatively, we teach our girls, especially girls of color, that their worth is based on their usefulness to others and that they should be seen and not heard. This creates a dynamic where girls/women are perceived by others, including themselves, as objects. We can combat this troubling socialization through familial, educational, and community-level interventions highlighting the negative effects of these messages and providing alternative views of pleasure and sexuality.
Dr. Johnson continued,
Specifically, increased conversation and awareness regarding the hypersexualization, objectification, and rejection of bisexual women is crucial within the LGBTI community, as well as the larger community as a whole. This should include conversations surrounding the negative consequences of these experiences including sexual violence against bisexual women. Additionally, increased diverse representation of bisexual women in the media and in the greater community would go a long way toward decreasing sexual violence and negative consequences. We can offer better support to bisexual women who have experienced sexual violence by first believing them, not blaming them, and asking them what they need. These three things will go a long way. We can also make an effort to combat myths surrounding bisexuality including: we are attracted to everyone, we are always open for sex, and bisexuality is just a phase.
While the impetus shouldn't be on the bi community to be outspoken, it should be on the men who exploit their power to sexually assault bisexual women, and it is still necessary that the bi community speak out. That we make it clear that this is an issue that affects millions, literally millions of bi women in America and across the globe. We will not stand for it any longer, and we demand that action must be taken.