Dr. Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, of Deakin University, recently published a book titled, Women in Relationships with Bisexual Men: Bi Men by Women. In it, she discusses the results of her interviews with 78 women, all of whom were either dating, married, or previously dated bisexual men. In the book she delves into the additional challenges, but also the benefits women receive from dating bisexual men. In doing so, she dispels vicious stereotypes about bisexual men, presenting a more realistic and nuanced depiction of bisexual men and straight women in mixed-orientation relationships (MOREs.) She also discusses the need for additional resources for bisexual men and women dating bi men.
I had the pleasure to speak to Maria to get a better sense of the results from her study, and to find out what the far-reaching implications of her research are on bisexual men and the women who date them.
Zachary Zane: Tell us a little bit about what your research questions were, and what it was you wanted to explore in your research?
Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli: Absolutely. I had a co-researcher, Sara Lubowitz, who was running the Women of Bisexual Partners Network for the AIDS Council in New South Wales. She realized there was a need for women to come together to talk about the positive, problematic, and all sorts of experiences they have with their male bisexual partners. Sara and I decided to team up to ask questions. We wanted to look at various stereotypes: that all bisexual men have HIV, they're all sleeping around, [and] they're actually really gay. All of those types of things.
We ended up interviewing 78 women. Most identified as heterosexual, though some identified as bisexual and lesbian. The women were culturally diverse, coming from different parts of Australia. The ages ranged from 19-65. One thing we wanted to do was differentiate between women who had been in a relationship with a gay identifying man, which there has been a lot of research on, and a bisexual identifying man. Admittedly, some of the partners of the women identified as gay, but happened to fall in love with this one particular woman, and wanted to share his life with that one woman.
ZZ: Could you go more into depth about your interviewing methods?
MPC: So we made a recruitment call through a number of health, women's, and queer LGBTI services, and women began to come to us. We thought we'd be lucky if we received 25 women, but we got 50. And then we thought we had plenty of data and were ready to stop recruiting, but the women kept wanting to participate in the study.
We would meet women where they felt comfortable. Some women wanted to be interviewed in their homes. For other women, who were in dangerous situations of violence, we would conduct the interview while walking on the street and shopping.
We conducted participant-driven research, and by this, I mean that we let the women decide if they wanted to bring in their male partners. Some of the women wanted their partners there. Other women didn't want their partners involved in the study. They viewed the study as an independent [and therapeutic] space. What was beautiful was that after the interview, some of the women began to network with each other, starting up their own supportive communities and Internet spaces. Women felt empowered to do their own work in this area, and we love that.
ZZ: Maria, I'd like to confirm. You said there were some women who feared violence, so you'd walk with them for the interview. Was this violence from their bisexual partners?
MPC: First, I want to say that so many women stated that their bisexual partners made better husbands, fathers, and lovers, but there were [also] some women who were experiencing incredible violence and issues of misogyny. One example was of a man who basically married his female partner to cover his same-sex attractions. He did, however, go overseas and bring his male partner back. He threatened her not to say anything to their religious and ethnic community, and she basically became their housekeeper and mother of his children.
There were men who would abuse, threaten, and act violently towards their female partners, usually when they weren't out, and usually when the men themselves experienced incredible stigmatization, marginalization, and discrimination for their bisexuality. So these men would displace that onto their partners and children.
Interestingly, especially if the women came from more conservative and fundamental religions, the women took on this gendered idea that they, as the women, had to keep their family together at all costs. Putting up with the abuse and burden. These women also felt they had no one they could talk to who wouldn't judge them.
It's important to note that during the interview, while these women were explicit about their abuse and the issues of imbalanced power, they would also keep referencing larger societal issues as reasoning for their partner's behavior. The women would say things like, "When he was growing up, he wasn't allowed to be out. He wasn't allowed to say certain things. He has been under repression". So the women kept drawing it back to the bigger picture that when their partner was growing up, he was told that if he got married to a woman, he would go straight.
So they were conflicted from two levels. One: This is what I'm experiencing right now. It's not right. I'm feeling violated. I have no empowerment as a woman. My husband is displacing his anger and taking it out on me. But then the second level is: I can understand why he has mental health issues because he also has experienced incredible pain and suffering for his same-sex attractions.
ZZ: It makes sense that the men who were abused and weren't accepted by their communities would be the ones to subsequently abuse their spouses.
MPC: Absolutely. And this is something a number of women discussed. Receiving problems from the "hetero world". If they went to a women's refuge and said, "My partner is abusing me and he's bisexual", the women at the shelter would say, "Why are you with him? What's going on? There's no reason to date a bisexual man". And if they went to a gay men's health center for support, they'd be told to leave him alone and let him be gay. Or the gay men would then support the male partner, saying that he has the right to do whatever he wants, and he shouldn't worry about his female partner. They'd say, "She's controlling you". So there's an incredible binary. "We have certain images of you, and we're not going to go beyond that to give you the help you actually need".
ZZ: They were poorly equipped and didn't have the counseling skills to properly advise bisexual men or women dating bisexual men.
MPC: Yes, and one of the chapters in my book is called, When Relationship Counseling Doesn't Recognize Your Relationship. Where do you go if you want to have a talk about STIs or a chat about managing the workplace dating a bisexual man, but suddenly, the conversation becomes about problematizing and pathologizing your relationship and partner? The women are like, "I'm just coming here for some advice on how to have a polyamorous relationship. I'm not here to say that my partner is treating me poorly".
ZZ: Are there additional hardships the women faced from being in a mixed-orientation relationship (MORE)?
MPC: Well some of the younger women, who were previously considered "fag hags" and were loved by their gay community, would be ostracized from the [gay] community once they started stared dating a bisexual man. The gay men thought she crossed a line in "taking one of ours", and because of this, thought "We can't trust him or you, and you're both out of our community".
ZZ: On a more uplifting note, I saw in the press release that some women stated that bisexual men make better husbands, fathers, and lovers. What did the women mention was the reasoning behind this?
MPC: The women mentioned that their partners had had to question their masculinity and sexuality. Because of this, these men were far more sensitive and desired to establish an equitable relationship. They were far more respectful. They were keen fathers and wanted to set up equitable gender relationships in the home. Additionally, the men were far more aware of sexual diversity and desire, so these men were more willing to engage in less heteronormative sexual acts, such as liking anal penetration by their women partners. They were also up to explore novel sexual acts. Many women found themselves exploring BDSM, polyamory, and were themselves encouraged to explore same-sex relationships, and absolutely loving it.
We had this woman who said that after dating a bi man, she could never go back to dating a straight man. These women were saying it wasn't the bisexual men who had the baggage, it was actually the straight men who had a lot of baggage.
ZZ: So would you say any of the women were bi chasers?
MPC: Oh yeah, they were. Usually, the younger women, who said they deliberately look for bisexual men and have dismissed all straight men as romantic partners. They'd say things like, "I haven't been to a straight bar or on a straight dating site for years. I just hang out where gay and bisexual men hang out who may want to date or have sex with me.
Some women would also say how they love being able to walk down the street with their partner and be able to check out a hot guy together. It was something they could share, be honest about, and bond over.
The other major thing, Zach, was this feeling from both the bi men and the women, that you don't have to go into a relationship with silly, heteronormative assumptions. You go in and design it [the relationship] for yourselves. What are the rules? Where do we have sex? Is the bedroom a sacred space or can others come into bed with us? Is it a don't ask don't tell policy? Are we going to do gendered monogamy (meaning the man could only date other men and the woman other women)? Do I have veto power? How are we dealing with STIs? They found that bisexual men were more open to designing a relationship that works for them, rather than a straight man who would come in with certain assumptions of what that relationship should be. Which is why we like calling these mixed-orientation relationship MOREs, because you always end up getting more than what normative society sets as what a relationship should be.
ZZ: I also think once you step off the relationship escalator, it forces communication, which contributes to a healthy relationship.
MPC: Another thing that really mattered is if the men were out. If they were, it just made everything so much easier and the relationship was fantastic from the beginning. And if the women were bisexual too, that communication was already a part of how they interact with their partners. If the men weren't out, but then disclosed their bisexuality or it was discovered (i.e., gay porn left on the computer, condom found in the pocket, etc.) midway through the relationship, we saw [one of] three things occur. A third of the women would just break up with their partners immediately. Another third would go on to communicate and navigate, but would break up anyway, but not because of the bisexuality. Simply because people break up. And then a final third went on to continue this amazing relationship. But communication was always the key.
ZZ: The fact you said only a third broke up right on the spot is surprising to me. I would have thought that number would have been much higher.
MPC: Well some of the women who were devastated when they found out would think to themselves, "Wow, I have to weigh that against the fact that he's been the most sensitive, loving, and caring partner and father. And he's been great in bed". Suddenly, they had to ask themselves if it's worth giving up this amazing man simply because he has desires and wants to have relationships with other men. Instead, is there something they can do, somehow incorporating all of who he is into the relationship? Some women would say, "As long as I have veto power, you can see men", meaning she can tell him not to date guys she thinks have a bad vibe. Other women would say, "Do what you want, as long as you stay who you are with me. I just don't want to hear about it". Another older woman said to her partner, "You've been so awesome to me. We have grandkids. We've lived an amazing life. You've fallen in love with this other guy now, and I think you deserve to go live with him for a while. Just come and visit me periodically".
ZZ: There's something beautiful about that.
MPC: There really is.
ZZ: You mention in your press release that the main factor that contributes to the satisfaction of the relationship wasn't her partner's sexuality, but rather if he performed his masculinity in a traditional, patriarchal, or misogynist manner. Could you expand on this more?
MPC: Let me give you one example. We had a man who made it clear to his wife that he's going to go out with other guys and be part of the gay community, and she will be home, taking care of the children. And she's not allowed to see anyone else. So as interviewers, we did see this type of masculinist patriarchal I'm in control here, you are the wife and better do what I say, and these are your rules as a woman. It became more about gender roles and misogyny. That's what contributed to an unhealthy relationship.
ZZ: And were there differences in perceived gender roles between those who were out and those were closeted?
MPC: Yes, absolutely. This is the problem. The ones who were closeted, according to their partners, were so repressed and were trying so hard to live up to this straight masculine ideal. If they were out, they already had been forced to or had always wanted to divest themselves from those types of constructs of "being a man". So they [the bisexual men] were like, "Well I'm in this relationship, and I don't want to buy into what women call straight baggage". It's not like these men didn't have baggage of their own. Often times, they experienced awful discrimination, but they had already faced their internalized homophobia prior to coming out. They had already shed themselves of the societal construct of what it means to be a man.