People think bisexual men are actually gay. That 'bisexual erasure' may do damage.

May 25, 2021
A unique type of prejudice exists toward bisexual individuals. (Unsplash/Sushil Nash)

A unique type of prejudice exists toward bisexual individuals. (Unsplash/Sushil Nash)

Bisexual men are perceived to be more attracted to men than to women, an opinion that remains consistent whether the person judging sexuality is heterosexual, lesbian or gay, according to a new study that highlights the social bias bisexual people face.

Interestingly, the same pattern is not seen in bisexual women, said University of Exeter researchers in a paper published May 3 in the European Journal of Social Psychology. The team conducted three studies involving a total of 787 participants over the age of 18, as well as an internal meta-analysis. The participants, who were recruited from the university and through social media, rated dating profiles with AI-generated faces. They answered questions about the sexual and romantic attraction of these fictional couples and then were asked about their personal views on sexual identities.

The study's design is particularly relevant as online dating apps grow in popularity and more people find relationships online. During the pandemic, Tinder, Bumble and other apps were even more in demand as lockdowns left people isolated at home; for example, from March through May of 2020, OkCupid saw a 700% rise in dates.

"There is this unique type of prejudice that bisexuals face that goes beyond just not liking bisexual people, but actually identity denial. We know from other research that identity denial has many negative psychological consequences," corresponding author Thekla Morgenroth told The Academic Times. Morgenroth, whose preferred pronouns are "they" and "them," is currently conducting postdoctoral research at Exeter.

"I took a sociology of gender class that was completely mind-blowing to me. I wanted to see how these things work from a social psychology perspective," Morgenroth said. They were especially interested in bisexual erasure, which is an inclination to question or deny a person's attraction to both women and men. "You see bisexual erasure every day," they added. "It's pretty problematic, and when I see something problematic, I want to study it."

Although bisexual people are the biggest group among LGBTQ+ individuals, they are not properly represented in theoretical or clinical research. And studies on discrimination among sexual minorities have often lumped all sexual minorities together into one group or defined bisexuality as merely a transitional phase toward some form of monosexuality.

A previous study showed that the most common misconception about bisexual people is that they are in denial about their true orientation. "This is reflected in terms such as 'lesbian until graduation,' which refers to women who engage in same-gender/sex [behavior] during their university years but revert back to heterosexuality after that," the Exeter researchers noted in the study.

The current project was carried out with fake online dating profiles created using faces generated by AI. However, the participants thought the profiles were real people from a dating site. Participants were presented with a male or female profile of "Sam," described as bisexual. All other information, such as where they lived and whether they had pets, remained consistent; the researchers even matched the images on perceived attractiveness and how typical of their gender they were perceived to be. 

Notably, the study defined bisexuality as sexual or romantic attraction to men, women or others regardless of their gender and sex, a definition that may correspond more closely to pansexuality. "We prefer to use the term 'bisexual' because it [is] the most widely used term, especially in lay discourse," the authors noted in the study."

Most people in the final sample identified as heterosexual, with just over 73% of participants noting this as their sexual orientation. Nearly 69% of participants were British, and just over 13% were American, meaning nationality is a clear limitation.

"Sexual orientation is a social construct, and it's constructed differently in different countries," Morgenroth said. They also suggest future research should look at perceptions among older age groups, as the median age of participants in their team's study was just under 31 years old.

Participants were asked to answer questions about attraction, such as "How likely do you think this person is to go on a romantic date with a member of the same sex?" The first study consisted of these hypothetical questions and other questions, while the second and third studies included more queries on participants' personal views regarding bisexuality. The researchers asked for responses to statements such as "Most 'bisexual' men just haven't come out as gay yet" to gauge participants' perceptions of sexual and romantic attraction in the real world.

In addition to statistically analyzing the results of each individual study, the researchers performed a meta-analysis across the three studies to provide a more convincing and comprehensive look at perceptions of bisexuality spanning multiple methodologies. "This approach is in line with recommendations to conduct internal meta-analyses of multi-study papers," the authors noted in the study.

The authors found bisexual men were perceived as significantly more attracted to men than women, while bisexual women were seen as having similar levels of attraction to both genders. When directly asked, participants were found to support the idea that bisexuality was more implausible for men than for women.

People who have a more traditional view of culture and gender could be more likely to want to erase bisexuality, according to the study. "Bisexuality may be perceived as blurring the clear-cut boundaries between 'gay/lesbian' and 'heterosexual," the researchers stated.

"People really like binary categories, so they like gay and straight and they like male and female," Morgenroth said. "Campaigns or efforts to increase acceptance for bisexual people should not just say that this [sexual orientation] is okay, but also should focus on informing others that male bisexual is a real and valid sexual orientation."

Morgenroth is interested in other stereotypes and prejudices, from the widely cited phenomenon of "mansplaining" to gendered perceptions of brilliance. Morgenroth explains the latter as a social view that men are more intelligent than women — a view that can shape the confidence and career paths of children, they note.

What about the hotly debated topic of transgender people using the bathroom that aligns with their identity? It's ill-informed, Morgenroth said. "Nothing of this argument makes sense!" they explained. "Most assaults are happening in private spaces by people that the victim is familiar with."

Unfortunately, Morgenroth does not have rose-colored glasses when looking at LGBTQ+ rights in the future. "I think that things are moving in a direction of fewer rights for trans people," they said, adding that there is no nonbinary gender in the United Kingdom. "It's really frustrating and kind of sad," they continued. "You think of progress as this linear thing, but there's always steps back and forth."

But the media can help, Morgenroth said: "I think that having visible minorities of any sort of underrepresented group in the media can serve as role models and really change the stereotypes that some people may have. Seeing them as complex human beings — people like everyone else — is super important."

The study, "Bisexual erasure: perceived attraction patterns of bisexual women and men," published May 3 in the European Journal of Social Psychology, was authored by Thekla Morgenroth, Teri A. Kirby, Maisie J. Cuthbert, Jacob Evje and Arielle E. Anderson, University of Exeter.

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