I’ve written a number of posts about bisexuality in the past, but I wanted to talk more in depth about how to treat bisexuality in fiction. Apparently some writers haven’t gotten the memo yet. You’ll have to forgive me if I get a little pissy, because I was very annoyed while writing this.
Before I get into the article, I want to mention something. While I am still using the word biphobia at times due to its widespread use, it has been pointed out that some people with actual phobias find it difficult to engage with discourse that uses the -phobia suffix to talk about bigotry (e.g. homophobia, biphobia, transphobia). At this time of writing, I’ve seen the -misia suffix offered as an alternative. The word homomisia, for instance, has seen some use, according to Google, but it’s not a widespread thing yet. But I did want to mention it because it would be nice to have this as a more accessible alternative. I will be using both biphobia and bimisia in this article to help get us all used to this.
(Addendum: there isn’t one prevailing agreement on whether or not to swap away from -phobia since some people with phobias prefer to stick with known terminology. Being that I don’t have phobias, I tend to err on the side of caution)
Anyway, moving on.
First of all, here are the other articles I’ve written on bisexual rep:
- Writing Bisexual Characters: What IS Bisexuality?
- Writing Bisexual Characters: Stereotypes
- The Heartbreaker Bisexual Character
- Tangentially related: The Hypersexualisation of LGBT People (I use a more inclusive acronym within the body of the post, FYI)
- My Favourite Bisexual Books – some books that, in my opinion, get it right
Those first two posts are a little older, but I’ve occasionally tweaked them to keep them from getting too outdated.
Onto present times, I’m writing three posts in this series. In my first two, I’m going to cover two dominant forms of biphobia/bimisia we find in books, as well as real life. Post 1 is dedicated to the “depraved bisexual” collection of stereotypes and post 2 will be all about bisexual erasure. In the third, we’ll get into the “how not to be a dick” phase of the conversation. I will also be linking articles from other queer folk in that post.
Note that these posts are my personal opinions based on my experiences in reading, social media and in-person interactions. Many bisexuals will share my thoughts, but others won’t because we’re a diverse group of people.
Now that’s all out of the way, let’s get started.
I often find myself reading a book, totally relaxed, when suddenly, out of nowhere, anti-bisexual bullshit smacks me right in the face. So many of these aggressions should be easily avoidable. Many bisexuals, myself included, have spoken about this at length. Seeing the same mistakes again and again becomes exhausting.
I have seen non-bisexual authors write us with respect, at least in my personal opinion (shoutout to Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost), so I know it’s possible. That makes it even more frustrating when authors include anti-bi sentiments in their work.
Most biphobic/bimisic portrayals fall into two categories: stereotyping and erasure. I discussed these in the articles I linked above, but I want to expand on some points because they’re a huge issue when it comes to writing bisexuality. I’ll cover erasure in my next post. Here, I want to talk about a few particular stereotypes.
Marginalised groups across the board have been assigned stereotypes that colour the way they are seen by people with privilege over them, who are generally the ones who created those stereotypes in the first place.
Some marginalised folk do fit their stereotypes, and that’s okay, but issues arise when assumptions are made or the dominant portrayal in a given work of fiction fits the stereotype, especially if the author does not share that character’s marginalisation. Fictional characters do not have the same agency as real people. They are utterly reliant on their creators for the way they look, think and act. So writers must take care to ensure they’re not simply parroting hurtful narratives that marginalise us further.
Note: There is leeway for ownvoices writers to explore stereotypes in their work, but care must be taken even then. This post is more aimed at non-bisexual authors and helping them avoid common issues that I, and many other bisexual readers, find personally hurtful.
Common bisexual stereotypes include:
- Bisexuals don’t actually exist
- Bisexuals will choose a gender eventually
- Bisexuals are promiscuous/will cheat
- Bisexuals are manipulative (which often ties into promiscuity/cheating)
- Bisexuals are attracted to two genders only
- Bisexuals have it easier than gay people
I’ve expanded that first stereotype into a few sub-versions:
- Bi women are really straight
- Bi women are just doing it for attention
- Bi men are really gay
I want to focus on the promiscuity, cheating and manipulation since the other posts I’ve written cover the rest relatively well. My Bi Stereotypes and Bi Definitions posts cover the “bi means two” fuckery, but I will quickly add that saying such a thing also erases nonbinary bisexuals who, ya know, exist.
The “Depraved Bisexual” Quadrangle: Promiscuity, Manipulation, Cheating… and Villainy
First of all: there is nothing wrong with enjoying sex or having multiple partners (who know they’re not the only partner). However, bisexuals are expected to have more sex, more partners or cheat. I have known bisexuals who do like to get around, but I know even more who don’t. I also personally know bisexuals/biromantics who are on the asexual and aromantic spectrums. Again, it’s fine if a real person personally likes having a lot of sex or a lot of partners, because they can make their own decisions. Fictional characters don’t have that agency.
Western society can be puritanical about sex, and therefore promiscuity is often linked to other perceived moral failings. Promiscuity is regularly used to signal a character is evil or manipulative, and all but a step away from cheating on their partners. This nasty undertone suggests bisexuals are inherently dishonest.
Bisexuals who are sexually promiscuous often end up being the villain or, at the very least, an anti-hero. In many cases, they are the only bisexuals in the entire story, or other characters who could potentially be bi have denied the label. I’ll get into that fucking can of worms in my next post.
Sexual freedom should not be used as a dog whistle for a lack of a moral code, and it’s no accident that bisexuals are perceived as sexually promiscuous and evil and manipulative. The implication here is that if bisexuals are believed to have a lot of sex, and having lots of sex is bad, then bisexuals must be bad people. This often intersects with misogyny as well. It’s rarely spelled out, but it’s there.
These Bad Bisexuals (who aren’t always labelled, but the implication is clear) often cheat on other characters or emotionally manipulate them. Or both! I’ve written about cheating, manipulative and downright predatory bisexuals in my Heartbreaker Bisexual Character article, where I also talk about two books that use this trope. I have also seen this stereotype called “The Depraved Bisexual”, which covers all these stereotypes that tend to be lumped together anyway.
Even if you personally don’t believe having lots of sex is bad, the dominance of the promiscuous bisexual stereotype builds up harmful expectations in real life. Take a look at these statistics for various kinds of violence and mental health problems bisexuals face. But be aware if you do: TW for rape, sexual violence, physical violence, non-physical and verbal harassment, suicide, and eating disorders.
If your dominant representation of bisexuals, or anyone who expresses interest in multiple genders, is a character who is promiscuous, manipulative, evil, cheating or all of the above, you need to rethink that. Harmful effects aside, relying so heavily on stereotypes is just lazy writing.
As I mentioned before, there is room for bisexual writers, and other multi-gender-attracted writers where applicable, to explore these stereotypes on our terms, but that’s our prerogative and we’re not immune to messing it up. However, our lived experiences give us an edge. I will get more in depth about ideas to avoid hurting bisexual readers in Part 3. This post is long enough already.
So I will end with just one more thing: I get very, very tired of seeing my identity mistreated in fiction. These days I often start books with trepidation, wondering if I’m going to be faced with stereotyping or erasure. It’s exhausting to be constantly braced for this mistreatment, but when I let my guard down, I get hurt. Often.
Ideally, we’ll one day reach a point where this doesn’t happen. We are not there yet. This trio of posts, plus the others ones I’ve already written, are my contribution to helping people understand how they can help make this hope a reality.
The next post will focus on bisexual erasure.