Heterosexuals' Attitudes toward Bisexual Men and Women in the United States

By Herek, Gregory M. | The Journal of Sex Research, November 2002 | Go to article overview
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Heterosexuals' Attitudes toward Bisexual Men and Women in the United States


Herek, Gregory M., The Journal of Sex Research


Although patterns of bisexual behavior have been documented throughout history and across cultures (e.g., Carrier, 1985; Ford & Beach, 1951; Fox, 1996; Herdt, 1990), bisexual men and women in the United States have gained recognition as a distinct sexual minority only recently. Bisexuals began to form social and political groups in the 1970s (Donaldson, 1995; Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994), but it was not until the late 1980s that an organized bisexual movement began to achieve widespread visibility in the United States (Herdt, 2001; Paul, 1983; Rust, 1995; Udis-Kessler, 1995). Around the same time, the heterosexual public became more aware of bisexual men as a group at heightened risk for HIV infection (Gelman, 1987). By the early 1990s, bisexuals were becoming an established presence in the organized gay movement, as reflected in discussions of bisexuality in the gay and lesbian press and the addition of "bisexual" to the names of many gay and lesbian organizations and events (Rust, 1995). Throughout the 1990s, the mass media frequently featured images of bisexuals (Hutchins, 1996; Leland, 1995).

Given the culture's relatively recent recognition of "the bisexual" as a category of sexual identity, it is not surprising that empirical research on heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexuality and bisexual persons is scant. Like lesbians and gay men, bisexual women and men experience hostility, discrimination, and violence because of their sexual orientation (Ochs, 1996; Paul & Nichols, 1988; Weinberg et al., 1994). Unfortunately, the prevalence of such experiences is difficult to gauge because empirical studies of sexual minorities generally have not included bisexuals in their samples or they have combined data from bisexual and homosexual respondents in their published reports.

Some studies, however, have demonstrated that bisexuals are the targets of prejudicial actions and attitudes. In a community-based study of bias crime, for example, Herek, Gillis, and Cogan (1999) found that 15% of bisexual women (n = 190) and 27% of bisexual men (n = 191) had experienced a crime against their person or property because of their sexual orientation. Within genders, bisexual respondents' prevalence of victimization was fairly similar to that reported by lesbians (19%, n = 980) and gay men (28%, n = 898). In a 2000 telephone survey of 405 lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in major U.S. cities conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 60% of bisexual respondents reported that they had experienced discrimination, 52% had been the target of verbal abuse, and 26% had not been accepted by their families of origin because of their sexual orientation (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001). (1)

To understand bisexuals' experiences with prejudice and discrimination, hostility directed specifically at bisexuality must be distinguished from antigay hostility. Activists have pointed out the many ways in which antibisexual and antigay prejudice overlap (e.g., Ochs, 1996), and bisexuals have commented that heterosexuals appear to regard them as homosexuals, which suggests that expressions of hostility toward bisexuals are often rooted in antigay attitudes (e.g., Rust, 2000; Weinberg et al., 1994). It is not surprising, therefore, that the few published studies in this area have found significant correlations between heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexuals and their attitudes toward lesbians and gay men (Eliason, 1997; Mohr & Rochlen, 1999).

However, there are also reasons to expect heterosexuals' attitudes toward bisexuals to differ from their attitudes toward homosexual persons. On the one hand, bisexual men and women might be less denigrated than exclusively homosexual persons because they form heterosexual as well as same-sex relationships and it is the latter that are stigmatized (Herek, 2000a). Indeed, in the Kaiser Family Foundation (2001) survey, bisexuals were less likely than gay men and lesbians to report experiences with prejudice and discrimination.

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