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How much do we really know about female bisexuality?

In the second of a series on PhD students delving into fascinating subjects, Madeleine Holden talks to Tara Pond, who is studying sexuality and gender.

‘I think 90% of the world thinks that queer people are all sexually fluid, that they are all whores, and that they have no morals, commitment or integrity, which is fucked.”

I’m speaking with Tara Pond, a PhD candidate at AUT studying sexuality and gender, about her research on bisexual women. The quote comes from one of her interviewees, who is discussing the stereotypes she faces as a person attracted to more than one gender. Pond’s research is groundbreaking because there is almost no existing research about bisexual women’s lives, in New Zealand or overseas, and she’s finding that women attracted to multiple genders face unique challenges.

One key finding is that bisexual women are very often sexualised and assumed to be performing their interest in women for men’s benefit. “You can see it in tons of media, with women making out with each other for men’s pleasure, including in porn,” Pond tells me. As a result, many bi women feel like their sexuality is not taken seriously and that they are seen as sexual objects rather than multifaceted human beings. Disturbingly, Pond has linked the sexualisation of bi women with high rates of sexual violence toward them: about half of the women she interviewed reported experiencing sexual violence by men. She also said that bisexual people face high rates of discrimination from both within and outside the LGBTQ+ community, resulting in mental and physical health problems.

Discrimination from within the LGBTQ+ community often proved to be particularly devastating for bisexual women. One of Pond’s interviewees said she felt like gay men and lesbians viewed bisexual people as “tourists” of the community, rather than members in their own right. Pond tells me this feeling of being an outsider in the LGBTQ+ community, not to mention in society at large, is a common theme.

In normative environments like workplaces and within groups of straight people, bisexual women often reported that they were assumed to be straight. It could be exhausting to correct people to prevent their sexuality being invisible, she said. However, consistent with past research, most of Pond’s interviewees are in relationships with men. Pond suggests that could be a simple numbers game: there are just more men to date than queer women. Another explanation, though, is that society makes life so much easier for women who partner with men than those who are with women, so dating men is the path of least resistance.

Consistent with research on bisexual people more generally, Pond is finding that some of the bisexual women in her survey prefer non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships. “This isn’t necessarily because bi people need to date people of different genders at once,” Pond clarifies. “I think it is because bi people are already breaking societal norms by being attracted to multiple genders, so breaking other taboos about monogamy isn’t too much of a stretch.”

The term “bisexual” is proving to be both flexible and rather contentious. A lot of the women Pond has interviewed use multiple terms for their sexuality, such as bisexual, pansexual, queer, takatāpui and gay, while some reject labels altogether. Their comfort with adopting certain labels also varies with the circumstance. “[The interviewees] would use the term ‘bisexual’ around people they guessed wouldn’t be critical about their identity,” she said, “and ‘pansexual’ would mainly only be used around other LGBTQ+ people, because they couldn’t be bothered explaining it to everyone they encountered.”

For anyone wondering, “pansexual” is a term that means an attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity. Pond says that some participants have taken issue with the term “bisexual” because they feel it reinforces a binary conception of gender. “While bi activists reclaimed the definition of bisexual in the 1990s to mean attraction to multiple genders, some people still see it as confining gender to male and female, excluding genderfluid and trans people,” Pond says. Pond’s own view is that the term “bisexual” is sufficiently inclusive, but there’s disagreement on this point within the LGBTQ+ community.

Pond’s research won’t be complete until 2020, but it will no doubt come as a relief for bisexual women sick of being treated as sex objects and “fetish fucks”, and enlightening for straight readers who have no idea about the challenges bisexual women face on a daily basis.

Pond is looking for self-identified cis, trans or gender-fluid women who are attracted to multiple genders, and are aged 20 or older and live in New Zealand, to take a survey to assist her research. It takes approximately 20 minutes to complete and is completely anonymous.

Do you have a fascinating postgraduate research topic you’d like to share with readers of The Spinoff? Email madeleine.j.holden@gmail.com. You can read her previous interview with Madeline Henry about her work on Kiwi cam girls here.

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