Bringing Bisexuality and Domestic Violence Into Focus
Last month, Pandemonium met for the first time. Pandemonium is a modest bisexual/pansexual/ omnisexual/generally bi+ group that I am working to organize. Our first meeting was chaotic, but lively. A disturbing theme that came out of our first discussion was that many of the members had experienced violence of some kind. Since October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month and LGBT history month, I thought that this theme deserved more attention. As such, I wanted to investigate this topic further and bring my findings back to the group for our November meeting. Indeed, being bisexual increases the likelihood that a person may be the victim of intimate partner violence.
According to a 2010 report from the CDC, 61.1% of bisexual women have experienced either rape, stalking, or physical violence from an intimate partner (North, 2016). If molestation is added to this list, the rare is 75% (Davidson, 2013). In contrast to bisexuals, 35% of straight women and 43.8% of lesbian women have experienced stalking, rape, or physical violence (North, 2016). If only rape is account for, 46.1% of bisexual women report having been raped, compared to 13.1% of lesbian and 14.7% of straight women. Further, of the bisexual women who have reported domestic violence, 57.4% reported that they had experienced adverse effects such as PTSD or missed work, compared to 35.5% of lesbians and 28.2% of straight women. This means that not only are bisexual women experiencing domestic violence at higher rates, they are suffering more adverse effects from this violence. Finally, most bisexual victims of domestic violence had been abused by male partners, as men accounted for 89.5% of offenders (North, 2016). As a whole, bisexual women are the number one target of domestic violence, followed by bisexual men who experience it at a rate of 47.4%. This is followed by lesbian women, heterosexual women, gay men, and straight men (Davidson, 2013). This is very startling, as bisexual men and women are both the targets of domestic violence.
In Canada, 28% of bisexuals reported being victims of spousal abuse versus 7% of heterosexuals. According to the BC Adolescent Health Survey, Bisexual girls between ages 12 and 18 were twice as likely to report dating violence than heterosexual girls (Bielski, 2016). In the UK, one in four bisexual women and lesbian women have experienced domestic violence. Among these victims, ⅔ reported that their abuser was a woman, versus ⅓ reported a man. Four in ten bisexual and lesbian women with a disability reported domestic violence. While the UK statistics lump bisexual and lesbian women into the same grouping, the findings shows the intersectionality of abuse (Stonewall Health Briefing, 2012). In this case, disability and sexuality put the women at greater risk of abuse. The statistics from the UK, U.S., and Canada each suggest that bisexuality can be connected to increased incidences of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking. This begs the question, why is this the case?
It is easy to blame the media for social problems, but it is a useful starting point. Certainly, the media plays a role in shaping public perception by popularizing ideas, framing questions and ideas, focusing on some information over other information, and setting parameters of what is discussed and how it is discussed. Davidson (2013) observed that the media, especially pornography, sends a message that bisexual women are depraved, immoral, promiscuous, and have commitment issues. These portrayals of bisexual women actually victim blames them or justifies their abuse through negative portrayals. This portrayal of bisexuals represents or contributes to biphobia, which often goes unnoticed or unaddressed in larger discussions of homophobia. As a matter of example, consider the case of Amber Heard. Before her divorce trial, many people may not have known that she was bisexual. According to Bielski (2016), Amber Heard was painted as a gold digger in the media, even as evidence of the violence against her from her then husband Johnny Depp began to emerge. Despite these accusations, Heard actually donated her divorce settlement money to charity. She donated half of the settlement to the ACLU for the purpose of ending violence against women. Aside from gold digging, her bisexuality was also used to discredit her, as tabloids portrayed her as promiscuous and that it was Depp’s jealousy that drove him to beat her. Even in the face of grotesque evidence, such as a video of Depp kicking kitchen cupboards while shouting at her, photos of her bruised face and swollen lip, and a sexual slur scrawled on their mirror, she was blamed for making him jealous (Bielski, 2016).
Dynamics of Domestic Violence:
While the media plays a role in shaping public perception about bisexuality, it does not explain why bisexuals are victimized to begin with. Bisexuality may be used as an excuse by gay or straight abusers to exert control over their victim. To the abuser, it may represent identity, power, and the possibility of sexual attraction to others. Controlling behaviors include such things as surveillance, such as checking email or text messages and using isolation, such as not allowing bisexual victims to spend time with anyone of any gender. To abusers, bisexuality itself may be viewed as something that needs to be controlled. Farnsworth (2016) argued that bisexual people, along with people of color, disabled people, neurodivergent people are often treated as “others.” “Othering” a group of people diminishes their humanity and legitimacy. “Othered” people often have their consent ignored. Bisexuals and other oppressed groups may be told that they deserve their abuse and that no one else would want them. Many people in the LGBTQ community also face poverty, which is a barrier to leaving abusive relationships as these individuals may be financially dependent upon their partner. (Farnsworth, 2016). In fact, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty than lesbian women (Kristal, 2016). Finally, in the larger society, bisexuals are demeaned, sexualized, and ignored. Until this is changes, they will be at greater risk of violence (Farnsworth, 2016).
Beyond some of the dynamics of domestic violence, shelters may also bear some of the blame. For instance, in testimonies gathered for a White House meeting on bisexuality, one woman reported that she was denied shelter at a Chicago domestic violence shelter because the shelter was for women with male abusers. When she sought a resource for the gay community, she was told that because she was bi she did not qualify for their services. Unfortunately, gender variant individuals and gay and bisexual men have few resources available to them (Hutchins, 2013). While bisexual men are the group that is second most likely to experience domestic violence, there is only one shelter in the United States that is explicitly for male victims of domestic violence. This shelter is located in Arkansas, has nine beds, and opened in 2015 (Markus, 2016). Females are by far the majority of domestic violence victims, but it is important that men also have services, as well as transgender individuals. Everyone of any sexuality and gender identity deserves to be safe from violence.
Another facet of domestic violence is mental health. Bisexual women are at greater risk of depression and anxiety compared to gay or straight women. This mental health risk could be because of the stigma of being bisexual (Buzzfeed). However, if 75% of bisexual women have been stalked, raped, molested, or victims of domestic violence, this increased incidence of depression and anxiety may be related to trauma. A study published by the University of Montreal found that among 1052 mothers who were studied over ten years, those who had experienced domestic violence were twice as likely to suffer from depression and had three times the risk of developing schizophrenia-like psychotic symptoms. Among the women who had been abused by their partner, they were more likely to have substance abuse, early pregnancy, childhood abuse, and poverty (University of Montreal, 2015). Factors such as mental health and substance abuse create a vicious feedback effect. Abuse creates mental health problems, financial problems, pregnancy, and substance abuse. In turn, all of these things makes a person more vulnerable to abuse. As abusers target often vulnerable people, the previous abuse and mental health issues experienced by bisexuals may may play into the abuse (Bielski, 2016). This is not meant to blame them, but to show that their previous victimization may make them more vulnerable to future abuse.
Biphobia and Bi-Erasure:
All bisexuals experience biphobia and bi-erasure to some degree. Biphobia is hatred and prejudice against bisexuals. A 2015 study in the Journal of Bisexuality found that heterosexuals and gays and lesbians had almost identical prejudices against bisexuals. According to the reported experiences of the surveyed bisexuals, both heterosexuals and homosexuals treated bisexuals as if they were more likely cheat and were sexually confused. Both group also excluded bisexuals from their social networks (Allen, 2016). While bisexuals may be viewed negatively as promiscuous, wild, immoral, and disloyal, their voices, histories, identities, and experiences are ignored. This is called bi-erasure. Biphobia and bi-erasure can make coming out harder for bisexuals. Their partners may not understand or think that a bi person is not satisfied (Farnsworth, 2016). For individuals who are not “out”, they may face challenges when leaving their abuser. For instance, in the book, Violence against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-LBGT Descrimination, a woman named Dorothy reported facing an additional barrier when she left her husband since she left him to enter her first same-sex relationship (it should be noted that in this example she identified as a lesbian). Thus, leaving the relationship made harder by the fact that this would “out” her to others. A woman named Leslie reported that her bisexuality was used to legitimize the abuse and control her. The abuse worsened after she was married. She was accused of flirting with both men and women. After she was pregnant, he accused her of wanting to sleep with their waitress when they went out to dinner together (Meyer, 2015). Once again, her bisexuality was something threatening to her partner. In a 2012 Human Rights Campaign survey, bisexual teen girls reported that they were called “whores” or forced to make out with other girls for their partner (Kristal, 2016). Again, negative stereotypes about bisexuals resulted in slut shaming and coercive sexual acts. Because bisexual women are believed to be promiscuous and sexually adventurous, consent is assumed (Bielski, 2016). Thus, it is no wonder why bisexuals are victims of sexual assault at a greater rate per their population than individuals with other sexual identities.
At some level, bisexuality challenges sexual norms. While this is not true of all bisexuals, a study that appeared in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity found that bisexuals reported that monogamy was a sacrifice at greater rates than straights and gays. An equal amount of bisexuals found monogamy to be a sacrifice as there were bisexuals who found it rewarding. Nevertheless, gays and straights both reported monogamy as more rewarding than bisexuals. Thus, while viewing monogamy as a sacrifice does not indicate that the respondents were polyamorous and promiscuous, it does indicate that they were less likely than their straight and gay counterparts to find monogamy rewarding (Vrangalova, 2014). Many bisexuals that I have spoken with are perfectly capable of monogamy, myself included. However, to those whom I spoken with, there is often a sense of sacrifice or duty involved with this monogamy. It is often framed as a sacrifice made for the sake of companionship or a stable relationship with a particular individual. At some level, bisexuality does threaten monosexual partners. It does play into their insecurities and jealousies. This is no excuse for abuse, but this represents a flaw with our relationships. Society normalizes jealousy and insecurity. Countless films and television shows feature couples who show their love through jealous behaviors. An individual who is not jealous, is not viewed as emotional. Taken to the extreme, jealousy can be abusive. But, all monogamous relationships involve some level of control over the sexuality of another human being. So, while bisexuals are capable of monogamous relationship, they are at the same time more apt to question monogamy. This is very threatening to patriarchy and capitalism, which has treated women as the sexual property of men.
It is only recently, and with that advent of the feminist movement, that women have begun to be seen as having rights to their sexuality. Today, some states continue to treat marital rape as something different than rape outside of marriage. It was only in the 1990s that laws began to change so that rape within marriage was considered the same kind of crime, with the same punishments, as rape. Prior to this, men were viewed as having a right to sex from their wives and implicit consent as part of their marriage. Since the majority of women have traditionally married, rape is built into the tradition of marriage. Marriage itself is institutionalized monogamy. By extension, marriage was institutionalized rape. Now, certainly there are people who have loving relationships and consensual sex within the context of marriage. And, bisexuals certainly fought for and benefited from the legalization of same sex marriage. But, I cannot shake my disgust at the notion that marriage granted men the right to sex without consequence, consent, or criminality. While consent is considered a part of healthy relationships today, control will always be a part of relationships so long as people attach their self-esteem and happiness to the sexual loyalty of their partner. In the popular imagination, there is sympathy for “crimes of passion.” A man who kills his wife after she cheats on him has a legitimate defense. These circumstances can result in lesser charges or a lower sentence. A woman who cheats on her husband may be denied alimony. To some degree, even non-abusive people accept the legitimacy of violence and control for the sake of monogamy. Control and abuse are enshrined in the law.
What is to be done?
There are many reasons why bisexuals are abused at higher rates than other groups. Bisexuals are more likely to experience mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and poverty, which both puts them at risk of abuse, but also results from abuse. Bisexuals experience bi-phobia and bi-erasure. Their abuse is justified because it is considered a means to control them, out them, that they were sexually confused to begin with, and their consent is ignored. Bisexuality itself is seen as something that must be controlled. It is misunderstood. At some level, it challenges some aspects of monogamy.
Hopefully, this piece offers some insight to why bisexuals may experience greater rates of abuse. Certainly, more research on this topic should be done. For instance, I could not find research pertaining to how many bisexuals actually identify as poly-amorous or monogamous. Besides continued research, more work should be done to end bi-phobia and bi-erasure. To this end, I hope that Pandemonium can work to create a community of bi+ activists, while fostering discussion, awareness of issues, a sense of identity and history, and action. As for advocates within the field of domestic violence, I hope that more can be done to become aware of LGBT issues and become more responsive to their needs. I am a domestic violence advocate myself, and I believe that this very rudimentary research has given me some food for thought in how I approach my work and frame problems. Finally, if nothing else, this demonstrates the connections between fighting for LGBT rights and the fight for feminism, but also other fights, such as the fight to end poverty and the fight for more mental health services.