With New Book, Dr. Julia Shaw Wants to Bring Bisexuality Out of the Shadows

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday July 23, 2022
Originally published on July 22, 2022

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines "bisexual" as referring to a person "who experiences emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to, or engages in romantic or sexual relationships with, more than one sex or gender." Statistics from the Center for Disease Control in 2016 indicate that bisexuals "may comprise the largest single group in the LGB community for both women and men" (with 5.5% of women and 2% of men in the population saying they were bisexual, while 1.3% of women and 1.9% of men said they were "homosexual, gay, or lesbian"). "Nevertheless, many believe that bisexuality does not really exist, and bisexual people suffer bi-invisibility or erasure and bi-negativity from both the lesbian and gay community and the heterosexual community, which may explain evidence suggesting higher rates of health disparities bisexuals experience compared to either," the APA adds.

For Julia Shaw, a psychologist at University College London and part of Queer Politics at Princeton University, a think tank engaged in the research of LGBTQ+ equality and rights, that visibility became personal. When writing her second book, "Making Evil," she realized she wasn't being authentic with her readers. "I was writing about the villainisation of LGBTQ+ individuals as evil around the world and how important visibility is. I realised I was still invisible myself, so I came out as bi in that book, because I felt like a hypocrite for telling other people to be out and not being out myself in public," she told The Guardian in a recent interview.

Shaw realized she had many questions about bisexuality, which led her to write a book herself: "Bi: The Hidden Culture, History and Science of Bisexuality." In it she draws on her experiences of being bisexual and her academic studies to explore and honor a misunderstood sexual identity.

EDGE spoke with Shaw about why she wrote the book, defining bisexuality and what it means to be bi today.

EDGE: How would you define bisexuality?

Dr. Julia Shaw: I define bisexuality as the attraction, sexual and or romantic attraction to multiple genders.

EDGE: What led you to write a book on bisexuality?

Dr. Julia Shaw: I wrote "Bi" because it didn't exist. I wanted to learn about bisexuality from an academic point of view in a way that was synthesizing lots of ideas and theories and by experiences. I really wanted to write a book that would bring the science out of the shadows. I had to find it first because I didn't know where it was. I had to ask a lot of people for help to show me where the research was, what they were doing, and what language was around it.

EDGE: Over the past several years, more people are comfortable talking about the various types of sexual identities, but I feel like bisexuality still hasn't been widely accepted.

Dr. Julia Shaw: There's a couple of different reasons. One of them is that by both the heterosexual and the queer community, there has been a bit of bi-erasure. I am happy that there continues to be visibility of the LGBTQ community, but bisexuality hasn't been part of any of the conversations really. I'm really hoping to change that. There really is a huge lack of talk about what is ultimately the world's biggest sexual minority. I think the way to change that is to start talking about it, because erasure comes from not talking about it. Again, a lot of conversations jump over the B in LGBTQ. Bisexuality is its own identity and has its own risk factors, as well as its own benefits. We need to talk about it as part of the queer community, but also separately.

EDGE: Being bisexual can be problematic in many ways, namely the stereotypes and stigmas attached to it. For instance, women seem to get more of a pass than men when coming out as bi.

Dr. Julia Shaw: In terms of the stereotypes around females or the sexuality of women or female-presenting persons, there's definitely more assumption that fluidity and sexual experimentation is allowed. There's an assumption that bisexual behavior certainly is acceptable because it still includes men and as long as heterosexual men still get to be involved it's not seen as a problem, and it's often encouraged. In fact, it contends towards a pornographic dream. The problem with that leniency is that (this) hyper-sexualization comes with increased rates of sexual assaults towards bisexual women in particular. Because of that sexualization it has pushed people back into the closet and has led to criminal activity against bisexual people, which contributes to mental health consequences for bisexual women.

For men, the problems are more of an erasure where the assumption is that bisexual men are lying and that they're actually gay. There are all these stereotypes around the inability to be monogamous and that you're actually gay if you're a bi man. There are a lot of trans and nonbinary people who identify as bisexual, but their gender identity often supersedes the conversation. Their sexual identity isn't really talked about and so that can lead to its own kind of erasure. So, there's different problems in different parts of the community.

EDGE: You write that bisexual people are more likely to experience sexual violence, poor mental health, and substance abuse. Why is that?

Dr. Julia Shaw: As far as the literature is concerned, it seems to be traced back to this hyper-sexualization. Constantly being told that bisexuality is not real and people telling you that you don't exist can lead to your own annihilation. We have seen an increased risk of non-suicidal self-injury. We have seen the increased risk of lots of harmful behaviors directed at the self, which are the consequences of how society is treating bisexual people. The way society treats bisexual people needs to change. Bisexuality is a beautiful thing and the capacity to love, regardless of gender, is a beautiful thing.

Again, the way it changes is through talking about it, having more representation in the media, and informing people like you, who want to highlight these issues.

EDGE: How would you say bisexuality is viewed within the LGBTQ community?

Dr. Julia Shaw: Based on research called "Double Discrimination," there is discrimination against bisexuals, which is different from discrimination that's faced by gay and lesbian people. It's often because bi people also receive discrimination from both the queer community and from the heterosexual community. From the heterosexual community, it's more hyper-sexualization, but from the queer community there is often this perception that you're not queer enough and that you're really just a tourist. I understand that the queer community has had to be protective to make sure that their spaces remain safe. If you feel like there's an intruder coming that might be threatening the safety of your space, of course you react strongly because there are decades of bad actors who are trying to get into those spaces to do negative things. People who are within the community need to be given a bit of space to experiment. How are you going to know whether or not you might be part of this community if you can't access the community? I think it's really important that we as a queer community are more open and accepting to all. No matter what letter we fall under, we all need community. We need each other for protection and for community to help soften the hurt and attacks from the rest of the world.

EDGE: What do you suggest to bisexual people who need to accept their own sexuality?

Dr. Julia Shaw: It can be difficult to accept yourself. Occasionally, I still struggle with my own internalized biphobia. I feel like I still have to prove that I'm queer enough to fit. I've written a whole book on it now, and yet it's still there. It's a challenge and I'm sure that there are lots of queer people who feel the same way and want to reassert that you are part of this community and that your identity, life, and behavior matter within the queer community. One thing that you can do is find bi-specific communities. Find affirmative spaces even if it is within online communities. There's a bunch of Instagram accounts you can follow that are just very happy bi spaces. These are the kinds of places that if you are struggling with your own bi identity or you're not sure where you fit, it can be really helpful to follow these kinds of accounts and engage with this kind of material, because it's really affirmative.

EDGE: What do you most wish people would understand about bisexuality?

Dr. Julia Shaw: That it's natural, normal, and beautiful. I think that if people were allowed to explore their sexual desires and romantic desires beyond gender the world would be a happier place.

EDGE: What are you hoping the reader will take away from "Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality?"

Dr. Julia Shaw: I'm hoping that people see it as a big tent approach to queerness. I think there's a lot to be said by showing the similarities between people rather than our differences. As much as I pull out the bisexual piece within the queer community, there are different topics that I talk about in the book. I am hoping that talking about fluidity, same-sex attractions, and bisexual attractions doesn't make you choose being 100% heterosexual or a 100% homosexual. Rather that there's this beautiful multitude of options that are out there for us.

For more information about Dr. Julia Shaw and to order her new book "Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality" visit this website.