Content Warning: discusses mental illness, rape, intimate partner abuse, victim blaming.
In 2013, the CDC published a study revealing that bisexual women were significantly more likely to experience sexual violence and intimate partner abuse than either straight women or gay women. No one really knows why for certain, but bisexual resource website Bitopia argues it’s due to a culture of biphobia. They determine that negative stereotypes of bi women as flighty, indecisive, promiscuous, confused, hypersexual, and prone to dishonesty, make us more obvious targets for abuse and subsequent victim blaming. Bi activists have grafted for years to dispel these qualities as myths, but I possess all of them.
I haven’t always behaved like this. I’ve known I was bi since Kristen Johnston co-starred with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 3rd Rock From the Sun, but all my teenage romantic relationships were with boys. I was committed, upfront about my thoughts and feelings, and, crucially, monogamous. But one bad ex-boyfriend aged 15 rolls into another at 16, rolls into a flurry of other people’s boyfriends and girlfriends at 17. A chaotic, emotionally abusive relationship, two violent married fathers-of-two, and a full forensic examination later, and at 23, I’m finally referred to a psychiatrist to read me to filth:
‘Do you ever feel used?’
‘Do you feel abandoned?’
‘Do you ever end the relationship?’
Diagnosis: PTSD from complex trauma. Quelle surprise.
A lot of the criteria for being a Good Bisexual matches a lot of the criteria for being a Good Rape Survivor. Have one monogamous sexual relationship at a time, preferably with someone who is a different gender. Decline inevitable offers of group and casual sex, but only ever politely. Fully disclose your sexuality/history of violence to anyone who asks, but don’t go on about it. These are, we’re told, the proper ways to conduct oneself in order to attract a Good Partner and Prevent Abuse. But I’ve been a palatable bisexual. It didn’t save me.
My boyfriend at 18 first told me he loved me, and that he’d cheated on me, in the same text. That was enough monogamy for me, thank you. There was something about being betrayed romantically, physically assaulted, publicly bullied, and repeatedly sexually assaulted by men who ‘loved’ me that just put me off the whole thing. Better, I decided, to spread my emotional eggs across a number of baskets. That way, if one basket decided to smash my eggs and call me a bitch, I had other, less aggressive baskets to support me. It’s not an exact science. As one counsellor - an EMDR practitioner - pointed out to me, having a sexual relationship with another person increases your vulnerability in that dynamic. Increased number of partners, increased vulnerability. I agreed that I got where she was coming from, but pointed out that I had been harassed, cut, and raped by monogamous partners. She let me leave the session crying before I went home, had a panic attack, and promptly threw up in my sink. On reflection, she had nothing constructive to teach me about vulnerability.
When your ex-boyfriend scars you permanently and tells you that you’ll never find anyone as good as him, it’s difficult to not take that as a challenge. It’s normal to swiftly rack up a number of sexual partners so that the last time you were touched wasn’t rape. When you’re the last person to find out about all the sex your partner’s having that isn’t with you, you end up with something to prove about your worth. In some ways, my Tinder habit has made me vulnerable; I was re-traumatised waiting for my referral to the Community Mental Health Team. But it’s also my promiscuity that has given me a sense of what is normal; what I deserve. I’ve learned that the vast majority of people will stop if you ask them to, as they should do. People who are not abusive will notice and respond appropriately to nonverbal signals of discomfort. If I firmly, repeatedly, ask a man ten years my senior, with two infant daughters, to stop touching me, I should be able to trust that he will. Dogs can manage that much. If he doesn’t, it’s assault. And that isn’t on me.
I don’t like people who don’t know me deciding that I am an abuse ‘survivor’. To me, that word glosses over all the showers I don’t have before going to work and my crutch of a ketamine habit. Recovery is not a linear process; much day to day life after complex trauma is continual firefighting. If The Village People had been bi women rather than gay men, they would probably have just performed as six firefighters in leather. We’re not a flawlessly supportive community; the only ex-partner I have recurring nightmares about is another bi woman. But bi women need other bi women. It was a fellow ‘unpalatable’ bisexual who paused her own firefighting to direct me to Rape Crisis and sat in the sexual assault referral clinic for three hours while I was examined. It’s the bisexual women I date, who don’t have a chance at having their rapists jailed either, whose beds I can sleep in soundly. I recently thought that I’d made a genuine connection with a straight man from Tinder who I thought would help my recovery. He ghosted me, but a friend he introduced me to; another imperfect, promiscuous, traumatised bisexual, is still there for me. Which I predicted as soon as I met her.
One of the first things my contact worker at Support to Report told me was that it was that not pinning my recovery on a conviction was a good thing, because conviction rates for rape and sexual assault are pitifully low. I am promiscuous with poor mental health and shared beds with men who assaulted me; I am a Bad Rape Survivor. I am promiscuous, paranoid, and unable to sustain a monogamous relationship; I am a Bad Bisexual. An unsympathetic victim. Unlikely to convince a jury. What I actually have to tide me over during my time on NHS waiting lists is the mantra about living well as the best revenge. I take enough shifts to keep myself in high-end skincare and iced coffees. Generally, I do well at uni. I exercise when I can do. I complained to the psychiatrist that I found it impossible to turn down Tinder dates, to which she nonchalantly replied ‘of course, to fill the void’. She’s heard my story before because she will have spoken to promiscuous traumatised bisexual women before. All of our stories will vary, so I can’t offer definitive answers as to why abusers target us, or why we’re more likely to develop PTSD and depression than monosexual women. What I do know is that in the support group I attend for survivors of sexual violence, all of us happen to be bisexual. All of us happen to genuinely enjoy some form of sex, intimacy, or flirtation, be it with our monogamous partners, Tinder dates, co-workers, or strangers in gay clubs. And we are valuable; to ourselves, to each other, and the world around us. There is so much you can learn from us about all the ways people can be intimate with each other and the value that a range of human relationships can have. But you have to drop the misogyny, the biphobia, the victim blaming, if you’re going to learn and grow half as much as so many bi women have been forced to from trauma. We are the source of the strength we find, as individuals and communities, in the face of violence. But we are not the source of that violence.
That isn’t on us.