The labels ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are often used as general descriptors of individual or collective behaviors, sexual preferences, and sexual activities. While the familiarity with these terms may allow for comfortable use in conversation and tidy methods of categorizing groups or individuals, using the term ‘homosexual’ to include bisexuals may prove detrimental to one’s overall health.
Interested in the complexities of the language used in sexual identity and how labels can influence health, researcher Vanessa Schick from IU Bloomington’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion conducted a study to examine the health and behavior of bisexual-identified men and women and how such factors relate to labels. Bisexuals often find themselves in a “middle” space characterized by biphobia, which is the discrimination that bisexual men and women sometimes experience from those labeled heterosexual and homosexual. Such general labels, while familiar, may have an affect on the health of bisexual individuals directly and/or indirectly since they do not account for the great variety in experiences of bisexually-identified people.
For her paper (“Bidentity: Sexual Behavior/Identity Congruence and Women’s Sexual, Physical, and Mental Well-Being”), Schick and her team surveyed and questioned 2,578 women who reported being attracted to or having sexual activity with women at some point in their histories. The surveys and questions contained items relating to physical, mental, and sexual wellness. The women who identified as bisexual or lesbian reported optimal health when their sexual identity matched their recent history of sexual activity. Schick states, however, that such an outcome does not mean that declaring a sexual identity that aligns with the specifics of sexual behavior is the answer to the healthiest life. She uses the example of queer-identified women, stating,
“Unlike the other women in the study, the mental, physical and sexual well-being of queer-identified women was not related to the gender of their recent sexual partners,” she said. “This suggests that, instead of encouraging women to adopt labels that are more descriptive of their behavior, we should be more flexible in the behavioral expectations that we attach to these labels.”
Bisexuality is diverse for both men and women, and thus nesting such an identifier under homosexuality does not always address unique experiences and circumstances for those who identify as bisexual. Having to force oneself under an umbrella category can be a point of tension for those whose identities do not always align with outside expectations of actions and behaviors. To create a space for optimal health for all gender identities, it may be helpful to continue the development of a more inclusive lexicon that accounts for the range of behaviors associated with different labels of sexual identity and orientation.
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