Interview: Nicole Kristal (Still Bisexual campaign)

I was delighted earlier this week to do an email interview with Nicole Kristal, founder of the Still Bisexual video campaign and co-author of ‘The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe‘.

Nicole is a hugely positive and inspirational voice in the world of bisexual activism.  The Still Bisexual campaign is doing an amazing job of challenging the myths and stereotypes about bisexuality that remain so widespread in our society.

Her reflections below on bisexual wellbeing are really insightful, and I hope you find them useful.  As Nicole says, ‘Trust yourself. Don’t let the world define your attractions.’

How did you come to identify as bisexual?

Nicole Kristal: I always kind of had crushes on my best friends in high school. I was interested in male classmates, too, but I wasn’t really on their radar. Eventually, I fell in love with a woman in 11th grade and we had a secret relationship. I came out my freshman year of college as bisexual and dated men and women throughout college.

What are the main factors that have contributed to your sense of wellbeing as a bisexual person?

Coming out constantly. Being as out as I can be, no matter how hard it is. The world wants to see you as straight or gay, so it takes a lot of energy to remind people there’s something in between. If you are bi, but you’re moving through the world not being seen as a bisexual person, you can quite quickly start to feel like an outcast in most scenes and accrue some shame. We are outnumbered in most social situations so it’s important to be visible and live your truth.

Can you share a coming out story?

I came out to my mother the summer after my first year of college. She told me she was bisexual, too. It just goes to show that coming out as bisexual, you can never predict the response.

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might be bisexual and are unsure what to do?

My main advice would be TRUST YOURSELF. Don’t let the world define your attractions. Deep down, you know what you’re attracted to. I would definitely start to follow BiNet and StillBisexual on Facebook and Twitter. Introduce yourself and let people know your situation and fears. You will be surprised at the amount of support you will get. Most of us came out without the online support that is available now, and it’s such a safe way to get the support you need before you feel brave enough to go to a bi or gay social event, which I recommend once you feel ready to come out.

Nicole Kristal is founder of the Still Bisexual YouTube campaign and co-author of ‘The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe‘.

Bicurious or Bisexual? It’s Your Choice

Identifying as bisexual can bring many benefits, but it’s not the only identity available to people who experience attraction to more than one gender.  Terms such as bicurious, heteroflexible, homoflexible, ‘mostly straight’ and ‘mostly gay’ all create spaces for people to develop new understandings and ways of expressing their sexual desires.  They can all be tools to help us interact effectively and happily in the world, used alone or even in combination.

Which identity you prefer depends, in part, on what your sexual attractions mean to you.  My attractions to women and men have been significant to me, so it makes sense to me to identify as bisexual.  It feels integral to my sense of who I am.  No other term but bisexual would do justice to my experience.   Calling myself bisexual also functions as a simple descriptor of who I can be attracted to.  It’s a way of being honest and clear with myself and other people.

Some people who experience attraction to both men and women find that the term bisexual doesn’t fit them so well.  A 2013 review of multiple studies on sexual attraction found that up to 23% of women and 9% of men identified as ‘mostly heterosexual’. Mostly heterosexuals (MHs) were found to have greater same sex attraction than heterosexuals, but less than those who identified as bisexual.  MHs reported experiencing minor same-sex attractions which were purely sexual in nature, and lacking any romantic element.  The review also found that MH is an enduring sexual orientation, and not a temporary or one-off experience.

The MH label was provided as an option on the surveys that informed the studies, so it’s unlikely that many people actually use this term to describe themselves in real life.  MHs probably identify as heterosexual, but they might also use identifiers like bicurious or heteroflexible in certain contexts such as dating sites.

An MH could also choose to identify as bisexual.  Bisexual identity includes people with almost any degree of attraction to more than one gender.  So, if you’ve been attracted to 500 women in your life and only 1 man, then it’s entirely legitimate to identify as bisexual, if that’s what feels right to you. Alternatively, if your attraction is heavily weighted to one gender, you might decide to choose a label like bicurious or hetero/homoflexible, or even a monosexual label such as straight or gay.

There’s no obligation to adopt any sexual identity at all, if you don’t want to. It can, though, be advantageous if you do. Labels and identities can help us find communities of like-minded people, so that we can build supportive relationships with others.  They’re also tools which enable us to understand ourselves and our desires.  They help other people understand us better, too.

But sexual identities are not prisons.  We are free to adopt different labels at different times of our lives, should our understanding of our desires change.  Sexual labels are not fixed, scientific descriptors of some absolute reality. In fact, sexual identities were invented in the 19th century by the pioneering academic sexologists seeking to study and categorise sexual behavior.

The work of Alfred Kinsey and subsequent sex researchers has since shown that sexuality is complex and can’t always be expressed in simple categories.  As LGBT activist Peter Tatchell has argued, if a post-homophobic, post-biphobic society ever develops, then sexual identities could even become redundant.  Until that time, however, sexual identities will remain essential tools of understanding and activism.

There is no one right way for any person to identify.  The important thing is that we feel comfortable with the identity we choose.

So, bisexual or bicurious? It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve found an identity that works for you.

How Suppressing Unwanted Sexual Desire Impacts Bisexual Health

Dr David Ley’s recent Psychology Today article, which argues that closeted bisexual men are being incorrectly diagnosed as sex addicts, raises an issue of relevance to all bisexual people: namely that suppressing unwanted sexual desire can seriously impact our health and wellbeing.

Ley details his clinical experience of bisexual men, married to women, who are troubled by their same-sex attractions and secretly engage in risky and prolific sex with strangers.  When such men seek treatment, therapists overlook the individual’s sexual orientation, and opt to diagnose sex addiction.

Ley questions the diagnosis, believing instead that intense stigma around male bisexuality leads some bisexual men to attempt to suppress their same-sex desire.  This suppression then leads to explosive outbursts of desire, which in turn can lead to promiscuous behavior. This behavior can then cause relationship and health issues. These men see their same-sex desires as symptoms of a disease which needs to be treated. So do the therapists, hence the addiction label.

I think Ley makes a strong case, and his call for greater understanding of and support for bisexual men is welcome. But I’d add that you don’t have to be married, male or closeted to experience the internalised homophobia and biphobia that can lead to suppression of unwanted sexual desire. Compulsive sexual behaviour is also not an inevitable consequence of suppression. Unhappiness and low self-esteem might be the more common, if less exciting, results of trying to suppress your natural sexual inclinations.

If we’re uncomfortable with our bisexuality, then it’s understandable that we might try to suppress or avoid unwanted sexual desires.  Some bisexual people may even have received misguided advice to focus only on their opposite sex desires, as a way of avoiding the prejudice and oppression aimed at same-sex desire and relationships.   While same-sex desire is the most likely target of suppression, some bisexual people might want to suppress opposite sex attraction for fear that it might alienate them from a gay partner or community.

When I was younger I was often troubled by my same-sex desires. I reasoned to myself that as I had sexual desires for both men and women, I could choose to focus my sexual fantasy and behavior on women only.  This way I could still be sexually satisfied and happy, while also avoiding the struggle of coming out and dealing with prejudice.

The problem is that suppression just doesn’t work.  Sexual desire arises naturally whether we want it to or not.  By ignoring it or pushing it away, as the men in David Ley’s article did, it actually becomes more insistent and more of a feature in your life than it would otherwise be. The process of battling unwanted sexual desires wastes mental energy, and guarantees that you’ll remain uncomfortable with your bisexuality. And if you’re uncomfortable with being bisexual, then that will undermine your confidence and diminish your overall wellbeing.

To become comfortable in your skin as a bisexual person, you have to give yourself permission to experience all of your sexual desire.  When I gave up on trying to push away my same-sex desires, I experienced a new sense of peace and calm. It was a significant moment in my journey to self-acceptance and wellbeing.

How you behave sexually is up to you and will differ for every individual.  But when it comes to your inner life, the key thing is to allow your desires to run free.  Let your private world of fantasy and desire be a liberal, relaxing place.  You don’t need an internal police force to monitor what’s going on there. Everything is permitted!

An enduring sense of wellbeing can only develop when we’re free to experience and enjoy attraction to whoever we like.

Why it’s hard to identify as bisexual

Misconceptions and stereotypes about bisexuality are common in our society, and serve to delegitimate bisexuality as a valid sexual identity. That’s why so many people who are bisexual in orientation choose not to identify as such. There are many benefits to identifying as bisexual, but most people only do so when they’ve built enough confidence to assert their identity in spite of society’s prejudice.

With this in mind, I was struck by recent media coverage of British singer Duncan James’ switch in self-identification from bisexual to gay. James came out as bisexual in 2009, when he talked publicly about having had relationships with both men and women. A few years later, he revealed that he had started to identify as gay.

James is quite clear, however, that despite identifying as gay, he’s attracted to both men and women. In a 2014 interview, James said ‘I’m still attracted to women, I could still easily sleep with a woman. I haven’t in the last couple of years but I think if I meet a girl I could still have a relationship with her.’   On his decision to identify as gay, he explains, ‘I sleep with men, so that makes me gay. Regardless of whether I sleep with women or not, I’m still sleeping with men, so I’m gay.’

There are many reasons why Duncan James might prefer to identify as gay. When I was younger I identified as gay for a while, despite knowing I was bisexual. I had been stung by my early bisexual coming out experiences, in which people I cared about told me I was either a confused straight person or a closet homosexual. After that I felt people would understand and accept me better if I said I was gay. Perhaps the same thing is true for James. Biphobia is a powerful and destructive force, and it’s understandable to want to avoid it.

His words also suggest that he may have internalised the widespread but false belief that men who have any degree of same sex attraction can only be gay. Bisexuality is erased so effectively in our culture, especially for men, that bisexually-oriented people can feel that there’s no option to identify as bisexual, and that if they did, it wouldn’t be believed or accepted. Many bisexual people end up identifying as straight or gay.

Or it may be that James labels himself as a gay man who is also attracted to women, simply because that’s what feels right and makes sense to him.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that he feels comfortable with the label he has chosen. There are no rules around how we should self-identify, or indeed if we should self-identify at all. Labels are tools to help us understand ourselves better, and to enable us to find like-minded people with whom we can build relationships and a sense of community. Ideally, they also enable others to understand who we are and who we’re attracted to.

I’m sure it’s possible for someone to be happy identifying as a gay man while also being open about his attraction to women. It doesn’t seem the simplest choice, however, as gay is commonly understood to mean exclusively attracted to the same sex, which isn’t what James says he feels.

I think there’s a strong case for identifying as bisexual if you are bisexually-oriented. It’s true that as an out, bisexual-identified person you will be exposed to potential biphobia, but as I discussed last month in my post on the benefits of identifying as bisexual, you’ll also boost your self-esteem and confidence, connect to a community of other bisexual people, and change society by assertively challenging misguided ideas about bisexuality.

The more bisexual people come out, and the more bisexual activism influences public opinion, the more society will be forced to recognise bisexuality and make a place for it. We can hope, then, that in time it will be easier for all bisexually-oriented people to identify as bisexual.