The Moral and Epistemic Harms of Bisexuality

It is time we re-conceptualised bisexuality as a social category which imposes unique harms upon its members.

Janelle Monáe

Bisexuality is often overlooked in discussions of social justice. Where it is acknowledged, the harms subjected on individuals in virtue of being bisexual tend to be explained primarily with reference to the fact that bisexuals fall within a broader social category - such as ‘queer individuals ‘ or ‘LGBTQI+ community’. This coheres with the common understanding of bisexuality as a reductively hybrid phenomenon viz. a social phenomenon which is thought to be reducible to other well known social categories (in this case, the property of being straight and being gay) and thereby, in principle, erasable.

If anything, common intuition tells us that bisexuals are the most privileged of LGBTQI+ individuals*. After all, one might think, do they not have the ability, either by choice or chance, to live or ‘pass’ as a straight individual? Can they not, unlike their LGTQI counterparts, choose not to suffer the social harms inflicted on them by aspects of their sexuality? Does this element of control that bisexuals posses over their choice of partner(s) not thereby benefit bisexual individuals, in a manner which is simply not available to their gay and lesbian counterparts (and so put them at an advantage)? Reflection on these questions can easily push one to the view - what has come to be known as biphobia (or on the flip side, bisexual privilege) - that viewing bisexuality as a socially disadvantaged category might not only be permissible but actively harmful; detracting from the very real, unavoidable harms inflicted on other members of the LGBTQI community*.

In this post and the next, I’ll argue against this biphobic view. Indeed, I’ll argue that it is time we viewed (or rather re-conceptualised) Bisexuality as a social category which imposes unique harms its members, over and above the harms inflicted on straight and gay individuals. Translated to philoso-speak: I will argue that that ‘bisexuality’ underwrites a robust class of inductive inferences, (or epistemic and moral properties) which are not reducible to those inferences (or epistemic and moral properties) underwritten by the concepts of ‘straight’ ‘lesbian’ ‘gay’ or ‘LGBTQI+). Bisexuality, on this view, is indispensable for domains of enquiry concerned with social and political justice - and, as such, ought to be re-conceptualised as a bona fide natural social kind**.

The implications of this view are simple, and can be stated as follows. First, it is morally and epistemically harmful to treat Bisexuality as a reductively-hybrid phenomenon. If one is interested in social justice (for academic or everyday purposes), bisexuality should be treated as a unique social category. Second, this fact has implications for those who already treat it as such. In my view, the aim of the bisexual visibility movement should be (re)directed in ways which reflect this fact about bisexuality's epistemic uniqueness. That is, bivisibility efforts ought to be aimed at bringing attention to, or making salient, the ways in which bisexuality is a bonafide social category in its own right - one which places unique moral and epistemic burdens on its members. I will aim to contribute to this effort by bringing together and classifying the (long- documented, but not explicitly stated) moral and epistemic harms of being a bisexual individual.

Before I begin, two important clarifications:

i. To claim that bisexuality imposes unique harms on its members is not to claim that bisexuality is thereby more harmful than other social categories (i.e. that bisexuals are more socially oppressed). That is, it is very likely that there are unique moral and epistemic burdens of being gay and lesbian which bisexuals don’t share. The point is rather this fact itself does not have the implication often drawn viz. that we should therefore downplay the social harms of bisexuality. This is because bisexuality brings with it is own epistemic and moral burdens - burdens which are compounded by the fact that these are, unlike LGBTQI+ counterparts, less well known (the same arguments apply, mutatis mutandis, to similar but distinct social categories such as pansexual).

ii. I am not denying that there is a great deal of overlap between the harms experienced by Bisexual and Gay-Lesbian individuals (nor that these might be - for the bisexual individuals themselves - most significant).

I take the unique harms bisexuality imposes to fall within five categories. I'll write a brief post on each of these over the next few days.

  1. The Bisexual's Burden of Proof (aka the Epistemic Harms of Straight Passing)

  2. Discrimination from within

  3. Looping effects: Uncertainty of Self and Other

  4. Gendered Harms and Biases

  5. Family Pressures.

*I'm working with a contrastive or negative notion of privilege. On this definition, individual x is privileged with respect to another individual y, only if x avoids a harm that y suffers solely in virtue of the fact that x does not posses a specific social property y possesses ( had x possessed this property, x would have experienced this harm).

** This is congruent with an epistemic theory of natural kinds, on which kinds are natural only relative to certain domains of enquiry.

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