Here, learn what bisexuality actually means. Plus, tips for exploring your own (bi)sexuality.

By Gabrielle Kassel
August 20, 2020
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Bops like New You by Zolita, Monopoly by Ariana Grande, and Girls by Rita Ora may have bisexuality at their center. But adding tunes about ~bisexual longing~ to your Spotify doesn't mean you suddenly know the definition of this often-misunderstood sexual orientation.

What does it mean to be bisexual, exactly? And how do you know if that might apply to you? Read on to learn the definition of bisexuality, how to learn if you're bisexual, and seven ways to explore your sexuality if you think you might be bisexual.

two women in pride flag as concept for bisexual definition meaning
Credit: We Are/Getty Images

What does 'bisexual' mean?

If you hopped on a time travel machine and trekked from 1892 (when the word "bisexual" was first conceived, according to LGBTQ nonprofit GLAAD) until now, you'd notice that it's had quite the evolution.

In the nineteenth century, Charles Chaddock first used the word to refer to sexual attraction to both men and women. Many people assume this is still the most widely used definition — but it's not. As Jamie LeClaire, a sex educator who specializes in sexuality and gender previously told Shape, "many of the definitions of bisexuality that you'll find in textbooks were created during a time where culture and the general public still understood gender as a binary."

However, from the 1970s and on, the OG definition began to be seen as inadequate as people began to understand the true expansiveness of gender. These days, there are a few different widely accepted definitions of bisexuality.

First, is the definition you'll find in Merriam Webster that says bisexuality is "characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to people of one's own gender identity and of other gender identities." The second definition, cited by the University of Massachusets, for example, also nods to that 'bi' prefix which means two, noting that bisexuality is the potential for romantic or sexual attraction to genders similar to one's own and dissimilar to one's own. (ICYWW, this is the definition I use when people ask why or how I use the term bisexual for myself.) Bisexuality can also be simply defined as the attraction to multiple genders.

If you're thinking that these all sound super similar, you're not wrong; the takeaway from all of them is that "bisexual" means you're not only attracted to one gender. The difficulty is when a definition implies or assumes that there are only two genders, male and female (but more on that in a sec).

Ultimately, "it's important to recognize that the term may mean something different to different bisexual folks," says psychotherapist and marriage and relationship expert Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.F.T. (Learn more from Wright: What Everyone Should Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationship Therapist)

So, to understand what bisexual means to someone, you're going to have to ask. Of course, make sure you have a pre-established relationship with someone before doing so. Your curiosity is far less important than their comfort. Got it?

Does bisexuality mean you're only into people that identify as a man or woman?

Nope! "There's a misunderstanding that bisexuality reinforces the gender binary," says Marla Renee Stewart, sexologist with Velvet Lips Sex Down South and co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Seduction and Foreplay. "But identifying as bisexual does not reinforce the gender binary."

The bisexual community has been fighting against that misconception for decades now! Case in point: The Bisexuality Manifesto published in 1990. Arguably the most iconic text in the ~bisexuality canon~, the manifesto actively went after that dangerous myth, stating: "Do not assume that bisexuality is binary or duogamous in nature [...]. In fact, don't assume that there are only two genders."

No, bisexuality is not a 50/50 split.

To be very clear: Bisexuality does not mean half gay and half straight. *Eye roll.* Bisexuals are, well, 100-freaking-percent bisexual!

Bisexual also does not always imply equal attraction to men and women. For starters, this idea erases all the non-binary, gender-queer, and gender-fluid folks a bisexual person might be attracted to. (Also: quantifying attraction is hard AF!)

Plus, it's simply not accurate. Some bisexuals mostly experience attraction to folks with genders like their own, while others mostly experience attraction to folks with genders unlike their own. Many may notice that their attraction fluctuates over time.

No, bisexuality does not imply attraction to everyone.

"There a misconception that bisexual people are attracted to literally everyone," says Wright. This, she says, is pretty ridiculous. "We don't think a heterosexual woman is attracted to every single man in the world…so why would we think similarly about bisexual folks?"

In my personal experience, identifying as bisexual — and more specifically as a queer bisexual dyke — has actually limited my dating pool rather than expand it. Why? Well, because I don't want to date someone who merely tolerates my sexuality. Nor do I want to date someone who loves me in spite of my sexuality. I want to date someone who celebrates my sexuality with me! And unfortunately, thanks to all the myths floating around about bisexuals, that's been more difficult to find than you might guess.

Bisexual ≠ Polyamorous

Biphobic slut-shamers L-O-V-E to spew nonsense like "all bisexuals are polyamorous" or "bisexuals are more likely to cheat" or "all bisexual secretly want threesomes." None of these myths are true.

"Bisexual is a sexual orientation whereas monogamous, non-monogamous, and polyamorous are relationship orientations," explains Stewart. (Note: Polyamory is the practice of engaging in multiple romantic relationships with the consent of all the people involved).

"One (sexual orientation) is about who you have the potential to feel attractions toward, and the other (romantic orientation) is about the type of relationship structure you'd be most comfortable in with those people," she says. The two have no bearing on each other. So, just as a lesbian woman or a straight man could be monogamous OR polyamorous, so could a bisexual person!

As for the rumor that bisexuals are more likely to cheat? *Bangs buzzer.* False! No monogamous person stops experiencing sexual attraction to other people altogether once they enter a committed monogamous relationship, says Wright — regardless of sexual orientation.

A monogamous lesbian, she says, is just as likely to remain faithful in their relationship despite still experiencing attraction to other women, as a monogamous bisexual is to remain faithful in their relationship despite still experiencing attraction to other people.

There are lots and lots and lots of bisexual people in happy monogamous relationships, says Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CST director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. "And there are lots of bisexuals in happy polyamorous relationships, too." (Related: What It's Like to Go Through a Polyamorous Break-Up)

Bisexual vs. Pansexual

It's probably clear by now, but sexuality definitions are wiggly and personal, so the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality really depends on who you ask!

"One common definition of pansexuality is attraction to someone regardless of their gender identity," explains Kahn. "This may mean that someone's gender is not a determining factor in desiring to have sex with or date, and possibly even that gender is irrelevant in terms of someone's attraction." This is not necessarily the case for bisexual folks.

A second common definition of pansexuality is attraction to all gender identities, says Stewart. While there are slight differences in the definitions of bisexuality and this definition of pansexuality (e.g attraction to two or more genders versus all genders, respectively) as she says, "this definition of pansexuality doesn't differ very much from the definition(s) of bisexuality." (Have more questions about pansexuality? Check out: What Does Pansexuality Mean?)

Ultimately, says Kahn, whether a person identifies as pansexual or bisexual comes down to what the two terms mean to them and which word choice feels most accurate or meaningful to them. Many folks actually use both labels, says Stewart. (Some even adopt the nomenclature BiPan.)

Bisexual vs. Queer

Again: definition varies! "Generally though, queerness means against societal norms and normative values," says Stewart. In a society where the norm is heterosexual, cisgender, white, upper-middle-class, college-educated, monogamous, vanilla, traditionally attractive man or woman, queer can be anything that is *not* that. Of course, not everyone who falls outside of that Barbie or Ken descriptor identifies as queer.

"Queer is an identity that must be claimed in the first-person," says Bahiyyah Maroon, Ph.D., queer African American anthropologist, who notes that it's a political identity or statement—it's less so about who you sleep with or are attracted to and more so about living your life in a way that's anti- or outside of the norm. "Just being bisexual doesn't automatically make someone queer. But someone who is bisexual may choose to also identify as queer to harness its political power," she says. (See More: Read This If You Worry You're Not Queer Enough) I bisexual??

"Only you can determine if you're bisexual or not," says Dr. Maroon. But how do you determine that exactly? Well, do you ~feel~ bisexual? Do you feel like the term accurately describes your lived experience (or the one you desire)? Do you just have a hunch that you're bi? If you answered yes to any of the those Qs *and* you like the label, then yes, you're bisexual!

If, however, you don't know the answer to those questions yet and you want to know, you may have to do a little exploring, says Wright.

How to Explore Your Potential Bisexuality

"What that exploration looks like will vary whether you're a single person who's never been with a person other than their own gender or a married monogamous person who wants to explore their sexuality within the confines of their current relationship," says Wright.

Below, a non-exhaustive list of the things that exploration might include:

1. Making an online dating profile: You can either just talk to the gender(s) you're interested in, says Wright. Or you can actually make plans to meet up and mingle with folks. (IMHO, Lex, #Open, and Tinder are best for this.)

2. Reading or watching ethical porn: Specifically, porn and erotica that features the gender(s) you're exploring your attraction toward. "See what words, phrases, acts, and scenes turn you on," says Wright. Some good resources include SugarButch Chronicles, Bellesa, Four Chambers, Pink and White Productions, and CrashPad Series.

3. Going on Reddit: Sexuality Reddit is surprisingly robust. "If you head to Reddit and type in 'bisexual' and your age, you'll find a lot of stories about people like you exploring their (bi)sexuality," says Wright.

4. Reading sexuality textbooks: "Doing a deep dive on sexuality studies can be helpful for folks who enjoy learning via book," says Wright. She recommends the classic sexological texts Sexual Behavior In The Human Female by Alfred Kinsey. And personally I found it profoundly helpful to read textbooks about bisexuality such as Sexual Fluidity by Lisa M. Diamond, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri, and a book by the aforementioned activist Robyn Ochs, Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World and Recognize.

5. Or queer memoirs: Because seeing yourself in a book's pages can be validating, Wright notes that memoirs that feature queer characters can be a great tool. I recommend: Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno, In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Zami by Audre Lorde, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavich, The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenburg, Bad Dyke by Allison Moon, and The Other Side Of Paradise by Staceyann Chin (to name just a few).

6. Following and engaging with queer folks on social media: "I recommend actively seeking out folks in the LGBTQ community to follow on Instagram," says Dr. Maroon. "The more sexual variation you see on your feed, the more vibrant your life is going to be and the more comfortable you'll feel exploring your sexuality."

Some of the bicons (that's bisexual icons) I follow on Instagram include @gabalexa, @bygabriellesmith, @tawnymlara, @polyamorouswhileasian, @jenerous, and @gabyroad.

7. Jamming to queer tunes. No matter your sexuality, those aforementioned numbers are *chefs kiss.* But if you feel seen (er, heard?) in those very bisexual lyrics, well, spend some time thinking on that!