“Transitional Bisexuality”: Why Some Gay Men First Come Out As Bisexual

September 21, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller

On one episode of the popular television series Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw discovers that the guy she’s currently seeing had dated both men and women in the past. Clearly uncomfortable with the thought of taking things any further with him, she confides to her friends: “You know, I did the ‘date a bisexual guy’ thing in college, but in the end they all ended up with men…I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to gaytown.”

Carrie expressed a belief that a lot of folks in the real world hold, too—that all bisexual men are secretly gay and just aren’t quite ready to come out yet. This idea that all bisexual men are gays in disguise is, like Sex and the City, pure fiction (see here and here for scientific evidence that bisexuality is a distinct sexual orientation); however, it turns out that there is some truth to the idea that bisexuality sometimes serves as a transitional identity.

Transitional bisexuality has largely been ignored by sex researchers to date; however, a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior sheds some light on it. This paper is part of a special issue devoted to “the puzzle of sexual orientation”—for coverage of other articles from this issue on the blog, see here, here, and here.

In this study, researchers recruited men who currently identified as gay via Facebook and Grindr. In total, 58 participants (most of whom were White and aged 26 on average) completed an online survey about their sexual attitudes and history. Thirty-six of these participants also went on to complete a lab study in which their genital arousal patterns were recorded while they watched different kinds of pornography.

What the researchers found was that nearly half (48.3%) of the participants had identified as bisexual at a previous point in time. Of those who had done so, most (60.7%) said they had sex with a woman before, too; by contrast, among those who did not previously identify as bisexual, just 6.7% reported having had sex with a woman.

When asked about their reasons for previously identifying as bisexual, the two most commonly endorsed reasons were that it was easier to think of oneself as bisexual than as completely gay (60.7%) and that others might have an easier time accepting oneself as bisexual instead of completely gay (67.9%).

Less commonly endorsed reasons included: wanting a future with a wife and children (21.4%), being sexually attracted to men and women (21.4%), and having previously masturbated thinking of men and women (17.9%). Note that participants could select more than one of these reasons.

Consistent with these findings, the vast majority (82.1%) of men who had previously identified as bisexual reported that they did not currently believe themselves to have been bisexual in the past.

The other particularly interesting finding from this paper came from the genital arousal portion of the study. Men who previously identified as bisexual did not demonstrate higher levels of genital arousal or self-reported sexual arousal in response to woman-on-woman porn compared to men who had never identified as bisexual. In other words, those who had identified as bisexual in the past did not currently show any evidence of heightened sexual attraction to women.

Due to the small number of participants, caution is warranted in generalizing the results. However, these findings are certainly still informative because they offer some much-needed scientific insight into the phenomenon of transitional bisexuality.

For one thing, these results suggest that male transitional bisexuality is common and that it seems to be more about coming to terms with one’s own gay identity than it is about actually being bisexual. The fact that this is so common is probably what has given rise to the popular stereotype that male bisexuality is just “a layover on the way to gaytown.”

For another, these findings also suggest that a history of bisexual identification among gay men isn’t necessarily evidence of sexual fluidity because most of the men who adopt this temporary identity don’t actually have bisexual feelings. Scientists studying sexual fluidity therefore need to be mindful of the fact that transitional bisexuality exists.

On a side note, I should mention that the study discussed above didn’t just look at transitional bisexuality—it also explored the differences between completely gay men (those who score 6 on the Kinsey Scale) and mostly gay men (those who score 5), which is interesting in its own right–and something I cover in a separate post (see here).

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For more on this research, see: Semon, T.L., Hsu, K.J., Rosenthal, A.M., & Bailey, J.M. (2016). Bisexual phenomena among gay-identified men. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Image Source: 123RF/lculig

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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