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Why Bi+ Representation On-Screen Matters When Thinking About Intimate Partner Violence

Posted on March 5th, 2019

Posted in Bi Health, Bisexual Health Awareness Month, and Blog

Content warning: domestic violence, sexual violence, bi+ erasure, biphobia

By Sarah Karerat

Representation — and in many cases, the lack thereof —  has real-world effects. We’ve heard this countless times, yet have we thought critically about how far-reaching the impact of representation truly is?

Consider the high rates of violence that the bi+ community faces. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) noted that more than half (61.1%) of bisexual women and 37.3% of bisexual men experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking from an intimate partner in their lifetime, rates that are drastically higher than those of the general population (35.6% of women and 28.5% of men). Additionally, 75% of bi+ women within the United States reported having experienced sexual violence in the NISVS, as compared to 46% of lesbian women and 43% of heterosexual women. It is important to note that the research studies conducted thus far on sexual identity and the incidence of intimate partner violence have only mentioned men and women in their findings, and hence have not explicitly taken into account people of other genders. Still, the research reveals the stark reality that bi+ individuals are significantly more likely to experience intimate partner violence and other forms of sexual violence than the general population.

So what does this have to do with representation? Let’s consider those numbers as well. GLAAD’s 2017-2018 report on LGBTQ+ inclusion noted that of the 6.4% of regular characters on primetime scripted broadcast TV that were LGBTQ+, only 28% were bi+. Bi+ representation in the media is limited, and it’s not uncommon for television shows which portray characters in relationships with people of multiple genders to never include the actual word “bisexual.”

The lack of media representation of bi+ people contributes to the erasure of bisexual identity. On a recent episode of the Hulu series The Bisexual, director and creator Desiree Akhavan’s lead character Leila, a bisexual woman who at the beginning of the series identifies as a lesbian, tells her group of lesbian friends: “I’m pretty sure bisexuality is a myth.” The show proceeds to unravel this notion, but not without first making the point that bi+ erasure is widespread. The legitimacy of bisexual identity is questioned not only in spaces where heterosexuality is dominant, but also in the LGBTQ+ community.

Even when we are graced with the appearance of a bisexual character on TV, they are often the villain. Take Lady Gaga’s murderess character Elizabeth in “American Horror Story: Hotel” or Kevin Spacey’s former Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” Many of these bisexual characters show a lack of morality. They are untrustworthy, unfaithful, and their sexual fluidity seems to imply moral fluidity. We see this in the case of “House of Cards” — showrunner Beau Willimon denied that Frank Underwood could be labeled bisexual, stating instead  that “he’s a man with a large appetite, he’s a man who does not allow himself to be placed in any sort of milieu or with one definition.” His bisexuality, therefore, is linked with his immorality. As Zachary Zane writes for the Washington Post, “He’s a man who has no problem murdering, bribing, betraying — and sleeping with anyone — to obtain power. It was as if his voracious thirst for power somehow related to his sexual fluidity.”

The bisexual+ community thus finds itself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to media, and particularly television, representation. More often than not, bisexuality goes unrepresented, and when it is represented, negative stereotypes take the forefront. Writers at the Huffington Post spoke to numerous researchers about the impact of representation. Ana-Christina Ramón, assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, explained, “What you see often becomes a part of your memory, and thus a part of your life experience.” In particular, what we watch on television develops into what we begin to see as normal. Thus, the negative stereotypes of bisexuality presented on television have harmful impact on viewers. Along similar lines, Nicole Martins, associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington, discussed a field of research surrounding symbolic annihilation, “the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.”

When the bi+ community is all but invisible, the few notions of bisexuality that are out there deeply impact society. The experience of watching untrustworthy and immoral bisexual characters on-screen translates into hostility in real life. Media representations feed stereotypes of bi+ people being unworthy of privacy and deserving of jealousy, and widens the potential for misunderstanding.

These attitudes towards bi+ people then impact the relationships which bi+ people are a part of. Identity-based abuse involves an abuser deploying elements relating to one’s personal characteristics and identities to manipulate and control them. Stereotypes of bisexuality can manifest in identity-based abuse. For instance, an abuser might take advantage of the stereotype of bi+ individuals being hypersexual to accuse their partner of being unfaithful and assert more control over their partner’s interactions with others, therefore isolating them. They could also use this notion of hypersexuality to assume total access to their partner’s body, with little to no respect for boundaries or consent.

An abuser might also question or deride their partner’s bisexuality. Bi+ erasure could manifest in an abuser asserting that their partner’s bisexuality is “just a phase” or that bisexuality is just an excuse for a bi+ individual to deflect homophobia or claim the privilege of heterosexuality. This type of questioning is violent in its own right. As Devon Price writes in a blog post: “Erasure of identity is not privilege. Exclusion takes a hefty toll.” Acts of power, control, and violence in abusive relationships serve to make it more and more difficult for a survivor to leave the relationship. Internalization of the stereotypes surrounding bisexuality makes it more likely that a survivor would accept these forms of identity-based violence as appropriate within a relationship, and less likely that they will leave their abuser. Bi+ erasure and stereotypes also create barriers to accessing services, particularly if they reach individuals who work within support systems and institutions like the police, justice system, or social services.

These are only a few examples of the harm that misconceptions of bisexality can cause within intimate partner relationships. What emerges is that representation really does matter. The media has significant power over how society perceives different identities and groups of people, and the bi+ community is no exception to that. With better representation in the media (if you’re in need of a new show to watch, Autostraddle has some great lists highlighting positive bi+ representation) and more work in the community, hopefully we can move towards the normalization and acceptance of bi+ identities and the dispelling of detrimental stereotypes, envisioning a reality where bi+ individuals are safer in their intimate partner relationships.

Sarah Karerat is the LGBQ/T Advocacy & Outreach Coordinator at DOVE (Domestic Violence Ended), an organization on the South Shore of Massachusetts committed to promoting hope, healing, safety, and social change in communities impacted by domestic violence. DOVE offers a 24-hour hotline, community advocacy services, support groups, legal services, children’s services, community education and prevention, and an emergency shelter. For more information, visit www.dovema.org or call DOVE at 617-770-4065.

For emotional assistance for bi+ and other domestic violence survivors on the South Shore (MA), call DOVE’s free and confidential 24/7 hotline at 617-471-1234.

Other hotline resources for bi+ survivors include:

The Network/La Red: 800-832-1901

The Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse:  206-568-7777

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233