As a sexual identity, bisexuality has historically characterized a contested, unique, and dynamic set of sexual attractions and experiences. Due to recent shifts in cultural understandings of diverse sexual and gender experiences, the bounds of what “bi” can be also are shifting continuously, making the meaning and experience of bisexuality unique across history and across generations. Older bisexual individuals in particular have reported experiences of sexuality that offer fluidity, freedom, and non-traditional lives. As the bisexual-identified population continues to grow, their lived experiences may inform future understandings of sexuality in meaningful ways.
sexual identity; cultural context; non-monosexuality; non-conformity
Historically, bisexuality has been a deeply contested sexual identity and experience (Jones, 2010). Due to its debated nature and distinction from same sex and heterosexual monosexual (focusing on one sex and/or gender) attractions, relationships, and expressions, bisexuality researchers and advocates have argued that exploring this sexual orientation and those who claim it offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the nature, bounds, temporality, and possibilities of sexuality more broadly (Jones, 2010; Jones, 2019). Bisexual individuals report distinctive experiences of sexuality and sexual, romantic, and intimate relationships over the life course. Older bisexual individuals in particular offer a wealth of lived experience navigating sexuality, such that we might gain access to distinctive interpretations of sexuality from their vantage point.
Qualitative evidence from recent research with midlife and older bisexual participants indicates that their viewpoints offer access to a potentially more flexible and freeing set of life experiences in these areas (Jen, 2019; Jones, 2011; 2019). Such lived experiences reflect the current fluid approach to sexuality that has become more common among younger generations. They also indicate that older bisexual individuals were living lives that predate the social imaginary (set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols through which people imagine their social whole) of their cultural context, thereby stretching the bounds of what sexuality can be.
As the bisexual-identified population continues to grow in size and proportion, these unique possibilities may shape future understandings of late-life sexuality in meaningful ways that hold implications for not only bisexual populations, but others as well.
Because historically the term has been contested, in this article I use the term “bisexual” to represent individuals who are attracted to and/or have engaged in sexual and/or romantic relationships with individuals of multiple genders (Ochs & Rowley, 2009). In referring to bisexual populations, I intend to report on those who identify as bisexual and discuss bisexuality as a sexual identity that a person might hold or apply to themselves, although individuals may have experienced bisexual relationships without necessarily identifying as such (Jones, 2010).
Bisexual individuals are more likely than those of other sexual identities to use more than one sexual identity label. Also, bisexuality shares characteristics with other non-monosexual labels such as “pansexual” or “queer,” which means some experiences might be shared across populations that use each of these terms. However, while these identities may have some overlap, I do not intend to capture the experiences of queer, pansexual, or other non-monosexual individuals, as each identity has its own history and as such individuals who identify with each might also have their own distinctive experiences.
Voices of Older Bisexual Individuals: The Experience and Meaning of Bisexual Sexuality
In the realm of LGBTQ+ aging research, bisexual individuals are rarely represented as thoroughly as lesbians and gay men; when bisexual individuals are included in samples, their experiences are often combined with those of other non-heterosexual identities rather than examined in their own right (Fredriksen-Goldsen, Jen, & Muraco, 2019). Among bisexual men, this masking of bisexual sexual experiences has been complicated by the common categorization of men who have sex with men superseding categorizations by sexual identity, although bisexual men report heightened sexual health risks and different sexual experiences compared to other men with same-sex attractions (Ochs & Sharif Williams, 2014; Schnarrs, Rosenberger, & Novak, 2015).
‘Bisexual attractions range from deeply same-sex focused to deeply other-sex focused.’
What knowledge exists related to bisexual sexuality in later life mainly comes from qualitative and exploratory studies conducted in the United States and the U.K. and from anthologies or collections of bisexual life narratives, which attend to the various components of bisexual sexuality including sexual attractions, identity, and experiences of sexual behaviors and relationships. Additionally, current research tends to represent experiences of White or Caucasian, more highly educated and cisgender individuals, and the evidence summarized here should not be taken as equally indicative of the experiences of all older bisexual individuals. In the interest of representing bisexual sexuality within a continuous life-course framework, I focus on evidence from studies of bisexual individuals ages 50 and older but include studies on younger adults when useful to shed light on understudied areas of experience.
In the case of attractions and relationships, bisexual older adults report qualitatively different experiences with people of diverse genders. For instance, bisexual women have described attractions to and relationships with other women as more emotional and less sexual than with a man (Jen, 2021). Bisexual individuals also have reported having both equal or inequal attractions to people of different genders (Bates, 2012), echoing Kinsey and colleagues’ work (Kinsey, Pomery, & Martin, 1948) suggesting that bisexual attractions range from deeply same-sex focused to deeply other-sex focused. Also, bisexual individuals’ gender shapes their social experience of bisexuality, wherein bisexual women describe feeling fetishized in and outside of relationships, while bisexual men are often deeply invisible within their communities (Ochs & Sharif Williams, 2014; McLean, 2008).
It is also notable that even within social identities, not all bisexual individuals describe the same experience of their sexuality (Jones, 2019). For example, in a study of 15 older bisexual women, while about two-thirds of the sample described their sexuality as biologically innate, evident from their early childhood or early adulthood, the others experienced their first sexual attractions to women in mid- to later life and stated that their sexual attractions had changed over time (Jen, 2021).
This narrative contrasts with the biological imperative conceptualization of sexuality that is often described among heterosexual, lesbian, and gay individuals. LGBTQ life stories have often hinged on the “coming out” narrative, in which it is assumed that an individual always experienced same-sex attractions but had to eventually admit to these attractions to themselves and others. The idea that sexual attractions change over time illuminating new, rather than previously hidden sexual possibilities may be a pattern more specific to bisexual individuals that exists in addition to the innate, biologically felt experience of sexuality.
In terms of what bisexual sexuality means to older adults, in a study of bisexual women ages 60 and older, participants described their sexual attractions to individuals of multiple genders as providing a sense of openness, possibility, and freedom in their lives (Jen, 2019). In contrast to the identity label of “bisexual,” which was experienced as unnecessarily limiting, their history of sexual expression and experience was more fluid and freeing, being described by one woman as “a gift.”
This openness in sexuality also translated into freedom to explore and pursue “non-traditional” or “non-conforming” life experiences, such as opting into polyamorous relationships or a life without bearing children or choosing to marry. One woman in her 70s said that she had “lived a bisexual life” before she knew what to call it. In the global anthology of bisexual narratives, Getting Bi (Ochs & Rowley, 2009), multiple contributing authors similarly described experiencing bisexual attractions before they knew of bisexuality as a possible sexual identity label. One middle-age woman said: “language gave me the avenue to be bisexual. Until that moment I was just a straight girl who never felt totally straight” (p. 41).
As these stories illustrate, the experience of bisexual sexual identities and attractions is intricately intertwined with one’s cultural and discursive context, where some individuals saw language as making their lives legible while others embraced the illegibility of their experiences without needing language to define them. This experience may be explained by the fact that relatively few older bisexual individuals know another older bisexual person (Jen, 2019) and bisexual older adults are less likely to have a person who shares their sexual identity in their close social network compared to lesbians and gay men (Erosheva et al., 2016). Therefore, they lack models for their own sexual relationships, and many have described their early sexual experiences with individuals of the same sex or gender as an intense period of exploration (Jen, 2019; Ochs & Rowley, 2009).
For individuals with multiple marginalized identities, those identities can further complicate their understanding of their own sexuality. For instance, in a preliminary study of two middle-age, Black bisexual women’s narratives, both described their upbringing within the Black church as making same-sex attractions appear deeply taboo and shameful (Bates, 2012). In this context, neither were able to fully embrace or explore their same-sex desires until adulthood, despite feeling attracted to other girls and women earlier in life. This left them with a sense of arrested development around their same-sex experiences and a contempt for traditional expectations of gender roles and sexual expressions. ABilly Jones-Hennin, a 71-year-old Black bisexual man reported a similar story in Recognize, an anthology of bisexual men’s stories (Ochs & Sharif Williams, 2014). He stated that during his early adulthood he only considered women as potential long-term partners, due to familial and cultural pressures to settle down and have children as expected. Narratives of bisexual lives often present a balance of navigating stigma through invisibility and embracing difference or non-conformity.
Many also describe their experience of bisexuality as changing over the course of their lives. For instance, in a qualitative study of men, women, and non-binary individuals ages 50 and older who felt they had something to contribute to a study on bisexuality in the U.K., participants reflected that their lived experience of sexuality may be too fluid to categorize simply, making the claiming of sexual identity labels complex and seemingly unimportant at times (Jones, Almack, & Scicluna, 2016).
Narratives of bisexual lives often present a balance of navigating stigma through invisibility and embracing difference or non-conformity.
The dynamic nature of sexual experience, combined with the cultural impacts of biphobia and binegativity, may explain why bisexual adults are less likely to report that their sexual identity is important to them or to view their sexuality in a positive light compared to lesbians and gay men (Pew Research Center, 2013). Many bisexual individuals report confusion and ambivalence in relation to their sexual identity (Balsam & Mohr, 2007; Hoang, Holloway, & Mendoza, 2011). This evidence suggests that while the label or identity of bisexuality may not be a source of pride or assurance, being able to explore one’s attractions to individuals of diverse genders is relatively freeing in comparison.
While such freedom or fluidity may be captured in historical accounts of past experiences, younger bisexuality participants also have illustrated such potential for freedom and non-conformity when asked to imagine their future lives. In a study of 33 bisexual individuals ages 17 to 66, Jones (2011) asked participants to draw images of their imagined later lives and found that the drawings and their descriptions stretched the bounds of later life beyond heteronormative assumptions or life patterns. Similarly, in a narrative analysis of creative writing on the topic of bisexuality and aging, both younger and older bisexual individuals described forging new paths into later life as they often lacked models of bisexual older adults to emulate (Jones & Jen, under review).
One writer, Jessica Johnson (2014) who was in her 20s at the time, captured this sentiment powerfully in a poem titled “the young adult instruction manual,” in which she describes her past and future as a bisexual woman. As she concludes the poem, she points to and directs her own future:
“stumble over the uneven cracks in your existence and smooth them over as you go
adulthood stretches before you with no blueprints
so gather the courage to cobble something new.”
While this poem seems to lament the lack of bisexual mentors or models available to emulate, it also celebrates the openness that a bisexual life affords, suggesting a beautiful and courageous potential for “something new.”
Beyond one’s personal experience of sexuality, preliminary evidence related to sexual healthcare indicates that older bisexual men (ages 50 and older) are less likely to receive HIV or sexually transmitted infection (STI) screenings compared to younger bisexual men (Schnarrs et al., 2016) or older gay men (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al., 2013). Additionally, very little is known related to the sexual health of older bisexual women, although adult bisexual men and women report more sexually risky behaviors than do gay men or lesbians, and older bisexual men report less condom use and make up a disproportionate percentage of new HIV infections compared to younger bisexual men (Schnarrs et al., 2016).
While much of the existing research on bisexual sexual experiences highlights personal and social contexts, attention to issues of sexual health indicate risk factors that might impact bisexual individuals’ overall health in later life, which illustrates disparities in mental and social health compared to older gay men and lesbian women (Jorm et al., 2002; Kertzner et al., 2009).
Future Exploration and Understandings of Bisexuality and Sexuality in Later Life
What implications could lessons learned from bisexuality-related insight have for aging and sexuality more broadly? Given the current cultural shift toward more fluid understandings of sexuality and more common bisexual identities among younger generations, lessons learned from the lived experiences of older bisexual individuals might foreshadow patterns that will be evident among future generations of older adults. For instance, evidence supporting the dynamic nature of sexuality suggests that singular identity labels may not capture the shifting and complex nature of an individual’s sexual experience over time. Additionally, individuals are capable of exploring sexual relationships in ways that predate the language to capture these experiences.
Such findings hold implications for how sexuality is discussed with clients in practice settings as well as how we research sexually diverse populations to improve our understandings of their lives. Offering opportunities to discuss one’s sexuality in qualitative ways or in the form of a story rather than a single-point-in-time label allows for a more complex understanding of historical and current sexual experiences, which will also inform care planning, interventions, and research implications in more accurate ways. This implication for practice and research might be simply described as a shift away from a focus on labels and toward a focus on lives and context.
Bisexuality, which has been described as a “flexible identity,” might become a road map for other gerontological issues or life trajectories.
While creative imaginings and narratives of later life have been used in research to explore bisexual aging (Jones, 2011; Jones & Jen, under review), prompting such imaginings among broader populations may be worthwhile in other contexts as well. As an experience, drawing or imagining one’s aging future can encourage individuals to plan for and intentionally shape their futures more effectively. This may be particularly important for individuals of historically marginalized backgrounds who lack positive models or scripts for aging that match their social or cultural identities and positionings (Jones, 2011). Such imaginary constructions also might be an effective tool for practitioners and advocates hoping to support the self-determination of clients and communities in shaping their own futures by making bisexuality as a previously invisible identity (Johnston, 2016) more supported.
One aspect of planning for a healthy and fulfilling later life includes protecting one’s physical health. As preliminary evidence suggests, older bisexual populations may be at disproportionate risk for STIs and HIV infections, but less likely to be screened for sexual infections compared to other populations. It will be important to improve rates of sexual health screenings in healthcare settings to ensure equitable sexual health outcomes among bisexual older adults as well as providing sexual health education, as scholars have suggested that disparities in sexually risky behaviors may stem from the misperception that older adults are at lower risk for HIV and STIs (Schnarr et al., 2016).
In research, scholars often suggest that qualitative research is more useful in areas lacking depth of understanding and require a more exploratory approach to knowledge creation rather than deductive or confirmatory analyses. While attention to diverse sexualities and sexual expressions in later life is growing, recent evidence from bisexual participants suggests that the nature of sexuality across the life course is continually shifting. Rather than seeing their attractions as a “phase” (a common misconception about bisexuality) (Johnston, 2016), this dynamic quality might be embraced as a common characteristic of bisexual lives. In this way, bisexuality, which has been described as a “flexible identity” (Sinnott, 2016, p. 3), might become a road map for other gerontological issues or life trajectories by providing an example of balancing the flexibility of experience with the stability of identity.
To respond to this fluidity, in-depth qualitative research will likely continue to offer new and more nuanced understandings of the shifting cultural understandings of bisexuality, and sexuality more broadly, among older adults. Therefore, carrying out in-depth explorations of sexuality through qualitative, interpretive and discursive research will offer a necessary compliment to ongoing and equally important large-scale survey and intervention research for purposes of informing knowledge development, evidence-based practices, and advocacy.
To add to this in-depth understanding of bisexual individuals’ sexuality in later life, attention to intersectional identities would require additional nuance in future research. For instance, while some researchers have begun to explore the intersections of transgender and bisexual identities among older adults (Witten, 2016), such studies tend to focus on health and later life concerns rather than sexual experiences. Additionally, older bisexual adults of diverse racial identities and backgrounds may differ in terms of sexual experiences.
Future research and practice knowledge will benefit from exploring such intersections for their unique potential to shape later life sexuality. Due to the context-specific nature of sexuality, it is also important that we see the possibilities of bisexuality as historically situated and remain open to variability and new experiences of bisexuality to emerge over time. In this way, we, as sexuality researchers and practitioners and advocates serving diverse populations, can maintain and embrace the sense of freedom and fluidity that seems to characterize the experience of bisexuality over the life course.
Sarah Jen, MSW, PhD, is an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and has served on ASA's Generations Journal Editorial Advisory Board. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Creative Photo Corner/Shutterstock
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