“If you’ve only ever dated men, how do you know you’re bisexual?”
If you’re a bi or pansexual woman in a relationship with a cis man, this is a question you’ve almost certainly heard. And the truth is, for many of us (myself included!) it’s a question we’ve asked ourselves. We all know sexuality is about attraction and desire, not about what you’ve done and with whom, but that doesn’t mean it always plays out like that IRL.
When asked to place themselves on a scale, almost a quarter of Brits identified as something other than 100 percent straight. Among 18-24 year olds it was almost half. Over the last year Tinder saw an increase in the number of users identifying as “straight and questioning,” particularly among Gen Z users.
But if you’re in a relationship with a man and questioning your sexuality, where do you go from there? How do you tell the difference between fantasising about women (Oh hello, 18-year-old me!) and actually wanting to have sex with one? How do you know whether the butterflies you felt on seeing a topless model on a billboard in France aged 13 (Yup, also me!) are a sign of anything other than curiosity?
For Lou, 31, the moment came when her boyfriend of five years mentioned that an ex of his was bi. “I don’t know why but it just stayed in my mind,” she says. “It prompted me to rethink some of the moments in my past.” Lou has only ever dated men but looking back on her teenage years she was suddenly able to make sense of her experiences. “As a teenager, I remember being very ashamed because when I would masturbate, I would think about female pop stars,” she says. “I didn’t know if that was a thing everyone did and I was very confused. I also remember looking at topless women on the family computer. My dad found it but I blamed my brother. I’d just blocked that completely from my memory and it’s only now that I realised maybe that was part of it.”
Lou remembers wondering, as a teen, whether she might be gay or bi but says she always shut the thought down very quickly. “I always had boyfriends anyway, plus I didn’t fancy any of my friends so I decided I couldn’t be.” In her late 20s she was having drinks when a single friend in the group told them she’d recently switched her dating apps to men and women. To Lou’s surprise she felt a surge of anger. “She didn’t say she was bi, she just said it was something she was trying. Everyone laughed and said she’d obviously had bad experiences with men and I realised I was angry because they were treating it as a bit of a joke. I also think there was a little bit of envy as well because at that time I was already with my partner.”
She is only out as bi to her boyfriend and even with him, she’s never had a sit-down conversation. “Around the time it started to come together for me, I began dropping hints about finding women attractive. Over time he realised that they were more than throwaway comments and we did have more of a chat. I’ve never actually said ‘I’m bi’ or ‘I’m pan’ but he definitely knows,” she says.
Lexi has described herself as bi since she was 12, but has only dated men. “I know there were a few girls that I had crushes on as a kid but then it didn’t really come into play when I was a teenager,” she explains. “I never came across other girls who were interested in girls. I had one or two teenage fumbles and kisses with girls but it was always drunk at a party and nothing else ever came of them. At 15 I got into a relationship with a boy the same age and we were together for five years so it got pushed to the back of my mind.”
Now 25, she has begun to consider what being bi actually means to her. “When I was younger I told boys I was bi partly because I thought they’d find it hot. I was so intent on being sexy for them,” she says.
Her boyfriend, who she has been with for four years, is entirely respectful. “He was the first guy I’d ever told who didn’t ask for a threesome,” she says. His acceptance helped her see it as an authentic part of her identity – and one she needed to explore more fully. “I realised I really want to explore this and I’ve wanted to for half my life and if not now, when?” she says. “I hinted at an open relationship with him but he made it clear he’s not open to that. So I talked to him about what I was thinking and told him I needed a break. That was really hard but he said it made complete sense and it was fair enough.”
The couple have just agreed to a six month hiatus so Lexi can date women. “I’m optimistic but I’m also nervous,” she says. “I want to rip the bandaid off and get my first queer sexual experience out of the way so it's less daunting!” At the moment, she and her boyfriend are intending to get back together but Lexi admits she isn’t sure how that will pan out. “I can’t imagine I’m going to spend six months sleeping with women and then be like ‘OK well I’ve got that out of my system',” she says. “I think if I was going to settle down with any man it would be him but I guess we’ll see who I am in six months.”
Research shows that over 80% of bisexual people in long-term relationships, have different gender partners. “From a very young age we are taught that a successful life is finding a nice man, getting married and having children,” says Ruby*, 30. “Choosing to date men was the easy option.”
After ending an eight year relationship with a man, Ruby is in her first relationship with a woman. She describes coming out as bi as a “really slow realisation.” A few years ago, while still with her ex-boyfriend, she read an article about the all-female sex party Skirt Club and was instantly captivated. “I became obsessed with going,” she says. Her partner gave his blessing and while Ruby’s experience was “a little disappointing” she realised she’d finally tapped into a part of herself she’d been ignoring.
“I snogged a couple of women but didn't connect with anyone massively and nothing else came of it. Still, as soon as we broke up, I started dating both men and women.” The couple had grown apart over eight years, but Ruby’s desire to sleep with women was definitely a factor in the breakup. “I just knew I wanted the experience of being with a woman and it got to the point that I couldn't relax until I had,” she says. “It was overwhelming.”
The number of women who identify as bisexual has almost doubled in the last five years, according to ONS data. But, like Ruby, many women feel that if you’ve only ever slept with men you can’t know for sure.
Lou sees herself settling down with her boyfriend, but the fact that she may never have a sexual experience with a woman bothers her. “I don’t resent my boyfriend but it is quite confusing knowing that I’ll never explore my bisexuality physically,” she says. “I don’t picture bringing a third person in – we’re too vanilla.”
Nobody I spoke to believed that sexual orientation is defined by who you’ve slept with, but all of them have questioned whether they really “count” as bisexual. “It does feel really important to me to date women,” admits Lexi. Lou agrees, “I know I’m bi and I know it doesn’t have to involve dating women, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me hesitate to claim this label.”
A recent Pew Research Centre analysis found that only 19% of bisexual people are out to “all or most” of the significant people in their lives, compared with 75% of gay people and lesbians. Over a quarter of bi people surveyed said they weren’t out to anyone at all.
For Lexi, the break from her relationship has given her the freedom to identify as bi on her own terms. “Even just in the last week I’ve felt so much more comfortable placing myself in that community,” she says. She is yet to go on her first date and says the prospect of finally having sex with a woman for the first time is both liberating and scary. “I'm terrified! I feel like I'll need more skill and more patience and I'm scared of feeling inadequate if I can't satisfy them. I was supposed to hook up with a woman last night but she postponed and I was equal parts disappointed and relieved.”
For people like Lou, the prospect of no one ever knowing can be painful. Like many bi people in relationships with different gender partners she’s aware of her “straight-passing privilege” and feels her attraction to women would be seen as irrelevant or else an appropriation of a marginalised status.
“Apart from grappling with difficult questions within myself, about who I’m attracted to and whether I have any right to claim this label, I just don’t have that kind of experience,” she says. “I’ve thought about using Bi Visibility Day to say ‘Fuck it, here I am!’ but I feel like people would think it was unnecessary. I don’t think my friends would be shocked and appalled but I think they’d wonder why I was telling them, and I’m nervous about how it would affect those relationships. I’d love to get to the point where I didn’t feel weird about it but I’m not there yet.”
Like a lot of bi women in relationships with men, Lou’s biggest victory has been in simply acknowledging her sexual orientation to herself. “I remember filling in the diversity questionnaire on a job application and clicking bi and realising I’d never done that before,” she says. “It felt good! It felt like a win because in some small way I’d declared it to myself.”
*Some names have been changed
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