Many bisexual men who are currently in heterosexual relationships tend to hide their sexual identity and history. In a new study, researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Public Health Solutions examined the reasons why they often choose not to disclose their sexual orientation, particularly to their current wives and girlfriends.
The findings suggest that bisexual men often anticipate strong judgmental reactions from their partners and families. Many report staying quiet about their past in order to avoid rejection and emotional havoc in their current heterosexual relationships.
For the study, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 203 ethnically diverse bisexual men in New York City who had never disclosed their same-sex behavior to their female sexual partners. The researchers asked the participants why they had not told — and frequently never planned to tell — their friends, family, and female partners about their sexual orientation.
To be eligible, men had to be at least 18 years of age, not self-identify as gay, and report having had sex with a man and sex with a woman in the past year. Men were recruited from Internet websites, print ads, and nonparticipant referrals.
“Our results clearly identify the need for public education campaigns to dispel myths about bisexual men — that bisexual men are not gay, do not have HIV, and are not necessarily non-monogamous,” said Eric W. Schrimshaw, Ph.D., associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health.
“Further, the anticipated negative reactions from female partners suggest the need for strategies to assist behaviorally bisexual men disclose their sexual history in ways that minimize negative reactions and work with the couple to preserve the relationship.”
The men consistently reported anticipating stigma for having sex with men and specified a number of reasons for non-disclosure, including anticipation of negative emotional reactions; anticipation of negative changes in relationships; belief that their family, friends, and female partners held stigmatizing attitudes toward homosexuality; and prior experience with negative reactions to disclosure.
Men in the study did not report a heterosexual identity, identity uncertainty, or other identity issues as reasons for non-disclosure.
“Rather our findings suggested that non-disclosure of sexual orientation among behaviorally bisexual men is often used as a strategy to avoid anticipated stigmatizing responses from their social network such as ridicule, rejection, and victimization,” said Schrimshaw.
The men often cited the religious and/or cultural background of their friends, family, and female partners as a barrier to disclosure, because they believed it contributed to the anticipation of negative reactions. Theories on disclosure of sexual orientation among gay men are conflicting.
“While some research suggests that disclosure of sexual orientation is part of identity development and that disclosure occurs after they become more confident and self-accepting of their sexual identity, this was not our finding,” said Martin J. Downing, Jr. of Public Health Solutions.
The researchers caution that they did not compare bisexual men’s reasons to those of gay men, and therefore it is still unclear whether gay men perceive less stigma (and therefore are more likely to disclose) or if gay and bisexual men experience similar levels of stigma perceptions prior to disclosure.
“Such research is critical to understanding the potential causal order between stigma and disclosure among both gay and bisexual men,” noted Dowling.
Previous research by Schrimshaw suggested that high levels of emotional distress among behaviorally bisexual men are a result of concealment of their sexual orientation.
“Thus the current findings provide new insights into why non-disclosure could result in greater emotional distress,” said Schrimshaw.
The findings are published online in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.