Bisexual Women Suffer More from Health Risk Factors Than Males, Study Finds

Posted: October 28, 2011 at 9:56 am, Last Updated: October 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

By Michele McDonald

Lisa Lindley. Creative Services photo

Bisexual women are more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from depression and stress and to binge-drink, according to a new national study led by Mason researcher Lisa Lindley.

“Why?” Lindley wonders. “That’s what we keep asking.”

She has some theories. “Bisexuals are often invisible,” she says. “There’s a lot of prejudice against them. They’re told ‘You’re confused — pick one.’ There tends to be this expectation or standard that a person picks one sexual identity and sticks with it. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about bisexuals. I think their risk has a lot more to do with stigma.”

Bisexual women are also more likely to smoke and be victimized, adds Lindley, an associate professor in Mason’s Department of Global and Community Health within the College of Health and Human Services.

Identity, Behavior, Attraction Linked to Health Outcomes

The national study, published Oct. 24 in the American Journal of Public Health’s “First Look,”  is the first to use three different dimensions of sexuality — identity, behavior and attraction — and link them to a variety of health outcomes, Lindley says.

Sexual identity is how someone labels their sexual orientation: gay, straight, bisexual, mostly gay or mostly straight. Who someone’s sexual partners are refers to their sexual behavior — had sex with males only, females only or both males and females. Then there’s which gender they’re attracted to — exclusively men or women or mostly men or women. Attraction doesn’t have to match up with behavior or identity.

Looking closely at the survey data, Lindley notes, both bisexual girls and boys were more likely to be high-risk for depression, stress and alcohol abuse when they were teenagers, but the odds dropped for men as they aged, according to research conducted with the same population, she says. Not so for women.

In addition, women who were strictly identified as straight or gay didn’t have the same risk factors that bisexual women had, Lindley says. More studies are needed to understand what is going on with these young women, she adds.

Lindley’s research builds on new information. Until now, few national studies have asked about sexual attraction, behavior and identity, Lindley says. Some think bisexuals are increasing the risk level reported among the overall lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, she adds.  Researchers need to learn more about the individual communities.

“They’re not all troubled,” she says of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “They’re not all high risk.”

No Community for Bisexual Women?

Discordance could be at the heart of the issue for bisexual women, Lindley says. “They’re saying, ‘I identify one way, but I behave in a different way and am attracted in another way,’ ” she says.

They may be more isolated and may not feel as if they have someone to talk with who understands what they are going through, she adds.

More young women than men reported that they were attracted to both sexes and that they were “mostly” straight or bisexual.

“Women are more likely to have sexual identities that fluctuate over time,” Lindley says. “Whereas with men, it tends to be either ‘I’m straight’ or ‘I’m gay.’”

Men didn’t report feeling as depressed or stressed as women did. They also didn’t binge-drink or smoke as much as bisexual women.

So why are men better off?

“I don’t know is the honest answer,” Lindley says. “Perhaps it’s because men, if gay or straight, have a stronger connection to their community. Bisexual women may not feel as if there is a community for them.”

Lindley and her co-authors Katrina M. Walsemann and Jarvis W. Carter Jr. of the University of South Carolina used a nationally representative sample of 14,412 people — 7,696 women and 6,716 men — in the survey. The survey first was given in 1994-95 when the respondents were enrolled in grades 7-12 and given again in 2007-08 when they were 24 to 32 years old.

Those surveyed were primarily white (68.1 percent) and married (43.9 percent). The mean age was 28.8, and about 43 percent had some college or vocational training.

Respondents could say they’re “mostly gay” or “mostly straight,” along with straight, bisexual, gay or no sexual identity.

They were asked how often, in the past seven days, they felt depressed, had the blues, had trouble keeping their mind on what they were doing, felt people disliked them, enjoyed life or felt sad.

Smoking and drinking also were measured but not number of sexual partners or hard drug use. In addition, they were asked if someone pulled a knife or a gun on them, if they were shot or stabbed, if they were slapped, hit, kicked or choked or if they were beaten.

The current study is a springboard to Lindley’s next one. She’s planning to assemble focus groups and conduct interviews with bisexually active women to better understand their experiences and how they handle them.

She’s also investigating sexually transmitted infections among African American women who are bisexual or lesbian.

 

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu