The difference between monosexism and biphobia

X-posted from tumblr, because I think people might find this helpful.

Re: monosexism and biphobia. Do you use these words interchangeably? I notice more and more people are treating the two as synonymous and it doesn’t really sit right with me.


Personally, I don’t.

But before I answer, I have to clarify something first, because a lot of people seem to think I invented the word “monosexism”: So, while this is incredibly flattering, the fact is I didn’t. This word has been in use in bisexual movements from the 1990s or even earlier. I’m willing to take credit for popularizing it on tumblr, though :p

Now to my answer:

I see biphobia as a particular aspect of monosexism, they are definitely not interchangeable. Monosexism, as I see it, refers to the structural privileging of monosexual identities and behaviours. So, monosexism refers, for example, to the belief that one can only be either straight or gay, that it is better to be monosexual than bisexual*, that only monosexual identities are “real”, that monosexual issues are the only ones deserving of attention, etc. Monosexism causes bisexual erasure (from media, literature, art, TV and film, etc.), it causes discrimination when it comes to activist priorities, budgeting, etc. It causes the social isolation that leads many bis* to have poor health and mental health, and prevents proper treatment and support that might help alleviate them. It keeps bi* people “low” on the “pecking order” and creates all sorts of oppression. I see monosexism as the main factor responsible for all the horrible statistics in the Bisexual Invisibility report, for example. So, basically, monosexism is the system, the base structure. It is everything which isn’t directly aimed at bi* people but nonetheless has the effect of eradicating our existence or legitimacy.

I also have to say that monosexism is a structure that first and foremost comes from heterosexism and the patriarchy – 99.99999999% of it comes from heterosexual culture. So for me, monosexism is a term that allows us to look at all the ways that the “broader” culture creates oppression against bisexuals*. In addition, it allows us to consider monosexism as a structure that affects everyone instead of just bi* people – for example, by limiting other people’s options.

Biphobia, on the other hand, is direct negative attitudes and treatment of bi* people. It’s one specific result of monosexism. So here we can think about the many negative attitudes and behaviours specifically aimed against bis*. For example, when people refuse to date bisexuals*, when bis* are represented in stereotypical ways in the media, when bi* women become the target of sexual violence (because they’re perceived as particularly sexy sexual objects), when bi* people are discriminated at their jobs because of their bisexuality (for example, because they’re perceived as unreliable, flaky, unable to handle responsibility or commit to their job), and, yes – when bi* people are treated badly by L, G, and T communities.

I think it’s important to make that distinction, because these are two completely different levels of oppression working against bisexuals* – and of course, I think that the room that biphobia occupies right now in bi* political dialogues is unproportionate, and that we need to pay lots more attention to structural, heterosexual, monosexism.

[For a teeny bit more on that, here’s the snippet from my book where I define the two terms]

27 thoughts on “The difference between monosexism and biphobia

  1. How would you respond to the fact that I can interchange “racism” with your above statements about biphobia: “when people refuse to date a another race, when racial minorities are represented in stereotypical ways in the media… [and] discriminated at their jobs because of their race.”
    The point is that our dialogue about these things no longer include dated terms like “sino-” or “negro-” phobia. We got to the point where people couldn’t lump themselves safely with true xenophobes (who hide from and avoid their trigger, instead of seeking it out to hurt it)- it’s simply racism. The same is true for words like “biphobia”, “transphobia”, and even “homophobia” – they are dated, PC buzzwords that only confuse the heart of the matter. People treat us wrongly because of their ideologies – that’s an “-ism”. Monosexism, Cissexism, Heterosexism, and even Homosexism .
    My argument is simple linguistics. We aren’t using “-phobia” as it’s used in 99% of the rest of the language. There’s one perfectly good suffix (“-ism”) that really does mean what we need it to mean, nothing more, nothing less.

    1. You make some interesting arguments. While I feel uncomfortable with the expression “PC buzzwords”, I do agree that this is one of few areas where this distinction is made (another, for example, is the difference between sexism and misogyny). I also agree that that “-phobia” suffix is problematic – it not only suggests a personal, psychological (rather than political) problem, but it also increases the negative stigma against mental illnesses (see also: Bigotry is Not A Mental Illness).

      But I find myself wondering – other than making linguistic “sense”, what would getting rid of one term do for us? How will it contribute to the dialogue about oppression of bisexuals*? What does it have to add or improve? It seems to me that, as is it right now, the distinction in fact doesn’t exist in most of bi* political dialogues – and adding it contributes to the complexity and depth of the discussion.

      1. I think adding complexity to an already complex discussion is generally unhelpful. Creating new connotations obfuscates the issues.

        Getting rid of “-phobia” would help by further equating it with other “-isms” that a majority of our society already disapproves of. *no one* wants to be called, or have their actions called racist or sexist… But homophobic is kind of still ok for many people…

      2. I agree with your original premise. I think it’s fair to say that the etymology of biphobia (or homophobia or transphobia) is kind of awkward — we could say the same things about the terms heterosexual/bisexual/homosexual, since those terms are based on a cissexist model of gender and sexuality. However, as a bi* person, I don’t see a lot of value in trying to change the stationery and I really cringe at subordinating issues that hurt real people (including me) to arguments about “politically correct” language.

        I also think that biphobia is an apt term: A lot of the ways it plays out are directly based in fear and mistrust. Monosexism as a structural construct is a lot broader than that and can involve ignorance and force of habit as much as fear or hatred.

        1. “I also think that biphobia is an apt term: A lot of the ways it plays out are directly based in fear and mistrust. Monosexism as a structural construct is a lot broader than that and can involve ignorance and force of habit as much as fear or hatred.”

          But then we need to look at the motive of an act before gauging it as “monosexist” or “biphobic” does that really make practical sense? What do we call an action or statement about other races when they are grounded in ignorance and habit? We still call them racist. We’re making a special case for these types of discrimination, when they’re really the same thing.

          1. Actually, that’s exactly where the difference comes in: if there’s a particular “act” involved, then we’re not talking about a structure, but an act. That’s exactly the distinction that I’m trying to make: the one between talking about individual people’s actions, and talking about culture and power structures.

            1. but actions, cultures, and power structures are all described and understood by lay people to be able to be racIST, sexIST, elitIST… having two different words just muddles the issue when trying to talk to people in a proactive way. People can understand a term like monosexism or heterosexism very clearly in the useful ways we want them to, because they are already used to thinking about other “-isms”.

              It’s like saying that someone’s negrophobic behaviors are grounded in their rascism. It’s a superficial layer of semantics. Why are some slurs “racist” and others “-phobic”? It’s the same mechanism underneath.

              Again, I say the value is in simplicity, let the words mean the same thing. Simple concepts are easier to teach people than complex ones. We already have people tripping over the myriad of variations on bi* – we are making our job harder by making things more difficult to understand.

  2. Another major negative effect of biphobia is the reaction of medical people. I can only think of maybe one or two occasions I’ve outed myself to a doctor or other provider where I didn’t immediately regret it. Typical reactions: disapproving scowls, uncomfortable questions about safe sex, and the suggestion that I should have an HIV test — regardless of what I might have come in for. The most “benign” reaction was giving me a bunch of extra free condoms, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing if not for the implied judgment. How much of that is specifically biphobic as opposed to homophobic I don’t know; I might have gotten at least some of the same reaction if I had said I was gay. Either way, it made me wish I’d just said it was none of their business.

      1. Most if the gay people I know (so a very small anecdotal sample) either seek out gay physicians, or have a regular physician they’ve been with for years.

        1. Keep in mind that being able to do either of those things is a luxury and a privilege. A lot of us don’t have health insurance, and if we do, many plans don’t give you a lot of options for shopping around for different physicians.

  3. from the perspective of a bisexual Chicano in Southern California: I think it is important to have two words, one for individual actions, and one for systemic oppression. In anti-racism work, we (the facilitators) distinguish between “racial prejudice and discrimination” and “racism”. We, the facilitators, say that racial prejudice and discrimination can be expressed by both white people and people of color, but that racism is a feature of the entire society. Racism is systemic. The facilitators emphasize that while individual people of color may be prejudiced (a belief) and discriminate (an action) against individual white people, they do not have the systemic power to impose that prejudice against all white people. White people in the United States DO have the systemic power to impose their will on all people of color in the United States. I would prefer that the word racism and racist be reserved for public policy, organizational practice, and social norms, not individual beliefs and actions. In the case of bisexuality, lesbian and gay people may be biphobic but they don’t have the systemic power to impose their biphobia on all bisexual people. Only hetero people have the systemic power to impose monosexism on all bisexual people.

    1. I think the argument could be made that lesbians and gays DO have systemic power to discriminate (LGBT funding is one example), but i see your point. In that spirit I would prefer we use something like “sexual prejudice” though, as while it may often come from fear, the motives are also often based on ignorance instead (sometimes both, but not always). “-phobia” is simply inaccurate, misleading, and discourages people from recognizing it as prejudice.

  4. It seems to me that the distinction between biphobia and monosexism is almost analogous to the distinction between sexism and patriarchy, where one is an attitude or act and the other is the framework from which the act stems.

  5. Hi! I really liked your text, and I could relate it to the “conundrum” with cissexism/transphobia (at least here in my country) where activists are somewhat split sometimes, but I see the two things as different matters, like in this case with monosexism/biphobia. But I have a silly question, what the * in bi stands for? I looked up in your blog and google it but I didnt find the meaning. I suppose its to make it an umbrella term? Thanks!

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