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The ‘Bisexual Bind’: How Same-Sex Performance Anxiety Holds Bi People Back

They missed out on young queer experimentation. Now, their insecurity around flirting and sex keeps them stuck in a cycle of straight hookups

Liam, a 24-year-old tech worker in Chicago, realized at age 19 that he was bisexual. But even though he was “very sexually active on a relatively gay-friendly college campus,” he amassed hardly any sexual experiences with men during these prime hookup years. “When I’d use Grindr and talk to other men, I always had the impression — real or otherwise — that everyone on there was more sexually advanced and better rehearsed in the sheets than I was,” he explains. “I was always worried that a sexual partner with a penis would be disappointed or dissatisfied afterwards.”

Thoroughly intimidated, he defaulted to straight sex, and five years later, his body count still “leans heavily toward women.” Liam’s young and could theoretically still experiment with men, but two things hold him back: (1) his monogamous relationship with his girlfriend, which he sees lasting for the foreseeable future; and (2) the compounding effect of his performance anxiety — the less gay sex he has, the more insecure he is about his lack of experience, so the more he defaults to straight hookups. “I have a terrible fear of giving head, for example — not that I think it’s gross or anything, but it seems like it takes so much effort, with the repressed gag reflex, neck pain and swallowing,” Liam tells me. “Anal sex is a similar fear that I can’t get over, even though I know I’d really enjoy it with a man. But the thought of another man being unsatisfied with my less-experienced body always holds me back.”

Meanwhile, the years fly by, and Liam’s anxiety and regret mounts. “I’ve had the thought come up that I probably won’t have another opportunity to have sex with a man,” he says, “and I do get some FOMO there.”

This is the “bisexual bind,” and it’s common for bisexuals who, for various reasons, weren’t out as teens and missed out on early same-sex experimentation. Now, they default to straight relationships because of performance anxiety about gay sex, which makes them feel like they’ve “missed the boat” of queer experimentation. “My experiences with other men are limited to the point where, at 26, I just feel like I’m in way over my head,” says Michael, a pseudonymous cook in North Carolina. “It feels like a burden for any potential partner, and I also don’t really know how to broach the subject of sex with men.”

Because it’s a “vicious cycle,” as one person puts it, the bisexual bind tends to worsen with time. “I feel like everyone expects you to suck at sex when you’re a teen,” says Marie, a 28-year-old teacher in New Zealand. “But by the time I wanted to get serious about banging ladies, I was already painfully insecure about how inexperienced I was at my ‘old age,’ i.e., my early 20s. So now I’ve probably slept with four to five times as many men as I have women.” Jade, a 26-year-old student in London, agrees, saying the prospect of sleeping with women gives her “that embarrassed ‘teenage’ feeling again,” resulting in a personal ratio of about 90 percent men to 10 percent women.

Bisexuals who came out late in life also report feeling like they missed out on learning the subtle cues and codes of gay flirtation, so they’re embarrassed that their approaches might come across as “straight,” resulting in the objects of their attraction not taking them seriously. “I missed what felt like some of the early experiences of sex with men, and so I was super-intimidated about flirting with them, hitting on them or even being in explicitly gay male spaces,” says Matthew, a 30-year-old nonbinary software developer in New York who came out as bisexual after college. “When I did eventually hit on men I was attracted to, it often felt like they were judging me as inexperienced.”

Matthew has a laundry list of fears: “Am I just attracted to men when they have their clothes on? What will it feel like to touch someone else’s dick? Will I be able to make them come? What if they use terms or want to do things I don’t know about?” So, too, does Leigh, a 23-year-old student in the U.K., all centered around scissoring: “Where do I place myself so that she feels good and I have contact with her clit that’s pleasurable and not painful? What about the rhythm? What happens when my legs start to hurt?”

Essentially, the fears are all about embarrassing themselves in the bedroom. “There’s no rule book for gay sex,” says Angela, a 28-year-old artist in Massachusetts who says “gay sex anxiety” is her “entire deal.” “With straight sex, there’s sort of a set sequence of events that you can pretty much expect to happen when you take part. With gay sex, you need to be really honest about your desires with yourself and your partner.”

People of all genders experience the bisexual bind, but bi men report some particular anxieties. “There’s a bluntness that I find off-putting,” explains Michael, who says men can be pushier about sex than women and object more when he’s not in the mood. “I don’t know the best way to explain it other than that I’m afraid of being treated by men the way that women are treated by men. Of my sexual encounters with men, they’ve mostly left me feeling kind of taken advantage of.” David, a 31-year-old bisexual from Scotland, concurs. “Since coming out, I’ve run into problems with partners who have expected me to be much more adept at the non-verbal communication that seems to be a big part of gay male culture,” he tells me. “There has been a definite pressure from men to just go with it, whereas I prefer to talk through things first.”

Bisexual women, on the other hand, seem especially likely to report feelings of doubt about their sexuality, especially the worry that they must “really be straight.” “There’s this stereotype that bi women are just straight and looking for attention, confused or generally hypersexual,” Marie says. Anne, a bisexual freelancer in New York who has only slept with one other woman, adds, “I worried that lesbians might see me as just a straight woman exploring or looking to cross something off a sexual bucket list and not be interested.”

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a bisexual mostly dating people of the opposite sex, and there’s only a “bind” if they view their own straight relationships as a regrettable crutch preventing same-sex experimentation. But plenty do, especially those who suspect that gay sex and relationships would be more satisfying for them. “I default to heterosexual relationships even though I tend to prefer female partners overall,” says Fuchsia, a pseudonymous 26-year-old insurance professional in Connecticut. “I can have a comfortable sex life with a man, though I often feel unfulfilled by the actual act.”

And if they’re avoiding gay sex not out of a lack of attraction but because of performance anxiety, bisexuals can end up feeling frustrated and like they’re denying an important part of their identity. “It’s a big part of myself that I don’t know much about,” says Cory, a 31-year-old working in the film industry in New Orleans. Along those lines, Michael tells me, “It feels dishonest to myself to suppress attraction that I feel out of fear, and it also feels dishonest to everyone else.”

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the bisexual bind is that people in this situation end up feeling like it’s “too late” for them to be gay, even though so many of them are still young; they resign themselves to a future of straight sex, looking back on the past with regret. “There were so many missed opportunities in college,” Anne says, adding that she “definitely” regrets not experimenting earlier. “I think I would have been able to get the hang of things back then and not feel so much anxiety about ‘getting it right’ now.”