Intimacy in Online Spaces for Bi+ People – by Emiel Maliepaard

Introduction

As a member of various (inter)national online groups for plurisexual people (or bi+ people) and as an academic I know the value of online spaces for bisexual people (Maliepaard, 2017). These online spaces can be important spaces for plurisexual people to discover their sexuality, discuss issues related to their sexuality, but also to find social support and new (social) connections. As such, I daily see posts about bisexual activism, bi erasure (in media, research, or elsewhere), but also threads about struggles people encounter and posts with typical questions such as ‘when did you discover you are bi+?’ or ‘in what type of relationship are you?’, in essence the typical questions to get to know each other and foster interaction between members. Unsurprisingly, several studies concluded that online spaces can be safe spaces for sexual minority people: safe in the sense of support and acceptance (Atkinson & DePalma, 2008; Munt, Bassett, & O’Riordan, 2002). Safe in the sense of the relative—but not absolute—absence of heteronormative and mononormative assumptions and the increased likelihood of being oneself. Whereas heteronormativity refers to particular forms of heterosexuality as the norm, mononormativity refers to the conviction/norm that one’s sexual identity/orientation is based on the sex/gender of one’s partner, is binary (one is either heterosexual or gay/lesbian), and immutable.

However, members do not only participate in online spaces for plurisexual people to look for help, social support, or acceptance. Sexuality and intimacy have different positions and roles in digital spaces and people may use different online platforms for dating and sex as well (see Nash & Gorman-Murray, 2019 for an anthology that discusses these different positions and roles of sexuality in digital spaces). Quite often, I see posts by (new) members such as ‘looking for a male/female partner’ or people (singles or couples) mentioning their wish to find people for sexual endeavours as reason for joining Facebook groups for plurisexual people. These posts are often met with some scepticism, disapproval, or frustration in these Facebook groups. What position do explicit dating posts and intimacy have in online bisexual groups?

This Contribution

 Attitudes towards dating posts

In one of the Facebook groups of bisexual people (ca. 650 members) I joined—a group that stated in their rules that explicit dating posts are not allowed—I posted a question related to how members experience explicit dating posts in this group and received replies/elaborations from over 30 members. I asked for permission to use these replies and also translated these quotes from Dutch into English. Several themes can be distinguished in the replies.

First, many people mainly felt frustrated that people posted dating requests because they did not read the group rules which do not allow for explicit dating posts. It happens quite frequently that (new) members post their search for a romantic and/or sex partner(s) sometimes with seductive pictures Nevertheless, most of the members did not feel frustrated because of the actual content of these posts: they just ignored these posts and scrolled down to read other posts. As one member wrote:

So, I am just scrolling to the next post or write a reply like ‘hey this ain’t the place for it’. It is mainly frustrating like ‘Sigh, again someone who think that we bisexual people are only in a group to look for sex.’ (I don’t feel unsafe, not at all, but I can imagine that people who are just new and want to talk about their experiences may not want to see this.

Secondly, and related, several people felt that explicit dating posts were not in line with the ‘nature’ of this group: a social group that was mainly dedicated to sharing information and experiences of living a life as a bisexual person. A few of the members also argued that people looking for social contacts were ‘okay’, for instance, to give members the possibility to meet likeminded people and also to find empowerment. While some members agreed that sexuality and intimacy is part of one’s everyday life (also as a plurisexual person), such dating posts were seen as disrupting the social functions of this group, in particular explicit dating posts. These people who were not against dating posts itself and suggested that different groups are needed, or more suitable, for such posts. As one member wrote:

I think there are some limits. This group is, in my opinion, not for dating or sex but for exchanging information, education, starting of meetups, workshops, and such activities, in order for bi+ people to meet likewise people in whatever way. Regarding the other thing [sex and dating] there are different groups on and beyond Facebook. That is, for me, the limit.

Thirdly, a few members mentioned that bisexual people already facing stereotypes of being hypersexual, wanting to engage in threesomes, and needing both men and women to have a satisfactory sexual and romantic life. One of them also mentioned that such explicit emphasis on sex does not fit her own definition of bisexuality that is much more than sex: it encompasses attraction and love. Another one mentioned that dating posts are much about physical appearance and not about content or one’s personality, and this group should be about content. Regarding stereotyping someone replied:

I notice that I think that these kind of messages [explicit dating posts] contribute to bisexual stereotyping, the stereotypes that I need to challenge (such as: if you’re in a relationship with one sex/gender you still desire someone from a different sex/gender, and we bisexuals are very much into having sex).

Fourthly, several participants—in particular women—mentioned that they felt unsafe because of explicit dating posts. They mentioned unwanted friend requests, unwanted explicit direct messages from others, and sexual innuendo in normal conversations. As one of the moderators replied, this creates an unsafe and hostile environment, in particular for bi women. The concept of unicorn hunters is mentioned: couples who are looking for a bisexual woman to engage in sexual activities with them. It also impacts the overall impression of the group:

So, I am thinking just now: I don’t feel very safe here to be honest. Anonymous profiles, vague pictures, or just pictures of someone’s body. No further info or introduction. Very unpleasant. A vague version of a dating website and that’s not what this group should be.

Feelings of being sexualised and being part of an unsafe group results in people becoming less active in this group. Different members replied, for example, that they are less eager to read new posts in this group, or even to stop interacting with other posts; they become more of a ‘lurker’ instead of an active contributor in order to be less visible and approachable for people with different intentions. As one person explains:

I notice that I become less active here in the group, it does not feel like home anymore in this group. I now and then just ‘like’ some posts. Also, I don’t welcome people anymore. I first want to see what someone brings and whether that person did not just join the group to get laid.

Fifth, only a very small minority of people replied positively to the explicit dating posts. One of them argued that the bi+ group is a highly heterogenous group and we should cherish that. Another one also understood why people were looking for a partner for a sex date and think it is reasonable to do so, however questioned whether this group would be the right place. Finally, a member argued that she is a bi-sexual and that sexuality is or can be an important aspect of bisexual lives. She rejected the ‘fake prudery’ of members and explained how previously such online groups helped her to shape her bisexual life since she discovered her bisexual desire/orientation. In her words:

What’s the point of meeting likewise people if you cannot be the person you are? Of course it is not good to post less flattering pictures, but everyone needs to know it for themselves. (…) I try to accept everyone, but they do not accept me so I tell them that they should not approach me. You cannot educate everyone, let alone change them. I am not a moralist or hypocritical.

Discussion

It seems that sexual intimacy has no place in this bisexual support group due to the explicit rules and the practical understanding (the know-how on how to act in this group) of this Facebook group as a social group and tacit knowledge how people should use and experience this group: the group is designed and (re)produced as a safe space for people who are looking for discussions, helping each other, and for sharing information on bisexuality, the everyday life of bisexual people, and ‘bisexual news’. Intimacy as in explicit dating posts may disrupt the understanding and use of this group as a social group and create an unsafe or unheimlich (creepy) atmosphere for visitors who align with the explicit rules and practical understanding of this group. While a large number of members just feel frustrated and scroll down, for others it may be the reason to become less active. The explicit dating posts are also a proxy for unwanted attention such as friend requests, sexually explicit messages, and sexual innuendo in ‘normal posts’.

Less than a handful of members took a positive stance towards explicit dating messages, however it is possible that people with a more positive view were either not interested to engage in this discussion because they participate in this group for different reasons such as dating. They may also be reluctant to reply due to the many replies that established and/or reproduced the norm that explicit dating posts are unwanted. In fact, I believe that most of the responses to my question and to (new) members who post explicit dating posts (re)produce particular norms and values of what is acceptable (behaviour) and what not. As Hanckel (2019) and Maliepaard (2017) noted in relation to respectively a social media platform and an online forum, these spaces are subject to power dynamics and relations and actively governed by their members.

The finding that explicit dating posts do not belong in this group is remarkable in the light of the Dutch bisexual movement. The largest bisexual forum for bisexual people had a separate adult section comprising posts on sex toys, erotic stories, fantasies, pictures of people’s genitals, and more erotic threads, and many topics of this forum were related to sex, sexual preferences, gender preferences, relationship diversity, and more. The website of the dissolved Dutch Bisexual Network had a separate section on contact advertisements (for sex and dating), which also was the most popular section of their website according to the webmaster of this website. A study on the Dutch bisexual movement since the early 1990s (Maliepaard, in press) revealed that, similar to the bisexual movement in the United Kingdom (Monro, 2015), there was more overlap between bisexual and kink, swingers, polyamory, and BDSM communities instead of with gay and lesbian communities. Activists in the Dutch bisexual movement were very eager to make space for sex and sexuality within bisexual groups, communities, communication, and activities in order to be inclusive to all types of bisexual people. This approach, however, sometimes also resulted in tensions between people who did not align with the sex positive approach of Dutch bisexual activists.

I am convinced that online spaces—often theoretically and empirically understood as more anonymous and liberating as compared to material/offline spaces (e.g. Kitchin, 1998; Maliepaard & Van Lisdonk, 2019)—offer many possibilities for plurisexual people to look for romantic and/or sexual partners. As George (2001) argued, the Internet offers many possibilities for recreational sex, and many of these recreational sex seekers are behaviourally bisexual. The absence of specific material venues or events for plurisexual people may urge them to look for (sexual) intimacy in online spaces: bisexual groups are an accessible option as well as more specific forums or (dating) websites, some of which are specifically targeted at bisexual people.

It would be wrong to ignore sexuality and intimacy within these groups as online spaces are not independent from material/offline spaces and the manifold desires people may experience and embrace. According to George (2001), it would be empty moralism to condemn recreational sex posts and dating posts and, to extrapolate this argument, be scared of the stereotype that bisexual people are hypersexual or promiscuous. Indeed, some plurisexual people are hypersexual, are promiscuous, however others are simply looking for a relationship partner or for an occasional or more sustainable sex partner. While men may be more active in posting messages and replying to other messages, there are plenty of (mixed-sex) couples and (single) women who also post explicit dating posts (George, 2001). Ignoring the diversity in plurisexual people would mean that one specific form of bisexuality and of bisexual lives would be privileged over others (e.g. Gurevich et al., 2011).

I agree with George (2001) on her empty moralism argument, but also agree with George when she argues that it is important to focus on negative side effects such as exploitation and, I would add, sexual aggression and feelings of unsafety. It is important to address these issues, in particular because people experience and participate in online spaces in different ways. Despite the fact that this particular group for plurisexual people is a private group, Facebook (as social media platform) may feel less anonymous—as most people use their real first name and surname—as compared to online forums or chatrooms on which people often use avatars and nicknames.

Final Thoughts

Before heading into the final thoughts it is important to reiterate that this essay is based on replies to one question in one plurisexual support group in the Netherlands. Although over 30 members replied (about 5% of all members), and various members also replied to answers by other members and therefore created modest discussions among themselves, I believe there is much more research needed to provide more in-depth insights into the tensions between online bisexual groups and the various positions that intimacy may have. One can think about a content analysis of online bisexual groups or a mix of interviews and focus group discussions with group members.

It is clear that explicit dating posts may contribute to feelings of unsafety and unwanted attention, as such it would be important to think about alternatives to facilitate plurisexual people who are seeking a relationship and sex partner in online bi+ groups. A separate section on dating—similar to the website of the Dutch Bisexual Network and the forum for bisexual people—and clear rules about approaching fellow members and sexuality related content/messages could be an alternative option for creating a safe atmosphere that does not interfere with the social function of this particular social group for plurisexual people and at the same time make space for people who are looking for intimacy in various ways. Interestingly, one of the members of this Facebook group made a separate private group for bisexual dating and thereby provides opportunities for digital intimacies for plurisexual people separate from the social group. Perhaps, for this specific plurisexual social group, a bit of promotion of this separate group on bi dating may already help to find a balance between different interests of group members.

References

Atkinson, E., & DePalma, R. (2008), Dangerous spaces: Constructing and contesting sexual identities in an online discussion forum. Gender and Education, 20(2), 183–194. doi: 10.1080/09540250701797192

George, S. (2001), Making sense of bisexual personal ads. Journal of Bisexuality, 1(4), 33–57. doi: doi.org/10.1300/J159v01n04_04

Gurevich, M., Bower, J., Mathieson, C.M., & Dhayanandhan, B. (2007). ‘What do they look like and are they among us?’: Bisexuality, (dis)closure and (un)viability. In V. Clarke, & E. Peel (Eds.), Out in psychology: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer perspectives (pp. 217–242). Chichester, England: Wiley.

Hanckel, B. (2019). “I want my story to be heard…”: Examining the production of digital stories by queer youth in East and South-East Asia. In C.J. Nash & A. Gorman-Murray (Eds.), The geographies of digital sexuality (pp. 203-224). E-book: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-6876-9

Kitchin, R. (1998), Towards geographies of cyberspace. Progress in Human Geography 22(3), 385–406. doi: 10.1191/030913298668331585

Maliepaard, E. (2017). Bisexual safe spaces on the internet: Analysis of an online forum for bisexuals. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 108(3), 318-330. doi: 10.1111/tesg.12248

Maliepaard, E. (in press). The bisexual movement in the Netherlands: Developments and experiences of key bi activists since the 1990s. In E. Maliepaard & R. Baumgartner (Eds.), Bisexuality in Europe: Sexual citizenship, romantic relationships, and bi+ identities. Routledge.

Maliepaard, E., & van Lisdonk, J. (2019). Online dating practice as a perfect example of interwoven worlds? Analysis of communication in digital and physical encounters. In C.J. Nash & A. Gorman-Murray (Eds.), The geographies of digital sexuality (pp. 137-158). E-book: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-6876-9

Monro, S. (2015). Bisexuality: Identities, politics, and theories. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137007315

Munt, S.R., Bassett, E.H, & O’Riordan, K. (2002). Virtually belonging: Risk, connectivity, and coming out online. International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies 7(2-3), 125–137. doi: 10.1023/A:1015893016167

Nash, C.J. & Gorman-Murray, A. (2019). The geographies of digital sexuality. E-book: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-6876-9

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Dr Emiel Maliepaard is an academic researcher at Atria: Institute on Gender Equality, The Netherlands. He published widely on the everyday lives of bisexual/plurisexual people and on the interwovenness of online and offline spaces. He co-edited (with Dr Renate Baumgartner) the forthcoming book: Bisexuality in Europe: Sexual citizenship, romantic relationship, and bi+ identities (Routledge).

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