What Does It Mean To Be “Bi-Curious”?

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
Dictionaries differ on when exactly the word “bi-curious” was first used. According to Merriam-Webster, it was 1984; The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says 1990; and Oxford Dictionaries’ Lexico simply says "1990s." But no matter the exact year that the term “bicurious” debuted, its use coincides with an increase in bisexual visibility in the United States: the first nationwide bisexual march was held in 1987, the first national bisexual organization formed and held its first conference in 1990, and the bisexual pride flag was designed in 1998.
Although they don’t agree on the year it was first used, the different dictionaries all offer a similar definition for the word “bi-curious”: “curious about exploring or experimenting with bisexuality,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. In other words, someone who calls themselves “bi-curious” is interested in exploring their attraction to their own gender and different genders.
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The problem? As Bi Girls Club founder Gabrielle Alexa explains, the term “bi-curious” implies that someone needs to have a certain amount of sexual experience before they can identify as bisexual.
“To me, the term bi-curious reflects a belief that orientation is something you have to explore sexually and romantically before it's real, which I disagree with,” Alexa explains. “This idea isn't unique to bisexuality; we hear it a lot when preteens and teenagers identify as anything other than straight. The suggestion is often that they're too young and have to 'explore' first.”
She adds, “I think for many folks, bi-curious is a label they're led to believe they have to come out as before they've gathered enough evidence (via sexual or romantic experience) to prove their bisexuality to others. It feels like a product of bi-phobia because we don't expect heterosexual people to be sexually experienced before we believe they're hetero. In fact, they can save themselves for marriage and still be straight.”
The word "bi-curious" plays into bisexual invisibility and erasure — the phenomenon in which bisexual folks’ sexual orientation isn’t believed or taken seriously (for example, when others see a bisexual woman as straight when she’s dating a man and as a lesbian when she’s dating a woman). “What's unique about bisexuality is that it's particularly disbelieved and stigmatized. We always have to prove ourselves to others,” Alexa says. “Lesbo-curious and gay-curious aren't being used, as far as I know, although lesbian and gay folks have their identities invalidated in other ways. The fact that there is specifically a pre-stage to bisexuality but not really other identities feels very bi-phobic.”
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Instead, Alexa says, people who are interested in exploring attraction to more than one gender can feel free to use another term: bisexual. “Bisexuality is described as the potential for attraction to your same gender and different genders. This definition would encompass someone who is 'bi-curious' as it speaks to potential and curiosity,” she explains. “When people tell me they're bi-curious, it's not my job to tell them their label is wrong, but I do want them to know that a different label for their attractions is available.”
They might also find a different label, such as pansexual or queer, fits them better. Not sure about the difference? GLAAD defines bisexual as "a person who has the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attractions to those of the same gender or to those of another gender," pansexual as "a person who has the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attractions to any person, regardless of gender identity," and queer as those whose "sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual." Some people might use multiple terms to describe their sexuality — for example, many people identify as both bisexual and queer.
That said, Alexa adds that she doesn't encourage telling people who call themselves “bi-curious” that they shouldn't. “Labels are social constructs and they're about making us feel affirmed in ourselves, so if 'bi-curious' accomplishes that for people, I'm supportive,” she says. “I don't think we should hold questioning bisexual folks accountable for the harm of 'bi-curious.’ They might be stepping into queer spaces for the first time or engaging with queer topics for the first time. It's unreasonable to expect them to know what bisexual or bi-curious mean outside of what they've seen in movies or on TV. I'm sure nobody declares themselves 'bi-curious' with the intent to harm.”
Instead, she encourages everyone to push for better representation of bisexuality, and fight bi-phobia in all forms. “I do think we can all start to shift the narrative and believe bisexual people are who they say they are. We can individually clear up misconceptions around bisexuality,” she explains. “The media can provide us with better representation. Maybe eventually, [the word] bi-curious won't be popular anymore. But it's a symptom of a much larger problem, not the problem itself.”
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