The Story: New survey data reveal that almost one-in-four young black women in America now identify as bisexual.
The Background: Since 1972, the biannual General Social Survey (GSS) has provided politicians, policymakers, and scholars with data on what Americans think and feel about a variety of issues. In 2008 the survey began including a question on sexual identity.
Over the past decade the rates of Americans who identify as gay or lesbian have remained about the same (currently, 1.5 percent for gay men and 1.9 percent for lesbian women). Similarly, the rate of bisexual men in the United States also hasn’t changed much (currently, 0.6 percent). In contrast, the number of Americans who identify as bisexual women has skyrocketed—from 1.5 percent in 2008 to 5.6 percent in 2018.
Almost all of this shift is happening among young women ages 18 to 34. In the age group of 50 to 65 and older, the rate ranges from 1 percent to 1.4 percent. For those age 35 to 49, it has risen from 0.9 percent in 2008 to 3.6 percent in 2018. However, in the category of 18 to 34 the rate has risen from 3.5 percent to 12.6 percent.
The most dramatic change has come in the demographic category of young black women. Currently, based on the survey data, about one in four black women (23 percent) ages 18-34 identify as bisexual. This is more than twice the rate of white women (10.1 percent).
What It Means: Why are so many young black women identifying as bisexual?
Some social scientists speculate that it may be driven by a lack of marriageable men due to high rates of incarceration of black men in the United States. But the number of black men in prison has declined, not risen, over the past decade. Also, it seems more likely that black women would respond to a shortage of black men by dating or marrying a male companion outside of their race, rather than turning to a partner of the same sex. (Opposition to interracial marriage has fallen sharply among black Americans, from 63 percent opposed in 1990 to 14 percent in 2016.)
A more likely explanation is that the rise of bisexuality is being driven by pornography.
While the connection is tentative, and the rise may not be monocausal, there are a number of factors that make this a plausible explanation.
First, over the past 40 years an abundance of social science research has established that consumption of pornography affects perceptions of sexuality and of sexual norms. As far back as 1973 researchers were finding that exposure to pornography at a young age increased involvement in homosexual practices.
Second, for years the most popular search term for pornography has been “lesbian.” Pornography that includes women engaging in sexual acts with other women is also the most popular category among 18- to 24-year-old men and women. Among women looking for online pornography “lesbian” is the most-searched-for term overall, and such content is twice as likely to be watched by women as men.
Third, black Americans are more likely to consume video pornography than are white Americans. According to sociologists Samuel L. Perry and Cyrus Schleifer, “Analyses revealed that Black Americans in general were more likely to view pornography than Whites, and they were increasing in their pornography viewership at a higher rate than Whites.”
According to the data, black Americans were roughly 9 percent more likely to report viewing a pornographic movie in the previous year than white Americans. Overall, black men are statistically more likely to consume porn than white men, and the porn consumption of black women is closer to that of white men than to white women.
If we combine these three factors, we can speculate that the viewing of same-sex pornography by black women is affecting their perceptions of same-sex behavior, leading them to increasingly identify with bisexuality.
If this is true, what does it mean for the church? I believe there are two main takeaways.
The first is that female bisexuality is likely to increase among all races. As sociologists Tristan Bridges and Mignon R. Moore point out, “demographic research shows that black women have led the way in other trends related to gender.” For example, black women began to outpace black men in completion of a four-year college degree as early as 1980, while that trend didn’t occur for white women until a decade later. Similarly, in the first half of the 20th century, more unmarried black women started having children. As Bridges and Moore say, “Eventually, more unmarried white women started having children, too.”
We have a moral obligation to act now to help the black women who are falling under the sway of same-sex attraction. But we also need to prepare for this to become an issue affecting women of all racial and ethnic groups in our churches.
The second takeaway is that all churches need to be aware that not everyone in their church has the same perspective on the harms of pornography. In their research Perry and Schleifer found that even among religious people use of pornography varies both by gender and by race:
How might religion further moderate the links between race, gender, and pornography use? Beneath the different racial histories with pornography as a public issue, researchers have consistently shown that different ethnoreligious communities connect religion and sexual behavior in different ways, which would lead us to expect that religion influences Black and White Americans differently with regard to pornography use. For White Christians, religion and traditionalist sexual norms are often closely connected, and thus higher religious commitment is usually quite predictive of sexual behavior patterns (Patterson & Price, 2012; Regnerus, 2007; Wright, 2013; Wright et al., 2013; but see Perry, 2017). Yet even though Black Americans tend to be more conventionally religious than Whites on average (Shelton & Emerson, 2012), research has shown that Black Americans, and especially Black men, do not tend to connect their religious piety to their sexual norms and behaviors to the extent that Whites do (Bearman & Bruckner, 2001; McCree et al. 2003; Regnerus, 2007; Steinman & Zimmerman, 2004).
Even regular church attendance didn’t change this outcome, as Perry and Schleifer found in their latest study:
While worship attendance was strongly and negatively associated with reporting pornography use in the main effect, the positive interaction term indicates that Black Americans who were monthly worship attendees were slightly more likely to report viewing pornography than White Americans who were not monthly attendees. This suggests that religious commitment does not diminish pornography use for Black Americans the way it does for White Americans, affirming our third hypothesis [Religious commitment will influence the pornography consumption of White Americans but not Black Americans].
Church leaders too often assume that while church members may “struggle with” pornography and sexual sin that they at least are committed to the biblical sexual ethic. Current trends in American are showing, though, that such assumptions are faulty. Many of the people in our pews are being catechized more by X-rated culture than by a gospel-centered culture. We need to become aware of this dispiriting reality and redouble our efforts to show how Jesus models a better way to be human.