Since 1972, social scientists have studied the General Social Survey to chart the complexities of social change in the United States.
The survey, which is conducted every couple years, asks respondents their attitudes on topics ranging from race relations to drug use. In 2008, the survey started including a question on sexual identity.
As sociologists who study sexuality, we’ve noticed how more and more women are reporting that they’re bisexual. But in the most recent survey, one subset stood out: 23% of black women in the 18 to 34 age group identified as bisexual – a proportion that’s nearly three times higher than it was a decade ago.
What forces might be fueling this shift? And what can learn from it?
Bisexuality among women is on the rise
In the 10 years that the General Social Survey has included a question on sexual identity, rates of identification among gay men, lesbian women and bisexual men in the U.S. haven’t changed much.
Bisexual identifying women, on the other hand, account for virtually all of the growth among those who say they’re lesbian, gay or bisexual. Of all of the women who responded to the 2018 survey, more than 1 in 18 identified as bisexual. One decade ago, only 1 in 65 did.
The most dramatic shift among bisexual identifying women is happening among young people. In the 2018 sample, more than 1 in 8 women from the ages of 18 to 34 identified as bisexual. There were more than twice as many young female bisexuals as there were young lesbians, gay men and bisexual men combined.
That’s a large shift – and it all happened in a relatively short period of time.
Add race to the figures and you’ll see that young black women, in particular, account for a disproportionate share of this shift.
A few years ago, we wrote about how approximately 18% of young black women identified as lesbian or bisexual in the 2016 General Social Survey sample. That rate was more than two times higher than for white women or other racial groups – and almost four times higher than for men of any racial group.
By 2018, more than 25% of young black women identified as lesbian or bisexual. And the majority of that change can be accounted for by bisexual-identifying black women.
In other trends, black women also led the way
Data like these help us to establish a shift is occurring, but they don’t really explain why it’s happening.
Exploring the “why” requires different methods of analysis, and existing studies – like Mignon Moore’s research on gay identity and relationships among black women – can provide some clues.
But beyond this, other demographic research shows that black women have led the way in other trends related to gender.
Consider the gender gap in college attendance. As early as 1980, black women began to outpace black men in completion of a four-year college degree. It wasn’t until a decade later that white women started earning college degrees at a higher clip than white men.
And in the first half of the 20th century, more unmarried black women started having children. Eventually, more unmarried white women started having children, too.