Category Archives: Bi Stuff

Bogeyman in a Red Dress

If there’s one toxic, terrifying thing that (straight) monogamy normalizes, it’s the idea that a partner’s friends are a sexual or romantic threat.

You know. The idea that friendships men and women can never be “benign”. The assertion that these friendships will destroy your marriage. The idea that unless it’s couples being friends with couples as a unit, opposite-sex friendships should peter out as romantic relationships become stable. That men and women can’t be “just friends.”

I had to go three pages deep in Google to find one article saying opposite-sex friendships were sometimes maybe okay for people in relationships*, and that one still said there was always going to be sexual tension. It calls that tension and jealousy a bonus–keeps partners on their toes.

So those of you who agree with this. I got a question.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

Are you literally sexually attracted to every person of your preferred gender?

Really?

If so, don’t you dare ever call bisexuals “sex maniacs” again; your sexuality is clearly an all-encompassing fetish. Seriously. I’m a sex-blogging bisexual with an extraordinarily high sex drive and a preference for multiple partners–and the idea of being attracted to or having a potential relationship with every person I connect with as a friend, even if we restrict to similar ages, sounds absurd.

But fine. Lets say for the sake of argument that any person of one’s preferred gender is a potential partner. If circumstances were different, if they were single, if the right song had played or rain or one too many drinks had pushed them together years ago. If sometime in the future things were different. Of course there are people we wonder that about. Of course it makes sense to acknowledge that potential is there.

We also need to acknowledge that it’s only potential. That friends are capable of choosing to stay friends, that it’s a continual process, and what might have been or what could be are not what you choose, because you value the friendship that is. Banning people from having friends on the off chance that any given friendship could turn into a sexual or romantic relationship based on the slightest hint of desire makes no sense. Anyone with the barest shred of reasonable humanity knows better than to act on every impulse.

If someone is going to cheat,they’re willing to break the agreements of your relationship. Period. It’s not because they were tempted, it’s not because that woman they’ve known since college has been turning up the heat, inching up her skirt and moving too close by increments until he had an affair without realizing it. The cheating partner chose to cheat. Period. Every time. The person or people they cheat with may or may not have known it was an affair. They may or may not have known you existed at all. And if they knew, then yes, they did a shitty thing. But they’re an accomplice. Your partner cheated. Your partner broke an agreement with you. That is not okay. Imposing a rule isolating partners from friends isn’t going to stop them from breaking the relationship agreement and cheating, it just adds another layer of lying and hiding to the formula. If they’re willing to cheat, restricting friendships will not stop them.

Restricting any kind of access to close to half the human population (or all of it, for bi folks) is a pretty extreme form of social isolation.

Isolating partners is necessary for partner abuse. Isolating partners is a form of partner abuse.

I don’t want to hear “It’s for their own good.” You don’t make decisions for adults that are “for their own good.” That suggests they don’t have the ability to make good decisions themselves. It’s demeaning.

I don’t want to hear “It’s a slippery slope.” Your partner will either be honest with you, or they won’t. They will either respect the agreement of your sexual and romantic exclusivity, or they won’t. In either case, it’s unreasonable to ban behaviors that are not inherently problematic to prevent the risk of those that are.

I definitely don’t want to hear “They shouldn’t need anyone but me.” They shouldn’t need you. If you’re isolating your partner to ensure they can’t leave you without being totally, horribly alone, you’re abusing them.

And “It’s not that I don’t trust my partner, I don’t trust those other people” is a lie. It is that you don’t trust your partner. Your partner will not cheat accidentally. If your partner has a friend who is pursuing sex or romance despite knowing that would violate their relationship agreement, then yes, it makes sense to discuss your concerns with your partner, over how they’re setting boundaries and whether their friend respects them. It doesn’t make sense for this discussion to conclude “no friends with this whole gender, ever.”

“My partner can’t have friends of the opposite gender” means “I don’t trust my partner.” That may be fair. They may not be trustworthy. People do cheat, and lie, and the rest. The truth is, people sometimes cheat. If they do, it might mean they’re planning to leave you. It might not. (They might just be lying scumbags who feel entitled to treat partners as things. Why don’t you want them leaving again?) If they cheat, you need to decide how you want to handle that. And it’s hard. It’s fucking hard. I don’t wish it on anyone. If they leave you, of course I offer sympathies. Being dumped is horrible and you deserve ice cream…but they have every right to leave. You have every right to leave. Relationships have to be voluntary. Isolating partners to prevent them being scumbags won’t work, and preventing them leaving (probably) won’t work and it’s abusive if it does.

Oh, and polyamorous people do it, too. “You can play with/fuck/date other people but I can end it/you need my permission.” When rules for protocol surrounding a behavior become more important than the behavior itself…it leads to problems.


 

* Hello, heteronormativity! “relationship advice” is for straight people, unless it says “gay” in the title, and bisexuals just need to pretend they’re [orientation that people assume based on current partner] and use advice for that group.

Learning from the Erotic

There was a brief period in college when I thought I might be a lesbian.

I was having sex with men for the first time, a flurry of one-night-stands that left me confused and disappointed, but never quite enough to stop me trying again another night, with another man. I knew I desired them–the way they looked at me woke something wolfish in me–but after we went to bed I would leave bored and a little frustrated. (Sex with men has, thank goodness, much improved.)

I was having sex with women, not for the first time, and it was electric. I was a growling, shuddering mess, they were all skin and sweat and moans. I didn’t want to leave at all.

I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to those young men that my desire or pleasure might be part of the equation. I often complain that desire and pleasure aren’t discussed as part of sex ed, but the reality is more insidious than that: desire and pleasure are not discussed. They are assumed. Integral to men’s sexuality, irrelevant to women’s. The narrative is that men have the drive for sex, and women’s role is to choose when to give in.

Expectation doesn’t always match experience when it comes to women’s desire. It can be confusing, complicated. When anything past kissing boys slammed the brakes on my pleasure–was that my fault? Theirs? No one’s–did it just mean I was queer? Or was it supposed to be that way? How many times had I heard that sex would hurt at first (it didn’t) and was a thing women do for men, not something we like? How do we learn to understand our sexuality if we aren’t exposed to the idea that we’re even supposed to enjoy sex? How many young lesbian women date and sleep with men because they’re taught relationships and sex are a duty, not a desire? It is one thing to be confused, another to go looking for answers and find, almost overwhelmingly, that your question hasn’t been addressed.

Erotic writing was the exception. Erotica shows women’s desire and pleasure. In the absence of school or home education, against an environment that erases women’s sexuality, erotica takes shape as a rare mirror of feelings rarely discussed and never normalized. It was the  conversations around sex, women participating in and driving the action. Erotica offers alternate scripts, templates, vocabulary to start to know what was lacking and how I wanted to change it. (And the written word didn’t hurt, during the time my sex life consisted mostly of instant messages to a partner seven thousand miles away.)

It’s still one of the only places I see women’s desire treated as normal and expected, let alone prioritized. And grateful as I am that erotic books and blogs exist, I can’t help but wonder why women’s sexuality is still so hidden, or why it’s most accessible in such a limited medium, and one that’s still more than a little ridiculed and shamed.

Questioning

I had a date yesterday. It was unusual in a lot of ways: he asked for my number at work (this happens often), and I gave it to him (this is unprecedented). He’s tall–much too tall. He frequents coffee shops, which mostly bore me. He is yet another straight white man. I enjoyed his company, enough to make a second date, but I’m questioning.

I’m questioning my own judgment. To a lesser extent (all but drowned out by the thunderous wrath of my own queerness), I’m questioning my own values and identity. For all that I will fight and rage when people say “bisexuals are just confused,” I am looking at myself right now with the same dismissiveness and disdain that gay men and lesbians display when they note my history of “straight” relationships.

I’ve always trampled down the second Q of LGBTQQIA. I want to treat it with a sort of ruthlessness, because “questioning” can so easily be used to call all of us into question, because its very framing is tenuous and uncertain and I am afraid of any hint of uncertainty. Because bisexuality specifically has so much added scrutiny, beyond other forms of queerness, that I don’t dare add my own questioning to the questioning I’m bombarded with so often. But yes, it’s there.

The truth is I feel like I am failing at bisexual praxis. I’ve had three partners in the last six months. All casual. All straight white men. They’re mentally and psychologically exhausting in a way no other people are, even the most progressive of them. And the truth is that exhaustion leaves me vulnerable to questioning. To wondering if all the women and genderqueer folk I’ve dated or fucked or just lusted over for all these years were just a fever dream, or a delusion, or a phase.

The truth is that choosing a radical expression of bisexuality leaves me, by definition, rootless, and it is inefficient to gather nutrients without soil.

I am not sure what to do about this. I am questioning my options and my choices and myself. It is exhausting.

Not by Halves

New Orleans Pride is this weekend. I’m attending. I’m volunteering, for part of it. Event updates and memos are coming at me through facebook and e-mail and text, and with every one I remember, a little more, that Pride is not for me.

“New Orleans Pride creates not only an atmosphere where everyone can be proud of their sexual orientation and gender identity, but unity within the heterosexual and homosexual communities.”

I’m told we’re “fighting homophobia and transphobia [but not biphobia] through visibility and education.” Stonewall is referred to as “lesbian and gay men [why mention queer trans women of color?] who decided spontaneously and for the very first time to fight police harassment.”

“The Gay community” is referred to over and over, and “Gay Pride” is used as a stand-in for LGBT, LGBTQ+, or queer.

The flyers say “Gay Pride Weekend,” across the top, in case the LBTQ+ parts of the our community were still under the mistaken impression that this weekend included us.

I correct, when I can. “Not, ‘gay,’ ‘LGBT.'” I’m told I’m splitting hairs. Bi and trans people are welcome, ‘gay’ is just an umbrella term. Lighten up. (There is, this year, an event specifically focused on the trans community. Good. As there should be.)

There is no mention of bisexuality in local pride events outside of the LGBT acronym.

And yes, it matters. It matters because we’re reminded that the gay community doesn’t see us as whole people. If bi folk exist (and many of them don’t think we do), we’re half gay, half straight. Pride is for our gay half. The other side? The one the gay community codes as straight? Well, just for Pride, can’t it stay in the closet?

I know the arguments. We confuse things. We confound the assertion that being gay or straight is a simple on/off either/or state. And besides, when we’re with a different-gender partner, aren’t we really just allies in a straight relationship?

Except we’re not straight. I’m not straight. I’m a bi woman whether my partner is a woman or a man or a nonbinary person. I’m a bi woman during the straightest-looking sex with the strictest Kinsey-zero straight man alive, and because I’m queer it’s still (for me at least) queer sex. That needs to be visible at Pride, too: that sometimes queer people in relationships don’t look it, that you can’t tell by looking at us even in a sexual context, and that even a cis woman and a cis man in a relationship may not fit heteronormative assumptions.

Pride is supposed to be about LGBT authenticity, not for half of our selves or half of our experiences but for all. It’s no place to be in the closet. We’re not here to be convenient any more than anyone else. We’re there because we have a right to be. It’s tiring to see, again and again, that event organizers and promoters don’t see us.

 

 

Keep Private Lives Private

“Why label it? Keep private lives private. It’s none of anybody’s business.”

I talk about bisexuality a lot. It’s relevant to my work and current research as well as personally important. It makes my family uncomfortable. Why do I have to bring it up? Why talk about it? Why do we even need the word bisexual, who needs labels, can’t people just live their private lives privately and leave the normal folk out of it?

This argument has lost a great deal of its power against mainstream monogamous gay and lesbian couples. They form meaningful long term relationships, get married, have kids. While homophobia remains pervasive, the particular argument that it doesn’t need to be discussed–keep the x-rated stuff in the bedroom thanks–has been delegitimized. Homosexuality is (again largely, not universally) recognized as a full social experience with the kind of reach that can’t simply be confined to the bedroom. It is just as patently absurd to ask a gay man not to mention his partner in casual conversation as it would be to tell a straight man not to bring up his girlfriend in the same context. Most of the contexts in which we mention partners are not sexual. If they were, no one would ever ever meet their in-laws.

Bisexuality, on the other hand, remains sexualized. Asking us to remain in the closet because private lives should be private is only reasonable given one or more of several false and very offensive assumptions:

1 We do not have the full, rich social experience of relationships such as straight or gay people do. We have only frivolous/deviant sexual ones.

2 If we have a long-term monogamous relationship with a person of another gender, we are heterosexual. If we have a long-term monogamous relationship with a person of our own gender, we are homosexual. If we are polyamorous, it is held up as proof that we can’t commit/are promiscuous.

2a If we end a relationship with a person of one gender, and the next one that develops is with a person of a different gender, we “left him for a woman/left her for a man!” This is said even if months of being single elapse between. Inevitably, people will argue that the former relationship ended because we were “really straight/really gay” all along.

2b If we end a relationship with a person of one gender and the next relationship that develops is with a person who shares that gender, we’re told we’re definitely only interested in that gender.

3 Any casual statement that hints at attraction to a gender other than that of our current partner reveals intent to leave or cheat on that partner. This includes, but is not limited to, such normal everyday activities as referring to exes in conversation, commenting on the attractiveness of actors/actresses, and having an authentic response to the constant barrage of gendered and sexualized messages in advertising, tv and film plots, and pretty much everything else.

Finally, bi people often date straight or gay people. Society assumes people are attracted to only one gender. “Why use a label” means “don’t come out even to your partners.” Keep it in the bedroom, in a locked box under the bed and never, ever share who you are even with those you love.

Eschewing labels is only a useful strategy for people who have no need of labels; that is, about whom incorrect assumptions are not made. If we do not name ourselves, others will not stop pushing these assumptions about our behavior and moral character. The only effect not identifying as bi would have is to prevent us talking about the stigmas we face and the effects they have.

Coming out isn’t making public what should be private. It isn’t sexual at all. Sexuality pervades nearly every aspect of life. Relationships are our conversation, gossip, stress; they’re fundamental to film plots and nearly every song; they significantly impact our social standing. People make assumptions: that whoever they meet is straight, generally, or that they’re monosexually attracted to whatever gender their current partner is. It’s possible to let these assumptions slide, and sometimes safer (I’m not attacking people who choose not to come out; that’s no one’s call but their own). The assumptions aren’t made with intent to harm. There’s no intent to them at all. But they do complicate the landscape that we have to navigate every day. So nah, I’m gonna keep talking about it.

Semantics

A woman dumps a man after three dates. She’s afraid he might have given her an STI. They never had sex. But she feels at risk, dirty, lied to, because he told her that he’s bisexual. She was the second person he’d ever come out to.

A man tells me his ex is “bi.” He uses air quotes. I frown. “No, he says he’s bi, but come on. It’s a passing thing. He’s gay really.”

An emcee shouts at the audience: “who here is straight?” There are cheers. “Who here is gay?” Another cheer. “And who’s too drunk to care?” I shout “fuck you” but it’s lost under the laughter of the crowd.

A man who identifies as “mostly heterosexual” describes his first sexual encounter with another man. It is introduced with “some men test out a gay side.”

So I, and others, call it erasive. But no, we’re told that we’re mistaken. It’s not erasure. Gay can be used to encompass bi experience. Not erasure, just semantics.

There is a difference between derailing a conversation that is not about language by nitpicking word usage and having a conversation which is about language, meaning, and its effects. Because the former is a common technique for avoidance of issues, “it’s just semantics” is seen by many as a justified shut-down.

When a discussion is about the language people use and the effects that language has, the issue at hand is one of semantics.

Pointing out that a discussion about words and their meanings is a semantic discussion is not a valid dismissal. It is a tautology.

Bisexual erasure is real. Language is the simplest and most pervasive tool of that erasure. How do you think it’s done? We don’t exist: gay is close enough, gay pretty much covers it. We don’t exist: our identity gets air quotes. We don’t exist: we’re not addressed in the literature except as a subset of gay people. We don’t exist: research in bisexuality is still asking us to prove we do before it will deign to investigate or address the health disparities that affect us.

It is semantics. It is absolutely semantics. It is a pattern of excluding bisexuality from language. It is denying the accuracy and utility of the word we use to differentiate ourselves from the gay and lesbian communities that all too often exclude us, telling us instead that we should use their words.

Fuck that.

The words are worth fighting for. Words inform research, policy, public opinion, funding. There is no way in hell I’m going to stand quiet while we’re continually left out of all of it. I’m not going to back down, because semantics are not petty.

Erased

We know bisexual erasure is real. The San Francisco Human Rights Commission published a detailed report addressing it. Meta-analysis of published medical literature shows a stark difference between the number of articles that use the term bisexual and those that actually analyze or discuss it. Bisexual erasure even has its own Wikipedia page. We know it exists because we know what people say, over and over, when we try to come out.

What I didn’t know was how pervasive it is, how few resources exist for individuals, health care providers, researchers, anyone.

Search for “bisexual” on cdc.gov, and it returns 1520 results. That’s respectable. Hard to complain. Except those results aren’t real. After a few pages of seeing “bisexual” only in the context of the larger LGBT community or in the phrase “gay and bisexual and other men who have sex with men,” I looked closer.

Of the first thousand results for “bisexual,” five address bisexuals separately from other groups. Five.

cdcsummary

Those five aren’t stellar, either. None is a useful resource for individuals or healthcare providers. One explicitly chooses to refer to women who have sex with women as lesbians regardless of their self-identity or behavior with men. And my favorite exists only to warn straight women of the dangers of bi men:

case example bisexual cdc
Biphobia as edutainment!

The page about stigma for gay and bisexual men talks about homophobia. It talks about same sex relationships and legal rights.

It doesn’t say a word about biphobia. It doesn’t mention the struggle of coming out and being told you’re wrong, you don’t exist, you’re lying. It doesn’t address that bisexuals are stigmatized by gay communities as well as straight. It doesn’t talk about the higher rates of intimate partner violence bisexuals experience.

And people don’t think it matters. They derail. “What is on that page is important, it’s a useful resource!” Yes, it is. For gay people. For those aspects of the law that affect bi and gay folk similarly. But it is not a page for gay and bisexual men. It is a page for gay men. It assumes bi men are just men with a gay half that can use those resources and a straight half that doesn’t need them. Either that or it’s just paying lip service and doesn’t actually acknowledge bi folk exist.

This is important. We need resources, acknowledgement, information. We don’t need these things because there’s something wrong with us, we need them because we’re human and everyone does. Gay and lesbian needs are finally being taken seriously. Not enough and not by everyone, but it’s happening. That’s fantastic. What’s not okay is tacking “bisexual” on as an afterthought to the name without seeing if what’s offered is helpful or useless or even actively harms us and telling us to be grateful to be included at all.

I’ve e-mailed the CDC about this. They’ve not responded. But I’d like to note it’s not just them. The NIH, APA, and WHO resources appear at first glance just as likely to elide bisexuality into the LGBT or “gay and-” label. I just don’t have the graph porn finished to show it yet.

Not Your Fetish

It’s Bi Visibility Day, which means I’ve been shoving my sexuality in everyone’s face across various social media outlets all day long. I’m also doing sexual health research into disparities faced by bisexuals. More of the literature review than I’d expected has involved rejecting those papers that don’t actually address bisexuality at all (except in the title) or that are overtly biphobic.

I’ve been out as bisexual for almost fifteen years. Coming out as bi is a continual process, and all too often it means dealing with ignorance and biphobia. Most people I come out to on some level simply do not believe bisexuality is real. It’s either a show for the menfolk, or it means I’m a sex addict: I’ll do anything to get off, even sleep with the “wrong” gender. I’m asked if I prefer gay or straight relationships, told I’m being oversensitive when I answer that I’m neither gay nor straight, so the question makes no sense.

I have a problem with the fetishization of “forced” bisexuality (or homosexuality). Specifically, it raises red flags for me when a straight person wants to be “forced” to be bi. This is difficult for me to articulate. I consider myself sex-positive. YKINMKBYKIOK is an idea (if not an acronym) that I can almost always get behind. But with this kink, sometimes, I hesitate. “Forced” bisexuality is not my kink. And I’m really not sure, in many cases, whether it’s okay.

Fetishizing “forced”  bisexuality relies on a few unsettling preconceptions.

Bisexuality only exists in the context of threesomes.

m/f activity means you’re straight. m/m or f/f activity means you’re gay. m/m/f or f/f/m activity means you’re bi.

Sexuality is a significant part of a person’s identity. “Forced bisexuality” reduces a person’s sexual identity to their sexual activity in a given moment. It suggests that bisexuality can be adopted for the length of a scene or a drunken night and immediately discarded for one’s real sexuality. Bisexuality is already treated as a phase. I’ve been out since high school and still have to correct people who assume that I’m straight or lesbian based on which partner I’m with at the time. If a bisexual person has only one partner, has an exclusive relationship, or (god forbid) gets married, everyone–everyone–we know who isn’t also bi has a smug comment about how we’ve finally picked a side.

It’s homophobic.

If a guy wants to have sexual contact with another guy but can only do it if he’s “forced” by a woman, he’s homophobic.

“Forced” bisexuality is essentially fetishizing same-sex activity in a specific context because it’s taboo to want it. Meaning that consensual or enthusiastic bisexuality is taboo. It’s forbidden, icky, not okay to be bisexual for real. If a person fetishizes “forced” bisexuality, what must they think of people who identify as bisexual?

It carries over male-gaze assumptions about what bisexuality is.

Those assumptions are beyond offensive. It’s about sex, not relationships or attraction or desire. It reinforces the straight male idea that a man’s body can’t be an object of desire, so he has to be motivated by desire for a woman’s body to act.

There’s a grave risk of treating the third partner as an object or sex aid rather than as a person.

I’m trying to imagine a way to invite a third person to participate in the “forced” bisexuality fantasy without some variation of “my partner and I want to have a threesome with you but he’s actually straight and not interested in men at all.” I’m trying to imagine this going well. I can’t.

 

All that said, I’m still not willing to say “forced” bisexuality is not a valid kink. (aside my general objections to “forced” anything as a kink)

The things kinky people do in general are considered disturbing by much of the population. A kink is going to push boundaries. For your average vanilla person, being punched by or punching a partner is a sign of a seriously broken relationship. It lacks the consent, intent, and context that exist for those of us who engage in that sort of play. And I do still believe that we have the right to do things that others find disturbing.

We have the right to play with the uncomfortable, the disturbing. We also have the responsibility to be mindful of how we do it, to acknowledge potential harm, and to examine our own motives. We may not like them. We may change, or we may learn to live with that. Wanting to experience “forced” bisexuality doesn’t make someone a bad person. It may mean that a person is avoiding thinking about an aspect of sexuality (either personally or on a societal level)*. If nothing else, mindfulness and introspection about kinks can help prepare for possible emotional or psychological fallout after trying something new. Because it can happen. And hoo, boy does it ever suck to be Not Okay when neither you nor your partner knows how to articulate or fix the problem.

But if you’re straight, and your partner is straight, you’re going to have a hell of a time exploring this kink in a way that doesn’t contribute to some really harmful ideas about bisexuality, and I think I have a right to be bothered by that. Those ideas aren’t innocuous. They don’t exist in a vacuum. And when your fantasy is over, bi folk still have to deal with the very real effects of misconceptions about who and what we are every day. We’re assaulted more, more prone to suicide in youth, mischaracterized in research, and shoved under the rug by everyone else.

*No, I’m not saying “clearly this person is bi/gay and in the closet.” It’s never acceptable to tell someone else they are wrong about their sexuality. Period.

What is “Normal,” Anyway?

So, you may have noticed that I’m a bit of a deviant. And by “a bit of a deviant” I mean the tagline of this blog is “sex at three standard deviations” for a reason. It’s mostly a joke. I picked three because I deviate from societal norms regarding sex in three major ways (kink, nonmonogamy, bisexuality), and threw in standard deviations on a whim/because I’m a bit of a nerd.

Figure 1: What the hell is this doing in a sex blog?
Figure 1: What the hell is this doing in a sex blog?

It still might be true, though. If you look at the normal distribution, you’ll see it’s divided into sections. If µ in the middle there is your mean, µ +/- one standard deviation is mathematically normal. If we were talking about men’s height in the US, average is about 5’10”, and a standard deviation is about 2.75″, so 68.27% of men will be between about 5’7.25″ and 6’0.75″. That’s our normal range. Between the first and second standard deviation, men who are 5’4.5″ to 5’7.25″ are likely to be considered short, while their analogues on the other side at 6’0.75″ to 6’3.5″ are tall. 95.45% of people should fall within this range. At 3 standard deviations, you’re down to 5’1.75″ or up to 6’6.25″. Only about 1/4 of a percent of men are going to be outside that range. It’s unlikely to pass without comment.

Behavior’s a bit trickier. You can’t treat a sexual identity and behaviors as just one thing, so say we take a persons kinks and preferences and plot each of them according to what proportion of the population shares them. Kissing is going to be well within the norm. Being waterboarded is going to be well outside of it. Sexual proclivities that 2.7 or fewer out of an average sample of 1000 people share are at three standard deviations.

bellcurve2
Figure 2: Placement of points does not represent the result of any research survey. Just threw ’em in at a guess for illustrative purposes.

That’s not to say a more common preference is better, or that a very uncommon one is an excuse for someone to crow about how kinky they are. It is freakish, sure, but only in the sense that it’s unusual. Value judgments based solely on how common a preference is are frankly just boring.

So what does it mean, to have a kink or preference further from the norm?

It can mean stigma.

Visibility helps with this: prevalence of LGBT persons in America varies by survey, but rests pretty firmly at or beyond 2 standard deviations (a recent Gallup poll puts the national average at 3.5%). There’s still rampant homophobia, but acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships is more common than not and trending upwards (more Gallup). Having an unusual kink or multiple partners still comes with the risk of social consequences if discovered. Normalizing a kink in terms of stigma needn’t mean convincing more people to enjoy it, just convincing them that it exists and folks who engage in it can be otherwise normal.

It can be harder to find partners who share your interests.

Again, some of this has been circumvented. We find each other. We have gay bars and clubs for those interested in same sex partners, BDSM groups for kinky folks, swingers clubs and poly meetups for swingers and poly folks respectively. We have the dark corners of the Internet. Still, less common means lower odds of meeting someone who shares whatever you’re looking for (and with whom you’re also compatible generally. That’s still important, obviously). Looking for a smart, nerdy straight or bi male to make out with? They are legion. Higher total number means higher number of potentially compatible ones. Yay! Looking for a smart, nerdy queer person who’s into waterboarding? Call me; I’m thisclose to giving up.

No partner is going to share every one of your preferences. There are too many possible variables, it’s just not going to happen. We prioritize, seek out the things without which we can’t feel satisfied with or properly connected to a partner.

It means thinking a little differently.

Being queer or poly or kinky means rejecting societal norms, to some degree. It can’t be done automatically, because the script isn’t provided for us. We have to think about it, challenge it, build our own systems and articulate our own ideas. We don’t always do the best construction, what with the lack of established blueprints and all, but we do what we can.

So what is normal anyway?

Normal is within 1 SD of the average. Normal is cisgendered and cissexual. It’s heterosexual. It’s vanilla. It’s monogamous. Normal is not better (though a certain subset of them certainly seem to think they are). Normal is not worse. Those of us who fall outside the norms aren’t anointed innovators and bringers of truth to the regular folks. It just means we’re different. Most of the time, I think I’m okay with that.

The Quest to Prove Bisexuals Exist…

…is bullshit.

Oh, sorry, do I need to provide more detail? This charming NYT piece about validating the existence of bisexuality with science is so full of rage-inducing fallacies that it was almost a week before I could make myself finish reading it.

I’m a fan of science, okay? I’m a behavioral researcher. Studies are important. They can give us a huge amount of information on a given topic, from the effects of sugary drink consumption on preschoolers to the behavioral and experiential correlates of sexuality. Granted, I don’t have access to the original article and it’s entirely possible that the NYT is just reporting science very badly. However, the abstract alone suggests that the research is based on problematic assumptions, as does the abstract of a later, related paper by some of the same authors. (By the way, if any of y’all has access to those, I’d like to read them in detail.)

So studies are useful. Bisexuality is under-researched. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use a study to prove or disprove a person’s identity. See, bisexuality is having sexual attraction to persons of both the same and other genders. (It’s a little more complicated and for some it includes non-binary-identifying persons and for others it doesn’t and yeah, there are other sources of variability, but basically that’s the gist.) We don’t have a valid and reliable method with which to measure something as variable and nebulous as “attraction”.

Because I have access to it and it’s getting ever so much attention, I’m going to pull a few quotes from the article and tear them apart with my teeth. (Advantage of writing on the Internet: I don’t have to handle this like a professional. Angry Nic engaged.)

The A.I.B.[American Institute of Bisexuality], [Sylla] added, has moved on to more nuanced questions: “Can we see differences in the brains of bisexual people using f.M.R.I. technology? How many bisexual people are there — regardless of how they identify — and what range of relationships and life experiences do they have? And how can we help non-bi people understand and better accept bi people?”

There are exactly as many bisexual people as people who self-identify as bisexual (meaning, identify as such to ourselves. We might not tell you. We’re really unlikely to tell you if you insist on approaching us with a “sure, you say you’re bi, but…” attitude as seen above). How can we help non-bi folks accept us? Maybe start by not second guessing us every single time we tell you we’re real. Just for a start. Maybe try not giving people the idea that our statements and feelings and actions don’t count unless you can corroborate them with an MRI. I understand that bisexuals are an underserved group who can benefit from targeted research. I advocate for it. That research can’t benefit anyone if the targeting mechanism is biphobic. And it is. Looking for a physiological marker of sexuality might possibly be useful. I have issues with it (we’ll get into them later), but fine. I get what they’re going for. However, taking the existence of gay and straight people as given and running a study to establish the existence of bi people only in relation to those groups requires directly holding up the validity of heterosexual and homosexual self-identification as a usable measure. If self-identification is valid measurement of sexuality, it’s valid for all of us, not just the ones the researcher is comfortable with. This isn’t just a point of existential rage: using different measurement tools for different values of the same variable is not a reliable research methodology. If you run a food study that asks people if they eat healthy “never” “always” or “sometimes”, you’re treating all of those values the same way. If the choices are “never” “always” and “fill out this 37 page 3-day food recall and present a blood sample so we can corroborate your statements with your serum cholesterol”, you’re going to get a very different response set. Suddenly there’s added burden on one value. Suddenly one group is being subjected to greater rigor and implied distrust and greater invasion into their lives. It’s not equitable.  Seeing how arousal patterns differ among differently-identifying groups can certainly be illuminating (it isn’t usually, but maybe it can be. Later, I promise). Unless you choose to introduce bias by inconsistent treatment of your identifying groups, of course. Then it’ll tell you a lot less.

Bisexual activists told me that much of what gay and lesbian people believe about bisexuality is wrong and is skewed by a self-reinforcing problem: because of biphobia, many bisexuals don’t come out. But until more bisexuals come out, the stereotypes and misinformation at the heart of biphobia won’t be seriously challenged.

Uh, yeah. Or we could stop perpetrating them in media. Jane’s character in Coupling identifies as bisexual, but because she isn’t turned on by what we’re told is a close-up of female genitalia in a porn mag, her identity is “disproved”. (By this logic I am asexual: I have never once been turned on by live action visual pornography.) I don’t watch Sex and the City, but apparently there’s an episode in which Carrie dates a bi man and all the stereotypes come out. Captain Jack Harkness is delightfully pansexual for much of Dr. Who and Torchwood, but the portrayal settles to completely homosexual for Miracle Day. The protagonist of Lost Girl is bi, but she is literally addicted to sex, which perpetrates stereotypes unpleasantly. The possibility that Shepard could be bisexual or homosexual in the Mass Effect games freaked people the hell out. When we come out, these are the models people hold us up to. These are how people understand us no matter what we say. No amount of people coming out bi are going to change perceptions until the rest of everyone is willing to start listening. It’s ridiculous to suggest it. After all, racial, ethnic, and some religious minorities don’t have a choice about whether to “come out;” they are recognizable on sight. If visibility were sufficient to erase bigotry, racism wouldn’t exist.

According to the 2013 Pew Research Survey of L.G.B.T.-identified Americans, bisexuals are less likely than gays and lesbians “to view their sexual orientation as important to their overall identity.” That feeds into a belief among some gays and lesbians that bisexuals are essentially fence-sitters who can pass for straight for decades at a time and aren’t especially invested in the L.G.B.T. community.

Uh, okay. Or we don’t have a community that integrates our identity like gay and lesbian folks do. Have you ever heard of a bi bar? No. We go to gay bars and only act on gay attractions, or straight bars and pretty much act on straight attraction. Crossing territory lines in either setting leads to ostracization. Bisexuals are essentially expected by both gay and straight communities to practice a very careful and culturally competent mimesis in their respective settings. It’s less important to overall identity because the gay and straight communities we belong to are at best allies, and rarely that. Orientation is something we have to drag out and explain to every straight or gay partner and it’s exhausting and damn right some of us don’t want the stress of letting it be a defining aspect of our identities. It’s notable that there is general acceptance of bisexuality and fluid sexuality in the kink community, at least here. The community is still vastly heteronormative, but the pressure to conform does not seem to be present.

To test male arousal, Rieger and Savin-Williams use a pupil-dilation tracker instead of a genital monitor. The degree of pupil dilation has been found to correspond to self-reported sexual attraction and orientation.

[ . . .]

“Your pupils actually tell me that you’re more bi than gay.”

That was news to me. I felt a sudden kinship with the self-described bisexual men in Bailey’s original 2005 study, who must have been surprised to learn that they had their sexual orientation all wrong. I could imagine a potentially awkward scenario the next time someone asked me if I was into men or women. “Well, now, that depends on whether you believe the sex researchers at Northwestern or Cornell,” I might have to say.

No. No, and fuck you, and no. You don’t need a pupil dilation machine. Just answer a quick question. There’s an underwear model smiling at you. When you read that sentence, are you picturing a sculpted young man, a woman with curves in all the right places, a delightful room full of people of varying genders and sexes. . . excuse me, I’m having a distracting thought at the moment. Who do you picture? How does it make you feel? What do you like? You know better than your pupils. Are you straight? Gay? Bi? Pan? Asexual? Demisexual? Something else entirely? That’s cool. Whatever you feel about it, you’re probably right. Physical arousal is confusing, I get it. People misattribute their own arousal based on physiological response. Fear, disgust, exertion, certain kinds of pain, fever, and more can all mimic symptoms of arousal, if you will. It’s a biofeedback thing. Say I’m lightheaded, flushed, hypersalivating a little bit. Simultaneously, the friend I’m talking to laughs. It makes me happy: I like to see her laugh. Is that arousal? Nah, I’m just hungry and enjoying a friend’s company. But if I tell myself it’s arousal based on those cues, I’m going to start acting as I would if I were attracted. Trying to verify the response. I do the same thing with anxiety: Oh hell, breathing hard, elevated heart rate, I just saw a [whatever]. Fuck, I’m scared of whatever. Panic! Except I’m not scared of the whatever. Maybe I just took the stairs too fast or am on some new meds. It’s isolated. The whatever isn’t scary generally, this is just a thing that happened. It’s a bad idea to attribute a whole personal attribute to it.

He never had “emotionless sex,” he said, and the sex of the person he was interested in was less important than his romantic and intellectual connection to them. Still, he didn’t see himself as bisexual. “I really didn’t think about my sexual identity back then,” he told me.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from bi folks (and demisexual and asexuals): Sex doesn’t matter. Gender doesn’t matter. I don’t care what’s in a person’s pants; it’s the person that turns me on. A physiological measure of arousal isn’t going to pick up this kind of attraction in a laboratory setting because the attraction won’t form naturally. When people watch porn, do they focus on sexual characteristics? It’s a serious question. I don’t much go for visual porn. If a person doesn’t get turned on in a lab, but they get the feels in authentic attraction situations, surely the latter is a more valuable point of data, right?

As out gay men and lesbians, after all, we’re supposed to be sure — we’re supposed to be “born this way.” It’s a politically important position (one that’s helping us achieve marriage equality and other rights), but it leaves little space for out gay men to muddy the waters with talk of Kinsey 4s and 5s.

I hate this so hard. I don’t even want to talk about it. Thanks, gay rights movement, for systematically and consciously erasing bisexuals from conversations about equal rights for sexual minorities because we unnerve and confuse everyone else! It undermines gay rights too, by the way. Still don’t want to talk about it. Some other time.

Szymanski told me about two female friends of theirs who only dated men until meeting each other late in life. “They’re pretty militant about their lesbianism now,” Szymanski said, “but I’ll ask them, ‘Did you have really great sex with guys?’ They nod. ‘Did you have orgasms?’ They nod. ‘Could you still have them?’ They nod. But they insist that they’re lesbians, because, I think, they’re convinced it’s in their best interest to identify that way.”

“Another case of bisexual invisibility,” Sylla said.

“Yes, and it’s strange to me,” Szymanski added. “Because wouldn’t their behavior suggest something different? Wouldn’t it suggest that they’re actually, you know, bisexual?”

“I’m not biphobic/racist/sexist/whatever but isn’t it interesting that..?” No. go to hell.

You know what? These guys might be right. It’s possible they’re not mischaracterizing these women in the slightest. Maybe their conclusion that the women in question are bisexual is correct.

On the other hand, maybe not. Sexuality isn’t that simple. Was the sex with men “great”? That does probably indicate that at some point these women’s sexuality included males. Sexuality can change over time. This doesn’t invalidate it. Do the orgasms mean anything about sexuality? Good lord, no. It’s entirely possible to orgasm from sexual activity with someone one isn’t attracted to. Ever close your eyes and fantasize that someone else is doing the sex things with you? Yeah. That works pretty well. Or if that idea makes you uncomfortable, how about masturbation? That’s not narcissistic self-directed lust (for me anyway); the sexy feels come from the person/people I’m fantasizing about. Or orgasms may not be linked to sexual pleasure at all. Some folks will have a quick de-stress wank without attaching it to fantasy or emotional/romantic sexual arousal. Think of it kind of like the difference between working out a kink in your back so you can get back to whatever with some relief from pain, and receiving a sensual massage. Same physiological release, completely different context. Only one is sexual. Some people have had an orgasm while being sexually assaulted. That does not mean they were attracted to the assailant, or secretly liked it, or any other horrible traumatic implication. It means that a specific stimulus led to a specific reaction, which is not the all-defining criterion for sexuality. Wanting and liking aren’t the same thing. Erasing consent and cognition and very real mental blocks from being valid components of sexuality oversimplifies us. Really, it needs to stop.

The article is awful. We don’t need a scientific quest to prove bisexuals exist. We’re sick of having to goddamn prove we exist. Sick of it. Know what I did the other day? I fucked a cisgender male and a genderfluid person who typically uses female pronouns. I don’t do this because I’m confused or going through a phase or just catering to male fantasy, either. I do it because I’m attracted to them both, because we all want to, and because the sex is amazing. This is not a new or unique experience. Bi folks have been around a long damn time, lusting after and playing with individuals of various sex and gender combinations and generally not giving a damn about your fucking categories when we do so. These attractions exist. If a measurement tool can’t pick them up, it doesn’t mean we’re not really bi. It means the tool isn’t valid. Self-report and genital arousal measures only have a correlation coefficient of 0.66 for men, 0.26 for women. That’s from a meta-analysis of 132 studies. Only ten of them did physiological response have a correlation of over 0.75 with self-reported identity for men. Only one for women. That means 121 of 132 studies used a measurement that failed to find agreement between physiological response and identity at least 1/4 of the time. That’s really bad.

Know how we know we exist? We are sexually attracted to more than one sex and/or gender. That’s it. It ain’t hard.

We don’t have to act on it to prove we’re really bi–there are bi virgins and bi folks who choose celibacy and they’re no more confused about their sexuality than virgins and celibates who are straight or gay.

We don’t have to have an even split, either in experience or attraction, nor do the two need to match. I pure-bodily-lust after more female-bodied persons than male-bodied ones, but have had significantly more sexual experiences with males. Y’know, ’cause most folks are straight so reciprocation of attraction is a lot more likely there. Easier to approach, more likely to receive positive response.

We don’t have to exhibit a genital response. I don’t get immediately physiologically turned on by the sight of an attractive body. Not even if it’s nude, and moving sexually, and belongs to a partner. The body can be dealing with a number of stimuli at once and not feel like providing altered bloodflow and breathing and lubrication. My appreciation of and desire for that person and that body aren’t dependent on a physiological response at any given moment. Anyone who does use such a response as the sole basis for attraction, I’m a bit inclined to worry about. But that type of decision making is what such a study implies.

The science is fundamentally flawed. Because sexuality is not simple physiological response. Because wanting and liking are not the same thing. Because we are whole, complex, rational beings whose sexualities are based not only on pure physiological manifestations of lust but also on cognitive factors. If you call a bi-identifying person gay or straight because his pupils dilate at images of one sex but not the other (non binary options not included, I assume), you remove his ability to self-identify. You tell him it’s invalid to ask that man whose voice makes him weak in the knees to go for a coffee. Get over yourself, dude; you’re not bi. We had you tested.

More than that, though, it’s about consent. In conflating liking and wanting in this way, the piece diminishes the importance of consent. Arousal tells you what you want. What you like. Who you are. You’re not gay if you don’t respond in just such a way to just such a stimulus. Fuck that. I don’t care how the body responds; the body doesn’t get the final vote. Bodily response and identity may match up most of the time, but they don’t have to. Certainly a correlation between the two isn’t necessary to prove one’s existence.

The premise on which the NYT article and (as far as I have access) the research on which it is based are flawed. They’re biphobic. Oppressive. Reinforce stereotypes. It’s about time we stopped allowing cultural perpetration of the myths that keep us invisible. Behavioral researchers: I expect better. I expect cultural competence, an effort to reduce disparity, valid methods, measures and meanings. For shame.