Tag Archives: misconceptions

Playing at Poly

Ferns brings up (as she so often does) a good question, about how it comes across when someone identifies as poly “until they find the right person.”

What this says to me is, “I want to be with you, and I want to have all the trappings of a relationship that make me feel fulfilled and secure, but I want to be able to sever those ties at a moment’s notice when I find The One. But no, I absolutely care about you, how could you say otherwise?”

To me that doesn’t look like polyamory. It looks like play-acting relationships for practice until picking a real one. It looks like fear of being alone meeting fear of commitment. It looks like scatter-planting seeds, waiting to see which seedling sprouts tallest, straightest, most resilient before thinning the rest away like weeds.

It’s the lie that gets to me. Even if it’s not quite a lie, even when they say “I am only doing this until I find The One,” that promise is being dangled. That nurturing is being offered, and that intimacy, and it carries with it a terrible blame. After all, they told you they were only poly for now. That you might be what they were looking for, and really, whose fault is it if you’re not the one they keep, in the end? They did nurture you, after all. Gave you a chance. You’re the one who failed to be perfect.

This creates something sinister, even toxic. A relationship in constant threat of pruning breeds a fear of imperfection, of humanity, even of creative growth. You’re not one partner of several, building something either cooperative or independent: you’re in competition for a limited resource. It’s stifling. You’re reduced, finally, to trying only to be enough, and there’s nothing about that state that doesn’t breed resentment.

It also sets up an untenable situation. Poly-until-The-One people typically expect their ultimate partner-in-monogamy to also be monogamous once their soulmate-status is established. This means rejecting the possibility of compatibility with people who would not choose monogamy (like me).

Oddly enough, I take far less issue with people whose behavior is nearly identical to this but who don’t call it poly. I’ve had fuck-buddies and friends-with-benefits with the understanding that once these partners were not-single, sexual contact would end. Aside from a little sadness over knowing the sexual component of a relationship with me is, for these partners, disposable in a way that it would not be with someone they were dating, it’s fine. And I don’t resent the sexual component being disposable when it isn’t connected to intimacy.

“I’m poly until I find the right person” seems to forget that one’s partners in polyamorous relationships are people. They aren’t to be used and thrown away. They aren’t to be manipulated. And that’s what I see happening. Maybe I misinterpret, and maybe it means I’m missing out, but I wouldn’t date a person who said this at all.

Nah, Bro.

We’re talking about burlesque. He says he’s never been.I fill him in on some of the acts around town, show him a particularly creative costume.

“Wanna ask her for a threesome?” I’m jarred. Neither of us has expressed any kind of attraction to the other. It seems out of nowhere.

“She and I are just two. Sad story. And sweetie, when I sleep with straight boys they don’t get to jump straight to the boss levels. They gotta earn it.”

“Oh god I’m kind of afraid”

“Right answer.”

“Didn’t say I wasn’t interested”

“Damning with faint praise.”

“Just saying. I do think you’re really attractive 🙂 and I think you’d be fun!”

“Thank you, and yes, quite.” (Modesty? What’s that?)

“I’d try anything at least once.”

“See, that shows lack of imagination.”

“Want to share some imagination with me?”

We have a mutual friend who knows–well, I don’t know how much about my proclivities, but enough. (He can read this. I don’t ask whether he does.) Maybe this kid knows what he’s asking to get into, but I doubt it. So I tell him I’m into kinky stuff, that I don’t mean fuzzy handcuffs and 50 Shades of Grey. I’m not impressed with anything about his approach, but I’d be willing to at least have a frank discussion of compatibilities with a large subset of my social group.

“I kind of want to try it..” So much for frank discussion. Bear in mind that my phrase of choice was “I’m into kinky stuff.” I have no damn idea what he kind of wants to try, and I suspect he doesn’t either.

“Why?”

“Just sounds like something different. I want to see what it’s like.
I’m really interested.”

“…in you’re not sure what. For you’re not sure why. I hope you understand my skepticism.”

This approach annoys me for a few reasons. “I’ll try anything once” means “it doesn’t occur to me that you might want to try something I’m not into.”It focuses on his willingness to peruse a free sample tray of anything I can think of, and doesn’t acknowledge that creating those samples involves my time and energy and emotional labor, plus some degree of vulnerability. A person absolutely has the right to reject scenes and revoke consent, I’m not saying that planning kinky play obligates someone to go through anything with me. I am saying I’m not going to get my hopes up or waste my time and effort when I don’t see any likelihood of appreciation for any of it. I’m not in the mood to be told I’m a disgusting freak for playing with electricity, bruises, tears. I’m well past willing to deal with young men recoiling from the idea of strap-on play because they think it’s gay. He says he’ll try anything once…but that’s obvious and utter bullshit.

His vague, ill-conceived interest is 100% about using me to fulfill a curiosity. Not once does he say anything that acknowledges my enjoyment might be a factor. Sex and kink are about shared experience. Feeding off of each other, mutual enjoyment. I want to get my partners off. I expect them to want to get me off. I look for collaboration and intensity with partners. He seems to be hoping I’ll provide a service.

Last week I had pretty much completely vanilla sex…and it was good. I’d rather fuck someone with no hint of sadism or masochism or power exchange who’s clearly invested in getting me off and savoring the experience than play tour guide to the land of kink for some bro who really just hopes I’ll stop talking and get naked already.

So nah, bro. I’m good.

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.

 

 

Would You? Could You?

So this is a first: a question from a reader! I’m twitterpated, truly.
Even though you are poly..If you found an absolutely amazing person who wants to be monogamous with you, could you or would you consider being monogamous? Do you think that being poly is such a huge part of you that you couldn’t possibly ever consider being monogamous with someone or it’s a possibility? Why or why not?
[Necessary disclaimer: this is my personal reaction and my personal interaction with monogamous norms and expectations. Nothing here can be extrapolated to other people or other paradigms.]

The short answer? My gut reaction? No. I do not like this, Sam-I-Am.

I’ve never tried it.

I’m not going to.

I used to feel the need to justify nonmonogamy. I was asked to justify it every time I told anyone I was married and also dating. Every time the first thing anyone had to say (after they asked if I was cheating) was “Your spouse lets you get away with that?”

Lets me. Like it was more their call than mine. Like I was getting away with something. Like I needed special dispensation. What upsets me most about this is that I used to feel that way, too. That it was unreasonable of me to ask for independent relationships. That I should feel grateful to be allowed, that I had to be on my best behavior to earn the privilege of making my own decisions on my own time.

I am viscerally disgusted by the idea that a relationship somehow grants a person the right to some part of another person’s autonomy. The way it creeps. The way monogamy is normal, the idea that if I really cared about someone, I’d sacrifice the right to care about anyone else. How careful I have to be, saying this, because I know it’s going to be read as “monogamy is bad” when what I mean is “coercing a partner to be monogamous is bad.” I have NO objection to monogamous pairings in which both partners value and desire to practice romantic and sexual exclusivity. What I object to is the pressure, the normalization, the idea that if it is good and healthy for some then it must be the rule for all. I can be happy for monogamous couples without being monogamous.

I do not like green eggs and ham. I’m failing a kindergarten lesson about prejudgment in saying it, and I’m quite honestly okay with that. I’m a grown adult perfectly capable of making my own decisions. Maybe green eggs and ham are delicious. Maybe I’m really missing out on this amazing thing Sam-I-Am has to offer. But you know what? Sam-I-Am is a dick for pushing. I can like Sam-I-Am without liking green eggs and ham. I can like Sam-I-Am if he eats green eggs and ham three times a day while I have lamb tagine one day and spinach alfredo pasta the next. But if Sam-I-Am can’t respect my choices, or believes my feelings about his breakfast reflect my feelings about him, we’re just not going to be a good fit. (Also, I’m Jewish. Stop pushing your ham, Sam!)

If I met an absolutely amazing person who wanted a mutual agreement of monogamy…they wouldn’t be an absolutely amazing person for me.

Finally, people have asked me this before, and I’ve always wondered: would they ever ask the same question of a monogamous person? Would you, could you have a relationship that wasn’t exclusive? Why, or why not?

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.

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.

Ars Corporeum

Z and I went shopping the other day. First for underwear, then thrifting for dresses. It’s the only clothes shopping I enjoy: rummaging through sale bins or racks of random things.

She was uncomfortable. I get that: mannequins and pictures of skinny, busty white women; saleswomen who talk about bras in terms of cleavage and adding cup sizes rather than comfort or durability. She tried on a few. Some looked great, but the mirror and the shop (and maybe me) made her miserable, so we left empty handed.

I asked if she was okay, she said “yes, except for hating myself.”

My partners don’t tend to fit societal standards of beauty. They aren’t tall or model-thin. They don’t have all-over muscle definition. Those attributes do nothing for me. Honestly, it might be a bit creepy if they did: my family has enough models and could-be models to put me off the look entirely. If I have a type, it’s people shorter than me, unconventional; pierced, tattooed, or scarred.

Z doesn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model (complete with badly Photoshopped cleavage). She’s short. Her features are delicate, almost anime-like. Her skin is scarred, covered in tattoos (we both agree: not covered enough). She’s visibly muscular, not thin.

Spouse is close to my height. He wears his hair very long, nails painted, legs shaved. He favors women’s jeans and shoes, as gender-neutral as he can present. His gestures are exaggerated. Expressions, too: his mild disappointment looks like devastation, slight amusement like unmitigated glee.

The Techie is three inches shorter than me, but people somehow get the impression that he’s tall. His hands are wide and callused, his eyes too intense behind too-long lashes. There’s white in his beard, which he worries makes him look old, though he isn’t and it doesn’t. Ink suits him, though he seems too serious on first glance to be tattooed.

The Chef is strong. Her laugh is high and clear, her smile impish, infectious. She’s six inches shorter than I am, nearly a hundred pounds heavier. She’s strong. She can lift and toss me like a doll. Her bare hands hit with the force of a truck. I love the contrasts of her: breasts spilling over steel boning, black ink on brown skin, heavy blows marked by easy peals of laughter.

She’s beautiful. They all are, not in spite of these things but because of them. We have this idea that perfect skin is untextured, uniform in color (and all too often white), “unblemished” by scars, stretchmarks, wrinkles, freckles, moles, tattoos. But skin tells stories. Scars and ink are most obvious, images of discrete moments. Skin also speaks of habits in callouses, tan lines. Learning the lives that build the bodies we inhabit is a delight. Even knowing this, though, I’m careful to cover my scar, quick to lament my freckles and moles. We’re meant to come to each other as blank canvases, afraid marks left by others or by life will render us unpalatable to anyone new.

Bodies are palimpsest, painstaking to interpret, in places raw and fragile.  Built objects, sometimes showing our regrets and hurts, reflecting what we may not mean them to, not wholly in our control. It’s easy to see that as ugly, when it fails to match what we’re shown. It can make it hard to hear “you’re beautiful” when we only know one template for the word.

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.

Pain

I had to vent. I’m friends with maledoms. A few of them. Lately their wives and girlfriends have been showing a lot of jealousy. They’ve made new rules, baiting remarks; I’ve made reassurances that ought to be unnecessary. “I just don’t see why they think I’m a threat. They do understand that their partners stay with them for a reason, right?”

“They’ve seen you play. They think that because you like more pain than they do, that you’re better at kink.”

That’s wrong. The conclusion is wrong: more masochistic does not mean better at kink. Want better at kink? Be awesome at knowing and communicating what you want and how to do it safely and well, from either side of the slash. That’s how you do better at kink. Which kinks you like and in what doses are all personal preference. There should be no value attached.

The underlying assumption is wrong. I like heavier impact than most, but there’s no reason to assume that means more pain.

Pain is not a simple response to stimulus. If you line up a dozen masochists in front of tennis ball launchers, hit them all with the same force over the same muscle, they will not rate the pain the same. Do this to the same masochist in different contexts, different moods, after exercise or after rest, s/he will not rate the pain the same.*

Part of this is the subjectivity of pain scales. Ask someone to rate their pain on a scale of 0-10, and two things happen: people exaggerate because they want to be taken seriously, and you realize that 10 (“the worst pain you can imagine”) varies a lot from person to person. I’ve experienced a lot of pain. Look at Hyperbole and a Half’s pain scale. A correctly administered injection usually just grazes over a 1. Having my cervix forcibly dilated was about an 8. Having part of my lip torn off by a dog bite was a 9 or 10. A long, heavy impact scene might hit a 6-6.5. Most don’t. Someone who’s never experienced higher thresholds of pain probably can’t imagine it. If my 6.5 is the most they’ve ever felt, they’ll call that a 10. This is perfectly legitimate; pain scales do not use objective units of measurement.

Beyond the subjectivity of the measurement, we also need to consider the subjectivity of our responses. A punch in a scene feels “ooh yes ow,” I lean into it, want more. An unexpected slap on the shoulder will be “ow! What’s wrong with you that hurt!” Less impact, leads to more of what a non-masochist would call pain. This can be true for a non-masochist in other ways as well. Exercise hurts, but the context convinces us that it’s a good pain, a type of reward. Getting a piercing or tattoo is also somewhat painful, but most of us sit quietly through that even though we’d cuss up a storm if we stepped on a roofing tack. This is in part because reward contexts extend dopamine signals to unrewarded stimuli. If pain is giving us something we want, it makes brain go happy place (I am good at science talk, right?).

We masochists know pain isn’t just one sensation. I said needles were barely a 1, right? But I hate-hate-hate needles. They freak me out. Needle play is “oh hell no” unless I can get a permanent piercing out of it because needles make Nic go to an on-edge and unhappy place. But if someone wants to whale on me with a steel pipe? Yes, please!

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, pain is an interpretation. The stimulus provides sensation, but you interpret that off-site to decide whether it tickles or stings or hurts; whether to cuss or giggle or moan. The same physical sensation feels very different if we want it, if our muscles are tense, if it reminds us of past trauma. This video does a good job of explaining the process.

So even if the king of crazy town were correct in thinking higher pain tolerance=more better at kink, the stimuli that cause pain are not the things that hurt. Your body is, and your nerves. Stimulus response is variable. This without even discussing nerve damage and sensitivity from a physiological standpoint–you wouldn’t call someone with CIPA the best-ever masochist because nothing hurts them, right? They’re not taking more pain. They’re taking zero pain.

I’m a masochist. The sensations I seek out do genuinely hurt. But it’s not just pain I’m after. It’s what that pain comes with. It’s the dopamine surge, it’s the exquisite ability to come out of my own head, it’s the connection to another person and the way we have to open up to each other. Pain is a route to this, and to the bruises (which I love). People who think it’s important to experience the most pain without concern for what that pain does for them seem to be rather missing the point.

*Oh my goodness. Please? I can do this for science?

(More about pain here. I love so many lines from this page.)

Monogamy is Normal

Obviously, I know that nonmonogomy is not the norm. Then again, in terms of sexual and relationship paradigms, I’m nowhere close to normal (hell, the tagline to this blog is “sex after three standard deviations” for a reason). It’s not that monogamy lacks any appeal. The scripts are prewritten, it’s legally and socially sanctioned, and there’s a comparative simplicity to it. I wouldn’t be willing to do it: I’d be far too resentful of any partner who wanted me to give up the right to be attracted to, flirt with, fuck, or fall for anyone else (especially as only the second and third are under conscious control). But I will admit that trying to form and maintain multiple relationships can be stressful, difficult to make time for, emotionally risky, and a lot of work*.

When people have stress or problems, and are trying to figure out how to handle them, one of the things we do is look to role models. It’s a way of keeping ourselves from reinventing the wheel, repeating others’ mistakes, or investing a disproportionate amount of our resources on a solution that hasn’t been proven, at least anecdotally, to succeed. Role models give us hope.

There’s a serious dearth of role models for polyamorous relationships. There are lovely outspoken poly people like Franklin Veaux who provide a great deal of helpful information, but you have to go digging to find them. We don’t have public or historical figures or portrayals in media of polyamorous people just living normal lives and showing us how that works.

What’s worse, the models we do have for relationships are overwhelmingly and specifically anti-polyamory.

Many of the most famous stories in literature revolve around the threat outsiders pose to monogamous relationships. Helen’s marriage to Menelaus/affair with Paris is seen as so monstrous that nations go to war over it **(the fact that we call her Helen of Troy, not Helen of Sparta, suggests that we’ve collectively decided to side with Paris on that one) and don’t get me started on the disaster that comes out of Agamemnon stealing Achilles’ girl. Looking to philosophy, Aristophanes’ whole explanation of human sexuality in the Symposium hinges on the idea that the dyad or couple is the only possible desirable relationship configuration for either gay or straight people.

Then we have Tristan and Isolde, Guinevere and Lancelot–as with Helen, we root for the lover over the husband.

It’s the conflict that drives every shoujo anime I’ve seen–which girl will the protagonist choose? Twilight fans divided themselves into teams to root for either the vampire dude or the inexplicably hairless werewolf. I even have an erotic novel about a happily promiscuous woman who changes her entire personality and philosophy about relationships 3/4 of the way through the book because “love” and “monogamous fidelity” are apparently synonyms. Let me parse that: monogamous relationships are so ingrained that they infiltrate slutty porn***.

Then there’s music. How many songs about cheating do you know? How many love songs that hinge on the “one true love” premise? It’s especially important in music because so many people get twitterpated, thinking of a lover when a love song comes on the radio (or Pandora or what have you). When that association can’t match your relationship, when the very song that makes you want to send gushing text messages to someone is telling you that you can’t want anyone else, it’s hard not to internalize it on some level.

I’ve never seen polyamory portrayed favorably or normalized on television. The Poly in the Media blog tells me there’s a reality TV show called married and dating, but reality TV is typically about drama and dysfunction so I’m not holding my breath for it. In Lost Girl polyamory is literally the only sensible option: the protagonist is a succubus who needs to eat sexual energy to live, and can’t get enough from one person. So obviously she tries to be monogamous even against the advice of everyone not insane in the show because having multiple partners is what bad people do.

So that’s where nonmonogamy stands in terms of role models, as far as I know. The nonmonogamous paradigm is culturally invisible. This makes it easy to fall into traps of thinking about what could be a good relationship in dysfunctional ways. It’s normal, often automatic, to feel rejected when a partner would rather spend any given night with someone else. After all, when this happens in the movies it means the relationship is broken, right? Not having publicly visible role models to draw from means that we’re at risk of being drawn into the very paradigms we reject by choosing polyamory just by existing in a culture that makes monogamy the only norm. It makes it harder to have healthy nonmonogamous relationships. Not impossible, but hard. There is no way to reach a maintenance phase, if you will, a point at which behaviors that support one’s polyamory become automatic. There is a benefit to this: more conscious thought about decisions and behaviors in relationships prevents taking them for granted, encourages communication and evaluation. But it can also mean a huge pouring in of negative thoughts, of panic and paranoia, of desperately looking for the philosophy you know your paradigm is based on while every message around you insists that it isn’t true, can’t work. It’s enough to make most people feel a little crazy, at least on a bad day.

So if you wonder why poly people sometimes seem to never shut up about their special poly polyness****, it might help to remember that no matter how well grounded in reason and ethics we may try to be, we’re still very much social creatures. Even the introverts. Having reassurance that nonmonogamous paradigms aren’t crazy or hurtful is important, and we can’t get that passively the way monogamous folks can with their norms. We have to ask.

*I would argue that a monogamous relationship carries the same problems, but likely not to the same extent in most cases.

** all Odysseus’ fault.

*** It’s called My Prerogative, by Sasha White, and I am far less ashamed of reading smut than I am of even knowing what Twilight is.

****they really should, that shit gets annoying (says the sex blogger writing about nonmonogamy)