Tag Archives: sexual identity

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.

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.

Trick of the Light

We’re not invisible. We’re just not real.

Bisexuals are a trick of the light. There we are, the B of LGBT. We’re acknowledged, included, magnanimously held up by the Ls and Gs as part of the queer family. It’s hard to complain. We’re embraced with far more enthusiasm than transfolk, after all. We get a letter, which is more than can be said for a number of other sexual minorities. Unlike “genderfluid” or “asexual” or “intersex”, if you say “bisexual” in conversation everyone knows the word.

Or do they?

We’re a trick of the light. People make assumptions. They try to translate us, but there’s no word for us in their experience. “Bisexual” too often gets erased from our identities and replaced with something else.

What does bisexuality look like, through the lens of hetero- or homosexuality? What does it mean, not to be gender-exclusive in a world where gender preference defines sexual identity?

Well, for starters:

Bisexuals are gay.

We just don’t know it yet.

We don’t want to admit it to ourselves

Or to our families

Or our lovers

Or our friends.

It’s a softer coming out, coming out bi.

Gay, but with passing privilege.

Gay, but afraid.

The gay community can embrace us: we’re just like them.

We just need to be nurtured so that we can throw off the chrysalid form of the bisexual (which will always be monstrous and incomplete; no one could possibly want such a thing) and emerge into the full glory of homosexuality.

If you’re straight, don’t date a bisexual. She’ll come out for real eventually, leave you for a woman. She won’t mean to, but she’ll break your heart.

If you’re gay, don’t date a bisexual. She might not be ready to come out. She might regress. You’ll know she’s gone back in the closet (poor girl, bless her heart) when she leaves you for a man. She won’t mean to, but she’ll break your heart.

Or

Bisexuals are straight.

We just want to look cool

Edgy

Reject the norms.

Straight, and a threat to gay community.

We might as well be a goddamn terrorist cell.

We threaten the gold-star gay and lesbian ideals.

(“Ew, she’s done what with men? And I’m supposed to want to touch her?” “I don’t want anything to do with a woman who’s had a cock inside her. I’m a lesbian!”)

Really straight. Really gay. Both accusations are based on a completely insane assumption: that it’s easier to be bi than it is to be straight or gay. That biphobia doesn’t come at us from gay and straight alike. Sometimes even other bi folks will spit it at us like cobras if we dare to not be attracted to them (“I knew you were straight. Bitch. You lied to me. Led me on”). People will keep tabs. Is your attraction split 50/50 between men and women? Your dating history? More than a 60/40 split is evidence: really straight, or really gay. And passing privilege? Don’t ever talk to me about passing privilege. It’s not a privilege to have our identities erased all the time. To have every relationship called a “straight” or “gay” relationship. To be called wrong, lying, confused when we come out. It’s not a privilege to be a member of the queer community as long as we’re in same-sex relationships, and shunted to the role of ally (and outsider) the moment we so much as flirt with a different-sex person. It’s not a privilege to be treated like a bridge between the legitimate heterosexual and homosexual communities.

Or

Bisexuality is a phase.

Maybe we’re bi now

Experimenting

Curious

Whatever

But don’t worry

We’ll get a real, grown-up sexuality when we’re done finding ourselves.

Bisexuality is apparently a rich undergrad’s hostel-hop across Europe;

There will be fond memories, sure, but later we’ll smile and shake our heads at our quaint rebellion against the mainstream.

Don’t date a bisexual. She’ll leave you for someone who never knew her as bi once she’s ready to settle down.

I guess some of us never grow up. I’ve identified as bi since age fifteen, and sure ain’t expecting it to change.

I’d like to clarify something, okay? Sexuality can be fluid. Some individuals are differently attracted to others at different points in their lives. It’s possible that a person might identify as straight, then develop attractions to same-sex persons in middle age. This does not invalidate their identity. If a vegetarian adopts an unrestricted diet, that person is now an omnivore. Not a vegetarian going through a phase. Not a pure carnivore in denial. If they order a salad at lunch, you don’t get to crow about how you knew they were still a vegetarian.

For others, sexuality is pretty much set. The Kinsey zeroes and sixes are nodding at this. But guess what? Some of us are just as firmly planted at two-point-seven-five. It’s part of who we are. Every single time we’re told “it’s just a phase,” we’re being told that our experiences, our passions, our self-awareness and our self-assessment are invalid. Everyone knows our sexuality better than we do, and everyone agrees that we’re wrong. The amazing disappearing bisexual. Now you see me, now you don’t. They do it with mirrors, see?

Or

Bisexuality is all about male fetish.

Female bisexuality exists only in the form of the MFF threesome.

(Or the girl-on-girl performance for men.)

We’re the perfect girlfriend

Because being objectified is all we’ve ever wanted from our partner

(Our real partner, the male one. Not threesome girl; she’s just the prop we bring in on Sundays and every third Tuesday to fulfill the fantasy)

But we’re totally not into people of the same sex

That’d just be weird, yo.

If we were into the same-sex partner,

We’d just leave you for them

So we’re totally not into them

(We don’t get to be insecure that our different-sex partner will leave us for someone who shares our gender though. Don’t be silly.)

And

Bisexuals can’t be monogamous.

We need one of each to be happy.

We’ll never settle down.

We’ll never really love you.

You can only ever be half good enough.

If a bisexual does form a monogamous relationship, we can expect to be told it means we’re straight or gay.

If we were really bi, we’d always be looking for both.

We’re all right for one night stands but we’re not relationship material.

We’ll break your heart.

We won’t even care.

Can’t even empathize.

We don’t have a heart to be broken.

Don’t date a bisexual. We’ll leave. You won’t be enough, and we’ll leave.

I don’t want to get started on the fact that polyamory has nothing to do with being “enough” for your partner. It’s–no. Ngh. No. Moving on. There are some monogamous bi folks who want nothing to do with us poly types. If we can get people to understand bisexuals are real, the poly ones suddenly get pointed out as evidence that bisexuals can’t be monogamous. Everyone knows that all people who identify as a certain sexuality are exactly the same, after all. There’s some tension, some vitriol. Monogamous bisexuals are normal people who want to be in normal relationships. The only difference is that they don’t know, when single, whether that next normal relationship will be same-sex or not. The poly bisexuals? We’re not regular bisexuals. We’re freaks and deviants and sluts.

Bisexuals are sluts.

We’ll fuck anything that moves.

Completely indiscriminate.

And it’s all about sex. It’s only about sex.

Forget intimacy. Forget attachment.

We’re not like that.

We’re just looking to get laid.

We’re just looking for a good fuck.

Don’t drop your guard, don’t open yourself up to us because if you do we will hurt you.

Don’t date a bisexual. We’ll leave you for the next attractive creature to walk by.

This one hurts. The inability to receive intimacy because we’re perceived as unable to provide it. Becoming attached, knowing we’re just an object. It’s fear, often. The fear of rejection that comes with any relationship, coupled with the messages we’ve all seen for as long as we’ve known bisexuality was a word. And God, I empathize with fear. I know it better than anyone. Fear has been my seeing-eye dog. Fear is the voice that translates the world–all of you–from whatever strange languages you speak into my native tongue. But what you’re afraid of isn’t true. We’re not different from other people. Not smoke and mirrors, flesh and blood. We might just give you our hearts. We know it’s risky. It’s always risky, for anyone. But please don’t throw it on the ground just because you think it isn’t real.

Bisexuals are a health risk.

Make sure to whisper, we might be listening

All that sleeping around?

Bisexuals are riddled with STIs

We’re a vector.

Like a mosquito or a plague rat

We introduce disease to the innocent.

See, bi women sleep with men, and some forms of sex with men carry higher transmission risks for some STIs. So we get these gross man-diseases and give them to lesbians, obviously.

Bi men sleep with men. MSM are higher risk for HIV. So bi men are the vector for AIDS among straight women, obviously.

If you find yourself nodding along with this, thinking it’s not biphobic at all just basic health consciousness, kindly go to hell. Those of you about to say “but–” the answer is no.

Safe sex practices matter in all relationships regardless of sex and gender configurations. Risk communication and regular testing matter for all of us. Saying someone’s a public health risk on the basis of orientation alone is bigoted. Period. There are folks who insist that bisexuals present a sexual health risk when they’re serially monogamous, have had few or no sexual partners, and/or receive regular STI panels. These folks aren’t afraid of STIs. They’re afraid of cooties. They’re exhibiting a disgust reaction to our identity and trying to frame it in a socially acceptable way. This is not okay.

But we should set that aside. There’s another thing, and it’s worse. Any woman who has been penetrated by a man is a risk to lesbians everywhere? Shun and shame and definitely do not date? I’ve heard it more than once: gold-star or go home.

Lifetime prevalence of penetrative rape of lesbians is over 13% [2]. More than one in eight. Are those one in eight still unworthy? Not lesbian enough for a partner who shares her sexuality? Who ought to be ashamed, here? I think someone got it wrong.

Bisexuals are deranged.

Probably bipolar

Or something

Wild and promiscuous as we are, we’re definitely mentally ill.

We sure as hell ain’t normal

Must be crazy.

And so ungrateful, when you deign to want us despite our sluttiness, even though everyone else thinks we’re going to leave you for someone not your gender.

The suggestion is that bisexuality is a symptom of mental illness, rather than a valid sexual identity unrelated to illness. It is certainly not something that warrants treatment, let alone stigma. The jokes I’ve heard conflating bisexuality and bipolar disorder are awful, ill informed about both the sexuality and the disorder, and stigmatizing of both. I didn’t want to discuss this stereotype in depth because I’m uncomfortable with it. I feel guilty for being a person with mental illness (none of y’all’s business what) identifying as bisexual. Proves the stereotype, right? I have a similar sense of guilt for being nonmonogamous and bi. It upholds the can’t-be-monogamous stereotype.

The thing I should have remembered is that this stereotype doesn’t just hurt bisexuals. It hurts anyone with mental illness. There’s a stigma attached to mental illnesses as a class that one sees with only a select few physical diseases and conditions. Any mental illness will be seen as synonymous with “crazy” or “deranged” or some other sweeping generalization that people will use to invalidate anything we do or say.

Mental illness isn’t substantially different from physical illness. It takes different forms, affects our lives to varying degrees. For some it can be debilitating. Others find treatment regimens that allow recovery. A persons ideas, identity, and self are no more invalidated by their having a mental illness than they would be by asthma.

The point here, to reiterate, isn’t that bisexuals are exempt from mental illness nor that we’re universally mentally ill. The point is that bisexuality is not a symptom of mental illness, nor a cause thereof. And unless they’re backed with well-presented peer-reviewed evidence to the contrary, those statements need to die in a fire.

Bisexuals are damaged.

You know what?

Yes.

Yes we fucking are.

We’re damaged by the attacks, the erasure, the distrust of our partners, the beliefs that we’re all lying or insane or sex addicted.

We’re damaged by the constant dehumanization and objectification.

We’re damaged when we’re mentioned alongside the gay and lesbian population only to be ignored or subsumed.

Even in scholarly articles about sexuality.

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Articles that mentioned bisexuality and articles that examined bisexuality in their analyses (N = 348).

We’re damaged by having higher rates of rape, sexual assault, and stalking than either straight or gay folks.

74.9% of bisexual women experience sexual violence at some point, compared with 46.4% of lesbians and 43.3% of straight women. [2]

47.4% of bisexual men experience sexual violence at some point, compared with 40.2% of gay men and 20.8% of straight men. [2]

We’re damaged by being treated as unclean, impure; as traitors and turncoats

As if gay and straight were bitter enemies.

We’re damaged by being thrown back and forth between mainstream heterosexual culture and GLBT community based on current relationship status. By being unsupported in either, unwanted by both.

Bisexuals will leave.

That’s what it all boils down to, really.

We’ll leave.

Simple insecurity.

People can’t see us as what we are.

We’re bisexual.

We’re perceived as  a dizzying, unpredictable flicker.

Look now, stage left: she’s straight! No, wait, stage right: she’s gay! Wherever you look, we’re already a shimmer, already somewhere else.

If we can’t even be steady and constant in our sexuality, how can we be steady and constant to a partner?

But that’s the trick. We’re not sometimes-gay-sometimes-straight.

Those are just reflections. That’s where monosexual norms want you to look; the only options.

We’re not even on the stage.

They do it with mirrors.

But

Bisexuals are really:

Bisexual.

That’s it.

All the rest? It’s what other people say about us.

And to us.

We’re human.

Just like you.

References

1. Kaestle, C.E., Ivory, A.H., A Forgotten Sexuality: Content Analysis of Bisexuality in the Medical Literature over Two Decades Journal of Bisexuality 2012, 12(1), 35-48. Available online here.

2. NISVS 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation. Available online here.

Things I Didn’t Reference But Check Them Out Anyway

The San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s Bisexual Invisibility

What Lesbians Think About Bisexuals (a video, informal survey)

Bisexuality: Myths vs. Facts (another video)

Disclaimers

1. This is written from a mostly cis-female perspective, because that’s my experience. Other sexes and genders’ experience may vary. Other individuals’ experience may vary. Funny how that works.

2. I am aware that not everyone does this. There are people who are not biphobic. Yay! If you feel the need to shout “no fair! I’m not that guy! You’re the bigot for pointing out biphobia exists because I’m totally not that guy!” please do me a favor. First, realize that biphobia is pervasive and harmful even if not every single person participates in it. Second, realize that shouting “I’m not that guy” is a recognized silencing tactic, and “not that guy” guy is totally always 100% that guy. Third, go eat a shoe. It’s a better use of your time and hands than making that particular argument.

3. Please don’t tell me that no one says these horrible things. I’ve experienced all of them, and I have no doubt there are more that I haven’t had to deal with. Lovers, partners, family, friends, even a PhD in LGBT studies have stood and told me “this is what you mean when you say you’re bisexual. You are wrong about your identity. The thing you say you are and say you feel does not exist.” It fucking hurts. Telling us that people don’t do this to us doesn’t make it hurt less, it just tells us that here is yet another person we can’t talk to.

4. Gender binary language is used here. In this case it is deliberate: the assumptions above are by and large made by binary-identifying people who see people neatly divided into a gender binary. “He’s going to leave his boyfriend for a woman” is not only biphobic, it assumes trans/genderfluid/genderqueer/intersex people either don’t exist or couldn’t possibly be of sexual interest. And yes, it’s a problem, just not the subject of this particular rant.

Quaint Little Categories

Let’s play a game. I’m gonna erase everyone’s sexual orientation and kink identity for a second. Just for a minute. You’re not straight, you’re not gay, you’re not dominant, you’re not submissive. If you were at a party, you could look around and see lots of other people. You’d be attracted to some of them, probably barely register most, maybe see a few that actively repulse you. Your reaction could be based on physical attraction, demeanor, intellect, humor, political views, anything. Doesn’t matter. The point is, patterns emerge. Maybe all or most of the folks who catch your eye are male-bodied. If you female-identify, you’re likely to phrase this pattern as “I’m straight.” If you male-identify, you’ll say “I’m gay.”

Socially, it’s acceptable to rebuff advances by saying “sorry, I’m straight” or “actually, I’m gay.” And I agree with this. No one is obligated to be attracted to anyone else. Being able to say “no” is incredibly important.

But.

What if we imagine the same scenario again, only this time the person who’s attracted to you is of your preferred sex and/or gender. You’re still not interested. So you say “I’m flattered, but…” and what comes next? “I only date people of my own race”? “I’m just not attracted to people who are taller than me”? “I really can’t see myself with a disabled person”?

I’m guessing those all sound a little more uncomfortable. Definitely more polite to just say “no, thank you,” right?

I’m not going to start a rant about racism or sexism or perceived norms regarding what makes a person attractive. That’s not the point here. Let’s just go back to the party and take a look at the patterns again. (you can have your sexual identity back now, by the way. I’m done with it.) If you’re straight or gay you’ve already established that all (or almost all) of the people you’re attracted to are of a specific sex. There are probably other patterns, too: gregariousness, hair color, humor, height, weight, fashion, attitude, interests and competencies. If you’re kinky, you may look for specific behaviors that indicate a certain style of dominance or submission. This is not an attack. These patterns are not a bad thing. If anything, being aware of them shows that you know what you like. Go you!

What confuses me is that biological sex is somehow the one unimpeachable determinant of attraction for so many people. Somehow only liking men or only liking women is (1) normative and (2) treated as the sole basis for sexual identity. Imagine any other trait–let’s say hair color. If someone says “I only like redheads” she’s not a gingersexual, she’s a straight or gay or bisexual person with a fetish for redheads. Or we can pick on me for a moment: I hate having partners who are taller than I am. If I have to look up to meet someone’s eyes when we’re both standing together, I’m going to be irrationally annoyed to the point of distraction. Men, women, intersex, cis-, trans-, or genderfluid; doesn’t matter, there are people I’d be attracted to somewhere in all these groups. As long as they’re not too tall*. But if you ask my sexual orientation I’ll still say “bisexual**”

Same deal with D/s. When I say I switch, it’s almost never taken at face value. Sometimes I’m brushed off as a submissive with too much pride, which I at least understand: I am far more comfortable bottoming than topping in public scenes and most of my kinky social circle is male doms. Sometimes it’s statements that I was a “real brat” in an impact scene with zero D/s involved, or Fetmail from a submissive man reassuring me that I don’t have to pretend to be a switch to get male attention: there are men like him who love dominant women (Gee, thanks, stranger on the Internet. I never knew dominant females were in high demand. Guess I can quit this silly charade now).

I’m not trying to say everyone’s bisexual or a switch or that labels aren’t useful or any of that nonsense. Cisgendered heterosexual male dominant is a perfectly valid identity. The point is that when someone identifies that way, challenges to that identity are going to be pretty rare. Gender-not-quite-conforming bisexual female switch is just as valid. It would be nice to not have it challenged quite so often, especially in a theoretically pansexual open-to-all-orientations kink group.

 

*Even that’s not a total dealbreaker. The Fireman (whom I rarely see these days) is 6’2″. It drives me nuts, but not to the point that he isn’t worth playing with. I always pick really tall shoes when he’s going to be around, though.

**Not wholly accurate. Bisexual implies attraction to two binary sexes/genders, and I’m perfectly happy with anyone anywhere on the spectrum of either sex or gender. But it’s the word I’ve used since age fifteen, so I’m kind of attached.