Sunday, March 23, 2014

In defense of not identifying as bisexual (if you don't happen to be bisexual)

There's the nice article about male bisexuality, but then, oh, is the discussion. There are some in the comments who believe bisexuality doesn't exist (silly! gratuitously offensive!), or who (quite rightly) point to the many instances of gay men claiming to also be attracted to women, for reasons other than also being attracted to women, to say not that there are no bisexual men, but that of the men so identifying, many are not that. There are others who think women can be / definitely are sexually fluid, but not men, oh no, not that there's anything wrong with that. (Ugh.)

But the popular view, to which one must smugly nod along, seems to be that we are are bisexual, or that if we're not feeling particularly bisexual, we should apologize. Bisexuals see the person. Whereas straight and gay sorts see... their partner's resemblance to their favorite celebrity crush? I have no idea. (OK, I do have some idea, but with modern understandings of gender, one no longer conflates it with anything anatomical.) Never mind that one could be bisexual and shallow - if you're attracted to Kim Kardashian and Ryan Gosling, say, and would settle for no less. (Note the desperate attempt to keep celebrity references current, and not make it that obvious that my mind for such things lives in 1996.)

Obviously, obviously, obviously, but a disclaimer all the same: At this point, there's obviously more pressure on bisexual people to be straight than on straight people to be bisexual. I'm agnostic on whether the pressure is greater for bisexuals to be gay than on gay people to be bisexual - sort of depends on the context. But one can see a tide turning, as if we're somehow, as a society, skipping over an affirmation of bisexuality as valid and to be respected, and jumping ahead to a condemnation of anyone who'd dare place him- or her- or any other pronoun's self in any sort of sexual-orientation box.

I suppose there's nothing to be lost by assuming everyone's bisexual, or that you yourself are bisexual, in the sense that the possibility you'll be attracted to someone of the gender you didn't expect is non-zero. It's all constructs, right? In a society where same-sex attraction was encouraged, maybe those of us who've never experienced it would have more thoroughly considered the possibility, and have managed to summon something for someone of the same sex, and would consequently feel something other than lowered self-esteem when confronted with a Natalia Vodianova billboard. Could be! We don't live in that society, so what do we know?

If we've decided that it's as offensive to rule out an entire gender as it would be to do the same regarding an entire race, then fine, we are all bisexual, even if not all of us have yet met people of both genders we're attracted to. This is, after all, the only accurate way to discuss race and attraction - those who grow up in homogenous environments very often (or so I've heard; I grew up in NYC!) experience their first interracial attraction only once in a more diverse setting. If it's now the thing to extend this to gender, so what if common sense suggests otherwise, i.e. that gender isn't like race, but a far bigger distinction? What's the harm?

But in terms of making sense of the world, there are many people (most?) for whom an attractive person of one gender means something really different than an attractive person of the other. How straight or gay (i.e. not-bi) people interact with men will differ from how they interact with women. (I refer you to the official WWPD definition of sexual orientation, from 2006, which I stand by as much as I do anything from that long ago.) It's something beyond having a type. It's how you understand who you are, who your partner is/partners are. It matters - as comes up in the article - if you're gay and trying to explain why you can't just fall in love with someone of the opposite gender.

Again, while everything's a construct, while "sexual orientation" is a modern invention and so forth, we do live in the society we live in, and for many people, that's going to mean noticing the best-looking person of one gender but not the other in a room. It does meaningfully describe some people's lived experience. Maybe there's a spectrum, a Kinsey scale, what have you. But people who are, for all practical purposes, into just men or just women may not be as rare as all that, and at any rate do appear to exist. What I mean is, it's not, day-to-day, as if every straight and gay person is struggling to repress attraction to the same/opposite gender. Those who are should absolutely, if conditions permit, and if they so choose, come out as bisexual. Those who are not are justified in continuing to identify in that dreaded binary way.


caryatis said...

Really, we've "decided" that it's offensive to rule out races for dating purposes? I certainly did that when I was dating. Just as the straight man/woman interaction differs from the straight man/man interaction, so do interactions between people of different races.

Phoebe said...

When dating, people rule out tons of people for tons of reasons. Fair and unfair doesn't enter into it. Because it's wrong to compel someone to enter into a romantic involvement without consent, it inevitably follows that we can rule out potential partners for any which reason, and if the only people we find acceptable are Swedish swimsuit models, so be it. If you're OK with your restrictions limiting your options, they can be as restrictive as you'd like.

But it would be strange, I think, as well as potentially racist, to altogether rule out ever being attracted to someone of a race from which you've never thus far met anyone you're attracted to. It's not like gender, where a gay man, say, can state with confidence that he's not attracted to women, this despite having not met all the women in the world. With race, it's quite likely that those attracted only to those of certain backgrounds simply never much interacted with those of whichever other backgrounds, at least never in an intimately social context. If they'd been, say, the only Asian kid at an otherwise all-black high school, their crushes might have been otherwise. Whereas virtually all of us have interacted with men and women, and had ample opportunities to form crushes on either/both.

And, in much simpler terms, while anyone can date whomever they'd like, it's plainly offensive to announce a racial preference in dating, whereas it's not plainly sexist to announce a gender preference.

Alyx said...

hah, and then you have the trans/queer community where bisexuals are currently looked down on as being exclusionary of non-binary genders and "pansexual" is the only conscientious way to identify.

more personally, I kind of struggle with how to affirmatively identify when it comes to sexuality. Like, I'm definitely far more attracted to men, to the extant that I can't really see myself in a relationship with a woman, so... does it really matter in terms of identity if I have like, a minor (and at this point mostly historical) attraction to women? I feel like IDing as bi rather than straight would be kind of lame, unless I was actually in a relationship with a woman for some reason; but then there's the argument that I should affirmatively ID as bi out of, I dunno, solidarity or whatever? But wouldn't that kind of be annoying to people who are actually visibly bisexual?

Phoebe said...


Re: the first part of your comment, I think Caryatis points to something essential, which is that on an individual basis, we've all got the right to restrict our dating pool however we see fit. The iffiness comes in announcing these restrictions. It's one thing to reject every man who shows interest, because maybe you just didn't like those men. It's another entirely to rule out all men including those you've not yet met.

Re: the second, this gets at the whole sexual-orientation-as-life-organizer issue. Practically speaking, you'd be wasting people's time going out on blind dates (say) with women. At the same time (and this totally comes from a recent offline conversation), does bi have to mean 50-50? It seems fine to me (not that I'd be the one deciding this!) if people who feel only 10% interested in one gender identified as bi if they wish, not even to get into the romantically interested in one, physically interested in the other, sorts of distinctions.

What seems wrong to me, I suppose, is the idea that we must all identify as sexually fluid, even in the absence of any such experience or interest. Part of why I object to this - and what I might have gotten into in some longer version of this post - is that it's become yet another a way for straight women to demonstrate agreeability - leaving open the possibility that they'd fool around with another woman. If men and women alike were expected to identify as fluid (regardless of how they felt), I'd be more OK with it.

Flimmerdimdim said...

This post seemed... pretty pointless. Bisexuals are finally standing up and having a conversation about EXISTING while people are saying we don't exist and you're trying to say we have a superiority complex. How is this productive in any way? There is literally no need for you to defend a straight identity, whereas bisexual identity is being told it doesn't exist.

Also, there are more than two genders. gender could be described as a spectrum. If you claim to be attracted to only one gender, or "both genders" as many bisexuals do, then you are erasing the multitudes of genders that exist outside male and female. You actually can't know someone's gender by looking at them, either. (Just mull this over.)

Phoebe said...


OK, first off, I don't think bisexuals have a "superiority complex." The point of my post - I, at least, think it had a point - was that many commenters to the NYT story (not all of whom, maybe even few of whom, actually identify as bisexual) opted to argue that anyone who *can't* overlook gender when choosing a partner is somehow flawed. While yes, obviously, it's easier to be straight than bi or gay (an obvious but important point I spell out in the post!), there is a need to defend a straight identity. Especially if you're a straight woman - part of the whole 'women are sexually fluid' line is, ironically enough, about still further demands on straight women to be pleasing to men. This is something I've written about elsewhere, so see this post if you're curious.

As for mulling things over, I'm aware of the different understandings of gender, from the far-right all-that's-not-hetero-and-binary-makes-God-sad to the liberal-arts-college we-are-all-pansexual approach. As for what can and can't be known when looking at someone, on the one hand, true, but this can get into murky territory of... you're far more likely to offend a woman with short hair, menswear, and no makeup by asking her what gender pronoun she prefers, than to be seen as ultra-sensitive for doing so. Asking will be seen - and perhaps rightly so! - as challenging a woman's right to be a woman without looking traditionally feminine.

And as for this - "gender could be described as a spectrum" -not in most everyday circumstances, it can't. There are exceedingly few people who identify as neither male nor female, or both/and. These few should be accepted, respected, etc., but this can be done without claiming that we're all merely on a spectrum, something that denies the reality of life experience. Maybe gender is best understood as a spectrum within a binary - yes, everyone as an individual feels a unique mix of masculine and feminine. But the way sexual orientation appears to work, there are a great many people attracted to only one gender. That means you might like a woman who's more feminine or more masculine, but if you tally up the people you've been into, lo and behold they're all women. The binary has certain descriptive value, even if it, agreed, doesn't cover everything.

Hope that helps!