Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bisexuality en Vogue and Other Myths and Legends

For a while, I've been thinking about writing a myth-busting post about bisexuality*.  Then Daniel Warner wrote an article in the Huffington Post, which neatly provides a run-through of almost every myth there is, entitled Bisexuality: Is it Fun, Non-Committal or Just Plain Greedy? (via @GirlWithTheCane) Sometimes, someone will ask a rhetorical question and I find myself compelled to answer. Warner explains,
"As an adult I have never really given bisexuality much thought. When people described themselves as being bisexual I automatically assumed they were gay (if male), trying to make themselves more interesting (if female) or desperate to broaden their appeal and fan base (if famous)."
I recently read that one reason Caitlin Moran's feminism is so appealing is that she doesn't use the word phallocentric. So I won't. It's just that our culture loves winkles, and in the face of the slightest ambiguity, assumes that a person has a preference for winkles (or at least a preference for the kind of people who usually possess them). If a man wears a pink shirt or a flash of paisley, my Dad thinks he must like winkles.  The other day, a friend referred to a boy liking amateur dramatics, as if that suggested he was winkily inclined. When lesbians fail to shave their heads and wear standard-issue dungarees, it is often assumed that deep down, they too have a winkle predilection. We live in a phallocentric culture winkle wonderland.

As a younger woman, the suggestion that I said I was bisexual to seem more interesting (or even sexier) made me feel quite sick with rage. I didn't have the most difficult adolescence as queer adolescences go, but it was pretty tough. Growing up in the environment I did, I was disgusted by my own emotions - not just sexual feelings towards female friends, which felt like the creepiest kind of treachery - but my own capacity for love.  For falling in love with the wrong people.  It wasn't the biggest factor, but this self-disgust contributed to a deep and nearly deadly depression at the age of eighteen. Because, you know, I thought it made me more interesting...

There was a period of history when a number of famous men came out as bisexual before later describing themselves as gay.  I can't imagine Elton John was actually the last to do this, but I can't think of any recent examples.  I do know that the open bisexuality of famous men is still considered spoken about as a stepping stone to coming out properly.  In every day life, bisexual men are often treated as if they're still half in denial about their true sexuality and that any relationships they have with women are somehow a facade.

I care much less about what folks think of me now, but I worry for youngsters coming up in not greatly improved circumstances. Despite often enjoying straight privilege, bisexual people are more vulnerable to mental ill health than gay people. As a youngster, I didn't know how to describe my sexuality, even to myself, and felt I had made a mistake with every new feeling - oh, I must be a lesbian, oh no, turns out I'm straight all along. I was an outsider, but without an outsider community to turn to.  As an adult, I feel a sense of belonging among queer people, at least until the Daniel Warners of this world chip in.
"Bisexual... Liberal Democrat... you also only drink fair trade coffee, ride a bicycle and recycle your newspapers... unshaven armpits and mohair sweaters."
In fairness, all of that is true.  Bisexual people are better human beings than straight or gay people, apart from our tragically misplaced faith in moderate-sounding politicians. And we love mohair.  I once had this mohair sweater with an asymmetrical neckline, and thick black and baby pink stripes - oh, you had to see it - it was gorgeous!
"I have never suffered indecisive people. You make a choice and stick with it. Good or bad, wrong or right, back door or front door, you better know your way in and your way out and just get on with it. Bisexuality seemed lazy rather than greedy. I couldn't imagine anyone who would be thrilled finding out that their partner didn't really mind if they were Jack or Jill, unless, of course, they were both being taken up the hill together."
See, it's like this.  I lack whatever wiring it is which allows people to discriminate, romantically and sexually, between people of different genders.  When I find people attractive, it isn't because of their gender.  There are sexual characteristics I find attractive, but not for their own sake. It depends on what suits a person.  It depends on the whole package.

Less unusually, I don't have a particular preference for colouring, height or body shape. It's not that I'm not fussy - physical beauty matters a great deal to me, but there are different kinds. Similarly, I read widely, but that doesn't mean that when I recommend a book, I can somehow be considered less fussy than someone who only reads within one narrow genre.

Some people only tend to fancy tall people or blond people or big-bottomed people - and that's okay - but for most of us our attraction tends to work on a more case by case basis. For me, gender is part of that flexibility.

As for partners not being thrilled, I have learnt through extensive research that Daniel Warner has a beard. I wonder if it would be a worry to him if a partner didn't have a particular preference for a bearded man over someone clean shaven?  Some people love beards, some people hate them, but lots of people judge a man's attractiveness according to the complete package. Bisexuality is like that... and then again, it isn't.

After all, if a bisexual person fancies you, then they're attracted to you over a much bigger pool of people than if they were straight or gay. They could fancy literally anyone and yet they fancy you. Of course, whether you feel honoured about this depends on who they are (although bisexual people are almost as hot as they are ethical), but if you were into them, why on Earth would you not be thrilled?
"Now, it's fashionable to kiss a girl and like it. It's okay to admit you may have had a dalliance with Jim when you're really into Jessie and it's not frowned upon if you can get it up for Belinda when you're getting down with Bill."
Yes, yes, bisexuality is naturally non-monogamous.

No, of course not!  It's like this.  Some gynophiles have a preference for say, white women with blonde hair - and as I've said, that's okay.  But most of us aren't wired that way (and arguably, there are strong cultural influences on the characteristics we find attractive, so wiring may be the wrong word in any case).

Most gynophiles (I should imagine, I haven't had time to ask) have the capacity to be attracted to lovely women of any colouring. Straight men and gay women don't tend to have a succession of girlfriends who look exactly the same (when they do, it tends to raise eyebrows).

So imagine a lesbian meets and falls in love with a beautiful white woman with blonde hair.  They marry and live happily ever after. Does anyone ever ask this lesbian, "Don't you miss having sex with black women? What about Asian women? What about redheads?  How can you have a fulfilling sex life without including all these people with characteristics you could be attracted to?"

(Nor, incidentally, do other non-blonde women approach the couple and expect them to want a threesome. Nor is her wife likely to demand a threesome with a brown-haired woman she happens to fancy, on the grounds that because our lesbian can be attracted to non-blonde women, she must be attracted to - and happy to open up her marriage to - this particular one. I hope.**)

At one point, I became smitten with Queen Latifah and rented pretty much every film she's ever been in.  She's been in some truly terrible films, lovely though she is.  I later had a phase of infatuation with Tom Hollander and rented every film he's ever been in.  Those films were better, on average.  I consider these two actors to be very sexually attractive, but I acknowledge that they are very very different in manner and physique.

So say I got together with Queen Latifah - it could happen one day. Why does being bisexual mean I couldn't be happily monogamous, when say, the capacity to fancy someone short, slight, white and very very English, doesn't? Is gender really the biggest difference between Queen Latifah and Tom Hollander? Really?

Oh okay, but my point is, not to me.

Of course, some people are promiscuous.  Some people (gay, straight or bi) are unfulfilled having sex with just one person and will seek out a wide variety of sexual partners. However, most people can be very happy with one person.  Most people who are lucky enough to fall in love, fall in love with one person, and are only seriously interested in having sex with that person (some monogamous people have a promiscuous fantasy life, others do not).  Some people fall in love with and partner more than one person, but I've never known a polyamourous person to keep a checklist of characteristics that each partner must represent.

It's all about love, man.  Clearly you don't have to be bisexual to have sex with people of all genders - most gay men, and quite a few gay women I know have had heterosexual sex at some point, whether under social pressure or as an experiment and very many straight people - especially men - have had homosexual experiences at some point. They never had to make a choice and stick to it.  In some cases, they had to find out who they were.  In other cases, they were horny and went where the mood took them.  Reports of pleasure, horror and dissonance vary widely.

But bisexuality, like homosexuality, is ultimately about romantic feeling, identity and love - the big stuff.  If it was just sex, we could all choose to live straight lives and avoid a lot of hassle. And I suspect that, when people are allowed to be themselves, the capacity for monogamy, commitment and devotion is fairly evenly spread across all orientations.

"Bisexuality is en vogue, it's the new black and it's the boy/girl thing that's on every boy and girls lips."
If this were true, there wouldn't be articles like this one.  It wouldn't be okay to talk about people of any sexuality as if it were something between a lifestyle choice and a rude joke.

As a bisexual cis woman partnered to a man, I have three metric tonnes of straight privilege.  But there are plenty of bisexual people who suffer the full force of society's homophobia every day and still have this kind of crap to deal with, even from within the queer community. And that really sucks.

In other news, I had a rant at Where's the Benefit? about Lord Freud and the Risk-Taking Poor.

* To me, bisexual means having sexual desires towards people of both my gender (homo) and other genders (hetero).  Other people believe the bi in bisexual implies that there are only two genders, or that a bisexual person is only attracted to men and women.  Such people may prefer pansexual, and I would prefer to use pansexuality for clarity, only very few people know what it means and it still conjures up images of fauns to me. Not that fauns aren't tremendously sexy, what with cute little horns and tail, the posture of a man wearing high heels and those legs, covered in lovely mohair...

** Yes, this did happen to me.  The odd thing was that the woman in question was straight, was with someone else and had shown no interest in either of us, but these seemed smaller obstacles to my ex than getting me to agree to it.  When I didn't, I was told that I only said I was bisexual to seem more interesting.


Matthew Smith said...

There was a period of history when a number of famous men came out as bisexual before later describing themselves as gay. I can't imagine Elton John was actually the last to do this, but I can't think of any recent examples.

Michael Stipe.

The Goldfish said...

Ooh, I don't know.

Thing is, Michael Stipe never really identified as bisexual (although "an equal opportunities lech" sounds about right to me) and hasn't (to my knowledge) identified as gay.

I know I may be arguing the toss, but part of me feels very defensive about other people's labels.

What I certainly don't believe is that Michael Stipe is a gay man who should have known he was gay, but went for bi to soften he blow. I think many people believe that Elton John (and others back then) knew for sure, but went for bi because it seemed like gay-lite, at a time when being gay in the public eye was pretty much unheard of.

Matthew Smith said...

I definitely remember an interview with Stipe in the NME around 1994 or so (it must have been around the time the Monster album was released) and it definitely said he was bisexual (he didn't, but the opening paragraph to the interview did). I read interviews more recently with Amy Ray (of the Indigo Girls, an Atlanta-based female duo that REM worked with in the late 80s) in which Ray referred to Stipe having recently come out as gay, and definitely said something about it not having been quite acceptable in the 80s when they were building up their fan base in the South (they were a college rock act before they were a major band with a folk tinge, remember). It just so happens that Stipe came out properly just as REM were about to split up.

In the 90s also, you didn't really find gay men much in the folk or straight rock scene (plenty of women, though) - they were mainly associated with the dance club scene. Not sure what the equivalent over there is.

The Goldfish said...

Oh dear, that's a pretty good case for it, really! Michael Stipe is an idol and always came across as someone who didn't care too much what people made of him. You're right - there were a few bisexual men in the scene, like Brian Molko, but I can't think of any gay indie or rock musicians in the 90s.

On the plus side, I now have What's the Frequency Kenneth? in my head as opposed to Deck the Halls with Bows of Holly, which was beginning to grate.

GirlWithTheCane said...

I commented on his article, and got this in return:

Hi, Thank you for your comment and clarity.The article was meant to read as an irreverent polemic but has been misinterpreted. I totally take on board your comment.

I gave him kudos for coming back to comment when reactions to the article had been so overwhelmingly negative (and with good reason)...and I can see that perhaps he was so wrapped up in what he was trying to accomplish that he didn't consider how it came across (I'm giving generous benefit of the doubt, but I've also written things that have been misinterpreted)...but the fact that the editors let it go up as-is goes on the list of reasons why I read Huff Post less and less frequently.

The Goldfish said...

Hi Sarah,

Yes - really quite brave to return to the fray! I looked at the author's other work, and he seemed a reasonable, often funny guy who did seem to aim, more than anything, to entertain. But I think it's fair to say he messed badly with this.

I do try to avoid to get personal about people whose words or views I'm criticising, and I hope I didn't go overboard with Warner. But like lots of homophobic sentiments, these stereotypes have the power to bring us back to places where we felt very vulnerable and ashamed.

I'm afraid don't like the Huff Post much at all. I don't like the way it's run and the fact that all but a handful of writers are entirely unpaid. They say if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. If you pay writers nothing, you're more likely to get content that's clumsy, badly written and controversial without substance. And in a way, winding the readership up works well for the website - it means people tweet and share these articles, and generates more hits for the advertisers. Readers can be upset and the writers may be eaten alive in the comments, but until people stop reading altogether - and there's often something decent on there - there's very little cost to the Post.

Unknown said...

THANK YOU. This is about the best I've heard anyone put it. Sharing!