Bisexuality: An Introduction


I’ve noticed that there is still a lot of confusion about the existence of bisexual folks.

Before getting too far in, I just wanna reiterate that I’m of the opinion (as I’ve expressed ad nauseam on this blog) that there is little evidence to support the validity of a male/female (and thus hetero/homo) dichotomy, scientific or social, and so the idea of ‘bisexuality’ as ‘liking both’ is also off the mark. But if you—or I, rather—go around telling people “I’m pan!” they probably don’t know what you mean, or do and are annoyed by the distinction. Fair enough. For the purpose of this post, I’m just gonna say “bi” and you can assume I mean a complicated version of “bi” that might be synonymous with “pansexual”. All right, here we go…

Defining Bisexuality

The etymology of ‘bi’ and ‘pan’ would seem to differentiate these two sexualities in that ‘bi’ refers to “two” or “double”, while ‘pan’ refers to “all”, “every” or “whole”. But as is often the case, we can miss the much more complex meanings of words if we take their origins at face value. It is overly simplistic to define ‘bisexual’ as “being attracted to or having desire for both genders” and ‘pansexual’ as “being attracted to or having desire for all genders”. Although bisexuality and pansexuality can and perhaps should be described as separate sexualities, let’s use bisexual and genderqueer activist Shiri Eisner’s tendency in Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution (2013) to use them together (not synonymously). Using bi/pan together suggests their (sub)cultural and political connectedness[1]. While different in many ways, both have subversive political, activist, and community-building potential. So, when I use the term ‘bisexuality’, this is not to say that it assimilates pansexuality in a way which erases its importance or uniqueness, but rather that ‘bisexuality’ is a kind of umbrella term for non-binary and “bi-spectrum” identities and sexualities (Eisner 2013, 28-29). What are non-binary sexualities? They are outside the realm of heterosexual/homosexual, which assume that there are only two sexes (male/female) and so there can only be three possible combinations for thinking about sexuality (male/male, male/female, female/female). We’ll talk more about those and bi-spectrum sexualities later. One other idea to mention upfront is ‘monosexuality’, which is the idea that an individual only likes/is sexually attracted to one other gender—for most people, the “opposite” or “same” gender. When contrasted with monosexuality, bisexuality can then mean that a person is attracted to more than one gender (their own, not their own).

Ways to Think about Bisexuality

Eisner gives us some useful ways to think about and define bisexuality. She argues that bisexuality shouldn’t simply be thought of in terms of sexual attraction. It could also be thought of in terms of romantic attraction (about love and not just about sex), companionship, and friendship. She also says that sexualities, including bisexuality, can be thought about temporally. Sure, you didn’t think you were gay when you were ten, but now you are. But then in your mid-twenties you met that girl and definitely felt something. So which is it, gay or straight? Hmmm… Eisner says that we can think about bisexual identities as extending over time and manifesting seemingly as other sexualities (ex: gay, straight, asexual).

But these ideas are quite recent. What does a history of bisexuality look like?

Some Really Interesting Dull History

For early psychiatrists and neurologists of the 19th century, bisexuality was thought to be an immature, predecessor-form[2] that would develop into either ‘healthy’ sexuality (heterosexuality), or ‘unhealthy’, ‘mal-developed’ sexuality (homosexuality) (Eisner 2013, 15-16) (Angelides 2001, 61). All humans begin their sexual existence in this variable, ‘primordial’ state, according to this view of sexuality, but inevitably develop ‘full’ sexualities, even if it is an unhealthy form (ie homosexuality). If bisexuality persisted into adulthood, or the ‘present’[3], this would threaten the stability of the notion of sexuality as binary (hetero/homo, healthy/sick). Because sexuality and gender were intrinsically tied together in this framework, binary gender would also be under threat. Gender and sexuality studies scholar Steven Angelides argues that “‘full bisexuality’ had to be erased from the present tense in order to avert the crisis of meaning for binary categories of man, woman, heterosexual, and homosexual” (Angelides 2001, 191). In other words, ‘primordial’ bisexuality could not be viewed as carrying over into adulthood lest it threaten the legitimate and developed hegemonic hetero/homo binary, which in turn might threaten the male/female binary to which sexuality is innately linked[4].

TLDR: Bisexuality was practically erased as a human sexuality back in the day, and that probably has some influence on how we feel about bisexuality today (ex: bisexuals are sick, bisexuals don’t exist, etc).

Nowadays

Recent research on bisexuality by sexuality and gender theorists and scholars has produced different, and differently stigmatizing, results. Anthropologist April Scarlette Callis describes three prominent themes in research on bisexuality: invisibility, illegitimacy, and (often negative) stereotyping (Callis 2014, 67).  In the first theme, mainstream assumptions of monosexuality lead to non-binary erasure. In the second, the very existence of bisexuality is questioned; bisexuality is “a ‘transitional’ phase between straight and gay”; or bisexuals are cowardly lesbians or gay men who cling to the label ‘bisexual’ because they are afraid of “losing their ‘heterosexual privilege’”. Finally, bisexuals are stereotyped[5] variously as hypersexual, deviant, nonmonogamous, vectors of STIs[6], promiscuous, flaky, and treacherous[7].

Lesbian and Gay Participation in Bisexual Exclusion (Thanks a lot, guys.)

Rejection, erasure, and stigmatization of bisexuals by gays and lesbians further highlights the problematizing effect of non-binary sexualities upon the hetero/homo binary as well as the monosexual spectrum. In his article, “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure”, legal scholar and researcher Kenji Yoshino outlines three “strategies of erasure” employed by both heterosexual and homosexual contingents: class erasure, individual erasure, and delegitimation (Yoshino 2000, 397-399). These strategies manifest as the elision of bisexual as a category or class, which includes ‘lumping in’ bisexuals with lesbians and gays[8]; subsuming bisexual individuals within the categories lesbian or gay; dismissing bisexuals as “protohomosexuals”; and denigrating and stigmatizing bisexuals as “‘fence-sitters, traitors, cop-outs, closet cases’” and any of the other stereotypes mentioned in the above paragraph.

Why Bisexuals Make Everybody Nervous

Bisexuality has what feminists like to call “subversive potential”. The existence of bisexuality, along with other non-binary sexualities[9], suggests that binary sex, gender, and sexuality might not be fixed or even real. While this may feel threatening to the heteronormative[*] paradigm, and even to self-identifying homosexual individuals who have struggled for acceptance within this paradigm, the existence of non-binary sexualities open up possibilities for all sexualities—including those whose existences have not yet been recognized.

April Scarlette Callis talks about one of my favourite writers in her research: Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa. Anzaldúa wrote this amazing book of theory and poetry called Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, and everybody should read it because it’s awesome. Anyway, I digress… Callis uses Anzaldúa’s ideas about ‘borderlands’ to talk about non-binary gender identities and sexualities. Callis says that these sexualities exist within, or even create, a “sexual borderlands” (Callis 2014). Just as queer theorists have discussed the idea of ‘queer’ without defining it or by defining around it[10], Callis describes “borderland sexualities” like bisexuality as “almost impossible to read” (Callis 2014, 74). In short, she talks about borderland sexualities as lying between heterosexuality and homosexuality. I don’t really agree with this, because it reinforces the idea of bisexuality as potential transitional, and it keeps it stuck inside the hetero/homo binary, even if it’s a binary spectrum. Well, no thanks, I’ll pass. But she says other stuff that is potential useful.

For Callis, borderland sexualities are embodied; they can be located in physical places and times. Her ethnographic research with queer and nonmonosexual communities describe borderland spaces and moments in which non-binary and nonmonosexual individuals are interpellated variously as straight, gay, masculine, feminine, trans*, and so on, depending on place and time. The notion that borderland sexualities are embodied has been problematic for bisexual individuals with intimate partners who make them ‘look gay’, or ‘look straight’; bisexuality, unlike heterosexuality or homosexuality, is forever invisible because we can only think about sex and sexuality in terms of male/female, hetero/homo.

However, Callis also describes borderland sexualities as ‘cracking’ and complicating this hegemony. While there may be distinctive ‘borderland sexualities’, in reality all sexualities are affected by the presence of the borderlands:

Though the sexual borderlands can be viewed as containing only non-binary sexualities such as bisexual and queer, in reality they touch on every sexual identity. Individuals of all sexualities react to the sexual borderlands, by crossing them, inhabiting them, fortifying against them, or denying them. In these actions the sexual borderland becomes an integral way of defining the sexual binary, just as the sexual binary provides the boundaries of the borderland. (77)

Now if that’s true, it becomes easier to see why bisexuals make people nervous. They feel less secure in their own sexuality (hetero or homo) thanks to the presence of bisexuals. Whims, feelings, longings, passing thoughts, fantasies, even dreams about sexual stuff involving people we’re not supposed to be attracted to (whether we’re gay or straight) suddenly take on potential meaning, or we feel threatened enough that we work to suppress those ideas and emotions.

What Bisexuality Threatens

Nonmonosexual, non-binary, and nonmonogamous identities continue to be marginalized and stigmatized even within LGBTQ communities, and yet at the same time it is not unreasonable to suggest that the existence of sexual borderlands is threatening to hegemonic genders and sexualities—that is, man/woman, hetero/homo. What is it, exactly, that bisexuality and other borderland sexualities is threatening? Elisabeth Däumer’s “Queer Ethics” indirectly responds to this question as it attempts to “[devise] alternative, non-oppressive ways of responding to alterity” (Däumer 1992). In her article, Däumer recounts a conversation she held with a lesbian-identified friend about the possibilities of lesbian-identified, male-assigned individuals having relationships with lesbian women, potentially in which neither individual self-identifies as ‘woman’ or ‘man’. Would this not be considered ‘lesbian’ “in the utopian feminist sense of the term” (ibid, 95)? Däumer’s friend responded that individuals claiming such identities would “efface her own identity as a lesbian, and, by stretching the term beyond any intelligible, useful boundaries perpetuate lesbian invisibility in new and dangerous ways” (ibid, 95-96).

It seems that the threat of bisexuality lies in its subversion of identity categories—a problem which, interestingly enough, might be resolved if homosexual “allies” of bisexuals would simply make room for a ‘bisexual identity’. And some self-identified bisexuals would no doubt seize the opportunity for in-group acceptance and recognition. However, to do so would be a denial of the potentiality of borderland sexualities.

I agree with Callis’ idea that sexual borderlands, and bisexuality, will not necessarily destroy the hetero/homo paradigm. The outward pressure which the borderlands are exerting serves to make room for new identities while not necessarily collapsing the binaries within and between which they exist. Even so, it seems inevitable that binaries under pressure (like hetero/homo) eventually fracture, rarely in straight lines, and always in unpredictable ways. Perhaps the fissures which borderland sexualities like bisexuality create will split open into new and unforeseen queer sexualities and identities.

For the sake of simplicity, when I’m asked I just tell people I’m bisexual. If it seems likely they know what it means, I prefer to say that I’m pansexual. But these are both inaccurate. There is hardly a human being who feels sexual attracted to all or most of any gender; hardly any self-identified man is attracted to all women, and hardly any self-identified woman is attracted to all men, and this is also true for gay folks. And I’m willing to bet that there is nary a bisexual who is attracted to everybody. Give me a break. But at least for me, gender/sex is not an accurate predictor of who I like, find attractive, am aroused by, want to be in a relationship with, want to be physically or spiritually or emotionally close to, etc etc. It gets even more complicated and interesting when you think about how the individuals that we’re attracted to think of themselves—has society identified them as male, but they perceive themselves as female? Or as both? Or as having no gender at all? Rather than thinking about bisexuality as confusing, it seems better to think of it as…interesting.

My sources, which are stuff you might find useful if you are interested in this kind of thing:

  • Angelides, Steven. 2001. A History of Bisexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bedecarré, Corrinne. 1997. “Swear by the Moon.” Hypatia 12 (3): 189-197.
  • Callis, April Scarlette. 2014. “Bisexual, pansexual, queer: Non-binary identities and the sexual borderlands.” Sexualities 17 (1): 66-67.
  • Däumer, Elisabeth. 1992. “Queer Ethics: Or, The Challenge of Bisexuality to Lesbian Ethics.” Hypatia 91-105.
  • Eisner, Shiri. 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkley, CA: Seal Press.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.
  • Sullivan, Nikki. 2003. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press.
  • Yoshino, Kenji. 2000. “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure.” Stanford Law Review 353-461.

Footnotes and Endnotes

[1] It is also important to point out that, of the research which has been done, bisexuality is by far the most extensively researched of the non-binary sexualities (Callis 2014, 66-67).

[2] Alienist and neurologist James Kiernan called this the “ancestral type”, claiming that “the lowest animals” are bisexual and/or hermaphroditic (Angelides 2001, 23). The physician Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) similarly attributed bisexuality to “the lower animals” (Angelides 2001, 44).

[3] Steven Angelides discusses the ‘present’ in terms of the human species (evolutionary ‘present’) as well as the human individual (individual lifetime ‘present’) (Angelides 2001, 48).

[4] To clarify, I am not connecting ‘hetero’ to ‘male’ or ‘homo’ to ‘female’, but rather I wish to make clear that the ‘scientific’ consensus among early psychologists (psychologists who ‘invented’ bisexuality) was that healthy sexuality was predetermined by sex—healthy men have an inborn desire for women, and vice versa.

[5] For more on stigmatization and delegitimation of bisexuality, see Yoshino 2000, 395-429.

[6] See also: Yoshino 2000.

[7] See also: Bedecarré 1997.

[8] This may be one of the dangers of acronyms like ‘LGBT’, which on the one hand has become emblematic of queer community, yet on the other simultaneously hierarchizes identities (queer monosexualities/bisexualities/trans* identities) and merges them in a way which centers certain identities (gay, lesbian) while obscuring the others.

[9] Examples of non-binary sexualities include people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, heteroflexible, trisexual, panromantic, polysexual, omnisexual, anthrosexual, and so on (Eisner 2013, 29).

[10] In A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003), Nikki Sullivan quotes definitions provided by Chris Berry and Annamarie Jagose: “‘Queer is an ongoing and necessarily unfixed site of engagement and contestation’” (43). She also quotes David Halperin’s “definition”: “‘[Queer] describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance’” (43).

[*] Heteronormative means that we assume everybody is or should be heterosexual and that society should be based around this idea. In America, that means our culture is centered around one relationship idea: a man and a woman who are (ideally) married, who have kids, and who are the core of the nuclear household. And we should all be striving to achieve this ideal relationship. Obviously, relationships take on many more forms than just this (ex: people who don’t get married but live together or have children together, queer relationships, non-monogamous relationships, even childless couplings fall short of this ideal), but they don’t tend to fly in our culture—because we’re heteronormative.

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