This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an article entitled The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists, written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. The story examines the work of the American Institute of Bisexuality, while discussing the issue of bisexuality as an identity. The article addresses issues related to bisexuality, and hopefully, when reading it, it will also generate more questions than answers.
The simple question of what is bisexuality is not as simple as it might sound at first. For example, do we classify someone as bisexual because s/he has sex with both men and women? Does that mean that s/he needs to have 50% sex with a man and 50% sex with a woman? Let’s consider, for example, a woman who has slept with both men and women but has been in a long term monogamous relationship with a man – is she bisexual? How about someone who sleeps with a transgender person? Or someone who enjoys having sex with both men and women but is emotionally connected with one man? Or as Deric Shannon and Abbey Willis ask why have “some practices historically come to constitute identity while other have not?” These are just the beginnings of a variety of questions we encourage you to contemplate.
Following Robyn Ochs definition of her bisexuality, perhaps it’s more accurate to talk about bisexualities rather than bisexuality: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way and not necessarily to the same degree.” And equally important is to remember that the way we describe things (bisexuals, homosexuals, etc.) usually shapes our notion of reality (which oftentimes is more complex and fluid than we would like to admit).
For Freud bisexuality was a developmental phase and he believed that all individuals were born with bisexual potential. Alfred Kinsey, who conducted large-scale scientific inquiries into human sexuality, and later developed the Kinsey Scale, showed that most people fall within a continuum between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Yet as legal scholar Kenji Yoshino, points out bisexual erasure happens because both structures of heterosexuality and homosexuality have a stake in its erasure. He believes that people’s anxiety over having their own sexual orientation questioned leads to this erasure, combined with the cultural investment of the maintenance of monosexuals and monogamy, since bisexuals are generally assumed to be non-monogamous.
The bisexual identity (if we can call it that) and politics came out of the gay and lesbian political movements, as well as the feminist movement, of the 1970s. Yet shortly, within the queer movement, bisexuals became dissatisfied with the strict identity politics of many gay and lesbian groups. Self-identified bisexual individuals in the late 1980s began to agitate to have the term bisexual added to organization names and conference titles. In many cases, as with the Northampton Pride March, the term bisexuality was added, and then dropped, and then added again, as heated debates focused on who was, and/or should be part of the gay and lesbian community.
So who is bisexual? How we chose to answer this reflects ideology and cultural notions of sexuality and desire. If the body trumps the mind – then who we have sexual connections becomes more important than with whom we have emotional connections. If we define bisexuality by whom one has sex with, rather than how one fantasizes or imagines having sex, then if you have a man who has sex with women but only reaches orgasm by fantasizing about a transgender person, what does that make him? And if we want to define any individual with unacted-on desires or fantasies for the same sex as mentally or emotionally bisexual, does that mean we are all bisexuals?
As we live in a culture very much indoctrinated with gender roles, and the persistence of the patriarchal norm of the nuclear family headed by Dad with his caretaker sidekick, Mom, bisexuality is disruptive. Within patriarchy homosexuality is unsettling, and bisexuality is terrifying on multiple levels.
First, bisexuality opens up the possibility of gender fluidity. Second, even for homosexuals and lesbians, bisexuals deconstruct an already constructed identity of the “homosexual” – and often there are political implications to those identities.
Some fear that once we admit that bisexuality exists, what it means to be homosexual changes. It could mean that homosexuals could then sleep with people of the opposite sex, and then what? How does this fit into a narrative in which it is important to be able to say that I was born this way or that way? What happens if we allow for the possibility that one chooses one’s sexuality? Of course this is not always the case. Just like there are plenty of heterosexuals who do not want to sleep with a person of the same sex, there are plenty of homosexuals who do not want to sleep with a person of the opposite sex.
In short, when accepting bisexuality, we accept that sexuality is fluid. We also have to accept that our identities, sexual and other, are not set. That we change with time and that circumstances change us. Human sexuality is rich and diverse.
Perhaps by allowing for a less rigid definition of sexual relations, we will probably be much more authentic in our encounters with sexuality and with reality. Further, we need to remind ourselves that the personal will always be political and that the identity bisexual is a political one. Like all other identities bisexuality is linked to racism, nationalism, capitalism, class oppression, militarism, and gender oppression among other things.
We want to encourage people to choose a language/discourse that fractures the dominant language. Perhaps instead of bisexuality, we can simply say queer sexualities – sexualities that do not fit into boxes constructed to limit us – and for that we do not need research, we just need to engage in liberatory practices.