Friday, June 22, 2007

Sticking on some more labels

To carry on from where I left off last week...

“Why," asks my correspondent "is the fact that the gender one is attracted to of such importance in our conceptions of sex and not, say, the fact that we have such a conception in the first place?”

Indeed. And in a different kind of world it wouldn’t have anything like such importance. At the moment, though, for society at large, the biological sex of your sexual partners is by far the most important thing. Not whether you only like people who are older or younger (unless this is by many years); a difference race to you or the same; always blondes or never blondes; short or tall; kind or cruel. All these are seen as behaviour choices, rather than as saying something profound. They are things that can be changed not innate. Sexual orientation, on the other hand, is meant to be innate – although I personally believe it is far more complicated than that.

And as you say, there is certainly no concern over whether I have a partner I never have sex with, always dump them after six months, want sex three times a day, don’t ever really want sex with anyone, like it swinging from the chandeliers or standing on my head. Etc.

To my mind, that’s because the whole way society is organised is predicated on straight good/gay bad. Bisexuality, or in anyway refusing to accept that dichotomous view of sexuality, blurs the boundaries too much. Straight men in particular need to know that the man they are dealing with is definitely straight or definitely gay in order that they know how to deal with him. In addition, the appearance of monogamy is important to the maintenance of the nuclear family. But it’s only an appearance. For probably most people of every sexuality, at least in 2007, long-term monogamy is a goal that they can never quite attain. Bisexuality throws that into question, even if the individuals concerned are 150% faithful.

To those involved though, as distinct from the concerns of mainstream society, other sorts of sexual identities can be at least as compelling. I’m thinking here of people I’ve interviewed and who I have found through predominantly bisexual forums. It seems to become an identity if they feel it is something they are oppressed over and which is fundamental to their sense of self. For instance, to my surprise actually, many of them identified as poly at least as much as they identified as bi. Polyamory – loving more than one person – is increasingly something its adherents are public and vocal about. To me personally, relationships are “poly” rather than people are “poly”. It is me, on the other hand, rather than my relationships, that is bisexual.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sticking a label on it

I was inspired to write this particular post by an email from another reader, and it's all about identity.

Is it, he asks, that "sexual identity is at the forefront of what it means to have an identity at all". Yes and no. For me personally, regarding my own identity, that's true. Identifying as bisexual is very important to me because it is so very invisible/misunderstood/stereotyped and so I have a vested interest in putting the record straight. But having a sexual identity is absolutely irrelevant to many/most people – as long as they are either completely het or are so casually bi that their same-sex behaviour can be written off as a bit of drunken fumbling that says nothing about them.

Then of course there is the philosophical issue of what actually "identity" means. In the way we use it today, it’s generally speaking about oppression. Another identity that used to be very important to me – "mother" – is not, now that my son is an adult and not in need of my day-to-day care. I am not oppressed as the mother of a 23-year-old! Being the mother of a 3 or 13 year old is an entirely different matter. "Mother" as an identity has changed into “mother” purely as describing a relationship.

In many ways, of course, the whole issue of identity as we see it at all is very historically, geographically and culturally specific. As far as I can tell, most people, most of the time, see and saw themselves as identifying with a tribe, a family, a group, a class – differentiating themselves from people who weren’t part of that group.

Identity is about differentiating yourself from those around you and this applies to all sorts of identity. Therefore I don't need to identify as bisexual when I am in, say, a bi conference. But when everyone assumes I am straight (or at times in the past when they I assumed I was a lesbian) I need to speak the truth about myself. Similarly, if I am abroad I will say I am British whereas here no one would think I was anything else. But I might say I was a Londoner if I was in Scotland, or indeed that I am half-Welsh if the subject comes up.

In the USA, compared to all other countries, identity in general is spectacularly important. As anyone observing that culture knows, people are always hyphenated (Italian-American, Irish-American, African-American and so forth) in a way I don’t think happens anywhere else. Perhaps this is partly why sexual identity is so important there too (apart from the fact that great swaths of the country express levels of homophobia and fundamentalist moral fervour that would only be laughed at in the UK, of course!)

I have rather belatedly been reading Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs. Among many other very interesting things she talks about the way sexual identity has changed there. “Lesbian” for instance used to be a political label, a rallying cry, whereas now, she says, identity has become a “behaviour-descriptor”. It describes what you do, not what you think or feel. Many women now say things like: “I’m a butch top” etc. While that might help them get the sort of sex they want, it doesn’t really do much for anybody’s liberation.

More on this in the next post...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I'll get back to you on that

People sometimes send me private emails (as distinct from public comments) about things that I have written - and this particularly applied to my post back in January on Michael Bailey's work about the supposed non-existence of bisexuality in men.
One man in particular questioned how many bi men there are - I would say from a perspective of disappointment, not hostility - as he met very few that he considered to be "really bi". Part of the trouble, he suggested, was that there was no agreed definition of the term "bisexual" - it could mean people who are only marginally interested in both sexes, or those who truly don't differentiate on the basis of gender.
I wrote him a long reply. It's too long to post all in one go, so here's a section...

You said that one of the problems is that there are no
precise definitions of bisexuality - it's not
necessarily a 50-50 attraction. To my mind, that's one
of the beauties as well as one of the problems of
bisexuality - it covers so many different types of
feelings / behaviours / attractions etc. Fritz Klein
came up with the definitions gay-bi, straight-bi, and
bi-bi. Personally, although I think this is useful, I
think of sexuality more on the spectrum model - that
some are towards the gay end, some the straight end,
and most of us are floating around in the middle. We
may be more at one end or the other, or slide up and

But is bisex about "doing it", or feeling it, or
having experienced it, or self-identity, or what?
Probably a mixture. I'm sure you know, too, that all
bisexuals seem to be quite different from each other.
I have come across a lot of men whose feelings towards
other men seem tremendously confused. They like the
sex with men, but don't "fancy" them. They only fancy
them once they are naked. They only want to have sex
with them when women are in the room. They only want
very masculine men. Or men when they are dressed as
women (ie transvestites who are only dressing up for
sex, not transsexuals). Some bi men do want to go on
the gay scene and get men, but perhaps not in huge
numbers. Some of them seem to hate the gay scene,
though, not because they don't really want sex with
men but because they find it alienating in one way or

Yes, it is true that men with high libidos do have sex
with people they're not attracted to. But, quite
honestly, so do women. Not to the same extent as men,
but they do. Women who are swingers, for instance. Or
perhaps they are turned on by the situation, what they
are doing, a feeling of "naughtiness" perhaps, rather
than experiencing desire for that person per se.
Someone I interviewed, for instance, described having
sex with men, especially transvestites, as "extra
pervy". Now, of course this is nothing like 50-50
bisexuality, but neither is it *not* bisexuality. This
is where I do think it is all really complicated.

Where I think men (even many gay ones) do seem to be
definitely women-oriented is emotionally. That, I
think, might be where I do agree that men are more
likely to be straight: many bi men only see themselves
as bisexual in a sexual sense. (A lot of men who do
have sex with men have said that they don't want any
emotional intimacy with men. Indeed, that they find it
horrifying, almost. I wrote about this before in a
post about men not wanting to kiss each other.

How far this is because if men have a love
relationship with another man then they really have to
out themselves - to themselves and to other people - I
don't know. Perhaps that is simply too dangerous on an
emotional level. But I personally know some gay men
who don't seem to have allowed themselves to fall in
love with other men, either. They are happy to shag
around, or at least try to, and to have women as their
constant companions. One of my friends calls that
"heterosocial". This, too, is connected to the fact
that straight men tend to rely on the women in their
life for emotional support, as indeed do most women
regardless of sexuality.

Thoughts, anyone?