A note on language: this article uses binary gender language because it deals with two closely related myths about bisexuality that are particularly relevant in situations that entail binary constructions of gender. These are myths that are particularly different for people who are male-identified and female-identified, and I am unaware of how these myths are applied to people who are genderqueer, and would bet that people who are sensitive enough to matters of gender identification to be concerned about binary language are not the same people who are pushing these myths. If you are genderqueer or otherwise outside male/female constructions and have suffered issues because of this particular myth, please share your experiences in the comments or via email
Time to take a break from identity development, coming out, and identity politics for a bit. I feel like a little good old-fashioned mythbusting.
So there’s this word. Barsexual. It generally means a young woman, often either identifying as or considered to be straight, who makes out with other women in bars either as experimentation or for the benefit of men. There’s a whole ‘nother set of assumptions about male bisexuals, which I will get to, but those also are about the benefit to men. Because in this culture, everything is for the benefit of men.
I’m not saying this sort of alcohol-fueled experimentation and androcentric display never happens. It does. But it feeds off of and reinforces (edit: the reinforcement is in what’s said about the behavior, not the behavior itself. Just to be clear) a couple other well-established myths – they are all interconnected, and in this case they serve to erase bisexuals. First, the “bi-curious” angle. And boy howdy, do I hate that word.
People who are questioning the boundaries of their sexuality do experiment. Everyone spends a certain amount of time as an adolescent or young adult trying out new experiences or at the very least fantasies, just to see what happens. But there’s a special loading to the word (and I hate to even type it) “bi-curious”, one that gets taken to indicate that we’re all still just experimenting, and that in the cases where it is technically accurate, it demeans and minimizes bisexuality by turning it into something exotic, alien, titillating, other. I frequently read about bi women who are approached by couples who want to use them to spice up their sex lives or by friends and acquaintances who think they are flattering them by suggesting they offer themselves up as an essentially impersonal testing ground.
I don’t have a problem with adults engaging in consensual casual sex. I am not attempting to slut-shame, I don’t believe in that. I just don’t feel it’s appropriate to characterize being curious about sexualities other than straight as “bi-”curious. How about just “curious”? If you genuinely want to be someone’s first (and possibly last) same-gender experience in order to have some quick fun? Your call, you don’t need anyone’s approval (or disapproval), you’re an adult. I’m not going to say you’re “giving the bi community a bad reputation”, because no individual is a stand in for an entire community – just like a straight person who goes to the bar for a quick impersonal hookup isn’t taken to be “letting down all straight people”. (Same reason I don’t try to tell polyamorous bisexuals to assimilate and try to pass as monogamous. Consenting adults and all of that.)
Now, on the other piece, the idea that women’s sexuality is all about pleasing men? That same-sex activity is something women do for the benefit of their boyfriends, or guys they want to pick up, the pornographer’s fantasy of the MFF threesome that somehow is considered to be heterosexual sex – because as long as it’s for the benefit of the man, it’s not queer, it’s hot? That’s patriarchy in living color.
And as long as a woman making out with another woman is considered to be for the benefit of men, then a bi woman kissing her girlfriend is being erased just as surely as a pair of lesbians are. Bisexual erasure is a specific and egregious instance of the kind of overall queer erasure that people who say “I’m fine with it if you keep it in the bedroom” are going for, or people who vote against marriage equality because “teh queer is a SIN” but go home and watch their MFF DVDs with nary a breath of cognitive dissonance.
On the other side of things, there is whole different conception of bisexual men. Straight men see a man kissing another man, they just think “gay” (at best). There’s an idea, however, that erases bisexuality in men this way: “Guys who say they are bi are just claiming to have sex with women so they will seem more attractive to gay men in bars.”
This one taps into some gay stereotypes – that gay men are only interested in the hypermasculine, that the ideal fantasy for the gay man is a straight man. It is the case that men like this do exist – it’s why the personals are full of requests for “straight-acting men only”, and what’s more straight-acting than having “heterosexual” sex?
This particular piece of biphobia is distinct from the previous construction because it comes in large part from within the gay community – if it comes from straight people, it’s coming from straight people with a specific agenda of erasing bisexuality. (For good info on the overall agenda of bisexual erasure, see this phenomenal academic article on the epistemic contract of bisexual erasure.)
Now to go from the specifics to generalities. One of the things that underpins this myth, beyond mere biphobia, is people telling other people that they aren’t “real” whatever they identify as — this falls under “delegitimization” in Yoshino’s terms. It actually happens across a wide variety of settings, and, in logical/rhetorical terms, is called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. Short version: All X’s P, if a particular X does not P, then they aren’t really an X.
You see it all the time, and it’s used in this case specifically to erase bisexuality. “Oh, she’s just barsexual” therefore not a “real” bisexual therefore all female bisexual activity is a sham for the benefit of men and so all bisexuality is fake. On the other side, gay men who say that “Bi guys are just gay guys trying to look manlier by claiming to (or actually) having sex with women” are also claiming that bisexuality doesn’t exist.
It gets my hackles up when people start saying that anyone isn’t a “real” whatever – a real bisexual, a real woman, a real Christian, a real ________. Are there people who present a front, are not what they claim to be? Sure – for many years, I wasn’t a “real” straight person. And I knew it. I was a real bisexual all along – and to be told that I’m not, by people who are making their judgment based on a stereotype and a myth? Pfui. (And yes, my hackles are so chronically raised that I doubt they know how to sit, much less lie down. It’s my nature.)
I get just as irritated when well-meaning people in the bi community try to ascribe bisexuality to historical figures based on behavior. Identity is not based on behavior. If people go around saying that So-and-So in antiquity was “really” bisexual, it opens the door for the people who, for example, say that prominent bisexual activist Stephen Donaldson (not the sf/fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson) was actually a gay man pretending to be attracted to women so he could pick up men, or who say that Lady Gaga is a straight Ally when she identifies as bi because, come on, we all know that since bisexuality isn’t real she’s just saying it to get attention.
I recently had a run-in online with someone in the comments section of Huffington Post (I know, why do I bother? I bother because quite honestly while I have a mostly supportive queer community in real life, 80% of my access to the bi community is online) who jumped onto an article that was supportive to bisexuals with a load of nonsense about defining bisexuality by behavior, and then going on to talk about cruising and truck drivers bringing home syphilis, and how labels are just plain silly while simultaneously labeling people and viewing bisexuality as a purely epidemiological phenomenon.
By only identifying people as they choose to identify themselves, I ensure that others don’t take the liberty of relabeling me – and when I talk about identity politics, I never say “but you’re ‘really’ bisexual”, rather I lay out arguments for why people should consider the ways and reasons they label, and ultimately accept their label, even if I feel that it’s problematic, because it’s not my choice how you label yourself. You’ll note in my posts on identity labeling that the problem is with the redefinition of the labels of others, and with political considerations related to community.
So don’t tell people they are “really” this or “really” that. It’s a big issue with bisexuality, it’s an even bigger issue in the Trans* community. If someone says they are (insert gender label, binary or otherwise), then they are, indeed, really (insert same).