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Three Problems for Bisexuality

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female sexuality

In late 2013, studies and personal narratives where bisexuality factored in sprouted wild on the Internet. Inevitably, commentary about the studies and narratives cropped up, and one thing I noticed regarding the discussion is just how much is at stake where bisexuality is concerned. Bisexuality is about female sexuality and the double standards that exist between men and women. It's also about loyalty, language and identity. In other words, bisexuality comes down to core-of-being stuff, which is the main reason the scientific consensus that has been reached over the past 20 years about bisexuality remains hazy. And in reading the flurry of pieces that emerged from this hotbed of bi cultural activity this fall and winter, three things stood out as making bisexuality more confusing than it actually is. Than, in fact, it should be. Or continue to be in 2014. Three factors that undermine bisexuality are:

1. The idea that female sexuality is utterly mysterious.
2. People not labeling their sexuality at all.
3. Disbelief in bisexuality altogether.

The Mystery Will Never Be Complete

A study came out of the UK in November that reported same-sex contact between women has increased four times what it was 20 years ago. Whereas male same-sex contact has remained relatively stable. In The Independent, Steve Connor framed this finding and other standout data about women from The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) as evidence women in some respects anyway have "surpassed" men, post sexual revolution. Responding to this same study, Tracy Clark-Flory, staff writer at Salon, wrote a piece where she discussed the causes behind the spike in "girl on girl." Clark-Flory quotes Meredith Chivers, Canadian psychologist, whose experiments on sexual arousal support women as largely having an un-oriented or bisexual desire pattern. Clark-Flory also writes interestingly of the cultural influences that may have contributed to the rise of female same-sex activity, ending on the note that this data exists as a small bit of a much larger picture. That remains, as of yet, still difficult to put together. Well, is it? Or has the difficulty in glimpsing the picture of bisexuality not been about an absence of pieces, but about a resistance to assembling the ones we already have?

Connor at The Independent put the sexual revolution front and center rightly. The work of psychologist Roy Baumeister, for example, supports that the sexual revolution impacted women's lives much more than it did those of men. But Connor obscures the main point of female sexuality's adaptability (pointing toward bisexuality in the case of same-sex contact) by pitting the findings on women against those of men, those of "the standard." Connor's reading of women as "catching up with men," implies we are behind and also tacitly considered less than men. Freud himself immortalized the inferiority with which women are commonly regarded in his most famous question: "What do women want?" Women's desires may even in the 21st century remain mysterious irrespective of how many answers feminism and one of its many offshoots, like the work-life balance debate, for example, has provided. All the same science is not clueless. This "women are mysterious because we're not like men" crap is just that: crap. Chivers's research at least lays the carnal aspect of female sexual desire bare. We are aroused by male-male, female-female, female-male and even, to some degree, animal sounds. In other words, female desire is flexible. Given this is the case doesn't it make sense that women would be more profoundly adaptable to the evolution the sexual revolution set off and that men's numbers remain steady, due to how little we have allowed the sexual revolution to really touch them? Especially given their sexual wiring shows less changeability than ours.

The Impostor Without a Label

Way back in 2009, in a study that spanned 10 years and included nearly 100 women, psychologist Lisa Diamond published in her book, Sexual Fluidity, that women demonstrate more fluidity than men, and in three categories:

· non-exclusive attractions
· shifts in attraction between men and women
· person-based attraction instead of gender-based attraction

Fluidity ultimately means some version of bisexuality. But since the idea of bisexuality has been around since the 19th century (though the behavior has been around for far longer), it has more cultural baggage attached to it. Shiri Eisner explains in Bi: Notes for a bisexual revolution, published last July, that "meanings that accompany bisexuality are independent of bisexual identity. Rather, these connotations are a result (or reading, if you will) of the way that bisexuality is, and was, imagined in culture." Yet in the case of the LGBT movement, the words themselves and the people they stand for are very much entwined. What really distinguishes fluidity from bisexuality is that fluidity is divorced from politics, while bisexuality remains in the fray.

In "Why Should Fluid Sexuality Be Women-Only?" Ann Friedman writes of the double standard applied to male and female bisexuals. Part of why female fluidity is treated permissively is that it turns straight men on. Labeling male bisexuality as fluid on the other hand, still comes off as suspicious. Why? The notion of bisexual behavior amps up sexism toward women, while it draws to the surface homophobic attitudes about men. Rabid and unfair, sexism and homophobia jointly fuel fear of the bisexual traitor because we just won't pick a side, declare our allegiance. And in a way this seems truer now than ever.

The actress and activist Maria Bello published her story of love across gender and child rearing in the "Modern Love" column of The New York Times. The Olympic diver Tom Daley released a video statement where he shared he has never been happier than he is with his boyfriend, but that he's still attracted to women. The core of the success of the gay rights movement has been people who have same-sex desire "coming out" and saying so. It's unclear what it means for the LGBT community when high profile folks make it known that they are not straight, but don't necessarily come out as bi or anything. J. Bryan Lowder has written in this publication: "If the nuance-phobic media is going to insist on those crude labels anyway, you might as well do the politically helpful thing and choose a good-enough one upfront." I wholeheartedly agree with Lowder. That's why I label as bisexual, and think more of us should take Dan Savage's advice. However, when it comes to evaluating whether something exists, arguing over its name is beside the point. As Juliet tells Romeo: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By another other name would smell as sweet..."

But maybe when it comes to the word bisexual, it just always smells like poop?

The Nonexistent Illegitimate Bastard

At the Association of Public Health's meeting in November, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health released a survey reporting straight men and straight women were less likely to consider bisexuality "legitimate." There's no telling how much ill will toward the word bisexual contributed to a finding like this, but I imagine some. The writing about the prefix "bi," and its hybridism of homo and hetero, with the sense of a fractured identity baked in is copious in bisexual activist circles. So, is work by bisexuals about being dismissed and distrusted by gays? Stephanie Theobold wrote in The Guardian late last year:

I was on a panel in Soho last week co-sponsored by Women in Journalism and the lesbian magazine Diva to debate "Lesbophobia in the Media". I came in for a bit of bisexual bashing from Clare Balding's girlfriend, Alice Arnold ("betrayal" was the word), and from Eleanor Margolis, the 24-year-old who writes a column about being a lesbian in the New Statesman. "I don't believe in all this fluidity thing," she said, which, to be fair, was exactly the sort of thing I used to say at her age. The fact is, even if you don't believe in the concept of sexual fluidity, it is, like gravity, simply a fact of life.

I'll go Theobold one step further. The deniers of bisexuality take up more space in the discourse than the evidence has earned them. People with platforms that have reach refusing to take sexual plasticity seriously substantiates the slice of the public that believes bisexuals are "illegitimate." People who articulate positions about global warming, for example, being a hoax, or not that serious, or not man-made, are either assumed to be crazy, stupid or have some kind of financial agenda. The same ethos should apply to those who decry the non-existence of bisexuality. The scientific evidence is broad. I wish more writers who covered sex would come out and say it. It would probably help move the debate along.