03/25/2007 03:55 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gay Expectations Make for Complex Relationships

Jennifer Baumgardner, third wave feminist shero, learned more than her feminist history while an intern at Ms. in the early 90s. Her Midwestern college experience--frat boyfriend and all--was eclipsed by the discovering of one Ms. Anastasia Higginbotham, and in turn, a more profound sense of her sexuality and self.

Baumgardner writes, "Our relationship felt like brave new territory--without rules by nature of being outside the heterosexual norm. And this freedom helped fuel a blossoming ideology that was forming in my brain in which bisexuality was the practice of feminism."

Baumgardner explores the idea that bisexuality liberates women to have "gay expectations" even if they end up married to the man, in her new book Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics (February, FSG). Having "gay expectations," as she explains, produces more intimacy, more intensity, and less compromise for women, regardless of whether their beau of the moment is a Jane or a John.

She writes: "I want someone who doesn't fear they are a 'pussy' if I ask them to help me with an errand. I want someone who will go to the Seneca Falls Museum with me. I want someone with whom I can discuss my writing and who will be an intellectual muse. I want someone who will gossip about feminists with me. Apparently, I want a girlfriend."

In other words, Baumgardner asserts that she and a liberated, new generation of bisexual women expect their partners to share, communicate, inspire, and, well, for lack of less cheerleader-ish lexicon, bond.

Problem is, Baumgardner goes on to argue, as much as he'll pay lip service to shared parenting and maybe even get a manicure, the modern man is still not all that modern: "Men's roles have, of course, been affected...and in some ways, even redefined....Taken as a whole, men aren't that different in the world."

Gareth White, a 27-year-old social worker from New York City, has dated women, but is currently in a long term relationship with one of these not "that different" men: "He'll offer to carry a bag for me and I find it kind of offensive. He thinks of it as very innocent, but I have to let him know that I don't want, nor do I need that kind of help."

And it's not just at the grocery store that White runs into problems. The bedroom presents far more. "I have this very different definition of sex than any straight man I've ever met," she explains. "I consider oral sex, manual sex, and mutual masturbation to be sex. Guys usually think nothing but intercourse counts."

Baumgardner quotes journalist Liza Featherstone as saying, "'You wouldn't be with a man who couldn't talk about his feelings in an informed and subtle way. On just the most obvious level, you would never be with a man who wouldn't go down on you.'"

But is there really something essentially "gay" about these kinds of expectations? Don't all women want to be understood and want to get off?

Amy Richards, Baumgardner's co-writer on two previous books, sees "gay expectations" as shorthand for the journey any radical couple goes on to define their roles: "To imagine what your relationship is going to be rather than falling into a script is something that gay people may do as more of an instinct, but it is in no way a practice more available to gay people than to heterosexual people."

Richards, who jokes that she once declared herself "bisexual" so she would fit in with the politically progressive crowd she hung out with in he r early twenties, is now comfortable claiming her straightness. She is in a long term relationship with a man, though they have chosen not to get married.

Ann Friedman, an editor at the American Prospect Online, blogged on "I've never dated women, but have always had these expectations for my relationships. I wouldn't call them 'gay,' as Baumgardner does. More accurately, they're 'feminist expectations.'"

Higginbotham, now 35-years-old and a writer herself, thinks the distinction is critical: "If you have feminist expectations, you might be focused on switching pre-existing roles--like, okay, you're the guy but you're going to wash the dishes and I'm the woman, but I'm going to make the money. If you have gay expectations, you don't switch roles as much as rewrite them. You are off the map."

Today, Higginbotham's "primary partner" is a man, though she explains, "Probably one of the most meaningful 'gay expectations' I bring is that I can't just blame the fact that he's a guy for dysfunction in our relationship. I know that that's just bullshit."

And certainly the most radical "gay expectation" at work in Higginbotham's current relationship is their policy of non-monogamy. She sees it as an extension of her bisexual identity: "If I was in a monogamous relationship, how much I love Jennifer would break some rule, I just know it. Even though we're not lovers, our friendship feeds the bisexual part of me, the part that is sexually inspired by women."

Higginbotham drew on gay men as models for this kind of relationship, "not," she notes, "in some kinky wife swapping way, but where the relationship is built with this open door policy and the core of the relationship is really solid."

Suzanne Iasenza, a psychotherapist who specializes in couple and sex therapies, is not surprised by these kinds of arrangements, especially with bisexual clients. "Some bisexual folks go through mourning when they commit to one gender," she explains. She encourages those uncomfortable with non-monogamy to pump up their fantasy lives.

Iasenza sees two fairly distinct generations of sexual creature coming through her Manhattan office--the older and more committed to a label (usually gay or straight) and one partner, and the younger and more resistant to being branded.

Christy Thornton, 26-years-old and the Executive Director of a nonprofit, doesn't like boiling her sexual identity down to any single word. "I have real trouble with the identification 'bisexual,'" she explains, "because I think it reinforces the gender binary and inherently forces me to label the person that I'm with as one of two possible (and opposite) genders. For me, gender isn't a category that comes into play in my attraction to and love for someone."

Her current partner, Stuart Schrader, a 28-year-old writer and editor, thinks that it is not Christy's romantic relationships with women that have shaped her expectations the most, but her first relationships, well, ever: "The relationships between our parents have a much greater effect on our own ability to be equal or good communicators, both in what we expect or desire and in what our subconscious tendencies make us do."

Iasenza thinks parental relationships are the elephant in the room when it comes to this whole discussion of gay and/or feminist expectations. "Our first experiences of sensuality, truth, touch are within our parental relationships, a context in which there is a fundamentally unequal distribution of power."

Consequently, the struggle to create egalitarian relationships, or as University of Washington sexologist Pepper Schwartz calls them "peer marriages," is fraught with obstacles, not the least of which is our own unconscious and often hidden association of getting off with not being even.
Iasenza asks, "If consciously our adult relationships feel so equal, how do our bodies make sense of it?"

This may be one of the questions plaguing all those bisexual women who wake up one day to find themselves in long term relationships with men. Baumgardner writes, "Women are entering into relationships with men with gay expectations, but they don't know how to actualize those expectations or, sometimes, even acknowledge them. It's part of the paradox of feminism, of feminism's unfinished revolution: women expect equality from their relationships, but not from the men."

Or perhaps, as a whole lot of Freudians would argue, many of us have a more complex relationship with equality than we would like to admit, especially when it comes to sexual pleasure. Iasenza warns, "Feminists hate that idea. They want to know, 'Are you saying we have to go back to cave man days?'"

Iasenza, a feminist herself, is certainly not advocating for a return to Cromagnum man, but she is urging everyone--woman, man, gay, straight, bisexual, unidentified--to get back to a kind of primordial self-awareness and radical self-acceptance. "At the level of sophistication we have now," she explains, "We must see sexual identity as descriptive as opposed to prescriptive."
In other words, being a bisexual woman with a woman doesn't mean your relationship will be all "Kumbaya" and mutual orgasms, just as being with a man doesn't guarantee dissatisfaction in sheets you were forced to wash. Being a bisexual woman means being a human being struggling to be honest about your deepest desires and chore preferences.

It's a struggle Baumgardner still believes is less Herculean with a woman beside her: "Bisexual women may not be more drawn to women than men...but they often like themselves better with women than they do with men.