In a recent New York Times magazine piece called "The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists," Benoit Denizet-Lewis provided a nice overview of the bisexual movement by touching on the sex researchers, activists as well as the American Institute of Bisexuality (A.I.B.), a think tank founded and funded by the wealthy deceased psychiatrist and bisexual writer Fritz Klein. The article does all this and a little more, even while failing to identify the enduring blind spot in our discussion of bisexuals and bisexuality. Sexism.
The first thing that irked me about the "The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists" is the title. First, it infers that science has yet to prove bisexuality is real. Otherwise why would there be a "quest," right? Wrong. Science has already proven the existence of bisexuality many times. Yet the title casts an established fact in the shadows while it thrusts the baseless denial of bisexuality's existence into the spotlight. Just because research continues on something doesn't mean what we already know about that something is null and void, including what observations we make about said thing with our own two eyes. Why is bisexuality's existence so dubious that we need science to prove to us this observable behavior of historical record, and attested to by vast personal experience, exists anyway? The reason is twofold. 1) The bisexual movement has not been able to effectively communicate who we are to the media. 2) A media bias privileging male experience has made it difficult for even the most well-intentioned writers to report on bisexuality in a way that doesn't somehow undermine it.
Yes, Denizet-Lewis presented the work of researcher Lisa Diamond and interviewed female bi activist Robyn Ochs, while also giving a full sense of the typical pitfalls bisexuals of both genders face: biphobia, invisibility and distrust. At the same time Denizet-Lewis focused on studies about men, he did not emphasize, for example, how much ground Diamond's 2009 book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire broke in its assertion of female sexual desire and attraction as flexible. What Denizet-Lewis did prominently mention is one of Diamond's more recent papers, "I Was Wrong! Men Are Pretty Darn Sexually Fluid, Too!" I am not taking issue here with studying sexual fluidity and bisexuality in men. In fact, I think it's miles in the right direction away from rigid, dysfunctional ideas about masculinity and toward sexual openness and tolerance in general. Yet, that Denizet-Lewis hinged the "true" existence of bisexuality on whether or not it can be scientifically quantified in men reminds me of the retro attitudes that for too long obstructed what we know about sex and gender in the first place.
Way back in the mid-20th century, most sex researchers didn't believe bisexuality existed because they only used male research subjects. Because sexism ruled the day researchers assumed whatever was true of men was also true of women without actually doing experiments on women. Unintentionally, Denizet-Lewis recapitulates the old and harmful idea of men as the standardized version of humans fit for scientific study. In the context of this kind of odorless misogyny, the mainstream will only accept bisexuality as real -- people will only take it seriously -- if it applies to men as convincingly as it applies to women. I'm not saying that old school researchers were right about male bisexuality. I don't think they were. But new school scientists, many of them women, have presented compelling and even mind-bending evidence about female sexual capacity, some of which is summarized here. So since the most interesting and perspective-altering sex research over the past fifteen years has been about women and bisexuality what reason besides sexism do we have for how radically underplayed the discoveries about female sexuality remain in the media? As a bisexual woman I would like to hold the bisexual movement responsible for not trying its damnedest to eradicate and mediate sexism. But that's a tall order for a group that has allowed gay and straight people alike, out of ignorance, to say things about bisexuality that are blatantly untrue.
In response to the Denizet-Lewis piece, Mark Joseph Stern wrote a thoughtful essay where he argued the bi movement needs to start figuring out its politics and stop concentrating so much on visibility. Mainly because what's the use of visibility if bisexuals don't have an identity and culture like gays to be visible in the first place? I disagree with Stern. For one, the Harvard feminist literary scholar Marjorie Garber wrote a tome on this very subject called Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. I don't expect every Tom, Dolores and Helen off the street to know Garber's work, but if you are writing about bisexuality and culture on a national site you should. The history of bisexual culture, similar to that of gays, has close ties with the artist culture of Boehmians which often gets pegged as cool, glamorous, brilliant or chic. Our cultural figures range from Virginia Woolf to Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn to Bessie Smith and Lorraine Hansberry to David Bowie. And I don't know how many James Baldwin novels are about bisexuality or bisexual characters. But I venture to say a lot of them.
This is where the bisexual movement needs to rework its messaging. The current implicit party line is 'we're only real if it can be proven that men are in our ranks.' Wrong. Science has already proven undoubtedly that women have an innate bisexual capacity. As over half of the human race, women's bisexuality is more than enough to substantiate the prevalence of this phenomenon. An explicit party line of the bisexual movement is 'we need to become visible.' Well, we already are, only as synonymous with the mainstream. So instead of increasing our visibility as Stern suggested, bisexual activists need to start talking about our ubiquity.
A day or two after Denizet-Lewis was published, "The Decline and Fall of the 'H' Word," also appeared in the Times. Reporter Jeremy W. Peters wrote that the use of homosexual is in decline for a number of reasons ranging from how clinical it sounds to usage of the word popping up in anti-gay contexts meant to stoke fears and/or creep people out about same-sex behavior and marriage. One reason it's difficult to wage a campaign against the word bisexual is unlike homosexual it's baked into the LGBT acronym. But because bisexual will always have "bi" and "sex" in it (in contrast to lesbian, gay and transgender) whatever people think the word means will always play second fiddle to whoever people think bisexuals are or are not.
The bisexual movement has failed to fill this identity vacuum. Consequently, bisexuals are asked repeatedly what our political agenda is. One answer that makes a hell of a lot of sense to me is feminism. From now on when you read or hear the word bisexual think of your mother, your grandmother, your favorite aunt. A childhood babysitter, your kindergarten teacher, the old lady and her niece who lived across the street for a while. In other words, think women. Hopefully if the bisexual movement gets around to doing this remessaging work one day you actually will.