A Thing That’s Been Bothering Me

Posted: August 26, 2013 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , , , ,



There’s a lot of erasure surrounding bisexuality in our culture, and that’s a bad thing. People equate bisexuality with indecision and fence-sitting, a sort of sexual dilettantism that’s more a phase than a genuine orientation; yet at the same time, it’s promoted in unhelpful ways, predominantly in contexts where conventionally attractive bi women are presented as male sexual fantasies (such as Olivia Wilde’s character in House, Remy ‘Thirteen’ Hadley), or where bisexuality is fetishised and exoticised as a quirky-but-desirable attribute for the viewer to unpack, rather than as a complex character attribute in its own right. It’s also often used as a sort of, for lack of a better phrase, queerness lite – as though a bi person’s capacity for hetero attraction somehow softens or normalises the otherness of their same-sex feelings, and thereby makes them a more relatable character than someone who is ‘only’ gay, because both gay AND straight people can identify with them.

Which may well be true; and that’s not to say that such characters are necessarily bad or badly written – it’s just that, very often, bisexuality is treated as some sort of sexual midpoint on a set sliding scale between STRAIGHT and GAY, which leads some creators to view it less as an actual orientation and more as a narrative compromise, as though they’re ordering medium chilli sauce to go with their group serving of literary nachos rather than mild or spicy, because that what you do when people prefer extremes: you pick the middle. The idea that bisexuality isn’t the middle, but is a separate thing in and of itself – the third point of a triangle rather than the midpoint of a straight line (assuming you still think there’s only three types of orientation, that is; which, yeah, no) – seems rarely to be considered; and as such, the idea that bi people constitute a separate audience in their own right, rather than being a compromise between two different audiences, is often overlooked.

Thus: as much as I love reading SFFnal stories where bisexuality is the cultural norm because orientation isn’t a big deal in a particular fictional society, I also feel kind of weird at the idea that everyone would suddenly be bisexual just because QUILTBAG persons are no longer stigmatised. Like, yes, OK: in a sexually fluid society, more people would definitely experiment, while those who might otherwise be moved to repress their sexuality would have no reason to do so – and in that sense, there’s obviously going to be more non-straight sex and relationships going on than if you took the same group of people and put them in a straightwashed setting. But the idea that, in the absence of straightness as a default, the extremes of gay and straight would just slide towards the middle and lead to a net increase in bisexuality? Is itself a perpetuation of the idea that bisexuality is a midpoint rather than a distinct orientation, and therefore a culturally conditioned form of sexual compromise rather than an innate preference.

And that bugs the hell out of me. Because, look: in my teens and early twenties, I openly identified as bisexual. I stopped, not because I magically stopped finding women attractive, but because I’m now happily and monogamously married to a man, and I’m yet to find a way to mention those two facts in tandem that doesn’t leave either me or the other people in the conversation feeling super-awkward – like, it’s not an irrelevant part of who I am, but it often feels irrelevant, because there’s a little voice in my head whispering that, well, you married a guy, and so therefore you CHOSE STRAIGHT FOREVER (and anyway, it’s not like you ever really dated any girls the way you dated guys, so clearly it doesn’t count). And if you want to get all Kinsey about it, yes: I have a history of being more attracted to men – or rather, of being more attracted more often to men – than to women. But sexuality is complex, and if you’re measuring the so-called validity of someone’s orientation by how often they’ve either felt or acted on their attractions, then you’re doing life wrong, not least of all because it’s not your place to decide the realness of another person’s feelings.

Nonetheless: I mostly tick ‘straight’ on forms about my orientation, and I describe myself as having straight privilege, because to all intents and purposes, I do. I’ve also described myself as straight online, for much the same reasons listed above. Being bi means that any disclosure of your orientation is pretty much guaranteed to be viewed through the lens of your relationship status; as though being single somehow makes you more bi – because you could potentially hook up with anyone! – whereas being in a monogamous relationship, or married, or whatever, makes people think you’re either just saying it for dramatic effect (because CLEARLY, you’ve already made your choice, rendering the question of your former preferences moot), or – more worryingly – as a backhanded profession that you’re open to being unfaithful to your partner, because why else would you bother mentioning being attracted to someone other than them, even hypothetically?

Which means that, on a daily basis, in casual conversation, it feels disingenuous to refer to myself as bi, even though I’m still the same person inside. And there’s also a professional element, too: precisely because I appear to be straight, whatever that means – hell, because I so often self-describe as straight, as per the above – there’s a very real sense in which I’d feel like I was mocking or diminishing the struggles of openly QUILTBAG persons, but especially QUILTBAG authors,  not to be judged by or rejected because of their orientation, were I to put my hand up and say, hey, I’m not straight, either. And yet I stopped calling myself bi, partly for the sake of convenience, but mostly because I feel awkward about how the term applies to me, with everything that connotes. I don’t know how to say it, even – and when I started writing this post, I didn’t even realise it was something I wanted to say.

But now I’ve reached the end, and I’ve realised that yes, it is – because the very fact that this is a thing that I think about, that it actively bothers and upsets me and sits at the back of my mind, telling me I can’t possibly be what I think I am, is proof of how difficult, how pervasive, the eliding of bisexuality can be. Problematic depictions of bisexuality bother me, not in the abstract, as yet another thing that our culture so often gets wrong, but because they bother me, personally: because those selfsame problematic depictions, and the culture they both reflect and create, are a good 90% of the reason why I find it so damn hard to say something comparatively simple – I am bi – without feeling like an imposter; like I should also, simultaneously, be citing my personal history as evidence, or apologising, or otherwise contextualising who I am for the comfort and convenience of the listener, because it’s a loaded thing, and I just… I’m sick of it.

So, yeah. I didn’t mean for this to end up a confessional, but I guess it has. I’m Foz Meadows, and I’m bisexual: I might not always say so in conversation, or when asked to fill out a form, but I am – and now there’s a record of that. I don’t know what that’ll mean to you, if you’re reading this, but right now, I feel a lot better for having said it; not because I’ve never said it before, but because I’d stopped saying it for reasons that have nothing to do with who I am and everything to do with what I’ve felt culturally pressured to be. Which doesn’t mean those pressures have magically vanished, or that I’ll never succumb to them again. But it feels both important and necessary to acknowledge that they’re there, and that I’ve been influenced by them; and to say that, if you’re feeling similarly frustrated or confused, then that’s OK – and you’re not the only one.

  1. First, glad you shared with us! I am bi too. *fistbump*

    I usually interpret the mostly-bisexual nondiscriminatory utopias to mean that a lot of people in our society who identify as straight are actually bi, but scrubbing out part of their bi identity to fit in, and that without that heteronormative societal pressure they’d have no reason to self-repress (or just stay silent). I tend to ‘pass’ as straight when I need to appear normal, even though I ID as bi. There’s really no way to measure how many people are lying about/repressing their sexuality when it comes to surveys and studies, so it seems believeable that in a non-repressive society, we’d see more open bisexuals.

    Unsure if it’d be so much of a utopia as presented, and I think that a lot of settings don’t acknowledge some of the problems with IDing as bisexual that you’ve pointed out. Our society’s bisexual-as-midpoint misconception has really annoyed me for quite awhile, as well as the assumption that you can’t be bi and monogamous (or you need to experience a certain amount before ‘knowing’ you’re bi). I think those could use some light shone on them more in fiction. (And IRL.)

    • fozmeadows says:

      *fistbumps back*

      Agreed on all counts. I just get irritated when I see people saying, ‘this invented society is sexually liberated, therefore pretty much everyone is bisexual by default,’ because while part of me is all yay! bisexuality portrayals ahoy!, another part of me is always like, wait, what?

      • Yeah, I’m not sure if you can really consider that a “bisexuality portrayal” since not much of bisexuality is in it. It sounds more like lazy and possibly voyeuristic authorship.

        Of course, I’m writing a world with several non-heteronormative societies where I decided bisexuality would be more prevalent and understood, so now I’m thinking back on what I’ve done and making sure I’m doing that right, because the problem with writing is that I can pick up other authors’ lazy habits if they’re pervasive throughout my genre! Which has happened several times already.

  2. Beth says:

    When I try to think of bisexuals in SF, one of the first that comes to mind is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Aral Vorkosigan, who comes from a culture that rejects homosexuality, and he marries a woman from a more open world.

    There’s actually a line in _Barrayar_ where someone is trying to demean Aral and says “He’s bisexual, you know” and his wife replies ‘ “Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.” ‘Which seems to echo directly some of the stuff you were talking about, that bisexuality is something you have to actively *do*, so once you are married and no longer looking, it doesn’t count? But I don’t think the writer or the character thinks Aral isn’t attracted to men anymore, it’s that he’s no longer available for other men, which is a socially acceptable question.

    Is this one of the portrayals you were talking about? Or were you more thinking of Varley’s gender-swapping societies, or maybe of more modern stuff? I do read urban fantasy, which fades into paranormal and the marketing distinction seems to be how much sex is involved, and it does tend to be aggressively hetero- or homo-sexual, and then sometimes there is a Robin Goodfellow or something (“thing” because this character is usually not human) who is all-sexual all the time. I’ve been oblivious to the erasure of bisexuality, and I’m trying to think of any portrayals from my past few years of reading.

    (I realize that I’m ignoring the personal, but that’s because I don’t know you. Thanks for giving me insights into a complex reality.)

    • fozmeadows says:

      I’d actually forgotten that bit about Aral, so even though it applies, it’s not one of the portrayals I was talking about. I actually feel kind of weird about naming the ones that were originally on my mind, because they tend to be series I like by authors I respect; it’s just a detail that niggles at me otherwise.

  3. Fade Manley says:

    *raises a hand wryly*

    Bisexual. Married to a straight dude. Hurrah for passing privilege, I guess? I empathize with…pretty much the whole of this, even though I ended up with sort of different conclusions in some places. (I sometimes write settings where bisexuality is the default that other things vary from because it’s nice to think of a place where that could be…normal and not remarked on and the assumption, not the surprise. And because it frustrates me that it’s very hard to establish a character, from the outside, as bisexual and monogamous at once.)

    Anyway. I feel…odd, really, about admitting bisexuality. Because on the one hand, not saying anything contributes to the invisibility. And on the other hand, it does feel a bit like trying to grab a place in the oppression parade when I don’t suffer a darn thing but lingering guilt from childhood repression from the Being Bisexual thing, because, hey, looks very standard heterosexual from the outside. But I am slowly letting the first issue trump the second, because I don’t think I’m claiming any particular insight when I say…yeah, I’m bisexual. This doesn’t mean I can speak for anyone else’s experience with their sexuality. I’m just. Well. Here. Being what I am.

  4. Jerusha says:

    I’m not sure how you would graph sexuality, and I say that as someone who is not entirely straight, but fell in love with a man and married him, and yet would currently identify as asexual/demisexual. Bisexuality definitely gets erased as an actual position on that very messy graph, but few people even acknowledge asexuality or demisexuality as a position either, unless it’s, hm…traumatic. I mean, I’ve seen it in fanfic (which tends to be a little more welcoming to various whatevers) but not in published fiction. Maybe I’m wrong, but generally, the fictional characters I’ve read really want to have sex, even when they’re not getting it.

    So. That being said, I feel your discomfort as someone who married a man and yet would fall somewhere on the asexual side of things but who has been just as attracted to women as to men, on the occasions when I’m attracted at all. I’m glad that there’s a push to include those who are not heteronormative in published fiction, but there are so many people whose experiences are not represented in our entirety.

    • Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith. The main character is asexual and no one makes a big deal out of it. If you like a good fantasy with engaging characters plus equal parts adventure and political intrigue, I can’t recommend it enough. (Her Inda series, set in the same world but four centuries before Banner, is also good.)

    • Nonny Blackthorne says:

      Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson has a protagonist who is asexual. I thought it was well-handled. I’d recommend reading the first book, Ultraviolet, first, otherwise I think you’d have trouble following the plot.

  5. Bluestgirl says:

    This exactly. Thank you.

  6. Lurkertype says:

    Well, hi Foz, how’s the weather there?

    I know you’re correct in how society puts things, but you being bi, but monogamous with a man strikes me as no big deal. Possibly because I have met so many (relatively speaking) people who are that way. One of my friends was married to a man, and now a woman.

    I agree that in the great utopian QUILTBAG future, most of us are still gonna be straight. Most animals are largely straight. It will be easier to express bisexuality, and other attractions (because you know if there are aliens out there, we’re gonna be sexin’ ’em), but absent genetic engineering, we aren’t all going to like the same thing.

    But what do I know, I was a feral child raised by ice skaters, which is a pretty genderfluid environment.

  7. Yay for bisexuals! Er, well…I’m pansexual (I guess). It’s annoying to me that as I married a man that people assume that I’m straight. I feel like I’m hiding part of who I am because I don’t know how to say it without seeming like I’m saying it for attention. I just hope that one day when I publish books, people will think “this person is like me” and feel like they aren’t alone.

  8. Sunshine says:

    Congrats to openly admitting it, Foz 🙂 I still have issues with that. I’m male and I’m let’s call it slightly bisexual (as in, I do find some guys physically attractive). I’m also incredibly paranoid about homophobia, thanks to school. I never openly identified as bisexual or bicurious and I still don’t. Mainly because my interest in guys isn’t really that big and I think it’s not worth to be regarded as bisexual for something that I don’t feel as strong about (would be different if I was clearly gay, obviously). Thing is, I’m not good with people and thereore tried to not say anything that might be perceives in a negative way in the past, but recently I tried to find more friends and realised that when trying to befriend girls, they tend to take it as if I’m interested in them in a romantic way, which puts the wrong focus on the relationship. Nowadays, I don’t identify as bisexual because I want to avoid similar awkwardness with guys (and that’s assuming they’re not homophobic in the first place) and because I’m of the opinion that straight girls don’t really like you if you’re not straight (again my paranoia; but it’s founded it several statements of girls from back in school).
    Just wanted to let this out for once. Also, I love your blog 🙂

  9. Kagi says:

    Thanks for this. It does, truly, need to be said. And I hear you on the social pressures – it’s not just from general society, but from the QUILTBAG community as well. My girlfriend is bisexual, and it can be really frustrating to both of us to face the kind of attitudes we get from people who should be on our side – I don’t feel threatened by the fact that she is also attracted to guys and has dated some in the past, and it doesn’t make our relationship any less exclusive or more socially acceptable. Straight people think well, she’s just experimenting or going through a phase, and gay people think she’s untrustworthy or something.

    There’s a real stigma about being bisexual from all sides, you just can’t win, especially if you do decide to enter a monogamous relationship with someone – then you’re viewed as having taken a side, or as being inherently incapable of being faithful. It’s very frustrating, and especially difficult to deal with lack of support or active hostility from much of the rest of the queer community. It doesn’t mean you haven’t made up your mind, it doesn’t mean you’re somewhere fluidly in the middle and will eventually come down on one end – it’s not a line, like you said.

    Just because you choose to commit to one person does not mean that your sexuality has changed or become fixed – you are just choosing to stay faithful in a relationship, which is for many or even most people a normal thing to do when you get romantically involved with someone, no matter what your or their orientation. But you are still the same, and it’s worth saying. Calling out and defining, ‘this is who I am. No matter what anyone else thinks of it; they do not define me. I do.’ We all have that right to own our identity.

    Thank you. Thank you for being a voice.

  10. sorcharei says:

    I am a lesbian. I have known this since I was 17. I lived as an out lesbian for 13 years. For the last 23 years, I have been monogamously married to a straight man. For the last 12 years, we have been asexual, largely because I am a lesbian and he’s not a woman. We thought we knew what we were getting into, but we didn’t. Does anyone, ever?

    We talk about this all the time. If the day comes that being together as partners doesn’t provide sufficient recompense for being artificially asexual, then we won’t stay together. But I am still a lesbian, even though I haven’t had sex at all since 2001, and haven’t had sex with a woman since 1998.

    I take very seriously the notion that a “whatever” is any (wo)man who says (s)he is, regardless of what it might look like from the outside. When Deidre Finney and Jennifer Finney Boylan say that they are both straight women, not lesbians, even though they have been married for more than 20 years, I believe them. When I look in the mirror and see a lesbian, I believe my eyes. And when you say you are bisexual, I believe you.

  11. Anya says:

    >.> Are you me?? That line about being in a long term relationship with a guy and not having dated as many women as men is literally my life as well. I’ve gotten lucky that I’ve fallen into a group of friends where most of the women are in the exact same situation and we had a lovely talk once that started with me eyeing them suspiciously and saying “so are you interested in women as well as your long term male partner” and all of us having a happy “we’re still bi even though we love our men!” I’m rambling, crap…. I suppose my point is that since getting out of college, it has been easier for me to be bi but in a serious long-term relationship with a guy, and I hate that college stereotype of bi-sexual women “just doing it to be edgy” or sexy, or whatever. So I’m glad to be out of college, but I wish it wasn’t that way.

    In closing: ❤ this post

  12. Stardust says:

    Oh god, this hit me hard because it’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks, only regarding asexuality instead of bisexuality.
    I’ve identifiied as asexual since I learned what that term means when I was 16. I’ve never been romantically or sexually attracted to anyone (apart from appreciating someone’s general attractiveness) and never had had sex until half a year ago.
    I’m now 23 and have been in a relationship with a man for just over six months. I feel romantically attracted to him and I feel sexually attracted to him and it was a first, a completely new first and I felt like I didn’t know myself anymore because I had never thought this could/would happen.
    I generally don’t care about labels when they’re about me so it’s not a problem in my day-to-day life but I increasingly find myself wondering why, if asked, I’d still identify as asexual.
    I just… it’s the only descriptor that feels “right” to me, like it actually manages to catch some part of who I am. But at the same time, I feel like I’m unfair towards “real” asexuals, that I’m not allowed to claim that term anymore now that I’m in what is basically a heterosexual relationship.

    • Lurkertype says:

      Then you say “I’m asexual except for him — he’s truly one of a kind!” or tell people “I’m Doug-sexual” (Bob-sexual or Colin-sexual or Snookums-sexual)

  13. The term pansexuality is used interchangeably with bisexuality, and, similarly, people who identify as bisexual may “feel that gender, biological sex, and sexual orientation should not be a focal point in potential [romantic/sexual] relationships”.

    • Kagi says:

      That is how my gf is – she is intellectual-sexual, she is most attracted to smart people, regardless of gender, and cares more about personality and emotional connection than sex and orientation in a relationship, which is lucky for me since I am nearly asexual these days; medication having negative effects on my sex drive.

  14. TJ says:

    ‘But the idea that, in the absence of straightness as a default, the extremes of gay and straight would just slide towards the middle and lead to a net increase in bisexuality? Is itself a perpetuation of the idea that bisexuality is a midpoint rather than a distinct orientation, and therefore a culturally conditioned form of sexual compromise rather than an innate preference.’

    …um. Yeah. You could have also mentioned that that idea is INCREDIBLY homophobic, and implies that gay women like me are a sexual ‘extreme’ that only exists because of heteronormativity, and that more us would be open to the idea of fucking men if heteronormativity went away. Which is bullshit, and a particularly cruel thing to imply considering the enormous pressure put on lesbians by patriarchy to be ‘open-minded’ about the idea of fucking men.

    Seriously, the fact that you seem to think this trope is only offensive to bisexuals is actually very upsetting.

    • fozmeadows says:

      This is a really important point, and not something I overlooked intentionally; thank you for mentioning it. And I certainly don’t think the trope is only offensive to bisexuals.

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