Is Bisexuality Real? 5 January 2007Posted by Todd in Biology, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
Well, the short answer is, Of course bisexuality exists. But the category offers some really difficult analytical problems for understanding sexuality, not because there’s anything problematic about bisexuality, but because of the way the category is used analytically.
In her review of the new Norwegian museum exhibit on homosexuality among animals, anthropologist Linda Wolfe makes a key distinction between between behavior and orientation (or between deeds and desire, if you will). [This is a distinction I've been insisting on for a while now, even here on this blog.] In a nutshell: desire and deed are not the same thing. This should be obvious, as gay men and women all around the world get married and have children, but are no less gay in terms of their desires; men in prison have sex with (and rape) each other, but are no less heterosexual in terms of their desires for doing so.
I would also add that there are actually two different, if overlapping, desires at play; the desire to reproduce is not the same as the desire to fuck. Gay men and women very often have intense desires to have children, but their orientations make that biologically tricky; and many straight folks don’t want kids, but continue to have strong desires to have sex or a particular sex act.
Although there are definitely people with bisexual desire (someone attracted to both sexes to some degree), I think it is often a red herring in discussions about sexuality, where behavior is taken as direct evidence of desire, either explicitly or implicitly. In reality, because human beings have infinite numbers of reasons for having sex, few of which have anything to do with their orientation, a sexual act may indicate an orientational desire, but any given act isn’t necessarily an indication of orientation at all. Because we don’t know what people are feeling leading up to their sexual acts unless they tell us, we don’t know what desires were actually driving the sex act (which makes the history of sexuality particularly complex and fun).1 When it’s not used with extreme care, the category “bisexual” can conflate desire and deed (as can, unfortunately, the categories “homosexual” and “heterosexual”). But biseuxality has been used both within and without the gay community for years in ways that seek to erase the sexual difference of gay men and women, either by insisting that they actually are or should be bisexual, or that everyone is really bisexual. Such normative statements may work as normatives, but not as descriptions of what real people are thinking, feeling and doing.
Heterosexual interpreters have historically done everything possible to eliminate the presence of homosexuality in any given context; and since the 1960s, some “radical” or “postmodern” or “queer” interpreters have imposed a normative bisexuality onto their subjects (usually from the humanities; but also some scientists and social scientists who fail to recognize the biological underpinnings of sexual desire). Both are problematic. Whether you’re talking about prison sex, closeted married people, frat boys jackin off together, military buddies sharing a prostitute, housewives “comforting” each other, straight guy getting a blow job from a gay guy, etc., there’s a long history of straight and more recently “queer” interpreters dismissing the phenomenon or explaining it away as anything *but* homosexuality.
If the category “bisexual” is to retain any analytical power, it must be employed with more care, distinguishing between bisexual behavior (which is relatively common and most often separate from orientation) and bisexual desire (which is apparently quite rare2 (rarer than homosexuality, which itself is only 4-6% of the population)).
So the most accurate understanding comes from: a) keeping the distinction between desire and deed; and b) being clear about which desires are at play at a given moment (e.g., horniness, reproduction, violence, coersion, love, etc.). The categories “homosexual”, “heterosexual”, and “bisexual” will never account for the diversity of human sexual experience; but they do offer relatively good starting points to talking about human sexuality, if the analysis allows for the incredibly diversity of possible articulations between desires and deeds.
1. This is where one of my big beefs with historian David Halperin lies. He argues, if I may oversimplify, that because we can’t know the desires behind the acts, there were basically no homosexuals in the past. Because the cultures and social structures surrounding the acts were different than they are today, the category homosexual is useless in the past. I would argue that we go back to the original problem: We simply don’t know what people were desiring. Therefore, the more accurate theoretical stance, in my opinion, is that individuals in the past may have had a homosexual orientation as indicated by their actions; but not necessarily so. Given what we don’t know (i.e., what they were feeling and desiring), it is just as problematic to argue that they were not homosexual as it is to argue that they were. And then I would argue that this critique needs to be extended to people having sex with the opposite sex in the past: we don’t know what they were desiring (although for some individuals, evidence can be accrued as to the gender of their primary sexual desires), and so should not be categorized as heterosexual either–but rather we could say that they were likely heterosexual in their orientation, and it expressed it in this particular cultural way and context.
2. There have been some studies that have shown that in an individual’s life time, most everyone will experience a crush or attraction for someone of the sex opposite their primary orientation; but to be consistently attracted to both sexes in general is quite rare.