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Is Bisexuality Real? 5 January 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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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.

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Comments

1. Shannon - 8 January 2007

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.

Well, for a truly bisexual individual, the pool of available partners of the opposite sex is almost always going to be much, much larger than the pool of available partners of the same sex. After all, almost half the population will consist of straight members of the opposite sex, while only about 2-3 percent of the population will consist of gay members of the same sex. And then of course, there’s the fact that heterosexual partnerships are so rewarded by society. So a person who is attracted to the opposite sex will find many more avenues to pursue that attraction, and will be encouraged throughout their lives to do so. They’ll find little reason to explore attractions to the same gender; most of their crushes won’t be reciprocated, and those that are will often be written off as childish sex play or, at most, “experimentation”. The bisexual person will be given every opportunity, and every encouragement, to think of themselves as straight.

Generally it’s only in relatively unusual situations, such as single-sex environments, that a bisexual person finds a good reason to pursue same-sex attraction. I know I would never, ever have realized my own bisexuality if I hadn’t gone to an all-female college. It was only in that environment, without boys to crush on, that I woke up to the fact that I was also crushing on girls.

And my experience was pretty typical of bisexual women in that I had several partners in college, where it was relatively easy to find and pursue same-sex relationships, but once I was back in the “general population” it turned out to be much, much easier to date men. I consciously tried to maintain a bisexual identity: when I did the Internet dating thing, I posted both “women seeking women” and “women seeking men” ads. I got literally hundreds of responses from men, and exactly two from women. Friendships with men were easily transformed into romantic relationships; friendships with women rarely exhibited that potential. When I went out to “straight” bars men would buy me drinks. When I went to the Lexington I sat alone all night. Eventually, of course, I feel in love with and married a man.

This doesn’t mean that my bisexuality is “situational”. It’s not. I experience attraction to members of both genders, and in retrospect I always have, but it was only in college that I had any reason to pursue same-sex attractions. I’m pretty confident that there’s a lot of women out there who, like me, are actually bisexual, but never realize it because it’s so easy to simply live as a heterosexual. I really don’t think bisexual desire is rare at all, at least among women. I just think it’s rarely recognized for what it is.

There’s a lot of resentment in the lesbian community against bi women who “exploit heterosexual privilege”, but I think the reason so many bi women end up with men has as much to do with the numbers game as it does with the (undeniably very real) social rewards of heterosexuality.

Also, I think bisexuality is probably a lot more common among women than among men, although my only evidence for that belief is observation and anecdote.

2. C. L. Hanson - 13 January 2007

Separating desire/attraction from behavior is useful when analyzing orientation. Honestly, I think the popular “Kinsey scale” confuses this question.

I don’t claim to be an expert — and I’d be willing to change my position if further evidence comes to light — but my impression is that essentially everyone has a primary orientation even if they seek out and enjoy alternate sexual experiences.

3. Randy - 21 January 2007

I like your dichotomy, Todd.

I used to think of my own sexuality as a dichotomy of emotional desire (which was, for the most part, male-oriented) and sexual desire (which I convinced myself was always female-oriented). Still, there was the odd, unexplainable boner from time to time. I get it now, but it was something I simply could not admit to myself, so I came up with that emotional/sexual dichotomy.

Of course, I’m married to a woman whom I love very much, and whom I find sexually attractive, so emotion and sexual desire are pointing the same way. But I still have has sexual stirrings for other guys every now and again. I don’t act on those, but they are there. If it hadn’t been for my own neurotic fears, I probably would have worked all of this out when I was a teenager. I used to feel a need to attach a label to the situation, but now I’d rather not–I’m just who and what I am. Sexuality is a great mystery, and always will be.

4. The Hammer, 2007 « Todd’s Hammer - 18 December 2007

[…] January: “Well, the short answer is, Of course bisexuality exists.” February: “My 2nd year tenure dossier has officially been accepted by the Provost at my university.” March: “You know you’re a nerdy social scientist when this brings you to tears:” April: “I love the white guy/gal with accoustic guitar singing social justice/political parody genre.” May: “In the 21st century, the fight for justice in a capitalist labor market continues for the vast majority of the world’s people.” June: “I’m teaching a course about Nature and Culture this summer, and I’m in the middle of the first section which gives the evolutionary psychological background of the origins of human cognition and, by extension, culture.” July: “In reading Tim Adams’ review of Natalie Angier’s new book, The Canon: A Whirlygig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, I came across this gem: ‘Science is rather a state of mind,’ Angier argues and, as such, it should inform everything.” August: “From the current executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Matt Foreman.”  September: “Apparently, the opera-lover sequence on my gay gene was dormant until recently, as I’ve begun really enjoying classical vocal music.” October: “Last Sunday was the annual Castro Street Fair.” November: “Your Inner European is French!” December: “This made me laugh (anyone who knows me knows I love to make goyishe kosher jokes)(via Mike the Mad Biologist)” […]

5. Paige - 19 January 2008

I can’t help feeling that your article is defensive against bi identification and more a reaction to heteropatriarchal uses of bisexuality against gays and lesbians than an appreciation of different personal experiences of one’s sexuality.
Of course, homophobic culture makes it hard on everyone to be honest, open, and expressive of how they really feel sexually. I know of no way around this other than to keep fighting homophobia, including that homophobia that masquerades as biphobia in the gay and lesbian communities. It may seem strange to you that bisexuals hide in gay and lesbian closets for acceptance, but they do. They do this because, for a long time, gay and lesbian politics dismissed them as nonexistent or fence-sitters or politically irrelevant; and because political discourse that only allows someone their same-sex desire when it is inherent, unchanging, uninfluenced by environment, and purely homosexual does not really defend bisexual people. What do you do when the people who say they are all about gay liberation are not really about your liberation? Could you possibly stand up to the straights without them? Is essentialism the only defense that we dare try against violence, discrimination, and marginalization?
I used to say to myself that there was really only one cornerstone to biphobia in the gay and lesbian communities: we bisexuals make you look bad in front of the straight people. But your point about bisexuality being used to erase gay and lesbian people and experience is well taken.
A few years ago, I was shocked by a retired psychiatrist who, prior to homosexuality being removed from the manual of mental illnesses, use to treat homosexuality in patients by first getting them to be bisexual and then teaching them to shut down or ignore all same-sex desire altogether. This is precisely what ex-gay therapies do and we must not stand for it. So what if some people can be manipulated or conditioned into acting heterosexually, that doesn’t mean they should be.
I think queer activists should be bolder. It doesn’t matter if you are attracted to people of the opposite sex, there is nothing wrong with you expressing same-sex attraction. You can have a billion heterosexual affairs, they do not delegitimize your love and attraction to your own gender. Nobody has to be painted into a corner biologically in order to justify their same-sex attraction.
Finally, if you run into any bisexuals who tell you that you should be bisexual or that everyone is “really” bisexual and should face up to it, smack them upside the head and tell them I sent you. The only way we are going to get out of this hell is appreciating each other’s differences and preserving diversity.

6. Sage - 2 January 2010

Sexuality is a spiritual thing. Science can only explain so much. Whatever you truly feel, deep inside yourself, is what it is. It is no puzzle, no issue, no confusion. It is a journey. Sexuality may change just like the seasons.

7. Ja - 5 July 2010

What a load load garbage of course bisexuality exits. Yes everyone is bisexual. The ‘Desire and behavior’ is a real red herring. Of course people deny there desires because of fear and a wish to conform to hetrosexual norms.

I think alot of people in the Gay community fail to realise that is that it the community has grown in reaction to homophobia and thus to a large extent it is shaped by it. The denial of bisexuality or saying it is only a behavior and not a real desire can be seen as part of that reaction to homophobia. It is a fear that they could be that little bit hetrosexual or you may not be 100% Gay Gay Gay. This is undoutable a fear of many looking for that Gay Gene or alternatively the confirmation that bisexuality doesn’t exist. We now enough about history and anthropology to know it exists and always will. dare I say it but I think the Gay community is already getting more used to fluidity thanks to bisexual women. Bisexual men which you may not see much of unless cruising them (efeminate men love them and hate them at the same time) is largley deeply repressed in the male mind but will find it’s way out sooner or later.

8. Matthew - 10 July 2011

I am an out bi man largely in the hetero art world so there is an intersection of gays and lesbians. As far as desire I have had mostly LTRs with women and more sex partners were women (about 16) and men I seriesly dated 3 men and had sex with 6 other men. I was shocked a couple years ago when a sexologist stated I don’t exist – it has actually brought grief – this is more than just behavior. But one of the most curious things about being an out bisexual man in the hetero world is ever since highschool all the “straight” guys confided in me of their attraction to othermen, how they are afraid to act on those feelings, etc. This happened just the other day my boss (a straight woman) introduce a friend (a straight guy) to me. The conversation went in the bi direction and he said “you I have felt once really attracted to this guy before and..” immidiately the straight women broke in and said, “oh yeah but it wasn’t sexual, or anything” and sayed fearingly “oh no of course not.” the point being is straight women are the gate keepers of “straight” male sexuality. If a bi man or bi curious person decides to go their they loose almost all credibility as being an eligible partner with most straight women. And so the Down Low is the option for these guys, or never exploring it, but thinking it. If I were to tell some straight woman how many “straight” men have thought about sucking dick they would never recover. There is an illusion being preserved that I think will crumble on about 10 -20 years because of the Internet.

9. Matthew - 10 July 2011

My first LTR was with a straight woman and she had a real problem with me being bi. And my last girlfriend tried to be open minded but also had a huge problem with it. So I general sought out bisexual women or women who are straight and had a sexual relationship with a woman. I am now in a relationship with one bisexual woman who actually wants me to have an outside male partner and I do now – a feme gay man who seems to general seek out bi men. He is a little uncomfortable with this triangle thing but has remained open. So who knows what the hell will happen. I have deep emotional sexual relationship with both my partners.

10. Todd - 10 July 2011

I’m so sorry that you had an expert and researcher tell you you don’t exist. That can be a very painful experience.

In my research, I think the key to bisexual living is being true to yourself, your desires, and your needs. You’re going to get shit from people across the spectrum, so as the world is right now, it takes a great deal of personal strength to be an out bi person, especially I think an out bi man.

My feelings about the future is that sexuality will get more complex and “bisexual” not because people have bisexual desire per se, but because homophobia will be greatly reduced, which will make it more possible for bisexual behavior to occur (where straight-oriented individuals are open to homosexual experiences, and perhaps vice versa). I do still think that bisexual behavior and bisexual desire are not the same thing. If you look at my life history, you could plausibly conclude that I’m bisexual (in fact many gay men have had sex with women). But that isn’t the same thing as my orientation, the direction of the majority (nearly all) of my sexual desire. I’ve had quasi-relationships with “bi-curious” straight guys, and they ended up being painful for me (not for them) because orientation and behavior are not the same thing.

On a personal, ethical front, I think the key to integrating healthy bisexuality into a more open culture and society is going to be how we talk about the intersection of behavior and orientation, especially when talking about relationships. Whereas open relationships like yours work for many people (and quite successfully), they often don’t work for many other people. That means we’re going to have to develop ways to talk with each other about what we want and what we do in ways that help us grow and self-realize without hurting each other.

Then there’s the question (a hobby-horse of mine lately) of what happens to gay community as the barriers fall down. What of gay men who want gay community and culture? Will there be a place for them in a future that will be (relatively) homophobia free?

Matthew - 6 January 2012

I know I said a lot. But looking over my life with all the “straight” men who have told me of their desires, I don’t think bisexual men in orientation are rare. I think it is generally unexpressed, sublimated, invisible, and closeted. For example my therapist has had experiences, met his wife, got married in 1973 and has been monogous ever since. I would wager to guess that many sensitive “straight” men have a bisexual orientation. Another example is my best straight friend, made out with a guy and has occasional fantasies. He said “I don’t want to explore it, it would complicated life.” and it will. For me I came out because a gay friend ask if I was attracted to guys too, I said yes. He asked if I would come out with him in my small town. I agreed. To be honest – I lost a lot, my father told me to leave, I was branded a faggot, etc. I was offered a football scholarship which I refused because I did not want to deal with homophobia, I was refused a linguist position in the army for my honesty. So I went off and became an artist in art school, I met a girl we dated and we both came out to each other. We then came out to the whole school which was not so popular to do. BUT with no parents and no one telling me what to do I gave myself peission to date whomever I wanted. It was more girls than guys but I took the guys serious too. In my case coming out came at a huge price, so I figure I might as well live it. But even recently many in the art world can’t believe it. But now as I am meeting more and more bi men and women interested in dating each other in open poly relationships I see a change which is already here because the Internet allows bi people to find each other. Ironically the guy I was dating left so now I am dating two bisexual girls. But I am really beginning to feel like I am part of bisexual expressive subculture that will increase in numbers as people open up.

11. Matthew - 11 July 2011

Thanks. I have been having a long dialogue with a bisexual woman who is getting her LCSW. We were originally intending to get together to date, but now I entered into this relationship. But our dialogue has continued. She wants to provide services to people in relationships like this so there is emotional fullfillment for everyone involved. And if issues come up they are dealt with. For me this is not just about sex. I specifically stated when looking that I want my partners to be emotionally and psychologically available and mature. One of the big problems now is such services In LGBT community (which is really only L&G) are not there.

I think gay community will be there. As well as lesbian culture. A lesbian friend thought of herself as “bi” but this identification meant she felt isolated and alone and the pressure for her to be only lesbian was so great she just gave in. I have talked to gay men who have said the same. There certainly is a lot of pressure for people to be sexually “pure”. But what is happening is a growing bisexual culture, in small numbers in the real world. But huge numbers in the virtual world and growing. That is what is the interesting development that suddenly many people are finding ways to be out.

12. Matthew - 11 July 2011

What I am finding interesting though as far as an emerging “bisexual culture” is it is emerging in a different way than either gay or lesbian culture. There are many mature gay men, but the culture was built on sexual desire (and many older gay men now complain about youth gay culture and it’s limitations for them.) While Lesbian culture has been built on feminist politics. The OUT bisexual culture is generally demanding emotional maturity and ethical behavior amoungst each other and my hope is this attitude continues. The out bipeople I am meeting are often Psychologist, counselors, social activists, artists who do community work (me), etc. I have a real positive feeling about this, my hope is that we lead an emergent culture towards responsibilty and awareness.


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