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by Greta Christina
So. When you have sex with men, you are straight, and when you have sex with women, you are a lesbian. As a bisexual woman, this is what I hear; again and again, this is what I hear. Your sexuality comes in compartments, like Tupperware; your heart has two chambers and you cannot feel with both; your soul is like Berlin before the wall came down.
And the truth of my experience is this: my sexuality is whole. I am not straight with men and lesbian with women; I am bisexual with both. Enjoying sex with both women and men is no more an inherently schizophrenic form of sexuality than enjoying both intercourse and oral sex. Bisexuality is a unified and unique sexual identity, an entirely different way of being, unlike either hetero- or homo- sexuality.
You see, being bisexual isn't just a matter of being sexual with women
and with men. The experiences influence each other; there's
cross-pollination, there's overlap. The experience of being sexual with
both affects what sex is like with each. And the experience of being
sexual with both affects my entire thinking about sexuality and sexual
So I want to talk about the sexuality of bisexuality, and the sexual
politics of bisexual politics.
First off, I'd like to discuss how having sex with women has affected the way I'm sexual with men. The main difference is that I place less emphasis on the erection than I once did. I've learned from women that there doesn't have to be a hard dick present in order for it to be hot sex. So when I'm with a man, and he doesn't get a hard-on, or he comes and gets soft before we're done feeling sexual, I don't feel inadequate or get angry or even think that there's any reason to stop. God knows I used to, and I know a lot of straight couples do feel that way. Straight sex is so often about the man's hard dick: it starts when he gets hard, it's over when he comes, and if he never gets hard or comes it wasn't really sex. Since I started having sex with women, I don't feel that way about men anymore. The stuff that the straight world traditionally calls "foreplay," lesbians call "sex." And that's what I've learned to call it, whether I'm with a woman or a man.
Naturally, this kind of influence works both ways. So how has being sexual with men affected my sexuality with women? I think the most important area is sexual assertiveness. I've learned from men that it's a turn-on to be passionately desired; that as long as you're willing to take no for an answer, being honest and brazen about your desires can be very hot stuff. Sexual timidity is almost a cliche among lesbians; all those sexy women lusting after each other and never telling, none of them wanting to risk rejection by making the first move. When I'm with women and find myself stuck in that trap, it's often helpful to remember how good it felt when some guy I had the hots for made his indecent intentions known. Now, assertiveness and initiative are very different from aggression and invasiveness (another distinction I learned -- rather unpleasantly -- from my dealings with men). Obnoxious assholes harassing women on the street are certainly no model of sexual interaction. But having been pleasurably courted, pursued, and seduced by men has certainly taught me a thing or two about the pleasurable courtship, pursuit, and seduction of other women.
At this point, the lesbian feminist part of my political conscience is insisting on a clarification. Whenever I talk about the things I've learned from sex with men, she reminds me that I could have learned the same things from women. Therefore, I'd like to make it clear that I'm describing my own experience of being bisexual and how this experience has shaped my own sexual perceptions. I am most emphatically not arguing that lesbian sexuality is somehow incomplete and needs some good old-fashioned hard dick energy to really round it off. When I say I learned some specific thing from having sex with men, it means that's the way I learned it -- not that it's impossible for other women to learn it in other ways.
Clear? Good. Let's get back to the topic at hand: learning about sex from both women and men. I could probably go on about this subject for hours. I could talk about how sex with women has made me more relaxed and less goal-oriented about sex; or how sex with men has made me appreciate sexual different-ness and contrast. But the unique sexual nature of bisexuality isn't simply a case of both sides learning from each other. Being bisexual is more than just having two facets to your sexuality where most people have only one; and it's more than the ways those two facets interact. It is a unique and integrated sexuality, with profound differences in degree and kind from both the hetero- and homo-sexual forms of monosexuality.
Now, I'm not going to pull out the old conventional wisdom/bisexual public relations line about bisexuals being different because we're gender blind. You've probably heard it before: "As a bisexual, I'm just not concerned about the gender of a person. I'm interested in what they're like as an individual. I'm attracted to certain qualities in people, regardless of whether I find them in a man or a woman." Yes, it's a very nice thought, very progressive. Makes the straight people feel ever so much safer, as if bisexuality were simply a kind of equal-rights feminist politics or another version of "we're all really the same under the skin so why can't we live together in peace and harmony" middle-class white liberalism. In my experience, though, it's bullshit. I'm sure a lot of bisexuals do get turned on by (for instance) intelligence and assertiveness and big dark brown eyes, regardless of whether they find those qualities in women or men. But I'm beginning to smell the presence of a party line, and I don't like it. I see men and women as being pretty goddamn different. If anything, being bi has made me hyper-aware of the sexual differences between them. And I still get hot for both.
But I do experience something that's similar to gender blindness. It's this: being bisexual means that I could potentially find myself sexually attracted to anybody. Therefore, as a bisexual, I don't make the distinction that monosexuals do between the gender you fuck and the gender you don't. And it seems -- from the outside, anyway -- that this distinction is pretty central to monosexual life. In hetero society, it's most obvious when you look at the difference between same-sex friendships and opposite-sex friendships. Certainly, much of that difference has to do with sexism, power dynamics, the difference between male and female culture and language, etc. But I also see a core difference in the way monosexual people feel about friends that they might possibly want to fuck versus friends that they never ever will. I've seen it among lesbians and gay men as well: there's a certain relaxation with friends of the opposite sex, and a certain tension with friends of the same. I've seen the sharp intake of breath that says, "Oh, goodie, I wonder if..." and the sigh of relief that says, "Oh, good, I don't have to wonder." Because I'm bisexual, that cadence doesn't exist for me. I'm not saying that I see the entire human race as one giant singles bar. There are certainly people I don't want to have sex with, and there are certainly people who don't want to have sex with me. But that distinction isn't based on who's male and who's female. The "maybe/possibly" list and the "probably not/no way" list does not split along gender lines.
And this, I believe, makes for a fundamental difference in the way that, as a bisexual, I see those gender lines. It's not that I see less difference between the genders than monosexuals (although some bisexuals do). It's not that I don't prefer one gender over another (although some bisexuals don't). And it's not that I'm attracted to people regardless of their gender (although some bisexuals are). It's that not making the distinction between the gender you fuck and the gender you don't makes you see the other differences between the genders in a radically different way. And for that matter, it makes you see the similarities in a radically different way. I think bisexuals have a unique sense -- a sense that comes from first-hand experience -- of which sexual tendencies are common to the culture, which ones are idiosyncratic to the individual, and which ones tend to break down along gender lines. And I think this way of seeing extends beyond the sexual realm.
But enough about sex. Let's talk politics.
Bisexuals are perceived by both gays and straights as more sexual than others, the same way that gay men were (and often still are) seen by straight society. The perception works like this: Straight society defines us solely by our sexuality, therefore sees nothing but our sexuality, therefore sees us as hyper-sexual, therefore trivializes and condemns us for being driven exclusively by our sexuality, therefore continues to define us solely by our sexuality, and merrily around the circle we go. This makes for an unpleasant connection between sex-negativity and biphobia. Because we are feared and scorned, we are marked with the stigma of being "too sexual"; then, because we have been marked in this way, we are feared and scorned even more. The society which hates and fears sex naturally condemns those it perceives as being more-than-acceptably sexual. The sex-negative stigma becomes its own justification.
Furthermore, since many of the common myths about bisexuals target our supposedly excessive sexuality -- we're naturally promiscuous, we can't be monogamous, we have to have both men and women sexually at all times in our lives, we like three-ways or group sex the best, we have no political or cultural commitment to the queer community and are only in it for the sex, etc. -- we often wind up defending ourselves by downplaying our sexuality and buying into the sex-negativity of the dominant straight culture. Many of the bisexual party lines negate or trivialize sex, emphasizing love and relationships instead. "We're not promiscuous! We can be monogamous! We like queer culture just as much as queer sex! Maybe even more! Let's call ourselves bi-sensual, bi-relational, or just plain bi, keep sex out of our name! This isn't about sex, honest!" The very word "bisexual" is seen by many in the community as being too much about sex and not enough about love or politics; thus, after much debate, we were represented in the 1993 March on Washington, not as bisexual, but as "bi." The San Francisco bisexual community, perceived as sexually radical by many other bi communities, is often taken less seriously as a result of this perception. Anything That Moves, a national bisexual magazine published in the San Francisco Bay Area, receives constant criticism within the bi community for the too-sexual nature of its name.
I see this as a dangerous trend. It's a way of selling out, trying to buy approval from the straight community at the expense of our own sexuality. It's important to remember, in the midst of our myth-bashing, that while the myths and stereotypes don't describe all or even most bisexuals, there are those of us who are promiscuous, are non-monogamous, do like to have both male and female lovers at once, do like three-ways and four-ways and six-ways and fifty-seven-ways more than any other way, are more interested in sex than in politics -- and that this is okay.
Look at the way lesbians and gay men have stopped defending homosexuality and are now attacking homophobia. They have begun to turn the debate around, away from "There's nothing wrong with us, please accept us" to, "What's wrong with you that you don't accept us?" Bisexuals must learn to do this, not only about our sexual orientation, but about our sexuality itself. We all know what it is to have the sex fears of mainstream straight culture projected onto us. But we cannot defend ourselves by embracing their fears as our own. We must confront sexual stereotyping, not timidly, not defensively, but with honesty, chutzpah, and pride. We have to stop saying, "No, we're not that nasty bad sexual way at all," and begin saying instead, "Some of us are like that, and some of us are not, and we think that's just fine -- why do you have a problem with it?"
Copyright 1995 Greta Christina. Originally published in Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions, edited by Naomi Tucker, Haworth Press.