Bisexuality And How To Use It: Toward a Coalitional Identity Politics
Issue #16, October 1994
For months we have been having conversations with each other trying to work out where we stand as bisexuals. It probably doesn't sound that difficult, but our bisexuality is often construed by others as being at odds with the rest of who we are — queer socialist-feminists in academia. Bisexuality rarely gets the same kind of validation that is a necessary part of forming a healthy identity. Particularly within the queer community, which supposedly includes us, we often feel insecure and ashamed about 'coming out' as bisexuals. Why do we feel so ashamed? Queer activism taught us to take pleasure in our sexuality, and yet in queer circles we rarely find our experiences affirmed in the way homosexuality and lesbianism are. It's true that there have been changes. In recent years Gay Pride parades in New York, San Francisco and other places have been renamed to include lesbians, gays and bisexuals. Similarly, bisexual organizations such as BiPOL and BiNet have been formed in several major cities. But it is still the case that, despite bisexuality being a reality for us and many other people, it is rare to find positive representations of ourselves within contemporary popular culture — or any kind of culture for that matter.
Since Alfred Kinsey's invention of the famous 'Kinsey scale' in the late 40s, the idea that most people fall somewhere between 0 (totally heterosexual) and 6 (totally homosexual) on a sexual preference continuum has been hotly debated. What Kinsey suggested, in designing this scale, was that 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual' are not opposites, but rather two possible positions on a continuum of sexual desire. One might be a 2 on the scale (preferring hetero sex, but occasionally enjoying homo sex), or a 4 (tending toward homo, but really liking both), or any other number between 1 and 6. In 1978, psychiatrist Fritz Klein published the first book about bisexuality aimed at a mass audience, The Bisexual Option, and modified the Kinsey scale, creating what he called the 'Klein sexual orientation grid.' This 'grid' expanded Kinsey's 6 point scale to a 7 point scale (where 1 is hetero only, and 7 homo only), and measures a number of variables that might influence sexual orientation: sexual attractions, fantasies, behaviors, emotions, and self-identification among others. Klein's grid demonstrates that sexual orientation is wildly difficult to determine in the contemporary era: rather than a simple 0-6 scale, we now need a grid where we rate seven 'variables' with a 1 to 7 ranking, and include in this ranking how we felt in the past as well as how we would feel 'ideally.' Your sexual orientation, in Klein's grid, ends up looking something like one of the graphs from the Clinton Administration's economic package.
When Klein began his research for The Bisexual Option, he discovered there were almost no articles or books on bisexuality available in public libraries and medical indexes. In the New York Public Library in 1976 he found only 2 monographs on bisexuality, and no books at all. Even today, despite the boom in queer publishing, A Different Light (a gay and lesbian bookstore chain) has only in the past 6 months introduced a section specifically on bisexuality. In other words, it is only very recently that enough books on bisexuality have existed to fill such a section.
During the 1970s, openly bisexual superstars like David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Marlon Brando made bisexuality chic. At that time, the feminist and gay rights movements were gaining momentum and sexual 'swinging' and experimentation were popular 'lifestyle choices' among the middle-class as well as in the counterculture. While bisexuality obviously existed in the lives of many people, from stars to activists, it never inspired its own large-scale political movement nor did it ever generate a viable community. In the 70s, bisexuality was chic not because it was a political issue, but because it was associated with 'sexual liberation.' The gay and women's liberation movements were also associated with sexual liberation, but became established political movements by foregrounding civil rights issues. Bisexuality was never 'political' in the way gay rights and feminism continue to be. With the arrival of 'queer' as an umbrella term for all kinds of sexual minorities, you would think bisexuality might have finally come into its own as a political issue. Yet it remains a marginalized term within queer (read: mostly homosexual) politics.
In fact, when bisexuality surfaces as an issue in queer activist culture and the mass media it is often mistaken for or represented as something else: bisexuals are conceived of as deviants (queer among queers?), fickle lovers, psychotics, spreaders of disease, closet homosexuals, and betrayers of the queer cause who at any moment can 'switch sides' and reap the benefits of a heterosexist culture. The controversial film Basic Instinct (1992) is a perfect example of how bisexuals are understood to embody not just one, but nearly all of these negative traits. Catherine (Sharon Stone), the murder suspect in this film, is a bisexual who, among other things, enjoys promiscuity, 'deviant' s/m sex, and cruel mind games which foster near-psychosis in her male and female lovers and cause us to suspect that she too may be insane. What is interesting about this movie is not just its negative portrayal of bisexuality, but the way it has been hailed as a 'lesbian text' by film critics and moviegoers alike. Any way you look at it, bisexuality is demeaned or eliminated in this film. If you think of Catherine as a bisexual, she is evil. If you think of her as a lesbian, she isn't bisexual. What we have, then, is a bisexual who is either just plain bad or nonexistent. This kind of reaction to bisexuality is not unusual — bisexuals are oppressed and rendered invisible by both straight and queer culture. The amount of hostility and selective blindness triggered by bisexuality suggests to us that it poses a serious threat to our present conception of sexual identity. Most people still cling to the notion that they are 'one or the other' — straight or gay. Bisexuality complicates this idea.
For this reason, bisexuality seems most visible as an option when it helps to explain the intensity with which people become involved in romantic triangles. The romantic triangle leads to one of two scenarios: all three partners become involved in a 'swinging' or non-monogamous arrangement; or jealousy prevails and one or more partners commit an act of emotional or physical violence. Both scenarios involve what mainstream culture would call 'deviance' or 'sickness.' While non-monogamy and menages a trois are not anti-social acts like violence, they are nevertheless associated — in heteronormative culture — with questionable sanity.
Clearly while bisexuals can be what Fritz Klein calls 'sequential bisexuals,' that is, monogamously attached to one gender at a time, this is not the dominant understanding of bisexual habits. Even among bisexuals themselves, non-monogamy is often the 'practice' for the 'theory' of bisexuality. In their recent exhaustive study of over 800 self-identified bisexuals called Dual Attraction (1994), sociologists Martin Weinberg, Colin Williams, and Douglas Pryor found that bisexuals reported in 1983 that their 'ideal arrangement was to have two core relationships — one heterosexual and one homosexual.' What is more interesting than this finding, however, are the kinds of questions the (non-bisexual) authors pose before getting their answers: 'Can bisexuals be truly committed to more than one partner or to partners of different sexes?...How are multiple relationships organized?' That is, Weinberg et. al. assume going into their research that bisexual identity necessarily implies a non-monogamous lifestyle. Their task, as they see it, is simply to document how this non-monogamy occurs, not to find out when or if indeed it really does to the extent that popular stereotypes might suggest. Regardless, it is certainly the case that self-identified bisexuals are more likely to question monogamy. An ad for the Bay Area Bisexual Network reads: 'We support celibacy, monogamy, and non-monogamy as equally valid lifestyle choices.' Patricia Ireland, controversial president of NOW, also declared her bisexuality by stating she has both a husband and a female lover.
Bisexuality gets associated with non-monogamy and group sex because it is difficult to imagine a purely bisexual act that involves only two people. Two women together, even if they are bisexual, engage in 'homosexual sex.' Likewise, a bisexual man and woman together engage in 'heterosexual sex.' Recent movies like Threesome (1994) and Three of Hearts (1993) danced around issues of bisexuality in their depictions of love triangles which contained heterosexual and homosexual partners. That both films needed to situate bisexuality in mixed-gender/orientation love triangles brings us back to a point we made earlier: bisexuality is often cast as the cause for romantic triangles, particularly those with 'deviant' outcomes. In the movie Threesome, for example, two young men and a woman end up in bed together after longing for each other separately. Tellingly, the main character says in voice-over at the beginning of the movie, 'This is a story about how we became deviants.' One bisexual woman, writing a personal essay in the collection Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism (1992), states that 'the image...[in] my mind' of bisexual sex is 'two seedy-looking men and two women getting it on, maybe one of them wondering if she should have bothered to learn these other peoples' names before jumping into bed with them.' Bisexuality, which is so hard to imagine within the terms of a 'standard' one-on-one sexual encounter, comes to represent and be represented by 'deviant' sexual encounters.
What we see here is a chain of associations beginning with bisexual identity and ending with sickness. In between, we find non-monogamous sexual relations, violent rage, sickness, and AIDS particularly. In an August 1992 issue of Time, Anastasia Toufexis and Eugene Linden demonstrate how this kind of association can work. 'As the threat of AIDS intensifies, more precise information regarding bisexuals' prevalence and practices is desperately needed,' they write, thereby equating bisexual practices with the spread of AIDS. As many people have pointed out, bisexuality is often attributed to some kind of monstrousness or freakishness in individuals. The Hunger, an art house hit from 1983, featured bisexual vampiress Catherine Deneuve seducing first David Bowie, then Susan Sarandon, into sensual blood-drinking encounters. Besides the vampire, another way we find bisexual individuals represented is in the figure of the hermaphrodite, a person whose sexual organs combine male and female attributes. In Thomas Geller's Bisexuality: A Reader and Sourcebook (1990), placed among articles about bisexual identity is a work called 'Normal and Atypical Gender Differentiation,' which describes (and contains graphic illustrations of) the development of ordinary and hermaphroditic sexual organs. At an individual level then, the bisexual is viewed as supernatural (maybe even imaginary, like vampires), or as a medical anomaly whose biological sex is essentially deformed.
These are not the only ways bisexuality has been rendered problematic by its association with aberrant identities or sexualities. In April 1982 Barnard College in New York hosted a feminist conference entitled 'Towards a Politics of Sexuality'. The conference proved to be an historic and controversial event, triggering the so-called 'sex wars' that are still raging today within the feminist community. The conference was unique in that it provided a space for feminists to discuss the erotics and politics of non-normative sexuality. Vance's Pleasure and Danger (1984), the landmark text that contains papers from this conference, demonstrates the kind of polarized thinking we are talking about. The two factions that emerged were not comprised of straight and lesbian women, but of 'vanilla' and 's/m' women. Many women at the conference viewed sadomasochism as being inextricably linked to cross-generational sex, transvestism, transsexualism, fetishists, sex-workers and bisexuality, arguing that all of these groups would threaten and pollute the women's community. Since sexuality was a political choice, and lesbianism the politically correct choice, any other kind of sexuality was considered counter-revolutionary. Bisexuality was considered to be threatening to the cohesion of the women's movement, not only because women were having sex with men but also because of its association with other unusual sexual practices. Contemporary questions of butch/femme echo these earlier discussions, with butch/femme being linked with bisexuality and s/m.
Since the early 1980s there has been a significant increase in explicit representations of sadomasochistic sexuality within popular culture. What is interesting, in the context of our present discussion, is that s/m culture is also one place where representations of bisexuality are readily available. However, despite the frequency of mixed-sex encounters within s/m parties and erotic literature, bisexuality itself, as an identity, is often marginalized or erased, with s/m being the primary sexual identity of the participants. Madonna's Sex (1992), an erotic picture book full of the paraphernalia of s/m, is a prime example of the mainstreaming of s/m, and it is typical in that it explicitly connects s/m sex with homosexuality, and flagrantly appropriates queer imagery (much to the chagrin, it should be noted, of the queer community itself). But more importantly, Sex is a book about bisexuality, containing images of both straight and gay sexual encounters. Yet the book is hailed as 'queer.' Once again, bisexuality falls by the wayside.
Since s/m is self-consciously theatrical, with participants adopting roles and negotiating scripts to perform, one's 'everyday' identities are discarded. Indeed part of the seductive appeal of s/m is to be able to enter another world where 'everyday' sex is left behind, so that mixed-sex as well as same-sex encounters occur while maintaining one's 'queer' or 'straight' identities. Of course, sexual acts always involve an element of performance, and a kind of role-playing, but what concerns us is that one role — namely bisexuality — is consistently dismissed. In other words, s/m allows participants to perform bisexual acts while simultaneously disavowing it by claiming that the acts are just s/m. Pat Califia's Macho Sluts (1988) and Doc and Fluff (1990) are both excellent examples of s/m literature that includes bisexuality yet is specifically targeted for, and claimed by, lesbians. A positive aspect of s/m is the creation of the safe space where acts can occur within a negotiated contract, but it seems unnecessary to disguise the reality of many mixed-sex encounters — both at the level of fantasy and reality.
Lately a kind of s/m chic has emerged, often associated with 'pro-sex' activists like Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, and s/m has become a convenient stand-in for a variety of alternative sexual activities, including fetishism (especially leather), transvestism, and sex between people of different generations. As sexual acts that transgress 'normal' queer and straight sex, these activities end up being collapsed into different versions of 'deviance'. While pro-sex activists have had some success in countering negative stereotypes that persist about s/m (and other alternative sexual activities) bisexuality itself has yet to become chic.
Merely making bisexuality become 'chic' is clearly not a goal in itself. As some commentators noted last year, one of the possible negative side-effects of the popularity of 'lesbian chic' was that it codes lesbianism as merely a kind of fashion statement, something that requires certain consumer goods to mark the individual as lesbian. Another concern, of course, is that anything that is a fashion statement one year is pass the next. Seeing sexual identity as a fashion is no better than saying it is part of a passing phase. With the arrival of s/m chic a pattern seems to be emerging where a lifestyle or sexual identity becomes more mainstream and is marketed so that a number of associated consumer goods are purchased. Since there are no obvious consumer goods that accompany bisexuality this may be one reason for its absence in consumer culture. But the reasons go deeper than that. They have more to do with a kind of biphobia within straight and queer culture.
We often find biphobia when bisexuality is mistaken for homosexuality. Within academia it is almost common-place to argue that there is a queer sub-text in films and books that are, on the surface, bisexual or even heterosexual. Vito Russo's acclaimed book on homosexuality in the movies, The Celluloid Closet (1981), is not only a study of actual lesbian and gay characters in Hollywood films but also one of the first examples of the increasingly popular trend of 'reading' the queer subtext of films. This trend is well established and films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Black Widow (1986) and Thelma and Louise (1991) are just three texts that are routinely considered to be 'really' about lesbians. Yet they are all about women who are, at least on the surface, heterosexual. We certainly do not condemn the practice of finding the queer subtext in 'straight' culture. We simply wish to broaden the possible queer readings to include bisexual ones. While homoeroticism is strongly suggested between these female protagonists, the idea that they might be bisexuals is never raised.
Why might this be? Resistance to bisexuality from the gay and lesbian community is especially strong. It is almost as if bisexuals threaten queers with assimilation into the heterosexual world. The bisexual makes it difficult to maintain a clear boundary between queer and straight communities. This fear of assimilation is characterized by Susie Bright, in Sisters, Sexperts and Queers (1993) as the 'Titanic paranoia' where 'there are only six lesbians left on the life raft, and if we lose one more person, we're all going to sink...it's only threatening to those who are insecure, who feel as though we are losing our community'. Yet, significantly, Bright, who is an outspoken supporter of all sexual minorities, calls herself a lesbian while living a bisexual life.
In Making Things Perfectly Queer (1993) Alexander Doty suggests that the queerness of mass culture comes from the ways in which texts are received and read, rather than queerness necessarily being 'in' the text. Thus the meaning that is 'in' the text may be heterosexual but the meaning that is 'around' the text may suggest lesbian or gay desire. Because the mass media rarely shows positive representations of queer people, finding the queer subtext in popular culture becomes a form of pleasure, and even a kind of necessity, for many people. Yet, these two kinds of meanings — the queer subtext and the heterosexual surface text — always remain mutually exclusive rather than co-existing alternatives. The possibility that Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, or Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell might be portraying bisexual women does not seem to be an option.
One of the most influential theoretical texts available on queer identity in culture, Eve Sedgwick's Between Men (1985), demonstrates the problems with trying to extricate a bisexual perspective from a queer one. Hailed as one of the first academic works about homosexuality in classical literature by its author and the students it has influenced, Between Men is in many ways an example of what happens when we focus too hard on finding a queer 'subtext' and ignore its bisexual context. One of the many key arguments Sedgwick makes in this book is that men often deal with their sexual desire for one another by putting a woman in between them. This woman might be a source of romantic rivalry, or a person one man gives to the other in marriage, or a fictional woman who symbolically represents the 'real' male object of desire. The two men who desire one another act out their love on this woman, and therefore homosexuality gets 'buried' in a heterosexual relationship.
A woman between two men therefore comes to stand in for a homoerotic — even homosexual — bond. Using Sedgwick's idea (perhaps improperly), one can 'prove' that when a gay man falls in love with a woman it represents a burial of his homosexuality, rather than an affirmation of his bisexuality. Sedgwick herself points out that her formulation is intended to criticize the way men use women as pawns in their own (often financial) dealings with each other. And yet she has generated a notion which is now used in queer theory circles to reproduce this very problem. The women a gay man might love are just tools he uses to get at a man whom he 'really' loves. There is no possibility here for a bisexual reading, in which a man feels simultaneous desire for women and men, but is forced to choose between them.
We believe that it is time to take seriously and pay attention to that woman (or man) who is 'in between.' Why don't we try to analyze what seems obvious about Sedgwick's scenarios? She *is* describing bisexual desire — the desire two men experience for each other *and* for women. Why should a man's desire for a woman 'really' be desire for men? Why can't a man 'really' desire both, and be torn apart because his culture asks him to choose one over the other? Understanding fictional and non-fictional situations like the ones Sedgwick describes as bisexual (rather than covertly homosexual) makes telling the truth about ourselves a lot easier. We do not have to erase or discount one gender in order to find out what is 'really' happening. Nor do we have to expend great amounts of energy wishing away sexual desires that seem messy because they stray outside the lines of a rigidly defined homosexual or heterosexual identity.
Accepting bisexuality as a form of desire common to both straight and queer people would allow us to understand what is, in many ways, right before our very eyes. Rather than agonizing over a search for the buried 'queer' subtext in our popular culture, we might instead stop digging and take the surface of this culture seriously. Even when we find bisexuality on the surface of things, it is still often read as homosexuality. Personal Best (1980), Basic Instinct and The Hunger are all quite explicitly 'about' bisexual women, yet are rarely described as such and instead are listed in film guides and reviews as being about lesbians.
But straight and gay culture alike continue to insist, in a literal sense, that things are not nearly so simple. How else can we explain gay people in fiction and real life who have straight sex sometimes, and vice versa? Go Fish, the highly acclaimed recent film about lesbian romance, contains a scene in which a mock tribunal is convened to pass judgment on a lesbian who has recently slept with a man. Although slightly ironic, this 'trial' points up a very real — and oppressive — aspect of gay and lesbian culture. Duplicating some of the most oppressive aspects of heteronormative society, many gays and lesbians will insist that sexuality must be black and white: even if sometimes you are attracted to the opposite sex, this urge must be squelched in the name of your purely queer identity.
For all these reasons and more, we believe the world is ready for a new way of politicizing and understanding identity. Bisexuality is only one example of the kind of identity which suggests possibilities for coalition-building between marginal groups and their mainstream counterparts. Feminism and the gay rights movements were able, separately, to forge strong political movements out of sexual liberation by challenging existing assumptions about the relationships between gender, sexuality, and power. A coalitional identity politics might take these movements one step further by bringing their separate concerns together. For example, the open acknowledgment of bisexuality as a genuine social force would help to forge much-needed alliances between straight and queer communities. Separatism is always a necessary first step for new political movements, a way of creating a safe space within which members can feel strong and validated. Continuum identities like bisexuality question separatist thinking, and help people work together on issues that affect them all.
We are not arguing for bisexuality as a new identity within already-existing minority identities; rather, we are suggesting bisexuality as a metaphor for anti-separatist identity which is better suited to contemporary experience. Specifically, bisexuality could be used as a jumping-off point for coalition building in areas where heterosexual, homosexual, and feminist concerns greatly overlap. AIDS organizing is clearly one area in which a loosening of the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual interests is needed. Already, a great many straights do feel comfortable helping out with AIDS-related causes. But understanding human sexuality as a continuum would emphasize that it is *everyone's* task to help end this sexual plague — it isn't just queer and queer-sympathetic work. Furthermore, issues of domestic violence and other forms of relationship troubles are clearly common to all people, regardless of where they fall in the Kinsey continuum. Books such as Naming the Violence (1986) about domestic abuse have emphasized that this isn't just a heterosexual problem, caused by patriarchy and unenlightened straights. Queers — male and female — are the victims of domestic abuse, and they suffer the same kinds of losses and joys as do straights in the context of romantic attachments. Viewing our sexualities as variations on a bisexual theme would help people come together to work through problems in the home and family — and would call everyone's attention to the way sexual and romantic relationships are in many ways the same all over. Switching from a male partner to a female partner will not solve your problems with jealousy or battering. It may just put a different gendered face on them.
Finally, we believe that the continuum model of identity which explains bisexuality might be constructive in defining other forms of minority identity as well. Bi-racial identity, like bisexual identity, is still largely invisible and often a source of confusion and shame. Racial identity is frequently viewed as an 'us and them' situation — many people who do not choose to identify with one race or the other in their backgrounds find themselves alienated from their communities. If we were to make race and ethnicity into 'continuum' identities, this would more accurately reflect the reality of contemporary life (as well as being far more inclusive). While it was once empowering for minorities to assert their value by embracing uniqueness, it is now becoming clear that such a move can be constrictive as well. Many people no longer feel as if they can fit into any of the minority communities available to them. As a model for understanding how human identities work, the continuum offers us a place from which to view each other as versions of the same thing, rather than diametrically opposed to one another.
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer and a graduate student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. Currently she is at work on a series of articles about sex and class in mass culture, and a dissertation on representations of monsters and psychopaths in American pop culture.
Jillian Sandell is a graduate student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. Her most recent article on John Woo and Hong Kong cinema can be found in Bright Lights Film Journal. She can be reached at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.