Individual attraction to both men and women has only been described as ‘bisexuality’ for about 100 years. What happened before that? Were people either straight or gay? I wasn’t around but I doubt it. Human sexuality is diverse and complex and always has been. It’s just our meanings and ideas about sex that remain confined.
Sex counselling often involves being asked questions about the ‘truth’ of sex and sexual orientation. As a sexuality therapist, people expect I will give them the answers to these and other questions. But the way we describe sex, identity and relationships is evolving and our understandings are shaped by the language and concepts we use. So let’s explore the meaning of Bisexuality together.
Over the last 50 years, there have been dramatic shifts in ways sexuality is understood across Australia, the United States, Britain and the rest of Europe. Homosexuality was once regarded as a disease that could be brought on (or prevented) by a certain upbringing or social conditions. Now it is primarily considered to be part of natural diversity and scientists claim sexual orientation is established by genetic factors. Gay people are finding more and more acceptance but those who describe themselves as bisexual often feel misunderstood.
The Norms of Sex, Gender and Sexual Orientation
One of the consequences of the past 50 years has been that biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation have each been split in two and established as pairs of opposites:
- Males and females
- Masculinity and femininity
- Heterosexuality and homosexuality
And it’s assumed that these opposites usually fit together in certain ways:
- Male persons are expected to present as ‘masculine’ and desire women
- Female persons are expected present as ‘feminine’ and desire men.
One of the most obvious flaws in these ideas is that attitudes about what is masculine and what is feminine are not fixed and vary over time and across cultures. What is considered ‘manly’ in one country, for example, may not be considered ‘manly’ in another.
This dualistic way of thinking and alignment of biological sex, sexuality and gender is called Heteronormativity. Homosexuality has been accepted on the grounds of a simple difference in orientation from the norm. Gay people are encouraged to ‘come out’, claim their identity and follow the established patterns of their straight counterparts. The most obvious reflection of this is the equality and same-sex marriage movement that is sweeping across many countries including Canada, Spain, South Africa and now New Zealand and France. At the time of writing, the Australian government still considers only man-woman relationships to be worthy of the legal contract of marriage.
So what about bisexual people? Where do they fit in all this?
The answer is… Not easily!
Why it’s Hard for People to Identify as Bisexual
Bisexuality is still lumbered with prejudice, just as homosexuality once was. For example, people who identify as bisexual are often assumed to be promiscuous. But exactly what is meant by ‘promiscuity’? There is no agreement. One definition of a promiscuous person is ‘someone who has more sex than you do’… think about it!
The dualistic (divided-in-two) way of understanding biology, gender and desire creates problems for people who want to identify as Bisexual. Firstly it suggests that we must have a preference for either men or women and that someone with, for example, male sex organs, automatically has more in common with other men than with women (or vice versa). But is that always true?
Secondly, it makes out sexual desire to be a simple and unchanging aspect of who we are. However the evidence is humans don’t fall neatly into biological sex categories. There are people who identify as transgender and intersex. And the descriptions ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ don’t suit everyone either. Both desire and sexual orientation often appear to change naturally over one’s lifetime although there is no evidence that doctors or therapists can make such changes occur.
Polyamory – loving more than one person – is how some people choose to practice their bisexuality. Others resist the popular prejudices but retain a claim to their identity within a monogamous sexual relationship.
But even the word ‘bisexual’ suggests a choice from 2 options. Is our attraction to a person really based so much on how effectively they stick to their expected gender performance (masculine or feminine) or how typical things look between their legs? In recent years, some people who used to describe themselves as ‘bisexual’ have started using alternative terms like ‘pansexual’, ‘omnisexual’, ‘polysexual’ or ‘queer’ in an effort to describe their sexuality more realistically and specifically.
Our sexual identity– gay, straight, bi, pansexual, queer or whatever word we adopt – is a description we choose ourselves or that others try to impose on us. For something as complex and hard to put into words as sexuality, perhaps it makes sense to use shared categories. But the idea that once we engage in a particular act it makes us something is simply that: an idea. Each of us has a unique sexuality comprised of desire, attraction, sensation and response. Experiencing the freedom to enjoy one’s own body and sexuality can be challenging, particularly when we come up against the expectations of others. It’s worth talking about, because expressing ourselves helps us to know ourselves and feel more secure in the identity we choose. I invite you to contact me if you would like to speak privately and confidentially about your sexuality.
© Ash Rehn 2013.
I am indebted to Kim Surkan from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for many of the ideas in this article.