What’s so hard to understand about bisexuality?

“I date bisexuals because I know I’m not ready to settle down,” a lesbian acquaintance once told me.

When I pressed her to explain why a bisexual wasn’t a viable longterm option, she ticked the reasons off on her fingers.

  • Ultimately, they’re crazy.
  • Often, they’re sex addicts.
  • Mostly, they’re confused straight women.

“Why would you date someone with any of these attributes—even in the short term?” I asked.

“Hey,” she said, “It’s hard to find a femme.”

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A straight male friend recently admitted he doesn’t believe bisexuals can handle monogamy. “If you are attracted to people of both sexes,” he said, “that just doubles the temptation. If you start with the assumption that there are attractive things about maleness and about femaleness (the energy, the body, whatever), and you really like both, who’d want to give up both? It’d be like never eating chocolate again, just to concentrate on vanilla. Even if you had the best vanilla in the world and even if you kind of preferred vanilla most of the time, wouldn’t you want chocolate every once in a while?”

Mathematically his hypothesis makes sense; however, I can’t even look at most people let alone imagine having the sex with them. Doesn’t good old fashioned pickiness come into play?

“For straight folks—me for example,” my friend said, “it’s just so much easier: I know I like vanilla and can appreciate that folks like chocolate, but I simply don’t, so I don’t miss not having it.”

“Now I want ice cream,” I told him. “Which sucks cause I’m lactose intolerant. Which is maybe sort of like being monogamous in that I have restrictions that stop me from sticking my head under a soft serve dispenser, even if I’m tempted.”

Discussing bisexuality with gays and straights, men and women, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that here finally is a topic on which they can precisely agree: Bisexuality is icky. It’s ironic that a sexual identity which embraces attraction to both genders seems at times equally derided by those genders. Of course some view bisexuals as sexually liberated, open-minded, free-spirited, all relatively positive characteristics. Still these ideas limit even as they compliment. As if sex with both men and women were a cleverly chosen vacation destination as opposed to an instinctive response to lust or love. There’s a superficiality to some prevailing concepts of bisexuality. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

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“Bisexuality is this single word that’s supposed to encompass men who’ve had female and male partners, women who make out with chicks when they’re drunk, mostly straight guys who let men suck them off, women with female lovers who screw around with men sometimes just for sex—totally different people with vastly unrelated experiences and even different concepts of their own sexuality,” said Jill in Milwaukee. “No wonder details are glossed over and the word gets misunderstood.”

If bisexuality seems misunderstood by non-bisexuals, how, I wondered, do bisexuals relate to the term.  Not always with enthusiasm, as it turns out. I interviewed several women spanning ages 25 to 50, and only a few were willing to accept the moniker.

For example, *Amy in Portland said that although she’s participated in relationships with both men and women, “I don’t consider myself lesbian, bi or straight.  I just consider myself ‘me.’” But if the definition of bisexual implies an interest in both sexes, and Amy can relate to that, why not own the label?

AfterEllen’s Anna Pulley (and my go-to bisexual) said, “Some view the word as limiting, or reinforcing the gender binary, but I’ve never really bought that argument.  I like to use bisexual because there’s so much stigma around it, and I’m trying to fight that.”

Chicago performer Marla Depew agreed. “I began actively calling myself bisexual after I started dating my now-husband and got animosity from the lesbian community. Before that, I frequently referred to myself as queer (and still do), but I was tired of all the biphobia and ignorance surrounding bisexuality so I made a conscious decision to take it on as a badge of honor and defiance.”

Anna and Marla’s determination to take back “bisexual” brings to mind the confusion and negativity surrounding the word “feminist,” another label around which negative,  external definitions have collected.

“It’s because we’re letting them define us from the outside in,” said Jill. “Just like with ‘feminist,’ the word itself just means equality between men and women but the wrong, powerful people got hold of it and slowly perception of its meaning has changed. Same thing with ‘bisexual.’ When someone calls me ‘bisexual’ I feel like equivocating, like, yeah, I sleep with men and women but I’m not a bisexual like you think I am.”

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Brooklyn teacher Melanie also expresses discomfort with the designation.

“I’ll acquiesce to it when pressed,” she said. But “if it comes up, I usually say something like “I’ve been in relationships with women as well as men.” I don’t find myself needing to “identify” these days, but I did in my 20s and I think that was because my core friend group at the time was lesbian and in my experience, it’s always from inside the GLBTQI community that the labeling and the drama over labeling comes.”

Melanie is not alone in her experience. Each woman I interviewed mentioned unfavorable lesbian reactions on the subject of bisexuality. Those U-Hauls are meant to carry sex toys and Orange is the New Black memorabilia, not bitterness, girls. Marla said she’s “felt the most discrimination from the gay community, particularly lesbians. I’m often seen as a traitor if I date men (and now I’m really seen as one since I’m married to a man). One particularly ignorant former acquaintance said to my face, “another one bites the dust” when she found out I was dating my now-husband.”

Anna adds that “lesbians are the first to crack jokes and call you a ‘hasbian,’ but if they’re real friends, they’ll back off eventually.” Shelly, a massage therapist, has also gotten flack from the lesbian community. Although she “mostly feels supported, some have suggested confusion and implied that in time I’ll be full-blooded. I think that some of my lesbian friends feel they know me better than I know myself.” Interestingly, Shelly said she’s felt more accepted by gay men. “Probably because they are the one group there’s no question about—I wouldn’t be having sex with them.”

Arguably, the gay male acceptance Shelly mentions also stems from the fact that a woman expressing interest in both men and women proves no threat to a gay man, while a lesbian may find this fluidity personally betraying.

“Every lesbian has some experience falling for a woman who chose a man over her,” said Kathleen, a biology teacher who identifies as lesbian. “It’s just math. There are more straight women then lesbians, so it’s happened to all of us. Especially my generation. There’s a way that you’re out there competing with men for this limited resource. And when a woman flip-flops from women to men you wonder, is it because I couldn’t fuck her like a man can?”

Does bisexuality, then, simply come down to sex?

“A solid sexual connection is key,” said Jill. “But I’ve found that with both men and women. For me, it’s more about a certain dynamic rather than the body parts you use to express that dynamic. Like, I really respond to more aggressive energy. I’m also really specific in a way that defies the stereotype about bisexuals facing more temptation. Few people have satisfied me sexually, simply because they weren’t sufficiently in touch with the sexual side of themselves.”

Amy also privileges the ephemeral over the physical. “I’ve always been most attracted to intelligence,” she said. “The rest is just logistics.”

Anna however, draws a distinction between the quality of her pull to men and women. “After a break up, I always have a dude rebound or two. It’s just easier and I don’t have to deal with anything emotionally messy. I don’t fall in love with guys. My heart is 100% gay.”

Melanie and Marla, on the other hand, differentiate between energy rather than gender. Marla said she’s “drawn to masculine energy,”  no matter what sort of body contains it. “I have a clear aesthetic type,” Melanie said. “All of the guys I date have the same type-cast—edgy Asian tattooed hipster artists—and I always go for the super butch gals.”

Surprisingly, only the straight male mentions bisexuality’s cultural components.  “People’s cultural identities and social lives are connected to their sexuality,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, it’s pretty jarring (socially) when folks go from hanging primarily in (for example) a lesbian community to one that’s not primarily lesbian. Or on the flip side, there is difficulty fully integrating their straight partner into their queer world. While sexuality and gender certainly don’t determine culture, personality or community, they certainly influence those things.”

While the above assumes a tendency for lesbians to gravitate socially toward other lesbians, something which is not always the case (especially when the sight of a djembe gives you a rash), several of the bisexual women interviewed agreed that sex is just part of the picture. “I tend to have a more liberal definition of bisexuality,” Anna said, “in that I count behaviors and desires as well as identity. My ex-girlfriend is now married to a man, but she was with me for three years. To the world, she’s straight, but to me her past experiences haven’t been negated by who she ended up with.”

“That’s just bisexual invisibility at play,” Jill said. “Defining someone by who they’re sleeping with on a given day or okay, for a decade. The fact that I’m dating a man now, doesn’t invalidate or erase my past relationships with women.”

In Marla’s mind, the idea of bisexual invisibility is just another preconceived idea for which she has little patience. And she’s dealt with countless stereotypes.

“We don’t exist (last time I checked, I wasn’t an apparition), we’re incapable of monogamy; if we’re in a monogamous relationship we’re missing something; we’re really just gay or really just straight; we’re attracted to everyone/have no type; we have uncontrollable sexual appetites and want to fuck everyone…”

Shelly too has encountered the idea that bisexuals are oversexed, but she takes a more self-reflective view. “Slutty?” She said, “perhaps … this is a stereotype I definitely identify with. But I wonder if it’s because of my bisexuality or just my sexuality, as there’s lots of it. Another stereotype is confusion. Although while in college I did feel very confused, as a 40-year-old woman, I’m very confident in/with my (bi)sexuality.”

Anna cites the same oversimplified assumptions. “That I’m indecisive, that I’m slutty. That I’m a traitor to the Lesbian Nation. None of it is true, although, fine, I’ve never had to work hard to have a threesome.”

Despite the baggage associated with the word bisexual, most of the women I interviewed felt appreciative of the mental space for which their identities allowed.

“I think I’m more open to nuances of all kinds,” said Jill. “I’m part of a gray area, so I’m more patient with the fact that life has no real absolutes.” Marla believes being bisexual “allows me to see the world through a more all-encompassing lens and understand the bigger pictures of attraction, love, and companionship.” Amy said she benefits from “not being confined by gender, so I am open to the possibility of the person.  Without that outlook, I would be missing out on the healthiest, happiest relationship I’ve ever been involved in.”

“No limits,” Jill concludes. “But not in a creepy, ‘I’ll fuck anything that moves’ kind of way.”

Clearly bisexual identity is both complex and sometimes internally contradictory. Those who superficially fit the description may in reality embrace or eschew it. And certainly societal misunderstanding colors even the most self-possessed bisexual’s relationship to the term. Still, as is the case with lesbian and gay representation, as more individuals speak candidly about attraction to all genders, as more bisexual role models appear, the word “bisexual” may become less loaded, or at least more well-understood. Now, who wants some ice cream? Any flavor you want.

*Some names have been changed.

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