Bisexuality & Gender

A couple of years ago I picked up Clare Hemmings’ book ‘Bisexual Spaces’, excited to find something written about the bi communities that I had recently become part of. I struggled through the first chapter and I am ashamed to say I still haven’t got any further with it as I found the language (from an academic discipline different to my own) quite impenetrable. However, if I understood it correctly, the chapter was saying something that had never occurred to me before, that the term ‘bisexuality’ is just as supportive of the idea that there are two, and only two, genders as heterosexuality and homosexuality are. It may sound crazy but I’d never thought that carefully about the ‘bi’ part of the word meaning ‘two’. I’d always understood bisexuality to mean what Bobbie Petford reports as the preferred definition from within the UK bi communities: changeable ‘sexual and emotional attraction to people of any sex, where gender may not be a defining factor’.

On a personal level I am still thinking through these questions of gender. On the one hand, as a feminist, I’m aware that gender is important and it is very hard for people to shrug off ways of behaving that they have taken on because they have grown up as a woman or a man within our culture which has very clear standards about what this means. On the other hand I don’t think gender is important in determining who I have relationships with and what kind they are, and I like the idea of trying to decrease the importance of gender categories in my life and more broadly. I think conventional ideals of masculinity and femininity constrain everyone: men are not real men if they seek nurturing careers or the expression of emotions, women are only real women if they prioritise their relationships and appearance above all else, and some trans people who don’t want to be classed as either ‘men’ or ‘women’ seem to be completely excluded.

So I’m not sure about this identity that I claim ‘bisexual’. Does it free my sexuality from being rooted in the gender of the people I’m with or does it constrain me to always basing my sexuality in the gender of my partners? Bisexuality seems to be all about getting away from a ‘dichotomous’ view of sexuality (people have to be either heterosexual or homosexual, there are only two options), but does it still buy into a dichotomous view of gender (people have to be either a man or a woman)? These are the kinds of questions I asked during two recent discussions run by myself and my partner: one at last year’s BiCon and the other at the recent BiFest event in London.

The participants in the BiCon discussion agreed that sexuality was generally seen as a dichotomy. They argued that mostly sexuality was assumed to be attraction to the ‘opposite sex’, as Becky said: ‘boy fancies girl, girl fancies boy, it’s the same black and white view’. There was some societal acceptance that there could be attraction for the ‘same sex’ instead. As Georgina put it, ‘you can kind of deal with boy fancies boy, girl fancies girl, it’s still within those boxes…and…there’s no grey area’. Georgina explained that it was only socially acceptable to switch directly from one to the other: ‘you started fancying a boy but actually fancy girls, so you can make that transition, but you make it quickly, speed of light’.
Initially, participants proposed a continuum as an alternative to this dichotomy that might fit their sexuality better. Sandra said conventional understanding was ‘an on-and-off switch…society hasn’t yet figured out how to cope with…sexuality on a sliding scale.’ This matches Alfred Kinsey’s (1948) model of sexuality on a continuum from homosexual to heterosexual. I began the BiFest workshop by creating a ‘human version’ of the Kinsey scale, getting attendees to line up from one end of the room to the other based on whether they were most attracted to the same sex or the opposite sex. Most people managed to find a place on the scale although some people said that they would need to run up and down the room and others joined me at the side of the room because the whole scale didn’t really work for them.

Becky, in the BiCon discussion group, explained why some people might want to run around in this exercise! She pointed out that sexuality cannot be on a sliding scale because ‘you could still pick one rigid point on there but…you can find yourself in…a glut of male fancying and then go through a season of being more attracted to girls.’ Several participants concurred, some suggested that their sexuality might fit in better with Fritz Klein’s (1993) adaptation of the Kinsey scale which acknowledges that people may be at different positions at different times, and in terms of their relationships, attraction, experience and identity.

However, even this model was challenged because, as I mentioned before, both dichotomous and continuum-based theories define sexual orientation in terms of dichotomous gender because they present sexuality as attraction to men and/or to women. Participants in the BiCon discussion rejected the ‘you are a boy or you are a girl…binary’ (Lanei), all arguing that they were not straightforwardly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Sandra, who identifies as transsexual, said:

The way society classifies things, you’ve got no options, if you are not male then you are female, if you are not female then you are male…my personal experience of this is that I am not male…I generally classify as female because it’s the obvious other option, but if there were other options, then I might very well be defining as one of those.

Because they discarded the dichotomous understanding of gender, participants rejected the ideas that they were attracted to ‘both’ men and women, arguing that they did not perceive gender as the defining feature in their attraction. Kim said:

I don’t think actually gender is that relevant…gender is like eye colour, and I notice it sometimes, and sometimes it can be a bit of a feature it’s like “oo, that’s nice” and I have some sorts of gender types, but it’s about as important as something like eye colour.

However, my participants and I struggled to talk about our sexuality completely outside of a gender dichotomy. Just as it is impossible to write this article without using the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘opposite sex’ and ‘same sex’, participants drew on these concepts too, for example agreeing that when they were in a relationship with one gender they responded by becoming either more or less attracted to people of the ‘other gender’: ‘I’m finding myself looking at women more. I’ve got one [man] and so I don’t need any more’ (Kim).

These discussions highlight the fact that gender and sexuality are inextricably linked in our cultural understanding. Sexuality, including bisexuality, is defined by the gender of the people we are attracted to. And, as Kessler (1998) demonstrates, gender is entirely based on sexuality. Those (up to 5%) of people who are born ambiguously sexed are assigned a gender according to a table which categorises ‘male’ as having an appendage of a certain length which is capable of becoming erect and penetrating a vagina and ‘female’ as having a vagina capable of being penetrated. Participants provided evidence for this merging of sexuality and gender with their own experiences. Lanei says: ‘my social circle presume my sexuality based on who I’m with, presuming I’m either straight or gay, despite the fact that I’m very open about being bisexual.’ Becky said:

My sexuality and my gender perception run almost parallel. At first it was “boys are boys, girls are girls, boys fancy girls”. Then, when I realised that boys can fancy boys and boys can become girls, it was still a binary thing…As I came to realise that you can actually be bisexual…your desires and your attractions can wax and wane as time goes on, I realised that there was a parallel to gender: you don’t have to clearly define, you don’t have to cast off the male to be female and vice versa.

Despite the fact that the conventional definition of the word ‘bisexual’ could be seen as perpetuating a dichotomous concept of gender, being attracted to both sexes, Georgina concluded that it could challenge conventional understandings of gender:

You can say…”man drives bus”, “woman drives bus”, “lesbian drives bus”, “gay drives bus”… “bisexual drives bus” is suddenly, “well what?” “Bisexual man drives bus? Bisexual lady drives bus?” it needs to be further clarified. I think that’s one of the points where it really starts fucking around on gender, because it’s an ungendered descriptor.

Attendees at the BiFest discussion felt that, although ‘bisexual’ could be seen as a problematic label (for the reasons I’ve mentioned), it is still a useful term because it is familiar, safe and easy to understand. People liked the fact that they didn’t have to explain what it meant to others because it is such a common word and would be clear even to people who hadn’t come across it before. Whilst some were keen to get rid of ‘boxes’ and ‘labels’, most agreed that this was an ideal long-term goal and for the moment having a common term ‘bisexual’ enables people to find an identity which fits their experience and to easily access support groups.