Bisexuality, Binarism And Why Everyone Has It Wrong

11Oct10

Crossposted at The Spectrum Cafe

I’d like to leave a note here that one can use bisexuality to mean more than two genders attracted to provided the why for it isn’t binarist or cissexist. Because the base definition isn’t inherently cissexist, there’s a lot of leeway to play with the word as an identity without running into any problems of the word itself having dangerous power. This post deals with the binarism and cissexism strawman about the “two gender attractions” in bisexuality if one is using that definition. I don’t go into what sort of reasons for expanding bisexuality would be cissexist because generally a given bisexual person you ask about their bisexuality and it applying to more than two genders will have basic identity as a reason and not anything more. So it’s not super relevant.

[Edits added to clarify certain points]

I recently read an article from Julia Serano that filled me with dismay. Not just the article itself but the whole debate about bisexuality and how no one really comprehends the actual issue.

For those who have a deep phobia of hyperlinks (or a really shitty computer, like me), it was an attempt to defend bisexuality from accusations of enforcing the gender binary. Mostly by spouting male/female essentialism (which is pretty cissexist in and of itself and hell, even sexist) and then using it as a descriptor of how there’s a difference in her treatment by society depending on her partner, which is fairly problematic since it’s pulling labeling from a heterosexist, cissexist and binarist society. Never do that. It’s a bad call.  Also, shock and awe y’all, this happens with any polysexuality, including pansexuality. It’s not a good reason under any light.

But this isn’t a fisk of her article. Because really, she’s defending bisexuality from a giant strawman fallacy dropped by her just as wrong opponents. I’ve discussed the concept of cissexism and binarism within gay, lesbian and etc labeling before but I haven’t tackled bisexuality’s rather unique situation as of yet and handled the topic in a more general fashion. So today I’m sliding on my details hat and going full steam into what about bisexuality is the binarism and cissexism issue and what isn’t.

See, the thing about bisexuality that everyone forgets (sometimes even some bisexuals) is that, by its base definition, it is a sexual orientation wherein you are attracted to two gender groups. None of them are specified. It says nothing more than that. Bi-sexual. And in and of itself, being attracted to just two gender groups is not binarist, cissexist, sexist or anything. So bisexuality, as a simple, base level definition, is not in any way, shape or form, binarist or cissexist. Even as an expanded term, encompassing many genders, you’re only really dealing with cissexism if the reasons for its newer definition are cissexist. Most people use it specifically for the fact that it’s a word that exists for a collection of sexual orientations that had previously not had a lot of words. Just like the word trans, it may not be perfect (esp around pedants) but that doesn’t make it part of structural oppression.

So where does that binarism and cissexism come into play? Because there is absolutely no doubt that there is binarism and cissexism in play in bisexuality. It comes up every day, same as with the monosexual orientations. You may think I’m contradicting myself but I’m really not. Bisexuality (like everything else) becomes binarist and cissexist when people structure assumptions around it, put it into positions it doesn’t belong and add things to the definition that make it a problem (or create a definition that is problematic itself). For instance, Serano’s assumption that bisexual (a word about genders) is related to sex and that sex is male and female only, that is cissexist and binarist. And that poisons her usage of bisexual as a term.

Bisexuality gets run through the meat grinder of social bullshit pretty hard. People will attach the biological essentialism to it and that’s certainly bad but it gets even worse when you realize something very important about bisexuality and genders with even the most base, pedantic definition.

Bisexuality can just as easily describe an attraction to only say, agender folk and women as it can only men and women.

That’s right, bisexuality is, at its base, old school, pedantic and literal definition just an attraction to two gender groups. Any two. If I was attracted just agender folks and menz, I would be just as bisexual as Julia Serano would for being into men and women. Especially if the formulation of my attraction to agender and bigender folks was different for each of them, like hers is for men and for women. So why is this realization also a revelation about bisexuality that is unpleasant and negative? Because if you think about it a bit, you’ll notice that people equate bisexuality with an attraction to only men and women. And that is binarist. Fully and completely. Not only that, but it’s also sexuality policing. That’s right, by only associating bisexuality with an attraction to men and women only you erase and police those bisexuals who are attracted to another combination of two genders or a collection of many genders. It’s not just damaging to nonbinary gender people but to bisexuals.

Another element that poisons the discourse of bisexuality with binarism (and actually sexuality policing as well) is the utter erasure of other forms of polysexuality. Because let’s face it, pansexuality is attraction regardless of gender. It means that any gender is in (and implicitly claims that the attractions are not different at all between genders for a pansexual). This does not cover people who are attracted to men, women and agender people or women, agender people and one type of mixed form people (two examples of trisexuality) or people who are attracted two types of mixed form people, agender people and men (an example of quadsexuality) or… well you get the idea. You see, there’s more than one sexuality between two and all/regardless. There’s three, four, five, six, etc up to the number of genders that exist. But bisexuality is essentially used as a label umbrella for all of those other sexualities (if people even acknowledge their existence, which is rare.) What happens is, instead of recognizing that biphobia is actually a form of monosexism and bisexuality one simple form of polysexuality, bisexuality replaces polysexuality as the label for non monosexual orientations and biphobia is equated to polysexuality. This erasure is destructive to these other sexualities and centers bisexuality as the only polysexual option beyond pansexuality (which many bisexuals even approach in a bigoted fashion) which creates binarism within bisexuality. Unfortunately, this one isn’t going away any time soon. The mass majority of the straight cis world is going to keep squishing it all into bisexuality or pansexuality and that’s a huge reason why a lot of folks who could fit other words in between are bisexual. This isn’t the fault of bisexual folks, it’s an element of the nasty systems that attack the entire LGBT.

So people on both of the major sides of this debate on bisexuality and binarism are both engaging in binarism, cissexism, erasure and are just flat out wrong. Bisexuality doesn’t enforce the binary and cissexism, the erasure and assumptions pushed onto it, the way essentialism is spilled into it and the way it is policed to only be about men and women does.

And those are the problems all of us, not just the bisexual and polysexual communities, need to solve.



63 Responses to “Bisexuality, Binarism And Why Everyone Has It Wrong”

  1. I’m far from adept in the subtleties of gender/sexuality studies, and this is the sort of really exacting analysis I’ve been looking for. This is superb and so clearly composed. Thank you.

  2. This is great – your writing on this has changed the way I have talked about my own sexuality in the past and you are spot-on here once again.

  3. 3 Sean

    …I’ll admit, I never really thought much about this before. Most people I know use bisexual to mean pansexual, and it just never ever crossed my mind that hey, maybe that’s not quite on the money, even though I (and pretty much everyone I hang out with) are non-binary. So thank you for writing this.

    I’ll also admit that reading this made me quietly think “screw it, I’m just sexual.” XD

  4. 4 Aumentou

    I stopped calling myself bi a while back, when I realised that I honestly didn’t give a monkeys what gender my partners were or what shape bits they have. This led naturally to the conclusion that calling myself bi (and meaning men and women, since I didn’t get as far as spotting that as a false assumption) was either declaring I wasn’t attracted to people who weren’t men or women or that such people didn’t exist. Since both of those are untrue, out goes the label.

    Sad really, I thought better of Serano.

  5. 5 K Williams

    Or, y’know, the meaning of a word–especially one used as an identity–isn’t dependent upon its etymology. Words pick up meaning beyond their origin, and often shed their original definition. E.g. if you self-identify as a lesbian, no one assumes you’re from the island of Lesbos.

    If you can get past the stupid shit at the beginning of the article about gender binary, the author makes some good points. “Bisexual” isn’t chosen as a label for purely descriptive reasons; there’s political and social reasons to use it. Obviously, this isn’t true for everyone who uses the label, but like most words used as identities, for many using it, its usage is as much a statement of solidarity with a certain group as it anything else.

    I think these conversations are good to have, as loads of people no doubt do think bisexuality implies some sort of gender binary (or, perhaps more accurately, they believe in a gender binary for other reasons, and try to point to bisexuality as evidence thereof). However, I find the idea of telling other people what their identity means very worrying.

  6. 6 Janice

    Thank you for writing that up!

  7. 7 SG

    thank you for articulating this!
    @ Sean (“screw it, i’m just sexual”) I AGREE!

  8. @K Williams:

    I got rid of the comments that WP cut off for you as requested. Now, on bisexuality, I’m merely pointing out what the base meaning of it is and taking apart the meanings that are bigoted. And I get that puts me in conflict with some people’s identities.

    But, here’s the problem, sometimes identity is damaging.

    For instance, white people who identify as two spirit are appropriating Native American culture and spitting all over those native peoples. So, in that case, that self identification is unbelievably damaging and we damn well need to tell them that they have no right to it. Identity is not immune to bigotry. And if bisexual is being applied in a way that is damaging, bigoted, binarist, cissexist or hateful then I damn well will call those people out for it.

    Identity does not come before social justice. Not. Ever. I know that sounds harsh but it’s necessary. Always.

  9. @Aumentou:

    Serano is human. People make mistakes. She raises both good points and bad and I don’t have anything against her, she’s just wrong on this topic. No need to make it personal here.

  10. 10 K Williams

    @genderbitch

    Thanks for that.

    I agree that identity isn’t a free pass to do whatever you want, as with your two-spirit example. However, I think the case with bisexual is fundamentally different. The way I understand it, the problem with white people identifying as two-spirit is that by doing so they are essentially claiming membership of a group they not only aren’t part of, but has historically been (and currently is) oppressed by white people. A “We took your land, killed your people, and now will take your identity as well” sort of thing. (Someone with less white privilege correct me if I’m wrong.)

    The issue–insomuch as it exists–with bisexual lies entirely within its meaning. The way I use it, and how I’ve usually seen it used by others is to mean sexual attraction to two or more genders (which is only mostly related to the original meaning of the word). Obviously, as this article shows, some people do use it to mean sexual attraction to men and women, but in my experience that’s the exception. Most bisexual-identified people I know or have listen to/read are attracted to more than just men and women and use the word as such.

    To put it another way, several different related concepts all go by the common name of “bisexual”. Some–such as the one you used in your post–are problematic re gender. Others aren’t. I don’t think we should condemn a word (and everyone who identifies as it) because one definition of it–not necessarily the same definition used by those identifying as bi–is horribly essentialist.

    As for using bisexual to mean polysexual, I feel telling someone who identifies as polysexual (or pansexual, or omnisexual, or whatever) that they’re really bisexual instead of poly/pan/omni/etc. to be as bad as telling someone identifying as bisexual that they’re really not. Sure, for the purpose of discussion/research/etc. we may define a group and then use it to categorize people regardless of their personal identification, but that usage isn’t necessarily valid outside that context. We shouldn’t act as though it is.

  11. That’s a problem with “bigender” as well. Most people assume it means “both a man and a woman”- but it could include “both an androgyne and a neutrois” or anything else. Which is a problem (although no one says we shouldn’t use trigender or pangender or anything else for people who have more than 2 genders), but I don’t know if I’ve met a personw ho identified as bigender and wasn’t both a man and a woman… So I don’t know.

    @Sean- I had the same thing with romantic orientation. “Screw this, I like who I like when I like them”.

    white people who identify as two spirit are appropriating Native American culture and spitting all over those native peoples.

    THIIIISSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!

    Unless you actually speak a native american language and have spoken to enough to truly understand how that tribe used their term and feel that fits, but even then- tread with extreme caution. Or, y’know, come up with a new word…

  12. @K Williams:

    I’m just giving you examples of where an identity involves bigotry. In fact, treating bisexual to mean an attraction to two or more genders is bigotry. Because you are now construing the word two (bi) with genders. It doesn’t matter what you personally mean with the word. A white person could mean something completely different using the word two spirit. The context of the situation makes the word damaging in that form. And ergo a problem.

    “To put it another way, several different related concepts all go by the common name of “bisexual”. Some–such as the one you used in your post–are problematic re gender. Others aren’t. I don’t think we should condemn a word (and everyone who identifies as it) because one definition of it–not necessarily the same definition used by those identifying as bi–is horribly essentialist.”

    I actually was pretty clear that I don’t condemn the word. In fact I consider bisexual to be a fine word and not the problem in and of itself. I consider the problematic usages to be an issue. Which is an area we appear to be in agreement on. But there’s more problematic usages then one single essentialist one, something I also went over in the post. Including replacing polysexual with bisexual.

    And here we get to the crux of our disagreement. Once again, if someone’s personal identification involves bigotry, then I literally do not care that it is personal. It is still a problem. An essentialist version of bisexual is just as personal as the other usages of it. Should we really allow people to call themselves bi because they enjoy female and male bodies in different ways and squish nonbinary trans folk into those zones within bi just because they only use it personally? That’s unbelievably bigoted of them and it being their identity doesn’t make it any less bigoted. It being personal doesn’t make it any less bigoted.

    I had a discussion once, with some folk, about people who aren’t attracted to certain races. They said that personal preferences are just that, sacrosanct and personal, just like personal identity. But here’s the problem, if those people aren’t attracted to say, black people, because “black people are of this certain body shape and are poor” that’s racist and stereotyping as hell. Their personal preferences are built around bigotry.

    So, much like the bisexual who’s personal bisexuality arises from bigotry, the white only pursuer in the example has attractions arising from bigotry and both can be called out on this. Both have identities of an invalid nature because they are built from negative, wrong and damaging bigotry.

    In the end, identity is only sacred if it is built from things free of bigotry and hate. I laud your attempts to protect identity but there are some identities that do not deserve protection. An identity poisoned with bigotry is such a case.

  13. 13 Kevin Sutton

    This kind of discourse, especially in the dialogue between K Williams and genderbitch, is incredibly important to someone like me who has transgendered friends. I’m not interested in hurting my friends by simply being ignorant to the ways that certain terms and labels can be hurtful (even if unintentional) So thank you

    The poetry of a dear friend titled “Gender Martini”

  14. 14 K Williams

    @genderbitch:

    I think “Because you are now construing the word two (bi) with genders.” is the main point of my disagreement; everything else falls from there. The fact that “bisexual” is partially derived from the Latin word for “twice” doesn’t require it to have anything at all to do with two. Meanings change over time. Much like I don’t think “gay” implies immoral or “straight” implies respectable, I don’t think “bi” implies two.

    Where my analogy to “gay” and “straight” falls short is that the meaning of both of those have been relatively stable for years. Except for the occasional idiot trying to “reclaim” “gay” from homosexuality, there isn’t any dissent on the issue. “Bi” isn’t so clearly nailed down (for a variety of no-doubt interesting reasons), but I don’t think that’s sufficient reason to permanently chain it to its etymology.

    “In the end, identity is only sacred if it is built from things free of bigotry and hate. I laud your attempts to protect identity but there are some identities that do not deserve protection. An identity poisoned with bigotry is such a case.”

    I think we can save (some) identities from bigotry. It’s the bigotry in society that poisons the identities; not the converse. I don’t think changing the word we use to refer to a concept is sufficient to change society. On the other hand, since the average person probably hasn’t given much if any thought to these issues, confronting them with a label that challenges the previous unchallenged idea is probably one of the better ways to get people thinking. It won’t do everything, but it’ll do something.

    Huh. I’m still of the opinion that we can’t reduce the meaning of “bisexual” down to its etymology, but I can definitely see where using other identities is the better choice.

  15. @K Williams:

    For me, it’s the fact that bisexual doesn’t exist in a vacuum and using it to mean more than two erases trisexual, quadsexual, etc up to pansexual. It also cracks the word polysexual and once again takes a word that almost the entire population uses self id wise to mean two genders that are loved to mean all identities. Meanings may change over time, but bisexual has not changed. We’re barely even starting to see the beginnings of the evolution of the word and too many times, the people who use bisexual in the way you describe engage in binarism in other ways, all of which challenges the sincerity of their supposedly non binarist use of bisexuality.

    And seriously, I keep saying that I don’t want to get rid of bisexual. I don’t know how else to make that clear. And I will say, words influence thought and concept. Changing words does work and does have an effect, invariably. We see it with slurs and we see it with identity. So, respectfully, you are wrong on whether changing a word will change society. Changing the words used for trans people has done massive things to help us.

  16. 16 K Williams

    @genderbitch:

    “And seriously, I keep saying that I don’t want to get rid of bisexual. I don’t know how else to make that clear.”

    If it wasn’t clear, I didn’t think you do. I certainly didn’t intend to give that impression.

    “So, respectfully, you are wrong on whether changing a word will change society.”

    To clarify what I was trying to say above (and making it explicit that I’m not accusing anyone in this general vicinity of thinking any of the following): I don’t think changing our diction won’t have any other effects; I think that it can and often does. It’s only one method we can use though and won’t do very much on its own.

    I’m relatively certain we (mostly?) agree here, but are expressing it differently and emphasizing different points. At least, I agree with how I interpret what you said.

  17. @K Williams:

    That happens a lot. I think I just communicate differently. XD

  18. 18 Robin

    Good posting, thank you again genderbitch. Did I tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog?

    Let me add one more aspect to the word “bisexual”: it’s meaning is relatively well known in the general population, whereas poly, pan etc. is not well known. Which has led to the effect that “bisexual” has been tainted with lots of negative biphobic assumptions, such as: has not decided yet, is confused, is greedy etc.

    I use the word “bisexual” for myself though I’m not limited to 2 genders in my attraction for these two reasons: one, when I’m too lazy to explain the gender variety 101, people at least get I’m not monosexual. I can still add that I’m not strictly bisexual etc., like saying I like Italian and Chinese food but also like French food.

    Second, biphobic prejudice is what I have been subjected to for two decades, and bisexual is what I’ve called myself before I knew other words existed which went beyond binary. I used to say “I am bi, but I also like…” It sómehow makes me feel weird to avoid that term as I’ve always had to deal with the biphobia and could get lots of these prejudices out of many people’s mind over time. Now if I say I’m poly or pan, people go like “???” and don’t have much of a preconceived prejudice against it when I explain it. Which makes things easier for me, but then I feel like I steal away from confronting biphobia and cut off part of my past.

  19. @Robin:

    It’s not an easy transition, by any means. Changing how I referred to trans stuff (I used to refer to myself as male bodied, woman identified and wanting a female body, all of which is cissexist as hell) was difficult too. But it’s what’s gonna help make this world better for everyone, to push out bigotry.

    That and biphobia is really more monosexism, because it gets applied to more than just bisexuality, but pansexuality, trisexuality, etc. So it’s problematic to refer to monosexism as biphobia and to think you’re not confronting it anymore just cuz you’re dropping bi.

  20. 20 B

    Even if ‘bisexual’ is being used as ‘person who likes men and women,’ there’s no reason that even this definition has to exclude other genders. If a bisexual is attracted to physical properties of male people and of female people, these properties are also found in people who are transgendered, intersex, androgynous, etc. There is no gender whose physical appearance is entirely unhuman, and I don’t believe that the majority of people who identify as bisexual have two strict molds that their partners are forced to fit into.

    I feel like you’re ignoring the point of bisexuality which is to end the discriminatory sexual attitudes of monosexuals, which you’ve already pointed out in your example of people who claim attraction by race. The reason that we don’t want to start identifying as trisexual, etc. is because then you’re just going out of your way to discriminate against all but three genders, which is no better than monosexuality. The term ‘bisexual’ has been around since before people were so enlightened about gender, and the stereotyping by ignorant people of “they’ll take whatever comes their way” may in some cases be more accurate than this strict etymological definition that really does nothing but spit in the face of descriptive linguistics.

    Also, biphobia has nothing to do with the “sexual orientation” of the speaker but the fact that we’re labeled as traitors, non-existant, gluttonous, desparate… But thanks for dictating what we want.

  21. @B:

    [...]‘bisexual’ is being used as ‘person who likes men and women,’[...]

    [...]If a bisexual is attracted to physical properties of male people and of female people, these properties are also found in people who are transgendered, intersex, androgynous, etc. [...]

    And here’s the cissexism, where you equate physical structure with gender. If you are attracted to men and women, then you are not attracted to structure. Otherwise you erase and degender trans people without that structure. It’s also sexist since many of the traits marked as female and male aren’t present in all cisgender men and women. And it’s Intersexist (or equivalent) because of the bodies of IS people don’t necessarily match these zones either.

    So your identity is bigoted. Good job.

    Way to erase pansexuality with this bullshit. And seriously, just cuz a word was around in a fucked up and bigoted past doesn’t mean we should keep it as is and not make changes. Transsexual used to have some fucked up meanings. But we didn’t keep that in the same form. We change things from the past so they don’t suck and hurt people. Catch the fuck up.

    Also way to reify monosexist attitudes about bisexuals/polysexuals giving it up to anyone. That’s a fairly disgusting set of attitudes that for some reason you feel content to apply to all bisexuals and every polysexual grouping that is erased by bisexual. Also, way to speak for every single person lumped into bisexual (because many people, including myself, id as bi because there’s no other accepted option) who isn’t you with the glorious we.

    Fact is, some of us do want to identify as trisexual, or quadsexual, or pansexual and not bi. Fact is, some people do discriminate against some genders in their sexual needs. Some only like two. Some only like three. Some only like four. But go ahead, think you can talk for everyone, like the spokesperson of polysexuality. Yeah I totally don’t want you as my spokesperson. Thanks for trying to dictate what the rest of us polysexual/bisexual people want. Fuck off.

    Why do you think we’re labeled as traitors, non-existent, gluttonous, desperate? Because our attractions leave the monosexual norm. Because we like more types than the norm and so our sexuality is policed using the previous terms. That has everything to do with our sexual orientation. *eyeroll*

    So you’re a cissexist bigot, erasing of other bi/tri/quad/pan/etc/polysexual people by pretending to be the spokesperson for everyone and you’re ignorant. Wow, that’s a lot of fun right there. I’m glad you commented.

  22. 22 B

    What? There is a subset of physical characteristics that people born as men and people born as women and people born as anything else have in common, believe it or not. People have hands, collarbones, knees, aspects of personality that have nothing to do with gender, and these are not somehow off limits for physical attraction, believe it or not.

    Once you’re bisexual you’re already outside of monosexuals’ sickening ability to lump any prospective partner into a single mold, “I only date short white women with black hair and an eyebrow piercing” or “I only date tall black men who skateboard.” Do people really start holding people to different prototypes for different genders? Are there trisexuals who will only date tall redheaded men with accents, agender people with bleached-blond hair and sweater vests or androgynes who smoke a pipe?

    All I’m trying to say is that by the time one can admit to being attracted to even two genders, it’s already obvious that people aren’t set in a “type.” Obviously they find aspects of people attractive that span more than one gender, so how would it make sense to exclude the rest? If you like long legs on men, agendered people and women, are you really going to be repulsed by them on androgynes?

    How about when you denounced not finding black people attractive as racism? I’m with you there one hundred percent! But why won’t you apply that to gender? If there’s any gender that you entirely discount, that’s sexism. What is so bigoted about wanting people to judge attraction person by person?

  23. @B:

    A gender set has one thing in common with itself. Identity as a given gender. If you aren’t interested in the person within that identity due to that identity, then you aren’t into that gender. Whereas black people have tons of variation. So being unattracted to black people as a group is stereotyping. If the gender identity doesn’t matter to you then you’re pansexual (attraction regardless of identity).

    Now, you’ve gotten a bit off track. You seem to be busy talking to me about the evils of monosexuality and really not addressing the fact that you took a word, bisexual, which was poisoned by the truly bigoted and disgusting roots of only accepting two genders in the world, biological essentialism, cissexism and binarism and are now attempting to do, again, exactly what first poisoned the word bisexual by using it to mean attraction to all genders (of which there are more than two). The word doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I can’t start using the n word to mean something completely different than its accepted meanings and not have those meanings still impact it.

    So that’s where you’re bigoted. Try to stay focused here.

    Thinking monosexuality is sexist, that’s silly, but not bigoted. Judging attraction person by person? Not bigoted at all and quite a nice way to handle things, imo. It’s when you call that process bisexuality, a word based around attraction to two genders and a word that will always suggest two, that you fuck up royally.

  24. I have some mixed feelings on this one… First off, I identify as bisexual, but for wholly political reasons. One of which is to speak against binarism and cissexism in gender and sexuality. I am wholeheartedly with you on the gendering of bodies. I used to use the terms “male-bodied” and “female-bodied” to talk about people whose gender identities I didn’t know until I realized that that in and of itself invalidates trans- identities. And that really got me thinking about the binary gendering. I personally just claimed “queer identified bisexual” to put up a front against images of bisexuals as disloyal and heartless. I identify as genderfluid, and my sexuality is such that, as I cycle between my two genders, my sexuality cycles between two gender attractions. So in your definition, I am very much bisexual because I am attracted to two genders.

    However, here’s where I have a problem with this: I don’t consider myself to have two contiguous genders and two contiguous gender attractions. I have, at any given time, only one of each. So I cycle between a singular gender with a singular attraction. Therefore, I can almost see myself as a cycling monosexual person. This has caused me problems with the idea of having long-term sexual relationships because I cannot possibly be attracted to someone for more than two to three months at a time. (My cycle is three months; during the transition periods, I’m pretty much asexual.)

    I guess what I’m having issues with is the idea of qualifying the number of genders a person is attracted to. I do think that the binary of “hetero” and “homo” and “bi” as an extension of that is problematic for trans-, but I worry about the strictness of this formula. I think what you have to say here is dead on. Male and female, men and women are terms that erase so many expressions of gender and sexuality. And bisexuality is often considered to be people attracted to men and women, which is extremely problematic.

    Maybe this is just because I am still trying to figure out how on earth I will ever match anyone’s definition of gender and sexuality, but I decided it was more powerful to me to choose the word that existed to challenge cissexism and binarism. Even if it is very problematic.

    That said, I’ve been wracking my brain on this one for a while and still feel very confused and triggered. What do you think of this?

  25. 25 Amanda

    Genderbitch-
    I agree with a lot of what you have to say about bisexuality, but I find myself using it mostly out of spite at a lot of the biphobia I’ve gotten from monosexual queer people. I’m honestly not sure how I’d describe my orientation, but in the past I’ve been on the receiving end of biphobia 101 from so many mono queers that I feel a need to reclaim the word, however imperfect it is.

    I think a lot of queers who have bi-phobia issues probably have issues as well with pansexuality, poly people, etc etc etc. I think we’re all on the same side.

  26. @Amanda:

    Reclaiming doesn’t really take the problematic and cissexist/binarist elements out. But yeah monosexism hits everyone.

  27. @kangent:

    You’re definitely in a tough situation, for sure. I feel like the biggest thing you’re facing right now is a complete lack of appropriate language to describe your situation. Pretty much nothing out there really does you justice, no? Especially since almost all the sexuality language out there is built around it being a static variable. A fluxing sexuality simply doesn’t have a word yet.

    I will say this, bisexual doesn’t really challenge binarism and cissexism. By itself it doesn’t prop them up either (only when used for polysexual does it do that) but it never ever challenged them at all. So that’s not a good reason to use it. I suppose the best solution for you would be brainstorming some new words that accurately describe how your sexuality works so you’re not stuck using words that fail you from a society that doesn’t acknowledge your existence.

    If you ever wanna have a co brainstormer, I love making new words and would enjoy helping out.

  28. I’m tracking better this morning. I’ve read and aligned myself with a lot of bisexual queer theory that dislikes the word but use it for the same reason Amanda does. I have been thinking a lot about this though… And I’m really tracking with you now.

    I really like the use of mono and polysexuality, as well as asexuality. But even though there are theoretically infinite identities within these terms, I can see this system as being problematic in other ways. I think it definitely has the potential to leave out people who’s sexuality and gender, like mine, are affected by neurodiversity and mental illness/gifts. There’s a blog I really love that just barely grazes the surface of this subject:

    http://staticnonsense.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/intersections-of-disability-and-transgenderism/

    I guess this is something that would require a lot of discussion amongst queers who are queer in part because of their mental differentness.

    My policy with gender and sexuality was for a while to keep it under the term queer because I think there are a lot of individuals who identities will never fit into strictly defined categories. Mine included. I took on bisexuality to challenge assumptions of gay and straight. Now I think I’m backtracking to queer because of this discussion… for the time being.

    Thank you for sharing!

  29. 29 Liam

    “Bisexuality can just as easily describe an attraction to only say, agender folk and women as it can only men and women.”

    This is ME :-)

    But I’ve decided not to ID as bi and have instead gone for heteroqueer (I’m sexually attracted to women, romantically attracted to both women and agender people and aesthetically attracted to femmes of any gender). I would just call myself queer but as a trans man I’m kind of “reclaiming” hetero. I’m not straight really but I *am* heterosexual by my definition. Because many (cis) people disagree that I’m heterosexual (on the incredibly flawed basis that I have a vagina and so does one of my girlfriends so we’re lesbians or on the even more flawed basis that one of my girlfriends has a penis (she does call it a penis btw) and I’m a man I must be gay) I’m taking back hetero but never denying that I’m not straight, I’m queer.

    Around here (in the world of student union LGBT) people are suggesting using “Bi” as an umbrella term for all polysexual identities. WTF? How is that not polysexual erasure? How is that not privileging a certain variety of polysexuality above all the others? It’s especially troubling when the word “bisexual” has such huge binarist and cissexist connotations and assumptions attached to it.

  30. @Genderbitch- “If the gender identity doesn’t matter to you then you’re pansexual (attraction regardless of identity)”
    the idea that gender is the only thing that can define attraction annoys me. The people I’m attracted to all have one thing in common, and I think that’s what I’m attracted to- why can’t I say I’m attracted to that trait, rather than having to compile a list of genders/assigned-sexes/self-identified sexes that I am/have been attracted to because it isn’t pan when that isn’t accurate to me?

    @Kangent- I’ve seen that with a few bigender people, their sexuality changing with their gender. I know one who, I believe, is a bisexual man and a lesbian woman- and another who’s a straight man and a straight woman.

  31. @Kangent: Yeah Queer definitely structures things more effectively for those who don’t fit the standard strict categories. I often use Queer myself.

    @Dreki: You can say you’re attracted to that trait but you really shouldn’t call it any of the currently defined sexuality labels because those are all based on gender. And if you start equating gender with a bodily trait, well, you’re engaging in cissupremacist memes of trans oppression. So say, if I liked only vagina, I shouldn’t call myself a lesbian because the word lesbian is based on woman on woman attraction. Not woman on vagina attraction. There are men and nonbinaries with vaginas. Etc etc. So you’d prolly need a new word to avoid exhibiting bigotry or problematic enabling of bigotry, depending.

    @Liam: Exactly. And since the identity structures you’re using aren’t enabling oppression or creating problematic oppressive elements, you can go anywhere you want with it.

  32. @Genderbitch- First, I never said anything about bodily trait. Second, I never said I’d use the available words- but the general assumption is that attraction must be based on either gender or sex, which means that I’m not allowed to describe my attraction in a way that works for me. You also commented explaining how you can’t say “I’m attracted to people from [non-gender-related group]” without being offensive, which is problematic for me- because I am. I’m not attracted to all people in that group, not even most of them, but all the people I’m attracted to are part of that group.

  33. @Dreki: If you’re not using bisexual, trisexual, pansexual, homosexual, heterosexual or those types of terms then there’s really no issue of cissexism.

    But, being attracted to people from a non-gender related group can be very problematic depending on how it’s handled. Lemme give you an example. Someone says they’re only into black people, if that’s based on stereotypes about black people then it’s racist. If it’s just a situation where all the people they’ve ever liked have been black, then they should say something along the lines of “so far, I’ve only been into black people” to allow for the differences in black people.

    So the questions to ask yourself is this, is the trait your attraction based on related to an oppression or used to target an oppression (race, being trans, etc) and are you handling your attraction in such a way as to fetishize the group or stereotype them?

    If you answer yes to both, then your statement of “attracted to [non gender related group] is bigotry”. Note that I don’t give a shit about offense. Just about system oppression.

  34. 34 brilliantmindbrokenbody

    I’ve been trying to find a way of describing my sexuality that is both accurate and…well…appropriate.

    I work for a non-profit org that identifies itself as LGBT, and one of the things we are required to ask when helping people is how they identify in terms of gender and in terms of orientation. We definitely accept people who don’t identify along cissexist terms, though our computer system is from the dark ages and it bothers me a bit that we identify as LGBT instead of something more inclusive like GLBTQAI. It makes me a little uncomfortable, but it’s part of how we get our funding, so it’s not something we’re able to change.

    I used to identify as bi, and I still use that as shorthand for public identity. I think it would be more accurate to say that I’m heteroflexible – that is, I’m a woman and am mostly attracted to people who identify as men, but that I’ve also been attracted to women and people who identify in non-binary ways. I’m still trying to work out whether heteroflexible is acceptable, as it’s still got that binary basis. Honestly, I didn’t think about it much until I started working for this org, and now that the majority of the people around me during the day challenge the cissexist, heterosexist ‘norm’, I’ve wrestled with it a lot without coming up with a comfortable answer.

    Maybe that’s the answer – that I can’t find a comfortable answer. Ah well, no one ever said becoming more enlightened was comfortable.

    ~Kali

  35. @Kali: That’s pretty much how it goes. Comfort is a luxury of privilege.

  36. @Genderbitch- I know there are people with “jungle fever” or “yellow fever” who fetishize people of color, particularly women of color. But I don’t see how that’s inherently worse than fetishizing based on gender. If a person is attracted to women because they’re submissive, always wear makeup and need someone strong to protect them- how is that any better than being attracted to people of color because they’re “exotic”?

  37. @Dreki: That’s not any better. Sexuality doesn’t work that way though. Folks who are into women aren’t into submission, makeup and a need for protection because that isn’t woman style things. Guys and nonbinaries can be submissive, wear makeup or have a need for protection too.

    Sexuality isn’t based on those social additions to gender.

  38. @genderbitch- that seems rather hopeful. Are you really saying it’s impossible for a person to be attracted to women based on misogynistic stereotypes, yet being attracted to ANYTHING ELSE can be?

    Most of the heteronormative stereotypical relationship dynamic is based on the concept that men are strong, dominant, and able to protect while women are weak, submissive, and need protection. Of course any person of any gender(s) can be all of those things- but the view is that this isn’t the case.

    Your argument that being attracted to another trait is more likely to be bigotry falls apart when you insist that you can’t be attracted to gender based on sexist stereotypes. That simply isn’t true. The entirety of sexism, cissupremacy, and homophobia is hinged on the idea that men adhere to male gender roles (including attraction to women and being born with a penis) and any man who doesn’t isn’t REALLY a man and women adhere to female gender roles (including attraction to men and being born with a vagina) and any woman who doesn’t isn’t REALLY a woman.

    Do you really think that sexuality is some sort of pure haven apart from every other part of society those views touch that it can’t possibly be based on sexist stereotypes? Because it really, really isn’t.

  39. 39 Lauren Perry

    I just wanted to tell you that I love your blog and I am linking this entry on my Facebook page because I am always offended when people A. ask me things like “So, are you gay or bisexual?” (as if those are the only non-hetero options), and B. refer to my sexuality as “bisexual”.

  40. @Dreki:

    Never said it was impossible. Just that it isn’t always the case, isn’t even a majority, hence why monosexuality isn’t an issue overall.

    Monosexuality isn’t the heteronormative stereotypical relationship dynamic. That’s simply one thing that can be attached to one kind of monosexuality. Lot of straw grasping here.

    My claim is based around only certain traits and in certain contexts. If you are unable to comprehend and read these surrounding contexts and would instead prefer to construct strawman fallacies for your own amusement, you can do it somewhere else. I disregarded the rest of what you said due to your strawman fallacy.

    Try again, please.

  41. I’d like to see your evidence that it isn’t the case even in the majority. Most people are not attracted to every single person in their target gender/sex. Most people have a “type”, or multiple “type”s, within that. And those types can be based on stereotypes and bigotry.

    You aren’t specifying the traits or contexts which makes it difficult, you’re simply stating it in general.

    Your example “Someone says they’re only into black people, if that’s based on stereotypes about black people then it’s racist.”- is the context we’re lacking here that the “someone” cannot be black or must be white and that their privilege over the black people they claim to be attracted to complicates the issue?

    Or would you say that a black woman who says “I’m only attracted to black people”
    is the same as a white woman who says “I’m only attracted to black people”? If your context is “The person must be in a privileged group over a marginalized group they’re attracted to for this to be a problem” then I’m not seeing that. And it also still does apply to gender because, as I’d sincerely hope you’re aware, men are privileged over women.

  42. @Dreki:

    Yeah except that a type is not a sexuality and people can and do go outside that type. Your basis is dismissed. We’re also getting pretty severely off topic. If you really wanna talk about whether monosexuality is sexist in and of itself I’d suggest you make a post about it (since it’s a topic that demands an entire post, not a few comments) and link me it. And then we can debate that to our heart’s content. Either way, the word bisexuality used for polysexuality in general is binarist and cissexist and nothing said here about monosexuality changes that.

    The contexts are where one creates a judgment call of sexuality based on stereotypes. Ex “I only find black guys attractive cuz they have big dicks”. Not every black guy has a big dick. Not every black guy has a dick (black trans guys who didn’t pursue surgery, etc). It’s that “I only” combined with the stereotype that does it.

    In the case of monosexuality, a given person finds just women attractive and has no particular reason for it. The attraction just is.

    Actually the statement can apply to anyone attracted to anyone, privileged or not provided they are operating off of stereotypes. It’s racist for a white person to do it due to white privilege and it’s just prejudiced for a black person to do it (due to that lack of social power)

  43. 43 makomk

    genderbitch: OK, let me get this clear – you’re saying that if someone is attracted to (some) men and (some) women[1], and gets marginalized and treated in certain ways by society for it, and they realize that other people who are attracted to (some) men and (some) women have the same experiences, they mustn’t join causes and have a shared identity based on these shared experiences because that’s somehow propping up the gender binary? That’s… interesting, especially as it seems to be so much more important than all the people out there that identify as monosexual along a strictly binary gender divide.

    Sure, in a perfect world with a perfect approach to gender, “bisexual” probably wouldn’t be a useful category. We’re not in that perfect world, though, and insisting that recognizing the existence of the gender binary and its effects somehow helps support it is rather fucked up.

    [1] May also apply to other genders. However, we start to run up against the limits of the term “bisexual” here – it’s just that all the alternatives head off entirely in the wrong direction. When it comes to these issues, some polysexual people seem to be close enough to the traditional gender-binaried norms not to be affected, whereas there are no doubt strictly monosexual people who deal with the exact same crap.

  44. 44 makomk

    Actually, thinking about it some more, “bisexual” is probably more or less the right word.The key issue here isn’t just being attracted to people of two different genders, and it’s not that those two genders have to be “male” and “female” specifically either. The key thing is that those two genders – or even just two subgroups of the same gender – are on different sides of a vast, gaping, socially-constructed divide that people’s sexual desires aren’t meant to cross. In practice, no matter how many other genders someone is sexually interested in, most of the time they’ll still be on at most two sides of the divide – even if no-one can agree which are on which side – thanks to society’s binary idea of gender. (Of course, this all still applies to non-binary divisions, and it might be worth coming up with a different word than “bisexual” if they ever become really widespread.)

  45. @Makomk: I definitely didn’t say there shouldn’t be a union. Polysexual provides that.

    What upholds the binary is using bisexual to mean polysexual. You erase nonbinaries and create the implicit claim that there is just two genders. Which your second comment does nothing to dispel, in fact, all it does is convince me that your reasons for wanting to retain bisexual in its erasing and destructive position as equivalent to all polysexuality is cuz “people suck and won’t get it” and “there’s this binary divide and all genders fall somewhere on it, misgendering the shit out of many of them”.

    Which is you basically saying, “the world is binarist and cissexist as shit and so we should be too.”

    No. Not even remotely acceptable as a reason. I reject that utterly.

  46. 46 EJACTJo

    All six of us headmates salute you
    -Eldon

  47. 47 Louche

    Call me dense, but I am utterly confused by the beginning of your post. I read Serano’s article. She briefly mentions something sex-essentialist. Other than that, I don’t see what you’re criticizing her on. Where/how does she say that bisexuality is only in reference to being attracted to men and women?

    Unless she changed the article…

  48. @Louche:

    In the article she states that bisexuality makes sense because she’s attracted to men differently from how she’s into women, other elements like that continue to imply that bisexuality is about just an attraction to men and women. She never explicitly said it so I can accept that it’s a misunderstanding but the article stands beyond my criticisms of her article and brings up the topic of how bisexuality isn’t binarist in and of itself just the usage of it, on its own merits.

  49. 49 henrik

    A Danish gay friend of mine once said to me that I’m certainly not gay and probably not bisexual either – this happened some years ago before I realized myself as a gynemimetophile (a person sexually attracted to m2f transsexuals/transvestites). He was right in the sense that I feel no attraction to manly men and masculinity as such – as a matter of fact, the penis of a trans*woman to me takes the gender of HER and becomes a female symbol…

    But is there a hidden homosexuality/bisexuality in being a guy like me who adores girls like them? I’ve spent six years trying to figure it out, and the fact is that I don’t know – pan-, poly-, bi-, gynemime-sexuality…

    The fact is that noone knows our reasons or can explain them – as little as transsexuality can be explained – even though science claims to be closer to an explanation of transsexuality that appears to me neurological and not psychological. That makes sense to me.

  50. @henrik: I think that if we define sexuality in a way that isn’t cissexist, cissumpremacist and trans erasing, then you would pretty much just be straight. Cuz for many of us, our penises are a female organ, are girl bits and so on and so forth. So there’s really no hidden homosexuality/bisexuality in that unless the cissexist definitions are used, basing things on just genitals.

  51. 51 S

    This is a good article! I would say it really changed my view, except I’ve already read something that said bisexuality was attraction to any two genders. I think it was in my edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

    Point is, this is a needed article, and now I’m glad I have something to link to if this topic ever comes up with me. =)

  52. @S: And this is not to say that bisexuality can’t be used for simple identity purposes too. One doesn’t have to be attracted to just two genders to be bisexual. I’m just tired of all the erasure of the other polysexualities.

  53. 53 Nndaia

    Yes, exactly! The common assumption that bisexuality automatically means “attracted to men and women” and that other polysexual possibilities don’t exist is incredibly frustrating. And limiting.

  54. 54 evie

    I used to eschew the label bi until I found out that some bi people define it to mean:
    A person who is capable of forming sexual, romantic or spiritual attachments to
    1) people of the same gender(s) as them
    2) people of some other gender(s)
    That’s what the ‘bi’ bit means to me: two groups, same and different. Not attraction to two genders, but attraction to two groups of genders. If other non-mono folks want to join us under this umbrella, that’s cool; if they don’t, that’s totally cool too, in which case they definitely deserve their own letters in the Alphabet Soup. Am I participating in the erasing/oppressing which you’re calling out here?

    I choose not to use pansexual because I feel differently about people who’s genders are the same or different to mine, as already covered. Also the ‘genderblind’ discourse is obv. usefully descriptive if people feel that way, but seems like it could be used in a pretty cruel way with anyone who’s gender is really important to them, esp. people whose bodies don’t fit into stereotypical patterns attributed to their gender. (But someone with less cis privilege please comment?) I don’t use polysexual because the shortened version is already taken by the polyamorous community. The political reasons for adopting B have already been covered.

    Yes, there is binarism and ciscentrism in bi communities and I am sick to back teeth of it, but I do not see any less in gay, lesbian or even pan communities. For example, hearing people compulsorily third-gender trans people by saying ‘if you’d date a trans person, you’re pan’.

    Also, since I always try to find out the context and genealogy of any argument I get into, so I know whose side I’m batting on (so to speak), I found this article invaluable: http://radicalbi.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/words-binary-and-biphobia-or-why-bi-is-binary-but-ftm-is-not/ It’s not perfect, but I thought it was pretty good. Thoughts?

    [Also, @ 23: as a mixed race person, the idea that race is not at all about identity is troubling. Tying race to anything other than self-identification, as with gender, is deeply problematic.]

  55. @Evie: That’s a brilliant definition of bi and I’m really glad you brought it here. I would like to leave a note at the top of the post discussing it (and crediting you as well as linking to your comment here) as yet another alternative within bisexual discourse to the binarist and cissexist elements that often plague the bi community’s popular definitions (with your permission, of course). And yes cisGL have been infamous for their horrendous cissexism and binarism. I’ve written at length about those problems in the past but saved a discussion about bisexuality for later on since it’s a bit different of an issue (less of a straight blatant cissexism and binarism and more of a subtle setup that has more nuance)

    I’ll check out the article later on, thank you.

  56. 56 moviemaedchen

    @Evie – Thanks for bringing up that definition – I was about to bring it up myself until I read your comment. And thanks Kinsey for an excellent post that does a good job of disentangling some of the problems surrounding usage of the word ‘bisexual’ from the identity itself. As someone who alternately identifies as queer and, for various reasons, bi (with a definition much like Evie’s) I appreciate this post, since the shitstorm around the word causes me so many headaches.

    And it seems to me that there is another aspect of this discourse that is slowly becoming apparent to me as something needing to be thought about/dealt with somehow. That is the way in which so much attention is focused on finding the right word/s to use as a static identity for oneself/one’s community, without paying enough attention to the need sometimes to have multiple ways of identifying – not just for folks who have multiple/shifting identities, but also for folk who have a fairly static sense of identity but need to have different ways of marking/discussing that depending on context. I don’t mean being in/out of the closet, insofar as we are talking about orientation, but rather that for some people there is a need to use one word in one context (say, ‘bi’) and another in another context for political, social or other reasons, as a way of claiming ground for their identity *within a certain discourse,* but they mean essentially the same thing with those words, taken in context. I feel like I am not being clear, sorry, but this is something I am struggling to grasp precisely myself. There are reasons, for example, that I use ‘bi’ and ‘queer’ at certain times/places, but they both refer to the same aspects of myself and attempt to communicate the same thing – it’s just that the context in which they are interpreted differs. (And that’s not even touching on the genderqueer gray-a parts of it for me, either.)

    I just found your blog, wish I had found it sooner. Thanks for the great thoughts!

  57. Yes please, go ahead; would love to see more of your thoughts on this issue, and know several other bis and allies who would too. I didn’t come up with that definition, though, and don’t know who did – various people on and off of the internet use it. I don’t think it’s that new, either, although I can’t find any evidence for that with a brief search.

    Currently trying to think of a way of rewording that definition so as not to exclude non-gendered folk, without it getting really clunky.

  58. 58 Kato

    Well, I call myself bisexual and I usually define bisexuality either as “sexual attraction to at least two genders” or “sexual attraction to two or more genders”. Most bisexuals I know define it this way, at least those bisexuals that are aware that more than two genders exist.

  59. @Kato: As long as you’re clear it’s identity based, it can mean whatever you want it to. I’m just tired of the people who explain their bisexuality as “there’s two genders and I like them this way and that way”.


  1. 1 Link Love: Trans* Health Care, Bisexuality, and Forced Sterilization « She Has My Eyes
  2. 2 The Ballad of Xavin and Karolina « Emma Houxbois: Une Femme Sous Construction
  3. 3 Call Me Al » Articles!: Collective Works
  4. 4 stuff pansexuals need to know | rainbowgenderpunk

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