Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part I

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this first part of a two-part essay, Dr. Sumerau reflects on how bisexuality is defined and understood in academia (particularly by heterosexual, lesbian, and gay scholars), which differs greatly from how it is defined and experienced by bisexuals in the real world.

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Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part I

Actual Bisexuality

I have identified as bisexual since the first time I heard the term at a political rally in the late 1990s. Although I have experienced bisexual attractions and sexual engagements for as long as I can remember, I will never forget the moment an intersex bisexual activist took the stage and provided a sexual definition and label that finally seemed to make sense in relation to my own experiences.

I had driven the hour plus with my boyfriend and best friend (at the time, ze identified as gay and I identified as “heterogay” for lack of a better term). We were there to learn more about transgender and intersex issues because I was considering transitioning and ze had recently learned ze was born intersex, but neither of these things were discussed in the small town where we grew up and neither of us knew much about these issues. We were holding hands under a banner (happy enough just to feel safe holding hands) with the words bisexual, transgender, and intersex printed in purple, and we both felt proud that we knew at least two of the three words when the speaker began zir commentary. In the middle of the definition, we each turned at almost the same moment and ze said, “hey cool, that’s you,” and I said, “wow, that’s me.” I remember feeling an almost immediate sense of relief that at least I was not totally alone in my sexual attractions and desires.

I share versions of this story with students in every course that I teach. I do this for three interrelated reasons. First, after much time spent in communities and libraries learning about the erasure and marginalization of bisexuality by heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities as well as the broader social marginalization of minority groups of all types, I see coming out as both a necessity for (me) living an authentic, honest, and healthy life, and as part of the process whereby such marginalization may be reversed and undone. I come out automatically in classes to raise the issue of taken-for-granted assumptions that benefit some at the expense of others. Second, I can’t forget what it felt like to not know there were other people like me, to believe (as heterosexual and lesbian/gay people often told me and some still do) that I had to “pick a side” as if monosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of beliefs that one is necessarily only attracted to one sex) would be any better than heterosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of heterosexual norms and perspectives). I share this story in case there are others in these classrooms who have yet to learn that bisexuality exists in the world around them.

Third and finally, after years experiencing an academy where bisexuality is defined (usually by cisgender heterosexual and gay/lesbian scholars) much differently than I’ve seen in bisexual communities without academic access, I share my experiences to give students a concrete example of the ways minority experience is socially constructed in mainstream institutions. While I believe each of these three reasons are important for me personally, for students educationally, and for minority communities politically, I would like to focus for a moment on the third reason because it is an ever present experience that I encounter as an openly bisexual teacher and scholar that I rarely hear mentioned outside of hushed conversations in hallways.

I remember very clearly how bisexuality was defined the first time I heard the term, and I’ve heard the same definition throughout my life in non-academic bisexual, intersex, transgender, and queer settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities not affiliated with academic institutions and/or composed primarily of people who never had access to college education). In this tradition of knowledge, bisexuality refers to attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement preferences for (1) one’s own sex and other sexes, (2) cisgender and transgender people, and/or (3) people regardless of genitalia. In each case, the “bi” refers to two distinct possibilities of sexual engagement along a spectrum of bodily and presentational options. Specifically, one may identify as male, but experience attraction to males, females, and intersex people; one may identify as transgender or cisgender but experience attraction to both cisgender and transgender people; or, one may have a clitoris but experience attraction to others regardless of whether they have a clitoris.

As it did in the 1990s, this definition resonates with me and is the one I come across most outside of the academy (and in private within the academy) to this day. No matter whom I have had sexual relations with – intersex, female, or male people, cisgender or transgender people, bisexual (or fluid, queer, pansexual, or other terms more frequently used in academic communities) people, asexual people, gay/lesbian or heterosexual people – the similarities among people in each of these groups (for me) outweigh the differences by a wide margin.

In fact, as I often tell my students, I consider myself lucky to have had romantic experiences with all of these groups because they allowed me to recognize just how similar we all are in terms of dating, relationships, sexual desires, and needs. These experiences also helped me to figure out what differences are important for my own sexual and romantic satisfaction (for me these differences are mostly personality based). While I have met bisexual people who are only attracted to males and females, who only date gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual or bisexual others, and who only desire cisgender or transgender lovers, the variations in these patterns (both between people and in the life course of individual persons) speak to the multifaceted elements of the definition and direct attention to the variation and complexity embedded within other seemingly static sex, gender, sexual identities.

Academic Bisexuality

When I entered the academy ten years after first learning of the term bisexual, I encountered a very different definition of bisexuality. In academic settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities affiliated with the academy and/or composed primarily of people who have had the privilege of access to college education), I’ve generally read and heard bisexuality defined (mostly by cisgender heterosexual and lesbian/gay scholars) as attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement to males and females. In this tradition of knowledge, the “bi” refers to the sex/gender binary initially established by cisgender heterosexual scientists and religious elites in the 1800s, which was meant to grant science religious legitimacy by matching the origin story of Judeo-Christian-Western theological traditions.

This definition of bisexuality automatically erases intersex and trans experiences, and provides the foundation for the heterosexual/homosexual binary constructed by the same scientific and religious traditions. Further, it reduces sexual attraction, desire, and engagement to the genital properties of a given being, which provides support for interpretations of sexualities predicated upon reproduction rather than pleasure. From what I can tell, this definition seems to comfort some people who identify within sexual binaries (homosexuality/heterosexuality), sex binaries (female/male), and cisgender binaries (man/woman), and has even been adopted by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual academics (at least in public). Yet, it was completely foreign to me before I entered the academy and did not fit any bisexual I had met at that point in my life.

Beyond the fact that this definition does not resonate with me or capture the bulk of bisexual experience that I’ve witnessed in my life, it is often used as a weapon against bisexual people within and beyond the academy. Academic people use their own definition of bisexuality to then argue that it reinforces the same binary they used to define it; I’ve encountered this mostly by cisgender heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people, but even by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual or people claiming other fluid sexual identities. Such efforts, echoing patterns of bi, trans, and intersex erasure in heterosexual and lesbian/gay communities, define bisexuality as problematic based on definitions of this identity created and repeated by people who rarely have personal experience in this area or who only learn about it within academic settings and communities.

This practice is eerily similar to the ways cisgender heterosexual scholars defined homosexuality as pathological sex inversion, then used their own definition to argue that homosexuality was a disease or perversion of nature. It is also reminiscent of the ways white scholars (usually heterosexual and cisgender) defined people of color as a separate species before using this definition to justify systematic marginalization of, and discrimination and violence against people of color. Another example can be found in the ways medical science defined intersex people as abnormal and then used this definition to justify the mutilation of these people to fit into rigid sex binaries.

Since academic his-her-our-story is littered with examples of minority groups defined by privileged groups in ways that justify marginalization (i.e., transgender communities, differently-bodied communities, working and lower class communities, cis-trans-intersex women, etc.), I could offer plenty of other examples of the ways current academic definitions of bisexuality that are used to justify the marginalization of bisexual people mirror long standing patterns in academic gatekeeping and social control. In each case, the beliefs of the ruling academic class remain salient at least until voices from [insert minority community here] are granted access to the academy and disrupt the dominant narrative.

I would like to end this post by simply asking readers to think about definitions of bisexuality (and other marginalized statuses). Do you subscribe to or assume academic definitions of bisexuality predicated on binaries rather than two ends of a spectrum? If you occupy marginalized statuses yourself, do you currently define them in ways that come from your own communities or do you harken back to the ways privileged groups defined your people once upon a time? When you hear “bi,” do you think of binaries constructed by cisgender and monosex norms, or do you here two ends of a spectrum? By thinking about these questions, you can take the first step to figuring where you stand in relation to bisexual marginalization within the academy and the broader social world.

In the second part of this essay (posted here), in which I explore ways to resist or counter biphobia brought upon via academic definitions of bisexuality.  And, see Dr. Sumerau’s reflection on writing this essay at Write Where It Hurts.

27 thoughts on “Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part I

  1. Pingback: Writing about Bisexuality | Write Where It Hurts

  2. Good article. What do you think of the Bisexual Index’s definition?

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    • I would say it depends on which Bisexual Index you are speaking of.

      If, for example, you mean the UK organization called Bisexual Index, then I would say I think their stated definition (i.e., bisexuality equals attraction to more than one sex / gender and / or to any sex, but comes in a wide variety of forms) is the same basic one I’m working from in my life and this post. As noted in the post, that’s what I’ve primarily seen and experienced = bisexuals experience potential interest in any sex / gender rather than in only one sex / gender (like gay/lesbian and straight folk), but they may adopt a wide variety of labels for this experience (i.e., bi, pan, poly, try, fluid sexual and / or queer to name a few) and may experience this in vastly different ways throughout their lives.

      If, on the other hand, you are referring to the Kinsey Scale (which some also call “a bisexual index”), then I’d say it can be rather problematic (i.e., when people use it to attempt to quantify a specific “type” of sexual being and / or focus on the middle as merely reflects of the ends of the scale), but it can be useful (i.e., when people use it as an example of variation across sexualities and / or to focus on similarities between bi, lesbian/gay, and straight experience instead of differences tied to identity claims). So, for that one, I would say it depends on how it is used or interpreted.

      If, however, you are referring to the statistical scales created at times (some explicitly called bisexual scales and indices, others with other names), then I would say again it depends. Some of these simplify sexualities by locking bi into categories based on one measure or another – this is problematic. But,others are fairly complex scales or used simply based on self identification to compare to other variables – this could provide useful information about how identifying as bi in one way or another relates to other social factors.

      Apologies for the length, but i always try to provide answers I think might be useful, and your question (a rather important one in my opinion) leads to different considerations depending on the source in question so I thought it more useful to cover each of the most common things you could be referring to based on other times I’ve heard the same question.

      In any case, I hope the information is useful and thanks for reading and commenting.

      J. Sumerau

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  3. This is an awesome awesome awesome article which made me VERY happy. I’m going to use it every time someone tries telling us that bi=2 and therefore bisexuality is binary.

    My own view on bisexuality is that there is an umbrella definition: being sexually and/or romantically attracted to more than one gender.

    And then there is your personal definition. And that can be véry specific. It covers these ranges:
    • Being attracted to men and women – being attracted to all the different kinds of genders;
    • Your romantic attraction and your sexual attraction are the same – your romantic and sexual attractions are completely different
    • Gender expression plays a role in your attractions – gender expression does not play a role (but can be appreciated)
    • Your attractions have been the same your whole life – your attractions have been fluid your whole life

    In this view, there are as many ways to be bisexual as there are bisexuals 🙂

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    • I’m glad the piece was useful to you, and I enjoyed your comments and bullet points (they really capture the complexity and variation I’m noting in the post, I’ve experienced, and I’ve seen throughout this life). Thanks for reading and commenting.

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    • Thank you for sharing and reading WBB. I have seen this TED talk and I like it a lot (I really enjoy the pi sexual metaphor and the argument about accepting non-binary genders especially).

      Many bisexuals (myself included) go through experiences where we’re told by others (usually gay and lesbian or straight others) that the “bi” in bisexual implies “binary,” and as the speaker suggests I think that comes from gay/lesbian/straight people’s own binary views of the world (i.e., many of them define their own attractions (intentionally or otherwise) in binary terms and believe there is a “same” or “opposite” sex / gender (a belief that also can imply “binary”)). In fact, the vast majority of bisexuals I’ve come across in my life did not even consider that implication until a lesbian/gay/straight person suggested it (much the same way, I think, that lesbian/gay people generally only learn negative aspects of their identities when straight people suggest such bullshit).

      Most bi people I’ve come across (like myself and the speaker – and whether they identify as bi or other terms like pan, try, poly, fluid, etc. sexual) are not any more and are often much less committed to gender binaries (or any binaries) than most lesbian/gay/straight (or otherwise binary sexual identified) people I’ve come across. At the same time, most of them (like me) had to do some digging and study to uncover the transformation of bi defined as both ends of a spectrum (by bisexual – and often by gender fluid people – from as far back as we can tell to this day) until it was redefined (by straight movements to attack lesbian/gay people and then by lesbian/gay movements to defend against straight attacks) to support the gender and sexual binaries necessary for maintaining monosexism, heterosexism, and cissexism even in the face of lesbian/gay activism in more recent times.

      My own hope is conversations like my post and the TED talk you shared here can begin to move us past these arbitrary divisions into a space where we can all stand together and have equal rights, recognition and opportunities no matter our location within sexual and gender spectrums.

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  4. Bi simply means two – same and different and 100% of humanity falls into those two categories. It is simple and harks back to the original definition when the binary was the only recognised state of humanity. It neither promotes the binary or any other state but assert the core truth that bisexuality and sub-identities is the enduring attraction to people of the same gender and sex and ourselves and to people who are not of our sex and /or gender.

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Your comment really speaks to the historically or traditional (i.e., most of human history) understanding of the idea from what I’ve found and read over the years – people who are attracted to bodies like their own and bodies not like their own.

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  5. Great article! I found it enjoyable as well as useful. It’s good to see someone clearing up how academic queer theory has erased and abused us. As a bisexual blogger, I am looking forward to reading more of your work.

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  6. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part II

  7. Pingback: What “team”? Some thoughts on navigating monosexism | Write Where It Hurts

  8. If bisexual means attraction to cismale, cisfemale, transmale, transfemale – what is pansexual?

    Where do we draw the line at defining one sexuality as distinct from another?

    Bisexual is binary sexuality – in that you are attracted to both sexes. How that person came to be that sex – by birth or transition later on – has nothing to do with sexuality. THAT is gender identity.

    With gender you can be male in a born male body, male in a born female body, female in a born female body, female in a born male body. You can be cismale and gay, cismale and straight, cismale and bisexual, cismale and pansexual, cismale and asexual. And the same goes for trans male and cis/trans female.

    And it absolutely applies to people who are born intersex.

    I am bisexual because that is how I identify sexually. That says nothing about the cis or other nature of me or the person I’m attracted to or intersex. That tells you only that I am sexually attracted to displays/representations of masculinity and femininity in my culture.

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    • Uh, no. There is not a single bisexual organization in the world that uses a binary definition of bisexual. Not one. Dictionaries and academics use a binary definition, but they are wrong. Who are you going to believe: the people who actually ARE bisexual, or a dictionary?
      As I said in MY reply to this article, bisexuality is a scale. There are bisexuals who are binary, who are attracted to men and women only and for whom gender expression is very important. If your preferences lie on the one end, you are pansexual: you’re attracted to all the different kind of genders and gender expression is not very important or plays no role at all. With the definition of bisexual being ‘more than one gender’, pansexuality is one form of being bisexual.

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      • Thank you both for reading and commenting.

        In my experience and historically, pansexual is basically a synonym for the most common definitions of bisexuality offered throughout time (i.e., the most common bi definitions referred to my sex and others or my body and others and pansexual was defined as all sexes or all bodies = same thing since my sex/body and other sexes/bodies is all sexes/bodies).

        In this regard, bisexual and pansexual are terms a lot of people continue to use interchangeably while many others use one or the other. In practice, however, they are often very similar. As for where to “draw the line,” my own impression is nowhere = I see no need for lines or boundaries between the two terms (or other bisexual related identities like fluid, trysexual, polysexual, etc) since it only concerns me when someone identifies as one (i.e., fluid) in order to put down another (i.e., I’m fluid because pansexual is too medicalized).

        So when people simply seek to identify differently (i.e., pan or bi fits me and my experience better) I think that is simply their right to self identity and experience their sexual selves, but when people seek to identify differently in order to denigrate other identities (i.e., I’m pan because binary people taught me negative definitions of bisexuality that I will now repeat to the detriment of other bi people or I’m fluid because pan reflects medical authority and I will now tell you how pan people are confused in comparison to my enlightened self, or any other examples I’ve seen and heard of us versus them rhetoric = I’m this term because people using these other terms are bad) then I find that problematic (not the identity choice, but its use as a weapon).

        These debates always remind me of previous debates in gay / lesbian communities. When, for example, people argued over homophile and gay or people still argue over gay man and homosexual – if they have a preferred term I want to respect that, but if they’re attacking those who identify as another term I find that problematic. Similarly, debates between use of the terms gay woman and lesbian remain common – again if they have a preferred term I want to respect that, but if they’ attacking those who identify in another way I find that problematic. Like bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, fluid, trysexual, etc., debates about gay man/homophile/homosexual or gay woman/lesbian/ homosexual woman are long standing issues that basically seek to “draw a line” around the “proper” (to one person/group or another” term for similar activities, desires, and expressions. When such attempts are simply self identification (i.e., I prefer gay or bi or lesbian or whatever term because it fits me) I see no issue since we can respect labels and still work together and for each other, but when they are established as weapons to separate and marginalize people (i.e., I’m this because that other one is automatically bad) I see them as problematic because they simply divide us along arbitrary lines that forestall our ability to work together with and for each other in a world that does not yet fully accept or respect any of us.

        As Laura Dijksman notes above, one of the common ways we see the bi / pan experience play out in practice is where pan is a form a bi (i.e., every definition I’ve ever seen or been told by pan people is also a definition of bisexuality – its one of the many different types of bi often found in the world throughout history). In some cases, people identify as such to signify where on the spectrum they feel they fit, but in other cases people use the term to distance themselves from the term bi and / or denigrate other bisexuals and / or place bi identified folks into boxes they have decided exist. In the former case (i.e., signifying the self) I see them (like gay, lesbian, asexual, and heterosexual people who embrace sexual equality and justice for all of us) as my comrades and siblings to support and stand with. In the latter case (using it as weapon), however, they are generally (like gay, lesbian, asexual, and heterosexual people who consciously or otherwise reproduce cis, hetero, or homo normativity and monosexism) examples of the everyday biphobia I witness throughout my experience and interactions in this world.

        All that said, once again thank you for reading and commenting. I deeply appreciate the dialogue, and hope it is helpful and useful for all of us as we try to move forward in continued search for justice and equality for all sexual communities.

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  9. Personally I believe that pansexuality was invented and an identity to further marginalise and erase bisexuality and distort its meaning and as a special snowflake identity to avoid identifying as bisexual. Pansexuality is often used to diminish bisexuality whereas in truth it is a subset of bisexuality with a distinct meaning i.e. potentially attracted to everybody as opposed to potentially attracted to most people.

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    • It certainly is used incredibly often that way. Usually those same people get incredibly mad if you try to tell them that though. As if they’d rather be dead than be classified a form of bisexuality.

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      • Thanks again for reading and commenting.

        Sadly, as Larua Dijksman notes correctly in my experience, it is often used that way today and has been at many times previously – and when it is that’s when I see it as simply problematic biphobia activity (like Gregory Payne suggests above).

        In terms of invention historically, pansexual is generally attributed to Freud where it was defined as an innate sexual desire for all embedded in the human psyche (which erases asexual people, but says nothing about the types of bodies people may be attracted to) but in terms of an identity tied to bodies / sexual preference the story I’ve found thus far is fuzzier – the most common reference I’ve seen (and its my own experience) was that it emerged (for the reasons Gregory Payne notes) in the 1990’s among educationally and economically privileged people (still the most common folks I hear use the term honestly) as a way to distance themselves from bisexuality and gain favor / acceptance in biphobic lesbian and gay spaces.

        That history noted, however, I do think its important to note that these days I encounter the term in both that way (i.e., a form of internalized biphobia or in response to binary definitions of bisexuality), BUT ALSO as simply a way some people identify as fluid or spectrum (i.e., some of them will say I’m a bisexual who tends to fit the pansexual end of the spectrum so I identity as pansexual mostly) or interchangeably with bisexual (i.e., they say I’m bisexual on Tuesday and I’m pansexual on Thursday or vice versa using the terms (like homosexual, gay, and same gender loving) as synonyms). Again, I don’t see any issue with the latter use, but sadly the former use is still very common.

        Once again, thanks for commenting and reading.

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  10. Thanks for this blog post – I found it really interesting, and it largely resonates with my own experiences around defining bisexuality inside and outside academic contexts.

    However, I have noticed that there can be a tendency for people who are ‘behaviourally bisexual’ to resist the bisexual label, and I am wondering where they might fit in here. I’m thinking of research by Rust (2000) and Ochs (2007), and also my own research findings where participants clearly avoided using the label ‘bisexual’ while at the same time describing sexual desires for more than one gender.

    Anecdotally, it feels to me that those who actively claim the bisexual label are more likely to be engaged with political and broader LGBT community issues, and explore the non-binary definition of ‘bisexual’ within this context. I suspect that for people with less political/community engagement, the most commonly understood definition for ‘bisexual’ would be quite different and more binary.

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this? I’ve popped a couple of references below.

    Ochs, R. (2007) ‘What’s in a Name? Why Women Embrace or Resist Bisexual Identity’. In Firestein, B. A. (Ed.) Becoming Visible: Counselling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 72-86

    Rust, P. C. (2000) ‘Two Many and Not Enough’. In Journal of Bisexuality,1(1): 31-68

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting Carys.

      In terms of your question, my observations to date are nuanced. First, I have noticed less political activity (though often much talk of politics) on the part of folks who resist the “bi” label. In my experience, this is most common among educationally and economically privileged “bi practicing” folk who talk a lot about politics, but do not do much in terms of concrete activity or organizing. Generally, they say they don’t like the label because “insert binary definition common among gay/lesbian/straight folks (often educationally and economically privileged themselves) here.” So, some of my observations line up well with what you’ve observed and the pieces you note (both of which I’m familiar with and have used before in conversation and / or teaching).

      That said, I’ve also seen it a decent amount among political active “bi practicing” folk who are primarily politically active in relation to gay/lesbian pursuits and especially homonormative pursuits (i.e., consumption, marriage, parenthood concerns). As a result, I think (and have experienced examples of this) it often comes from connections to lesbian/gay/straight groups who marginalize bi folk and the term bi in their endeavors (intentionally or otherwise) and / or groups committed to mainstream (i.e., assimilation) politics most beneficial to white, cisgender, well educated, religious and economically secure sexual minorities.

      All that also said, I have also often seen it in case where it appears to simply be internalized biphobia acquired from navigating both homo and hetero normative contexts (i.e., we see similar internalized homophobia among some gay/lesbian folk and internalized transphobia among some trans folk – same with other gender and race groups in society). In such cases, they will admit they got tired of hearing how “scary or dangerous or untrustworthy” they were from lesbian/gay/straight folk and using other terms in public (though often not in private) was a way to deflect some of the attacks while remaining actively involved with gay/lesbian/straight folk. In this case, it seems like an adaptive response wherein they are giving up the term and using some other to ease their outsider/within experience of lesbian/gay/straight spaces and interactions.

      So I would say the answers are complex, but much (if not most) of it comes from monosexism embedded within many contemporary lesbian/gay/straight communities combined with constant experiences “caught between” homo and hetero normative forces.

      I don’t know if these thoughts are helpful, but I hope so and thank you again for reading and commenting. You might also want to check out the other posts this week on http://www.writewhereithurts.net concerning bisexual experience that a colleague and I posted in relation to this piece.

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  11. Very interesting article. I also move between the academy and the LGBTI community, and I have not heard this issue framed quite this way before. So thanks.

    It strikes me that we are in the tricky area of shifts in the meaning of words. Academics will be aware of historical origins of “bisexual”, just as we are aware of the problematic origins of the word and concept of “race” in pseudoscience. The social definition of “bisexual” that you present is important because it shows us a failure in that historical concept of bisexuality.

    I believe this is why many people have begun to shift to “pansexual” – in order to distance themselves from that problematic tension in the historical word “bisexual.” And, if we want to be clear about who we are, adopting the newer word “pansexual” isn’t a bad idea.

    Here’s a problem you might wish to consider, however. Your experiences are beautifully free of the sexual binary. However, your perspective does not actually line up with my experience with bisexual men as a Kinsey 6 gay male. So many of the bi men I have had a certain kind of pleasure in meeting (ahem!), DO limit themselves to cis-men and cis-women, leaving out intersex and trans people from their sexual lives.

    The question quickly becomes, “Is this because their innate attractions are limited to the sexual binary? Or, is it because they limit themselves to socially-acceptable options?”

    I am not sure, but it would seem to me that at least two pieces of evidence suggests that it might be the latter: the vast popularity and growth of transgender pornography aimed at men, and the growth of sex tourism focused also on transgender prostitutes (say, Thailand’s ladyboys). Both of these “pasttimes” suggest that there are many cis-men who are interested in a mixed gender-presentation and/or mixed genitalia, who feel the need to keep those particular lusts at a distance from their everyday lives.

    I would add to this my personal experience, which i think is paralleled in the sex lives of many more cis gay men, that so many men we meet who are clearly in the middle of the sexual orientation spectrum are socially restrained. There is a preponderance of guys who identify as “straight” and live according to heteronormative rules, but have secret same-sex affairs – but they clearly are attracted to women, and are not just closeted gay men. There is also a fair number of men who describe themselves as “bi” who similarly prefer a largely hetero, but gay-friendly world – but who exhibit a bit of transphobia…. All this suggests to me that pansexuality may lurk behind all bisexuality (which is essentially what you are suggesting), but is socially and psychically repressed.

    But, again, I am not clear. Perhaps this is a question that merits some searching for hard data. I would do it, but I’m in the humanities.

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting Eric!

      You raise some intriguing issues, and I will do my best to speak to them as I have above.

      First, I think we are in the midst of an interesting or tricky area in terms of the meaning of words. In much the same way we have had to (as individuals and communities) move past simplistic definitions of gay/lesbian/homosexuality, I see these same kind of shifts occurring in bi, trans, intersex, and asexual communities at present. Not surprisingly (I would say), it again comes down to learning to embrace the variation within communities and seeking to focus on combatting sexual, sexed and gender marginalization no matter where it comes from.

      Second, I think the use of pansexual can be both positive and negative. My next post on http://www.writewhereithurts.net explores this issue in depth so I’ll be brief here, but simply put I think it depends on how the term is used. For many people (myself included) pansexual refers to a type of bisexuality (i.e., a place on the bi spectrum wherein genitals do not determine attraction and / or relationships), and such people often use the terms as synonyms (i.e., I’m bi and pan) or as descriptors (i.e., I’m a bi pansexual or pan bisexual) in much the same way others use synonyms (i.e., I’m gay and homosexual) or as descriptors (i.e., I’m gay and a Bear). In such cases, I see no problem with the term pansexual (whether people solely use it or use it with bisexual) because it is a self identification rather than any way of hurting others on the bi spectrum. That said, not all bi people are the same – some do have binary attractions much like many lesbian/gay/heterosexual people do, and pansexual generally doesn’t capture their experience even when used in positive ways.

      On the other hand, the last couple decades have often seen people using the term pansexual as a way to distance themselves from bi communities and bi marginalization. Often this involves repeating the same rhetoric historically used against bi people regardless of label in binary sexual (i.e., lesbian/gay and straight/hetero) communities. In these cases, pansexual is a problematic term because it serves as a divide and conquer style weapon against other bi folks, terms, histories, and communities.

      As such, I think whether or not it is useful depends on how the term pansexual is used in practice. That said, there may be (at some point) a move away from both pansexual and bisexual terminology since both carry a lot of conflict historically, but there is no way to tell that at present. In either case, pansexual will only ultimately apply to one of the many types of bisexuality people experience and practice in this world.

      Third, I think the problem you present is important and a useful example to think about for both lesbian/gay and bi communities at present. As such, I’ll use your examples to play with this stuff for a second in hopes of helping all of us think through it.

      As you note, so many of the bi men you have met do limit themselves to cis men and women, but so many of the gay men I have met (and lesbian women and heterosexuals as well) also limit themselves to only cis men (or cis women whatever the case may be). However, these people are rarely said to be supporting the sex/gender binary just by calling themselves gay/lesbian/straight. Why would we attack one by saying their sexual term (i.e., bi) supports the binary when the actions in of many people within each of these groups do the same?

      Do people, as you ask yourself, develop these binary attractions due to something innate or because of social limitation? Like you, I am not sure, but like you I would argue the latter. I think (in much the same way people are conditioned to pick one of only two sexual options – which is of course fine if either option fits them well enough) people are conditioned to pick one of only two (though there are many more options empirically) sexes or genders in terms of partner selection. This conditioning (rather than a specific sexual identification term) I would suggest is the potential problem (if used to harm intersex and / or trans people) that we should all be working against. After all, one does not need to be attracted to non-binary folks to recognize and support them in concrete ways.

      If we turn to your personal experience, I think your experience is paralleled in many cases wherein bi (identified or not) males are often more restrained or repressed. That said, I can say the same thing about most of my experience with rural, racial minority, working / lower class, religious and older gay men to date (they are much more restrained, more likely to be closeted, etc), and history says the same about most gay men (cis or trans) back when they were the ones almost always referred to as suspicious, going through a phase, or dangerous everywhere they looked (today’s reality for bi people in general and especially for bi males) and back when they had as little community support or as few safe havens within communities as bi males do right now. I would suggest the issue is not about bisexuality, but rather (as it was and in some cases still is for many gay males) the treatment of bisexuality (or homosexuality whatever the case may be) socially by the wider society (only difference I can see is bi people get it from both LG and hetero communities at the same time).

      Also, as you correctly note (from what I’ve seen) there are lots of males who identify as straight and live by heteronormative rules, but have same-sex affairs (some are attracted to women as well and others are not in my experience and throughout history), but again this is a longstanding pattern among both gay and bi men and women due to monosexism, heterosexism, biphobia and homophobia embedded in our society past and present. Further, we currently find many “out” gay males who live very heteronormative (we call it homonormative in the literature most of the time) lives as well. Again, I would say the issue is not “bisexuality” but rather hetero and monosexism patterns throughout society.

      I also think you’re correct (from what I’ve seen) that there are number of men who identify as bi that prefer a largely hetero but gay friendly world while exhibiting transphobia, but again there are a lot of gay men who fit this description as well (especially in rural areas and religious communities). Again, I would say these are wider patterns that bi and gay people too often fall into as a result of mono and hetero sexism in society. Many of the gay men I’ve met do all they can to be / appear as hetero as possible and many of them exhibit significant transphobia. That said, for me, this doesn’t say there is a problem with gay men as a whole, but rather there are some gay men who fall into or select hetero and mono sexist patterns of action.

      As a result, I would ultimately suggest (both from my own experience and the personal experience you shared) the issues here are not about bisexuality itself, but rather common responses to mono and hetero (and cis honestly) sexism embedded within our society. In much the same way homosexuality was once used as the catchall scapegoat for very complicated structural issues (and in some places it still is), however, these days bisexuality often carries that burden. Personally, I think we’d be better off focusing all our efforts (bi, gay, lesbian, hetero, asexual or otherwise identified) against mono, hetero, and cis sexism instead.

      As noted in other replies, I hope the comments are useful to you and once again I appreciate you engaging in this dialogue and reading the post.

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