Bisexuality Q&A

I’d still like more responses to the questions I posed to opponents of gay marriage yesterday, but, since turnabout is fair play, I’ll take a crack at some of the questions you guys asked about bisexuality in the thread.  I’ll answer any others on this topic in the comments.

UPDATE: there’s still confusion in the comments so here’s the tl;dr takeaway: Bisexuality is totally unrelated to polyamory.  Bisexuality describes the set of people who might attract you.  Polyamory specifies what kind of relationship you want to have with people in that set.

Joe asked:

As a bisexual is it easier for you to see that sexual orientation is changeable? I would imagine that a bisexual could become more attracted to one gender while they are dating that gender but then become more attracted to the opposite gender when they are in a different relationship. Maybe thats not how it works? But it seems that the existence of Bisexual people could be proof that sexual orientation could change.

Yeah, I’d say that’s not how it works.  When I’m dating someone, I’m not more attracted to their gender generically, in the same way that someone dating a cellist doesn’t find that, in the abstract, they are now much more attracted to cellists than violinists.  Some bi people like to quantify their relative attraction to each gender, but I’ve not found that particularly personally enlightening (see statistical note at the end of the post).  Just as most readers probably don’t think of themselves as 70% brunettes, 20% redheads, 10% blondes; I don’t estimate or update my numbers on gender.  When I say I’m bi, I mean that gender isn’t a disqualifier, and I tend to leave it at that.

FCCG asked:

Many arguments for gay marriage suggest that you should be able to marry whoever will satisfy your inborn sexuality. If that is true, the bisexual should be allowed to marry at least one man and one woman. And if we allow this, how do we not allow traditional heterosexual modes of polygamy; what do we say to my friend who is convinced that polyamory is an orientation unto itself?

I’m really glad FCCG asked this, because it gives me an opportunity to address a common misconception.  Bisexuality is not the same thing as polyamory.  Let me return to the hair color parallel.  Plenty of straight men are attracted to both blondes and brunettes, but very few feel deprived or suppressed when they are dating only one girl with one hair color.  I don’t have any more of a yen to date a boy and a girl at the same time than I need to be going steady with both an American and a Frenchwoman.

I don’t have a strong objection to polyamory, but my position on that has much more to do with the dynamics of heavy obligation to more than one person than it does with diversifying genitalia.  Insofar as polyamorous marriage fits my conception of marriage — a life-long, difficult-to-exit commitment that is more focused on serving the other than securing physical pleasures for the self — I have no problem with it.  Like covenant marriage, polyamory is ok by me in theory, but they get a bad rap because it is most visibly practiced by the people we suspect are taking the principle to excess.

Finally, a statistical note on why I find the numberic labeling of bisexuals to be weird.  Let’s assume there exists a bisexual girl (Jane) who is equally attracted to men and women, so we thing of her as having a 50-50 split.  Will we see her dating men as often as she does women?  Definitely not.  About 90% of men are attracted to women while only ~5% of women are [estimates are not precise].  So every time Jane makes a pass at someone, all else being equal, a guy is 18x as likely to be receptive as a girl.  Unless she makes a special effort, someone would observe Jane dating guys 95% of the time and girls 5%.  So what number should she use to label herself?

When people are trying to set you up on blind dates (or in most other contexts this comes up), it’s a lot easier to talk about genres of people you’re attracted to than it is to come up with numbers.  And, after all, bi people are no more likely to be attracted to all men and women than a straight girl is to be attracted to all men.  You might know your bi friend tends to prefer women to men, but, if that’s all you know, she’s liable to be disappointed when you introduce her to a cute butch girl when she’s actually more into femmes.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • dbp

    I have a very difficult time approaching some facets of this subject intellectually, not so much because of any sort of aversion to it (though, in principle, I fall in line with Catholic teaching on matters of sexuality) but because there are some premises I am not sure I can agree with.

    If you, Leah, were to marry your boyfriend (or a future girlfriend) in a covenant marriage, wouldn’t you for all intents and purposes cease to be bisexual in any meaningful way? Obviously the facts of simple sexual attraction don’t go away, but I don’t buy the idea of mere attraction as core to one’s identity in the way that many do. Because what are the consequences? Is a man a pedophile because he is fleetingly attracted to a minor, even if he doesn’t do anything to encourage or entertain the impulse, and never acts on it or sanctions it in his mind? Or does he become an adulterer if he has the same experience toward someone other than his wife?

    I think the answer is, obviously not. What matters are the choices that we make. Now, I can see that in the homosexuality question there is an element in which the fact of attraction exclusively to those of one’s own sex is considered to be inextricably linked to choices that can make one happy, and so there is a kind of identity involved through either present or presumed future action. (I have concerns using this description when the action is ‘merely’ future, actually, but that’s a discussion for another day.) And I can see how people might use the same argument for uncommitted bisexuals, even.

    But what about committed bisexuals, who are sworn until death do them part? Doesn’t the commitment to a single person, of whichever sex, sort of end their bisexuality and consign them to just the homo- or hetero- variety? Does the continued nurturing of that ‘identity’ as a bisexual have any purpose or value in light of their committed state? The only relevance I can think of would be of a variety that would seem to be dangerous to their marriages: thoughts of their own or suspicions on their partners’ parts of affairs, an invitation to discontent by entertaining thoughts that ‘some part of me isn’t being fulfilled,’ etc. These are the sorts of thoughts that apply equally to ‘unisexual’ spouses, and they’re not good things. So what, aside from this abstract, ingrained idea of pride in a sense of identity that, in my mind, is questionably-founded in the first place, does a bisexual get from it? Seems like a bill of goods is being sold to the bisexuals involved.

    To use another example, suppose the captain of the football team, who could have any girl he wants, gets married. Is there any benefit to him in any way at all to recall with pride the days when his options were open and he could have chosen someone other than his wife? I don’t think so, and he and his marriage will only suffer if he does.

    And, if this is the case with (covenant-style) marriage, then what does that imply about bisexuality in progressively less-committed relationships? What about standard marriage, with the possibility, but no expectation, of divorce? What about two people living together, with no explicit commitment except the expectation of monogamy?

    Someone can claim that I’m speaking from privilege as a heterosexual person if they want; but I will absolutely tell you that I value my role as husband and father far more than any presumed identity as a heterosexual. And, yes: if those relationships meant I had to give up sex altogether for whatever reason (say, because of some medical or psychological problem with my wife, or for other considerations), I would take that in a heartbeat over jeopardizing either of those relationships. You want identity? That’s identity; the identity of sexual attraction or gratification, on either side, is a short sale.

    • dbp

      Quick note: the end of that last comment, on rereading, sounds a bit pompous. I didn’t mean to come across like that. What I meant was that, ultimately, an identity based on choice and commitment (and I assure you, much as I love my wife and daughter, it is ultimately the choice, and not the passion or emotion, that cements my identity as husband and father– some days make this QUITE clear, heh), in my own case, so far outweighs sexuality as to make the latter seem more or less irrelevant. That was the intention of the last paragraph.

      Presumably a bisexual who commits to a covenant marriage feels the same way; so how is the identity as bisexual relevant at all afterward?

    • Anonymous

      I don’t cease to be bisexual when I’m dating someone or even when I’m married. Not anymore than a man would suddenly object to redheads because he’s settled down with a brunette wife.

      If you couldn’t have sex with your wife, you wouldn’t give up your identity as a heterosexual. You would become a celibate heterosexual. Do you think monks and priests can’t accurately describe themselves as heterosexual because they’re not sexually active?

      Bisexuality is part of my identity, though I’ll readily admit it’s one of the more boring parts. In my day-to-day life, it’s a bit more interesting than my blood type and considerably less so than ‘amateur costumer.’

      • dbp

        Your words here call out an important distinction, which is my point. “Bisexuality is part of my identity.” That’s something I would agree with, and I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to say that it’s a different thing from “My identity as a bisexual.”

        Sexual attraction is like any sort of predisposition or inclination. If I prefer jazz to hip-hop, that’s something that can be both a strong feeling, unlikely to change, and may affect my choices in life. It most certainly can be a part of my identity, and I don’t mean to diminish that.

        However, it would change the discussion entirely to make that particular aspect the defining characteristic on which I ask people to relate to me. It isn’t that doing so would be right or wrong; in fact, if I’m a jazz musician, there are lots of reasons why I might want to attach my love of that particular kind of music to people’s impression of me. But it is a different social and interpersonal act, with different implications, to behave in this way than to simply experience and acknowledge a fondness. And, it is especially different if it also means that I am involved in promoting and advertising jazz festivals, lobbying for more grant money for jazz artists, etc. Again, I hope it’s clear I’m staying away from moral implications here.

        In this sense, how do we approach sexuality? I would submit that I don’t need to have an ‘identity as a heterosexual’ in the sense of the jazz-lover above. Sexuality (in the sense of sexual intercourse, anyway) may be a part of my biological makeup and doesn’t go away, but there’s no reason it can’t fall off the radar of matters of any particular importance to me as an individual in practical matters. So what possible good could it do to bring it out as a badge to wear, and a primary way of thinking of myself, especially if (in the case I mention above) sexual activity would be contrary to the things I hold most important in my life? What possible interest could I have in fostering an ‘identity as a heterosexual?’

        My point is, the politics of sexual identity are making it impossible for many people to not think of their sexuality as one of the most important aspects of their identities– or, in many cases, they think it is THE most important identity. I am only trying to suggest that there is no reason why it must be. And for a person in your case, especially with your professed contempt for the physical body, I am a bit surprised you accept the prevailing rhetoric.

        The GLBT people I’ve met often seem to want to avoid ‘letting other people determine their identity’ and yet, as you are doing here, seem to want to insist that people think of themselves primarily in terms of sexuality. Sorry, not interested; there’s no good reason why a person has to think that way.

        So, my post was really about my confusion about why a bisexual in a covenant marriage (or progressively less so in the other committed contexts I mentioned) would feel the need to maintain their ‘identity as a bisexual’ when they have already committed themselves wholly to sexual intercourse with only one sex (because with only one specific person).

        For all your mention of redheads and brunettes, I’ll bet you’ve never met someone (offline, anyway) who has made such an attraction into “their identity as a lover of redheads.” And if you met someone who did and also found out they were married to a brunette, you’d almost certainly think something was wrong someplace: not because being attracted to people other than your spouse is wrong, but because there can be no good motive for going out of your way to proclaim it to the world. And what if they only fostered that ‘identity’ internally, to themselves? Again, I submit there’s no good reason to do so and good reasons not to (it could lead to behavior contrary to a healthy marriage).

        Does that make the objection any clearer?

  • FCCG

    I just wanted to clarify. I was not equating polyamory with bisexuality. I was merely pointing out that there are people out there that have beliefs about their sexuality that do not fit into the divide that current marriage debate assumes.

    Gay marriage proponents say that it is unfair to not allow someone to be prohibited from marrying someone who will not fulfill them. This fulfillment seems to come from both actual sex and the different modes of companionship that people in relationships provide. To echo the previous commentor, it seems that once you commit to one sex as a bisexual, you cease to be bisexual in any meaningful context. Therefore in order to be a functioning, married bisexual you need to be married to both. At least by the standards invoked by gay marriage supporters. As it now stands, gay people are absolutely free to get married, just not to the object of their affection. No one in the pro gay marriage crowd finds this acceptable, even though gays can on some level have fulfilling relationships with the opposite sex (I have a friend who describes himself as a “on-fire flaming fag” yet at the same time rather enjoys sex with women, and he would not call himself bi). So it seems to me that those favoring gay marriage should make peace with polygamy…at the very least for bis, or come up with a different justification than those now heard.

    My point about polyamory was related but different. I have a friend who is now convinced that she is polyamorus as an orientation. That it, she cannot be fulfilled either sexually or emotionally by just one guy. So, under the aforementioned logic, she should be able to marry more than one person.

    Leah, while you have expressed that you do not feel deprived when dating only one sex, I am sure this is far from universal (although I don’t know, I don’t really know any bisexuals personally). How would you respond to a bisexual demanding marriage equality as I have suggested? How would you respond to my polyamorus friend? Would you be on board decriminalizing or legalizing the type of relationships seen in fundamentalist Mormon populations?

    My larger point is that the LGBT crowd seems to be arguing for a “what ever you feel should be legal” standard. As a libertarian, I am largely on board, but I have been heretofore frustrated by the seeming inability to see where that thinking leads.

    • Anonymous

      “Gay marriage proponents say that it is unfair to not allow someone to be prohibited from marrying someone who will not fulfill them. This fulfillment seems to come from both actual sex and the different modes of companionship that people in relationships provide. To echo the previous commentor, it seems that once you commit to one sex as a bisexual, you cease to be bisexual in any meaningful context. Therefore in order to be a functioning, married bisexual you need to be married to both.”

      I tried to address both you and dbp in the update to the post above, but let me thow in a slightly more nuanced addendum here. I don’t care very much about gender. Frankly, the idea of being either gay or straight — of finding gender to be a useful filtering criteria — seems weird to me. I certainly trust the subjective self-reports of my gay and straight friends, but I can’t really conceptualize what the experience must be like.

      So I’m not looking at two big important categories and feeling deprived if I don’t have one of each. I’ve got two labels among many labels that apply to people in the pool of potential relationships and I don’t find the gender tags much more urgent than the clarinetist/not-clarinetist tag.

      • FCCG

        I understand your point. I also understand that you are describing your personal experience that seems to diverge from the standard experience felt by the majority of the homo- and heterosexual population (namely full fulfillment will only come from a person of a specified gender). Are you suggesting that that is the experience of the majority of bisexuals, or is it particular to you?

        Furthermore, I would like to state that I am relatively unconcerned with the mechanics of bisexual attraction and fulfillment (although I am curious and interested as long as we’re on the subject), but I am very interested as to what role bisexuality and other uncommon sexualities play in the marriage debate. If one decides that “baby I was born this way” type arguments should direct policy, are there limits? I only bring this up because the national marriage dialouge seems unwilling to discuss polygamy, but the standard gay marriage arguments seem to necessitate it for at least some types of sexuality (if not yours). So I see arguments for “full marriage equality”, but they assume a basic structure (2 people only) that seems no less arbitrary than the existing structure (man/woman). Doesn’t seem like consistent full equality.

        I realize I may be pulling you off point, but as your opinions have reliably proven to be well thought out and reasonable I am curious on your point of view. I have asked my question to many gay marriage supporters before, and as yet I have received no real justifications for the basic disconnect I describe.

      • dbp

        Leah,

        I responded to your reply to my comment above before seeing the update. This comment, too, indicates that my take on you was correct (in other words, it fits perfectly to see you write, “Frankly, the idea of being either gay or straight — of finding gender to be a useful filtering criteria — seems weird to me.”).

        But, respectfully, I think your attempt to distinguish bisexuality from polyamory doesn’t necessarily get us any further. If your bisexuality is, henceforth, forever, and of your own volition, divorced from any sexual activity with more than one sex in practice, I cease to see why you would go out of your way to point out your bisexuality or consider it a particularly important part of you. Homosexuality (in the sense of actual relationships between people and actual actions– you might say “practiced homosexuality”) or polyamory have specific consequences in the world of action, and so fall under different umbrellas. I don’t see the same thing with bisexuality, and it is precisely concerning bisexuality that I am (apparently) confused. I hope you can enlighten me.

        Note that from my perspective as a Catholic, and in accord with the teaching of the Church, I feel that there is literally no moral judgment to be made on you as a bisexual, if you marry your boyfriend in a covenant marriage. Things couldn’t be more peachy. The only objection to bisexuality would be an objection to “practiced” homosexuality or fornication (with either sex; obviously not a necessary component of bisexuality). Put simply, bisexuality just doesn’t show up on the moral radar because what really matters are the decisions and not the predispositions in Catholic moral teaching. And, you’ll note that my dispute here is only about bisexuality, not with homosexuality. That should make it clear that what I have been trying to say is not about morality or trying to change your predisposition or anything like that.

        Rather, my contention is that having X as an accidental attribute or predisposition doesn’t necessarily mean I have to somehow embrace and take on an ‘identity as X.’ Why should I?

        If you riposte with ‘Why should you not?’ the answer is this: identities (as distinct from attributes) matter. They influence how we think and act. My identity as a Catholic has practical import on my life, and it shows every hour. What will your identity as a bisexual, in this sense, get you in a covenant marriage? This is not a rhetorical question: I honestly want to know. The only things I can imagine are either A) not peculiar to bisexuals (like sympathy to bisexuality or support for gay marriage), or B) potentially dangerous to a committed relationship, as discussed above. Why is this important enough to march in a parade for, say, or in your case to bring it up repeatedly on your blog?

  • http://www.allourlives.org/ TooManyJens

    I guess I don’t understand why people who aren’t bisexual and don’t know any bisexual people (that they’re aware of, anyway) feel that they are in a position to tell someone else whether they should identify as bisexual.

  • Gilbert

    I have two questions:

    1) Suppose you created profiles of your ideal male and female partners. You could, say write 1000 words each about character traits, etc. and draw two pictures. Other than the mandated sex difference would the two profiles be identical? (I’m not asking for any specific differences there might be, just whether there would be any.)
    2) Suppose you took part in a scientific experiment where you got to participate in some fun and communicative activity with a mixed gender group. Then you where asked to confidentially rank the men and woman separately by attractiveness. You all would have been using pseudonyms and there would be no chance to ever meet anyone again. I’m pretty sure the heterosexual men would produce very similar rankings of the woman and the heterosexual woman would produce very similar rankings of the men. Question: Would you expect your rankings to differ from the heterosexual’s rankings?

    (As for turnabout I’ll have a substantive answer to your questions in a few days, but right now the people who pay me actually expect to get some work out of me.)

  • Gilbert

    I have two questions:

    1) Suppose you created profiles of your ideal male and female partners. You could, say write 1000 words each about character traits, etc. and draw two pictures. Other than the mandated sex difference would the two profiles be identical? (I’m not asking for any specific differences there might be, just whether there would be any.)
    2) Suppose you took part in a scientific experiment where you got to participate in some fun and communicative activity with a mixed gender group. Then you where asked to confidentially rank the men and woman separately by attractiveness. You all would have been using pseudonyms and there would be no chance to ever meet anyone again. I’m pretty sure the heterosexual men would produce very similar rankings of the woman and the heterosexual woman would produce very similar rankings of the men. Question: Would you expect your rankings to differ from the heterosexual’s rankings?

    (As for turnabout I’ll have a substantive answer to your questions in a few days, but right now the people who pay me actually expect to get some work out of me.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/seth.strong Seth Strong

    I think bisexuality makes more moral sense because while attraction has leanings, it’s clear to me that identifying like that is more about selecting the individual on more individual bases.

    Polyamory was brought into the equation. I relate bisexuality and polyamory because they are both ways to approach finding the right match of people for you. And both are underprivileged options people should be able to take in the pursuit of their happiness and whatnot.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    I’m concerned about muddying the waters here, but this seems like an appropriate moment to bring this up…

    “what do we say to my friend who is convinced that polyamory is an orientation unto itself?”

    In my opinion, we could acknowledge that it is. Eve Sedgwick (if you don’t know who she is, you /need/ to look her up) asks in The Epistemology of the Closet why “sexual orientation” refers only to prefered gender role and/or genitalia in a partner. Why is this the only axis? For some people (those who, in Leah’s words, find the gender tag fairly irrelevant), number of partners, age of partner, sexual positions, sexual activeness or passiveness, whether sex is meaningful or mindless, etc. and so forth are vastly more important, or contribute more to their self-identification, than their partner(s)’s gender.

    This is absolutely not to say that polyamory and bisexuality are the same kind of sexual orientation, or that one leads logically to the other. Rather, it’s to say that the example of a friend who is convinced that polyamory is an orientation unto itself is an important example, one we ought to accept, but that it has no bearing on bisexuality except to say that what counts as sexual orientaion is different for different people.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    I’m concerned about muddying the waters here, but this seems like an appropriate moment to bring this up…

    “what do we say to my friend who is convinced that polyamory is an orientation unto itself?”

    In my opinion, we could acknowledge that it is. Eve Sedgwick (if you don’t know who she is, you /need/ to look her up) asks in The Epistemology of the Closet why “sexual orientation” refers only to prefered gender role and/or genitalia in a partner. Why is this the only axis? For some people (those who, in Leah’s words, find the gender tag fairly irrelevant), number of partners, age of partner, sexual positions, sexual activeness or passiveness, whether sex is meaningful or mindless, etc. and so forth are vastly more important, or contribute more to their self-identification, than their partner(s)’s gender.

    This is absolutely not to say that polyamory and bisexuality are the same kind of sexual orientation, or that one leads logically to the other. Rather, it’s to say that the example of a friend who is convinced that polyamory is an orientation unto itself is an important example, one we ought to accept, but that it has no bearing on bisexuality except to say that what counts as sexual orientaion is different for different people.

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    This is brave of you Leah, and I’m glad that people seem to be being respectful about all of this. In my experience, bisexuals get a lot more heat then even the gay community does. It’s probably due to a misunderstanding of what bisexuality actually entails, but it’s present nonetheless.

  • Anonymous

    Okaaay. This comment thread is really bizarre.

    Bi lady here. I can’t say that I don’t notice gender, or that it’s irrelevant to me. I just find people of all sexes attractive, in theory and in practice. It does vary from time to time; I have periods when I’m almost exclusively into women, and periods when I swing in the other direction (though never all the way). If I’m with someone at the time, my attraction to them doesn’t really change, because it has more to do with the sexual connection that we’ve built together and less with intuitive, first-glance attraction.

    I identify as bi because it’s a useful descriptor of my patterns of sexual attraction and behavior. I am as likely to end up with a woman as a man, and as such I’m invested in having the opportunity to start a family with the former. Who I’m attracted to is not an important part of how I conceive of myself, but it is a very important part of how I present myself to the world. This is because I’m queer. I am unusual. Most people are not attracted to members of the same sex, as I am, and it is important to me that people know and understand that we exist. It is important to me that my relationship with a woman is recognized and considered legitimate, because I think it would better for everyone, gay and straight, if we broadened our understanding of the varieties of sexuality and loosened our sexual expectations and norms. Even if I ended up in a monogamous, lifelong relationship with a man, my queerness would not go away. And so I feel compelled to bear witness to my experience and my position on the sexual spectrum.

    If I were forced to identify as straight, the reason I would feel unfulfilled is not that I would miss sex with women. It is that I would be forced to lie about my attractions and suppress them, for reasons that are not intuitively accessible to me. There isn’t a way, as far as I can tell, to tell people not to act on their intuitions without delegitimizing them and claiming that there is One True Way that humans are sexually in the world. Knowing what we know about human psychology, how would you go about recognizing that same-sex attraction exists, that it is a natural and normal variation of the human experience, but ask people not to act on it without creating pernicious social dynamics that shame, oppress, and marginalize people who admit to having those attractions?

    Sexual attraction isn’t just a matter between you and your partner in the bedroom. It is very much present in our social interactions and a big part of how we relate to one another, especially as young people. If I wanted to hide my attraction to women from my friends, I would have to refrain from making comments about women, I would have to moderate myself more carefully around my female friends than my male friends, and I would have to be deceitful in contexts where women do things around me they would not do around men, like change or cuddle or share a bed. The world is set up in ways that assume heterosexuality, and going around that world without having your queerness acknowledged can be an incredibly invalidating experience. Coming out has done wonders for my self-esteem, as it has for millions of queer people everywhere. *That* is what we mean when we say that we would feel unfulfilled and unable to actualize ourselves without social recognition of our attractions. Because social validation matters, and socially, sexual attraction matters.

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