Over the years, a bunch of people have made the point that asexuals have something to add to discussions of sexuality, because their differing perspective on the topic lends an ability to see certain points that others miss. Since I’m currently incapable of forming any coherent thoughts on the topic of asexual gender variation, I thought I might try to add my perspective to an essay that I recently stumbled upon: Sexa Rubelucia’s Defense of Trendy Bisexuality, wherein she attempts to do just that.
She makes a few good points in the essay, but my main issue with her argument is that, while she seems at least aware of the difference between sexual attraction and sexual behavior, she does not acknowledge its relevance to the topic at hand. This is an issue with the definition of bisexuality. This is about what it means to be bisexual, or not. And the commonly accepted definition of any sexual orientation is based on attraction, not behavior, although many people seem to have a muddled and inconsistent understanding of this, including the author of this essay. Reading the essay, I have no clear idea of what her actual views on “real” biseuxality are, though she offers the following definition of fake bisexuals:
Trendy bisexuality is … the kind of bisexuality in which a girl has sex with, hooks up with, or makes out with, other girls to arouse/get the attention of a guy (or guys) watching, or because she wants to be able to say she’s bisexual as she knows it makes her sound sexier to guys, or just because she’s heard that it’s cool to be bi now. It’s distinguished as “trendy” bisexuality to indicate that these girls only do it because it’s “cool” and because lots of other girls do it. The term “trendy bisexuality” is meant to be insulting, and women who self-identify as “trendy bisexuals” only do so in a self-effacing, deliberately ironic way.
It’s clear that she understands what the difference is between so-called “trendy bisexuals” and real bisexuals–that is, the motivation for their behavior. However, she curiously does not address the distinction between orientation (a relatively set pattern of gender-based attraction) and behavior, which is being clarified by people who use the terms “trendy” or “fake bisexuals”–clearly, people question whether such people ought to be calling themselves bisexuals at all. She seems to go back and forth on this, acknowledging her own low level of attraction to women and how that qualifies her to claim the label “bisexual,” and then later saying that a woman who has had sex with other women’s claim to be straight is somehow suspect. Instead of looking at the very obvious definitional qualms that people have with trendy bisexuality, she focuses on feminist objections to the phenomenon of, as she so aptly calls it, “female/female sex as a performance.”
Far be it from me to claim that sex as a performance is a necessarily bad thing (especially considering my own advice on the topic), but some of her claims are a little suspect. I’m sure there’s something to the whole feminist “sexual expectation double-standard,” but her emphasis on how people who object to this on feminist grounds must be man-haters is a little overblown, in my opinion. Some people simply don’t like the idea of performing to fulfill a man’s fantasies, and I don’t think it necessarily means that they hate all men (or even all heterosexual men) because of that. When their fantasies are about women existing as objects meant for their use, it’s understandable why some women would be uncomfortable with that. I, personally, wouldn’t go so far as to say that other women shouldn’t ever engage in any erotic activities with other women solely with the intent of arousing men, but I still find this practice distasteful because there is such a heavy cultural bias towards the fulfillment of male fantasies (which she does mention), and I think that distaste is very much legitimate. I also do think it is interesting that in the same breath as she dismisses others’ claims that straight girls engage in bisexual behavior because they have low self-esteem, she writes off people who have a repulsion to and/or ideological problems with society’s conception of sex as having low self-esteem:
Girls who have low self-esteem do a lot of things. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore have promiscuous sex. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore refuse to have sex at all and write feminist theory about why all sex is bad and wrong and evil.
And then there is this little gem:
The overarching answer to the concern of “someone will get hurt” is that it’s sex! Someone always gets hurt! It feels really great, and then it confuses you, and then someone gets hurt, and then everyone deals with it. There’s pretty much nothing you can do to prevent that. (emphasis hers)
Um… what? I mean, first of all, from that previous quote, she acts like sex is so wonderful that anyone who has problems with it must have low self-esteem… and then she says this? I sure HOPE people don’t ALWAYS get hurt when they have sex! Even I, an asexual woman, am not so cynical as to say such a thing, and you know? I guess you could call me naive if you want, but that hasn’t been my experience, either. There was a time when I wondered if I would ever be able to get through sex without pain, but I have since discovered that I am perfectly capable of it, on both an emotional and a physical level. There ARE precautions that people can take to keep themselves from being hurt, and even those who are acting outside of their orientation can benefit from them. I wonder, that this woman would say such a thing, especially in this context. I understand very well how a lack of experience and understanding about one’s own desires (or lack thereof) might lead to less-than-stellar communication (been there, done that!), and I don’t think people should be vilified simply for that. However, this reeks of an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. If people are not up-front and honest about their intentions, including whether or not they are experimenting, then things are likely to go wrong, and if somebody gets hurt because the other person wasn’t honest, you can’t claim that it was the fault of the person who WAS honest. Of course, when entering into any kind of relationship, there is always the risk of being lied to, or hurt in any other way. But just because someone understands that they are taking that risk, does that mean that it is acceptable for people to do manipulative and unsavory things to them? Should people just never trust anyone, ever? How about: “Well, it’s your fault you got raped, because you knew there was a chance I might have been lying to you!” No. This is just a way of avoiding blame.
That’s not to say that ALL “trendy bisexuals” engage in this behavior, because some people, I’m sure, are actually up-front about the fact that they are just experimenting, or solely interested in sexing women because they want to attract men. Those who aren’t, however, incur the displeasure of those they mislead for a very good reason. Either way, this argument just barely misses, and then dismisses, the real issue: that trendy bisexuals are MISLEADING PEOPLE by calling themselves bisexual in the first place (and do note, I didn’t say they are “using” people, because I agree, that’s a useless phrase, and plus, it’s such a narrow term it misses some of the broader implications). They aren’t actually bisexual, even though they engage in sexual behavior with people of both genders, and tend to claim that label (the writer of that essay is an uncommon breed in that she actually calls herself a trendy bisexual; usually, that is a label that only other people use to describe someone, while the person being called a “trendy bisexual” just calls herself bisexual). And this can potentially hurt both the people with whom they are intimately involved, and the wider bisexual, lesbian, and even asexual communities due to its spreading of the misinformed conflation of behavior with a label that’s not about behavior at all.
But really, what sinks this complaint is that trendy bisexuals are pretty clearly distinguished from serious lesbians, usually by the fact that their boyfriend is standing no farther than a few feet away.
I doubt this very much, as in my experience (as a biromantic asexual woman partnered to a bisexual passing trans woman–meaning, we look, act, and are treated like lesbians in public), many men seem to assume that most, if not all, out lesbians (who are attractive, at least), are just trendy bisexuals, and would be receptive to their frequent catcalls and offers for threesomes. I really can’t stress enough how frequently this happens. In fact, just a few hours ago, as my girlfriend and I were walking back to our car, just holding hands and not being overtly (or even covertly!) sexual at all, some guy ran into a curb because he was too busy staring at whooping at us to pay attention to the road. You could argue, perhaps, that these men aren’t really seriously harming us by expressing their interest, but the degree to which (even the smallest amount of) female-female affection is sexualized makes me think there is something more insidious going on. My (non-sexual) affection for my girlfriend is routinely trivialized and cast as a simple ploy to gain male attention, when in reality, it has nothing whatever to do with either men OR sex, at all. This is indeed an example of male narcissism, but I am deeply concerned with the idea that this narcissism is harmless. It represents society-wide beliefs that have real-world consequences, which trendy bisexuals may not be aware of because they play into and reinforce the beliefs that other people hold, but women who are seriously committed to one another are much more likely to encounter. The main issue, aside from the demoralizing assumption that women exist for men and the extreme focus on sex, is that we lose credibility. We are much less likely to be taken seriously, as people will assume this is “just a phase” that women go through in college… and if, for example, my mother thinks this way, I may have a disaster on my hands when I finally come out to her, since I am still financially dependent on her and she has quite a bit of power over me. Is this not a legitimate concern?
It seems to me that there is an unwillingness to accept the fact that lesbians even exist, and that it is not at all clear (especially not immediately so) whether any given female-female couple are actually lesbians (this goes back to the issue of orientation vs. behavior, and how that is likely to contribute to the invisibility of groups like asexuals and bisexuals). Although there will certainly be people who assume they are lesbians, people also tend to see what they want to see. The fact that trendy bisexuals exist lends credence to heterosexual males’ wishful thinking, and though that may not actually be what the trendy bisexual is aiming to do, it is understandably annoying to lesbians that this happens, especially since it happens with such frequency. It also undermines the credence that people are likely to give to actual bisexuals, a group that is presumed to an even larger extent than lesbians not to even exist. Again, going back to visibility issues and the damage that defining orientation by behavior does. The writer of this essay seems to be aware of the behavior/attraction distinction, but she is blantantly dismissive of it:
I’ve heard plenty of women say “Oh, I’ve had sex with girls but I’m straight” (note: That is a pretty ridiculous statement), but I can’t even imagine a man saying the same thing about having had sex with a man.
Why is it ridiculous for a girl who has had sex with girls to claim that she’s straight? She is basing her statement on her patterns of attraction, and NOT on her behavior. It is a perfectly legitimate statement. I am asexual, but I have had sex, and that doesn’t make me any less asexual. That I have had sex does not automatically mean that I experienced sexual attraction (contrary to popular belief, I’m sure), because arousal can be a purely physical response to stimuli, that does not spring from any sexual attraction. If it’s possible to be aroused without feeling sexual attraction at all, it’s certainly possible to be aroused by an attraction to something else (in this case, the men that are turned on by lesbians) and then have sex with someone who did not inspire the initial attraction.
The author goes on to explain that that statement would be even more ridiculous in reverse, with a man insisting that his having had sex with a man does not make him gay, and rightly so. To most people in our culture, that would seem like a contradiction, but there have been other cultures where male homosexual interactions were even institutionalized, as mentor-student relationships that were considered a rite of passage. I am thinking of the ancient Greeks and Tokugawa-era Japan, here. As I understand it, it was quite normal in those cultures for men to have sex with other men without being presumed to be homosexual, as those men usually also took wives. There was no stigma attached to this, as there is in our culture, which is probably the reason why our men are so afraid of doing anything whatsoever that might lead others to assume that they are gay. That a man has had sex with another man, in my eyes, would not automatically mean that he is gay, except that since that assumption is so prevalent throughout this society, and since there is so much stigma attached to that act, so much homophobia running rampant throughout society, it would be quite a stretch to think that a heterosexual man would be so willing to experiment that he would even be willing to subject himself to that stigma.
To be gay is to lose social status. For men, who are ascribed a higher social status than women, it is a very, very bad for their image to appear effeminate in any way. Having sex with other men is seen as a marker of effeminacy, because of the way that society conceives of the power structure that is built into sex. To be a bottom in an act of gay sex is to act as a woman, and in so doing, sacrifice one’s (ever-fragile) masculinity. Which is, of course, probably the reason why, as the author observes, there is no male equivalent of the trendy bisexual in American culture (though there is something similar in Japan, but it is usually outright acknowledged that the guys are doing it solely for the girls’ benefit, instead of them claiming to actually be bisexual). Curiously, she fails to comment on that power structure, but she does point out some of the differences between gay male sex and lesbian sex:
Lesbian sex is far less necessarily physically threatening than gay male sex. Penetration isn’t a requirement for two women to have sex with each other, whereas a man who identifies as bisexual is basically saying he’s willing to take it up the ass.
But is this really what he is saying, or is this just what people assume he is saying? What about a bisexual man who is strictly a top? And since when is penetration required for gay sex? I have known gay couples who never engage in penetrative sex because they don’t enjoy it, but do have other kinds of sex. Obviously, one alternative is oral sex. I also remember reading about one society (maybe the Romans? but I can’t recall which) that considered the anus dirty, and instead of having anal intercourse, they would engage in frottage–i.e., men would rub their penises between the closed thighs of other men. This statement highlights how incredibly phallocentric and extremely focused on penetration our society is. Even though anal intercourse is not the only form of gay male sex out there, it is the only form that society recognizes as such (and furthermore, people specifically focus on the bottom without considering the top, which shows how much focus there is on the person who is being “emasculated” and stripped of their social status).
An asexual perspective might be useful here, because in searching for an alternative form of sexuality that might be more tolerable to us than the usual penetrative kind of sex, we often realize how incredibly narrow society’s definition of “sex” is. There are many, many other ways to do sex than just penetration. In the case of lesbian sex, too, this must be acknowledged, because not all lesbian sex involves a strap-on. It is interesting to me that the author of that essay acknowledges that penetration is not required for lesbian sex, but doesn’t realize that it isn’t required for gay male sex either. It strikes me as something of a double-standard. After all, lesbians can and do penetrate each other–why, then, with all this focus on penetration, is that not considered THE way that lesbians have sex? In fact, to many people who hold such a penetration-centric view of sex, it is not even obvious that women CAN have sex with each other, because most women haven’t got a phallus–at least, not one that’s biologically attached.
In short, her arguments leave me unconvinced. I wonder whether she has ever heard of asexuality, and what her reaction to it would be. She doesn’t really seem the type who would take well to the idea, what with her comments about self-esteem and how “ridiculous” it is for girls with a history of having sex with other girls to call themselves straight. I would expect her to dismiss my experiences, claim I am insecure, and say I must be a man-hater because I dislike the way men sexualize me and trivialize my emotions (to say nothing of the actual objectification). I do have a problem with trendy bisexuals, but not because I think they shouldn’t act the way they do, on feminist grounds. My problem is that they are straight women who call themselves bisexual, and thus spread misinformation about what a sexual orientation even is, which can be harmful to ALL non-heterosexual orientations. It would be fine with me if they would at least acknowledge that they are not really, or only barely, attracted to women, and are mainly turned on by them because it turns on men. (I can, after all, understand enjoyment of others’ sexual reactions, as that is the main reason why I even have sex at all.) But most of them don’t (and actually, I wouldn’t call anyone who did a “trendy bisexual” at all; in my eyes, she would just be a straight woman who engages in bisexual behavior), either because they don’t understand what the term “bisexual” means themselves, or they are simply not willing to say they engage in behavior that is viewed negatively, even though that is the truth. They either do not realize the harm that they are doing to the larger community by spreading misinformation, or are not willing to take responsibility for misleading people. I don’t think these concerns are off-base; in fact, her essay only serves to trouble me more.