erased from the national debate?

While the "What is being gay?" poll I created in an earlier post did not mention bisexuality specifically, it was hardly my goal to erase the concept from discussion.

Especially when I saw Eugene Volokh's discussion of "bisexual erasure" (in the related context of Elena Kagan -- whose sexuality seems undetermined):

....the great majority of women who are not purely heterosexual are actually to some degree bisexual. For instance, Laumann et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality 311 (1994), reports that 3.7% of all women report having had both male and female partners since age 18 and only 0.4% report having had only female partners since age 18. Even looking at just the last five years, 1.4% of women report both male and female partners, and only 0.8% report only female partners.
Via Glenn Reynolds, who opines that the Kagan nomination seems to have inspired a "national conversations" on sexuality. Which it has. As to what sexuality, that remains to be seen.

What I want to know is, will the b-word be a part of this national conversation?

Although many of bisexual women cited in the study above would call themselves lesbian or gay, are they really? Or are they just going along with social mores that require them to say they are something other than bisexual? Are people getting tired of this yet?

I can't help wondering how many people really don't care about Elena Kagan's sexuality, and I mean really don't care. Not just in the tolerant "it's OK if she's gay," "not that there's anything wrong with that" sense, but not caring in the sense of genuine disinterest.

Volokh cites a brilliant (IMO) Stanford Law Review article titled "The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure" by Kenji Yoshino. (PDF file.)

Because determining the merit of this position requires a more precise definition of "bisexuality," I generate and defend a provisional definition of bisexuality as the ability to feel more than incidental sexual desire for both sexes. Using this definition, I look at what the major sexuality studies say about the incidence of bisexuality and homosexuality in the population. Two things are surprising about such an investigation. First, to my knowledge, no one has previously made such a systematic comparison. Second, when such an investigation is actually made, it reveals that each of the major sexuality studies demonstrates that the number of bisexuals is greater than or comparable to the number of homosexuals. This suggests that bisexual invisibility is not a reflection of the fact that there are fewer bisexuals than there are homosexuals in the population, but is rather a product of social erasure.

Having demonstrated erasure in Part I, I seek to explain it in Part II. I suggest that erasure occurs because the two dominant sexual orientation groups--self-identified straights and self-identified gays-- have shared investments in that erasure. It is as if these two groups, despite their other virulent disagreements, have agreed that bisexuals will be made invisible. I call this the epistemic contract of bisexual erasure. To support the existence of such a contract, I adduce evidence that self-identified straights and self-identified gays both deploy the same three strategies of bisexual erasure: class erasure, individual erasure, and delegitimation.

I think he's absolutely right. If you think about it, the rule becomes a self reinforcing sort of invisibility. As bisexuals are capable of sexual attraction to either sex, most of them tend to settle into heterosexual relationships, because of social norms. Once this happens, society tends to assume heterosexuality, and the inquiry ends. As to bisexuals who fall in love with members of their own sex, well, they're simply considered gay, and the inquiry ends. As most people are into monogamy or at least serial monogamy, this means that as a practical matter, a bisexual tends to be in either a gay or straight relationship -- which makes him either heterosexual or homosexual. A claim of bisexuality falls on deaf ears. The vast majority of bisexual men I have known have been in heterosexual relationships, and they would never admit to being bisexual, because if they did, they would be considered "gay but in the closet" and their claim to heterosexuality would be forfeited. In most areas of this country, the cultural consequences are not what anyone would visit on a beloved partner, or on a stable relationship -- especially one with children. So bisexuals are straight, and unless they make public damning admissions or are caught dabbling with their homosexual side, they remain straight.

Thus, a bisexual cannot "come out of the closet" in the ordinary sense of the term -- not, at least, as a bisexual. A claim to being bisexual is simply not heard or taken seriously. In the event of any outright declaration of bisexuality society conspires to favor a gay default position, as fewer penalties attach to an admission of bisexuality by an ostensibly gay person than the same admission by an ostensibly straight person. Thus an "open" bisexual is tolerated by both sides as being gay -- if "closeted" (meaning "dishonest") -- but never tolerated as straight.

Bisexual means gay.

To many people, that ends the inquiry. But once you posit the existence of bisexuality, it is profoundly illogical, and becomes tyrannical. I think this tyranny is reflected in the emerging trend toward sexual inquisitions by bi-intolerant gay activists, as in the case of bisexual baseball players:

The alliance's rules say that each World Series team can have no more than two heterosexual players. According to the lawsuit, a competing team accused D2 of violating that rule.

Each of the three plaintiffs was called into a conference room in front of more than 25 people, and was asked "personal and intrusive questions" about his sexual attractions and desires, purportedly to determine if the player was heterosexual or gay, the lawsuit alleges. The alliance has no category or definition for bisexual or transgender people in its rules, the plaintiff's attorney said.

At one point during the proceedings, the lawsuit alleges, one of the plaintiffs was told: "This is the Gay World Series, not the Bisexual World Series."

The alliance ruled the three men were "nongay," stripped D2 of its second-place finish and recommended that the three players be suspended from participating in the World Series for a year, according to the suit.

But had these same men been discovered to be bisexual in the world of professional (as opposed to "gay") baseball, gay activists would not be calling them bisexual. They would be gay. And no doubt oppressed because of it!

I think it's a racket. As I remarked,

Sexual freedom never quite got off the ground.

It was drowned in the bathtub by activists.

But whether you think it's a racket or not, as Kenji Yoshino notes, it is steadily being undermined by the undeniable existence of bisexuals. Hence the collusion by all "monosexuals" to erase them:
The first investment monosexuals have in bisexual erasure is an interest in stabilizing sexual orientation. The component of that interest shared by both straights and gays is an interest in knowing one's place in the social order: both straights and gays value this knowledge because it relieves them of the anxiety of identity interrogation. Straights have a more specific interest in ensuring the stability of heterosexuality because that identity is privileged. Less intuitively, gays also have a specific interest in guarding the stability of homosexuality, insofar as they view that stability as the predicate for the "immutability defense" or for effective political mobilization. Bisexuality threatens all of these interests because it precludes both straights and gays from "proving" that they are either straight or gay. This is because straights (for example) can only prove that they are straight by adducing evidence of cross-sex desire. (They cannot adduce evidence of the absence of same-sex desire, as it is impossible to prove a negative.) But this means that straights can never definitively prove that they are straight in a world in which bisexuals exist, as the individual who adduces cross-sex desire could be either straight or bisexual, and there is no definitive way to arbitrate between those two possibilities. Bisexuality is thus threatening to all monosexuals because it makes it impossible to prove a monosexual identity.

The second interest monosexuals have in bisexual erasure is an interest in retaining the importance of sex as a distinguishing trait in society. Straights and gays have a shared investment in this because to be straight or to be gay is to discriminate erotically on the basis of sex. Straights have a specific interest in preserving the importance of sex because sex norms are currently read through a heterosexual matrix: to be a man or a woman in contemporary American society is in part defined by one's sexual attractiveness to the opposite sex. Gays also have a particular interest in sex distinctions, as homosexuality is often viewed as a way to engage in complete sex separatism--that is, as a means of creating single-sex communities that are bonded together erotically as well as socially and politically. Bisexuality endangers all of these interests because it posits a world in which sex need not (or should not) matter as much as monosexuals want it to matter. Indeed, bisexuals and asexuals are the only sexual orientation groups that have at least the capacity not to discriminate on the basis of sex in any aspect of their lives.

Damn that's good. I think that the problem will grow in direct proportion to society's tolerance of (and destigmatization of) homosexuality, because bisexuals will eventually learn that while they might not be able to win the label war, the label war can be defeated by their increasing ability to not care about the labels. Call me gay, call me straight, threaten to not let me be gay, threaten to not let me be straight, sticks and stones, nyaah nyaah. etc.

The more these things don't matter to some, though, the more they matter to others. Especially activists.

I don't mean to oversimplify or skip over such a brilliant article (which I highly recommend reading in its entirety), but I loved the author's conclusion:

The logical approach of the article may be read as compensation for the often parlously imprecise terms in which debates about sexuality in general and bisexuality in particular are conducted. Yet the fact that it may also be read as overcompensation is important. Sexual identity has always struck me as a kind of illogic, given that sexuality is such a powerful solvent of identity, a modality that expands the consciousness through shock and surprise. If this is right, then bisexuality may be the sexual identity that best reflects the oxymoronic nature of all sexual identity, insofar as bisexuality, too, is a contradiction, a class and its own dissolution. This may explain why explanations of bisexuality that seek to tame bisexuality within the bounds of Cartesian reason will always feel anxiously incomplete.

But this has consequences for the law, which is often a project that privileges such reason. It may mean that if we are concerned about the "logical" regulation of sexuality as failing to respect sexuality's fluid and narrative nature, we might do worse than to begin by looking at the sexual identity--bisexuality--that best represents that nature. Properly harnessed, bisexuality's destabilizing force may be a powerful means of contesting that regulation.

While I have long thought this was common sense, it renews my faith to see it put in such articulate and academic terms.

If I had more time, I might ponder the implications to the gay marriage debate.

I mean, what if it's another example of monosexual collusion with an ultimate goal of monosexual triumphalism? While bisexuals are already allowed to marry if they do so in a heterosexual manner, it has never been demanded that they actually be heterosexual, even if is assumed. But would same sex marriage have the consequence of increasing the pressure on everyone to publicly declare one form sexuality or the other, and choose "sides" -- the way mixed race people feel pressured to decide on a race? It might work in the short run, but in the long run more and more people won't care, so there won't be any need for the "erasure" discussed by Kenji Yoshino, any more than there'd be any point in reactions (grounded in identity politics) by the people claiming to have been wrongly erased.

Might it be that there's a cyclical struggle between good and bad invisibility, in which the old, "bad" invisibility (grounded in people wanting threatening things to be suppressed) spawns temporary reactions like identity politics? If the result is that more and more people cease to care, ultimately might that lead to a good form of invisibility? Akin to true color blindness? I realize that to many people, race still matters greatly, although many people become indignant when sexuality is compared to race (because it's supposed to matters in a different way), but I think it would be nice if these things did not matter.

Attempting to make bisexuality invisible is a paradox, because unlike the suppression of homosexuality in the past, bisexuality is being erased under the auspices of tolerance for homosexuality. Yet tolerating total homosexuality while suppressing partial homosexuality is not only contradictory, but it implicitly promotes a brand-new form of intolerance of non-conformity.

In the name of tolerating non-conformity, we will stamp out all non-conformists?

While I couldn't make such nonsense up if I tried, I think efforts to erase bisexuality are ultimately doomed.

posted by Eric on 05.14.10 at 01:54 PM


As a gay man, I think that no small amount of resistance to the idea of bisexuality comes from many of us having started to crack open the closet door by claiming to be “bisexual.” Basically, it was a way of testing the waters with friends and/or family, of “easing” into admitting being gay without fully committing to taking the plunge. Because many gay men either used this method or observed someone else using this method to come out, many of us automatically understand the claim of bisexuality to be a sort of self-delusion at best or an intentional fabrication at worst.

In addition, I think that many people understand “bisexuality” to mean one is equally attracted to both sexes. I have no evidence to back this up, but I would assert that this particular phenomenon is pretty rare. Rather, I think that people are scattered along the Kinsey scale, with concentrations increasing towards both ends of the scale (completely straight vs. completely gay). This means that while the vast majority of people have predominant attractions to one sex or the other, there are still a large amount of people who have attraction (to varying degrees) towards both sexes.

I myself have absolutely no attraction to women, but I know a man who self-identifies as gay, but who has had sex with women on occasion when he was experiencing a dry spell with men. When he told me this, I said, “Oh, so you’re not gay, you’re bisexual.” He took very heated exception to this! It was very obvious that his primary attraction was toward men, but the fact that he was able to function sexually with a woman, and sometimes even voluntarily sought such experiences, indicated to me a degree of bisexuality (one which, for good or ill, I am not able to fully understand.)

John S.   ·  May 14, 2010 5:23 PM

On a non-political, everyday, just-you-and-me-talking-about-fucking level, "I'm bi" is the "I'm one eighth Cherokee" of sexual self-designators. It's over-claimed, and it's almost never in evidence, except verbally, usually as a status shibboleth or pickup play. That gives the political erasure of bisexuality a psychological leverage it wouldn't have otherwise. The common experience of being bluffed or conned or just lightly bullshitted with "bi" makes it suspect, even when maybe it shouldn't be.

In principle, political and otherwise, I'm from the anti-sexual-identity, "You're only 'gay' while you're fucking another dude; be something else" school, so I'm "You're only 'bi' when you've got a different kind at each end," too. And the erasure of one sexual identity, for whatever reason, could be an accidental step in the direction I think is right.

Probably not. Things never work out.

guy on internet   ·  May 14, 2010 6:56 PM

I'm just puzzled as to why anyone would care about what people they are not involved with on that level choose to do with their privates (and their publics, for that matter). [I mean, outside the level of titilation but that normally doesn't apply to one's friends and acquaintances (at least for me. Perhaps it does for other people now that I think about it. I only know about me. It's not the sort of thing one discusses. However from non-discussions I understand that) For titilation one usually prefers strangers in any format and level such things are marketed.] Perhaps titilation is involved? The unwholesome fascination with what is going on behind closed doors might be driving the effort to define the orientations and put everyone in a nice little box? Or perhaps it is nothing so pure, but the even more unwholesome quest for power?
Or perhaps I don't understand humans?

Sarah   ·  May 14, 2010 9:52 PM

I guess I should mention the additional question of with whom it is possible for one to fall in love, not just to whom one is physically attracted. I know that adds yet another dimension to an already-fraught issue, but I'm betting that peoples' orientation might be a little clearer if that were the criteria, rather than mere physical attraction. (Of course, that might make me asexual, since, for the moment, I can't imagine falling in love with someone of either sex.)

John S.   ·  May 15, 2010 10:52 PM

BTW, Eric, my comment above shouldn't be construed as an attack at your posting this article, simply at the big deal people make of public figures' orientation -- mono or bi, I couldn't care less, provided they are decent people, by which it is understood they treat anyone involved with them in any capacity as decently and respectfully as possible. People who take advantage of others be it to have semi-forced sex with employees or to treat a waiter with insulting rudness are not decent people. whether they're bi, gay, straight or celibates. And this is all the more important with politicans and others seeking control over their fellow human beings. How they treat those beholden to them -- economically or emotionally -- is far more important than what exactly goes where. (Look, guys, seriously... There are very few politicians I even want to imagine as sexual beings.) Does the ethos of being bisexual threaten various political aims? Sure, but only because we, as a society, have made sex political. Having had bisexual friends, my only annoyance with them is when they don't warn me they're not in fact gay or straight but bi and then show up with a partner of the unexpected gender to a party or dinner and put me in a position of seeming at best rude because I stare or am momentarilly confused. And that's minor enough it's never yet cost me a friendship, just a "Oh, for heaven's sake, why didn't you TELL me?" next time I catch the person alone. And yes, the answer is usually of two kinds either "I didn't know" or "It was too complicated."

Sarah   ·  May 15, 2010 11:40 PM

Can't we all just stick our things wherever we want?

Ugh. Identity politics has no place in the bedroom.

TallDave   ·  May 19, 2010 11:42 AM

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