The love that doesn’t quite know how to speak its name: the nomenclature of bisexuality
In the first of our new opinion columns, Bonnie Kneen looks at the problems surrounding the word ‘bisexual’, and the power of language to make visible – or erase.
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23 September is Bi Visibility/Celebrate Bisexuality Day. If homosexuality is, as the poem has it, the love that dare not speak its name, then I suspect that bisexuality is the love that doesn’t quite know how to speak its name, daring or not.
Bi chic, or: How to make a bisexual straight
The problem starts with the fact that many people see bisexuality as inherently titillating. I can understand why. Monosexuality (whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual) is the contemporary norm, and which of us is going to deny that there can be a fascination in sexual preferences or practices that violate the norm? Besides, in an era of bisexual chic, the word ‘bisexual’ conjures enticing images of nubile, free-spirited young women who are charmingly, life-embracingly up for anything (and anyone), or of tantalizing barsexual girls who flirt with men by kissing each other in public places like bars and clubs. Bi chic promises to realise the fantasies of mainstream heteropornography – but sunnily, joyfully, with no scary false nails.
Undeniably, what bi chic envisions does exist, even outside of celebrations of titillation like Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’. But I think it raises more questions about bisexuality than it answers.
Firstly, it’s more than a little questionable how much this fantasy has to do with bisexuality itself. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines a bisexual as ‘a person who is sexually attracted to both men and women’. Under this definition, it’s attraction, not action, that matters. So the barsexual isn’t bisexual unless her display is about attracting – and being attracted to – not only a watching man, but also the woman she’s kissing; there’s a key distinction here between women who want to kiss women only in public, and women who want to kiss women also in private. It’s quite possible that many a chic barsexual may be less bisexual than a happily married middle-aged housewife and mother, who’s never been sexually involved with another woman and probably never will be – but knows that she could have been, if her life had played out differently.
Secondly, there’s the question of men. The concept of bi chic appears to apply almost exclusively to women; bi men have simply been written out of its discourse, along with women seen as unattractive, and women, like my notional housewife, past their twenties (except for Angelina Jolie, to whom, as everybody knows, no ordinary rules apply).
The love that doesn’t quite know how to speak its name
Finally, bi chic complicates the already-complex linguistic question facing bisexuality: what to call itself. The word ‘bisexual’ attracts problems like (apparently) a barsexual attracts frat boys; the tendency for its meaning to disappear into fantasies of straight women titillating straight men is only one of them.
Does the prefix ‘bi-’ connote an equal split, contributing to an expectation that bisexuality requires an equal attraction to both men and women? Does a bisexual have to be attracted to both men and women at the same time? All the time? Where does ‘bisexual’ leave the bi-romantic, people who are romantically, but not sexually, attracted to both men and women? Or those who don’t accept the idea that there are only two genders, but are certainly attracted – sexually, romantically, one way or another – to more than one of them?
Some people prefer to express their attraction to more than one gender without erasing, for example, the genderqueer, by referring to themselves as ‘pansexual’, or perhaps omnisexual, and both these words have been proposed as less-exclusionary replacements for ‘bisexual’. But I don’t see either of them displacing it in common usage any time soon. Not everyone who’s bi is also pan. And many people who might have called themselves pansexual don’t, because they feel it suggests a promiscuity or kinkiness with which they don’t identify (and it’s difficult to argue that their feeling is unreasonable: the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of pansexual, and particularly the selection of quotations attached to it, does suggest pretty clearly that pansexuality might require a certain degree of sexual openness).
Most significantly, though, I’m guessing that ‘bi’ currently wins out over ‘pan’ or ‘omni’ primarily for pragmatic reasons. In the Oxford English Corpus, the bank of texts with which Oxford Dictionaries tracks and defines English as we use it today, ‘bisexual’ appears 1,017 times, and ‘pansexual’ only 23. We may argue about exactly who or what we think qualifies as bisexual, but most of us do, at least, know the word.
Another name that’s been suggested for bi people is queer, and it’s a term that some bisexuals prefer. But not all queer monosexuals are entirely enthusiastic about accepting as queer a group that so frequently benefits from heterosexual privilege. And, regardless of the extent to which the ‘B’ in LGBT is or isn’t wanted, while bisexuality may well be queer, queerness, quite evidently, does not equal bisexuality. So ‘queer’ is no help in naming bisexuality as something specific, and specifically distinct from not only heterosexual, but also queer, monosexuality.
Bi erasure, or: How to make a bisexual disappear
Specificity and distinctness are particularly important in view of the way the problem of naming bisexuality quite often resolves itself: in bisexual erasure. Anna Paquin is married to a man – and mother of twins into the bargain – so inevitably we name her straight. Alan Cumming is also married to a man, so inevitably we name him gay. This way of erasing bisexuality through the names we give it is most flagrant in the name myth, which is what a large number of people, both straight and gay, seem to see as the proper designation for bisexuals.
And that, of course, is the biggest problem with the word ‘bisexual’: the idea that it’s a name for something that, in reality, doesn’t exist. That it doesn’t count if I like one sex more than the other. That you’re just trying to tease straight men. That it’s a gateway sexuality: he’s really gay, and he’ll grow into admitting it. That it’s just a phase: she’s really straight, and she’ll grow out of the girl crushes.
So here’s my two cents’ worth for the visibility of bisexuality on 23 September: I’m speaking its name. And I’m not taking ‘myth’ for a synonym.
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How viable to do you think terms like ‘pansexual’, ‘monosexual’, and ‘omnisexual’ are? Do you think they will become more commonly used? Please let us know in the comments.