Tuesday 22 July 2008

Bipolitics and the fourth wave

I think extreme heterosexuality is a perversion. -Margaret Mead

It has taken me a long time to identify as bisexual. And before I go any further, I'm defining that as an attraction to self-defined men, women, transsexuals and the ambi-gendered, excluding noone apart from wankers, pro-life campaigners and people I just don't fancy. Or, as Stonewall puts it:

“Many members of bisexual communities tend to prefer the definition: 'a changeable sexual and emotional attraction to people, where gender may not be a defining factor'.” Stonewall, 2008

Part of the reason I rarely write or talk about my own sexuality is the suspicion that, as a bisexual woman who has had a string of male relationships and only a handful of experiences with women, I don’t have the authority to speak about it: I’m not a real queer. I am accustomed to defining my femininity however the hell I want – yes, I can wear biker boots and a short skirt and lipstick and shave my head, and my god I’m a feminist! – but I’ve been far more comfortable with letting others tell me what’s gay, what’s straight and what’s just plain perverted.

Growing up in Brighton had something to do with it. I’ve a vivid memory of standing below the stage at Brighton Pride, 2003, my fingers sticky with pink ice-cream, and hearing the DJ yell: ‘Let’s have a shout out from the gays!’ (there followed a suitably practiced mass squeal). ‘And let’s have a shout out from all the lesbians!’ (and a booming war-cry echoed across Preston Park). ‘And finally, let’s hear it from the straight people out there – yeah, we love you too!’ As the cacophonous cheer of support and solidarity went up, I stayed silent. Despite the free Haagen-Dasz, I felt cheated. I felt that there was more to my sexuality than the gimmicks, glittery costumes and sparkly dildos on show at the festival. I went home, and I haven’t been back to my home Pride since.
Brighton is unusual in that, in some parts of the city at least, queerness is entirely a mainstream trope. As the pink pound exploded under New Labour, the arduous process of self-definition that many queer adolescents go through became simultaneously far easier and far more rigid: you didn’t need to discover for yourself what ‘queer’ meant (just as in mainstream culture you aren’t encouraged to try to understand what ‘straight’ means) because there were already systems in place to tell you, and then to sell you stuff based on that definition. It’s taken me over a decade to conclusively reach the idea that there might be more to it than that, and oh, god, the winceably terrible clittease I’ve been in the process.

'I must confess that Garber's very multiplication of examples browbeat me into wondering whether I myself might not have been bisexual had I lived in another era. When I was a young man, in the sixties, before the beginning of gay liberation, I was always in therapy trying to go straight. I was in love with three different women over a ten-year period, and even imagined marrying two often. But after the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 . . . I revised my thinking entirely: I decided I was completely gay and was only making the women in my life miserable. Following a tendency that Garber rightly criticizes, I denied the authenticity of my earlier heterosexual feelings in the light of my later homosexual identity. After reading Vice Versa, I find myself willing to reinterpret the narrative of my own personal history.' - Edmund White, "Gender Uncertainties: Marjorie Garber Looks at Bisexuality", from The New Yorker, July 17, 1995, p. 81

The noted philosopher and queen in shiny leathers, Foucault, argued that the category values of homosexuality and heterosexuality are relatively recent creations, with the language of monosexuality being used initially as a changing society accustomed itself to the fact of queerness as a legitimate social sub-group. Monosexuality was a useful generational rhetoric for similar reasons to those which made political lesbianism a fantastically useful concept for second-wave feminism – but the rigidity of such categories is no longer useful to contemporary gender politics.

Monosexuality as a linguistic phenomenon has influenced monosexuality as a dominant mode of thought in western discourse – leading to blanket bisexual invisibility. Stonewall, which has often been criticised for its neglect of the bisexual community, has a passably good digest on the facets of bisexual invisibility.

Bisexuality is not greed, or opportunism, or sexual posturing. It’s not a phase young men go through before settling gently into bourgeois monosexuality, and it’s not a trick that women play to turn men on. Bisexuality is what even that fucker Freud identified as a pre-social ground state of being for both and, indeed, all genders. Kinsey points out that human beings

“do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex." Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948)

Now that I’m older and arguably wiser, I’ve come to see desiring men, women and others as a choice as well as a compulsion. It’s about challenging the rotten trench of binary thinking that runs through contemporary thought, and it’s about accepting ambivalence as something I can work with, and it's about cherishing a little world in which women are definitively sexually autonomous. And, of course, it's about thinking tits are bloody fantastic.

Bisexuality is important as a way of thinking as well as a fun way of getting your rocks off, and as its language becomes more widely used it will be increasingly useful to contemporary feminism. Fourth-wave feminism encompasses a gender egalitarianism which rejects the notion of antagonistic binaries. Fourth wave feminism is, of course, many other things, and will become still more as it develops. But increasing bisexual visibility will have to be a part of it. So accordingly I'm opening a closet door on this blog. Hello, I'm Pennyred. I identify as bisexual, and it's a part of my life and a part of my feminism.


  1. For myself, I prefer "post-queer", but I get where you're coming from.

    Also, can't we have "Feminism 4.0"?

  2. Funny how you receive most of your opinions from individuals whose arguments have long been discredited: Margaret Mead (whose Samoan study was hopelessly ill-informed) Kinsey (whose ‘research’ was taken from ridiculously skewed samples), and ‘Fouc-all’, deservedly killed by his own after-class sprees in the bath-houses of San Francisco and who is now widely recognised as the fraud he was in his home country.

  3. Bisexuality is not greed, or opportunism, or sexual posturing. It’s not a phase young men go through before settling gently into bourgeois monosexuality, and it’s not a trick that women play to turn men on.

    Elegantly put. I wish someone would tell my mother that, before the next time she describes me as loose-moraled and unfussy.

  4. Stonewall, which has often been criticised for its neglect of the bisexual community, has a passably good digest on the facets of bisexual invisibility.

    Yeah... that and the other page of bi resources on their site were assembled for them by some people I know a while ago. 2005 I think. Since then, they've carried on doing the same LGb stuff, alas, falling into the very traps their website talks about.

    However, as someone who surfed on in here from Stephmog's blog, welcome out of the blogging bi closet :o) and hurrah for someone else defending the B word's integrity as "more-than-one" in a gender diverse world :o)

  5. There are only two questions which matter as far as I'm concerned.

    Are you interested? and, are you available?

    Beyond that you're just creating a situation where a power relationship is assumed and can be used to oppress or take advantage of one side or the other.

  6. I am open-minded.

    Make of that what you will.

  7. loves it Penny! i get sick of hearing the thoughts of my very straight or very gay friends trying to label me as bisexual when i actually don't think about labelling my sexuality as much as i do my fledgling feminism, the F word is the one that seems to scare other people more, bit more of a conversation stopper than the more enticing bisexual claim...
    heres to the chicks who have fought for our sexual freedom!

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