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Sexual Orientation

The Messy Realities of Bisexuality

Bisexuality lacks clarity between attraction, behavior, and identity.

When I searched Twitter for "bisexuality" I found this: "Bisexuality is the ability to reach down someone's pants and be satisfied with whatever you find." I once defined it (less colorfully) on MagneticFire as, "bisexuality is being sexually attracted equally to both men and women."

The response was swift and furious. "Am I defined accurately as bisexual only if I have one ejaculation with a woman for every ejaculation I have with a man?" I was accused of being a poor scientist and unfamiliar with the literature on bisexuality. My definition was considered far too restrictive. One bisexual man wrote that a bisexual could be any of the following:

  • Straight-identified married men who have surreptitious sex with other men
  • Single men with steady girlfriends
  • Divorced men who partner with another man but remain attracted to women
  • Transgender persons and their transgender partners
  • Men in polyamorous relationships

That is a very large umbrella. I could cop out and say that labels are useless and this discussion is meaningless, but labels are essential for research and important for the development of a sense of belonging. Within the LGBT community, not only are the L, the G, the B and the T distinct from one another, but each can be divided into multiple sub-populations.

The term "bisexuality" lacks clarity about the differences between attraction, behavior, or self-identity. Many scientists prefer a definition based exclusively on attraction because behavior and identity are more fluid. Some behaviors and self-definitions may evolve over time. Lisa Diamond in Sexual Fluidity has suggested that a shifting of sexual intimacy is more common in women than in men; that is consistent with my clinical experience.

As I described in, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, I began life believing I was a heterosexual man, went through a brief period of believing I might be bisexual, and now am completely confident that I am a gay man. Once I aligned my sexual attraction, sexual behavior, and my self-identity, the dissonance I had felt for much of my life disappeared.

I recently had a conversation with a married man who described himself as bisexual. I asked him if his attraction to men and women was equal. He affirmed that it was. I then asked, "How do you commit to one person if you must give up 50 percent of who you are?" He responded, "I don't want to spend the rest of my life alone. I want to have kids and grandchildren."

I then asked him if he was sexually attracted to his wife or if his attraction was based on his attraction to the privileges of the traditional one man, one woman, monogamy. He agreed that he was sexually attracted to men but socially attracted to his wife.

Another gay man who once had considered himself bisexual said, "I struggled with loneliness and a lack of emotional connection to my wife. I felt the world was right when I spent time with my boyfriend, whether it was in bed or not. He and I shared something that I had never felt before, a special bond. I was thunderstruck that it felt so much like my falling in love with my wife, yet it was much more passionate. I can admire an attractive woman with a nice body, but I no longer think I have to bed her like I once did."

For this man, the dissonance between who he was and who he wanted to be had became too powerful to contain. Once he aligned his sexual attraction and his behavior, he became uncomfortable with the label "bi," but he remained hesitant to leap toward a complete gay self-identity. Bisexual activists get very angry when others say that bisexuality is nothing more than a place to park until one becomes gay. Many bisexuals believe that they have found integrity and authenticity, an alignment of their attractions, behaviors, and identity.

Some say that any man with a penis who is attracted to another man is gay; their world is divided exclusively into gay and straight. But it's just not that simple. How "bisexuality" is applied depends a great deal on who is using it. Many gay activists consider all closeted men who have sex with men (MSM) to be gay men in hiding, illegitimate members of the gay community.

Bisexual activists and the MSM themselves often use "bisexual," but many of these MSM have not found the peace and freedom that comes with the congruence of attraction, behavior, and identity. For them, being a man still means being a husband and father while anything else is deviant.

Following Stonewall, the homosexual community adopted the word "gay" as a term of self-affirmation. Bisexual activists are attempting to do the same with the term bisexual but they struggle to find recognition and social acceptance of bisexuality. In a culture that still values monogamy as the ideal in relationships, it is hard to get past the issue that all bisexuals who act on their sexual attraction are guilty of infidelity.

One said to me, "I identify myself as bisexual, but I feel guilty for stepping out of my marriage to find the intimacy I crave. It is very difficult to maintain a loving relationship at home with my wife." Some have dealt with this by developing small circles of friends committed to polyamory. But there are many, many MSM who are depressed and anxious because their attraction, their behavior, and their identity are not in alignment.

We seek connectedness, but to be connected we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen, really seen, by another. Life is often lonely for MSM. They know they are just one piece of information away from being abandoned by the closest people in their lives. Being "gay" is not an identity they are prepared to assume. They don't feel comfortable in the heterosexual community where they must continuously edit their thoughts and behaviors so as not to be discovered. They are unwelcomed by the gay community; some would say they are bisexuals by default.

One said, "I want to have a good relationship with guys, kinda best friends, but my friends have to be bisexual because if we have the same situation, we can relate to each other. If a bisexual man loves his wife but craves the touch and physical intimacy of a man, and doesn't get the same feeling from his wife, who can he talk to about it?"

He elaborated further, "Having a relationship with a gay guy is hard because the gay guy might spread the secret. You don't fit in with gay men because of the fear that your conflict will be exposed and you'll be labeled gay. The only people you can talk with are other married bisexual men. The bi-guys really keep the secret to themselves." In many places underground networks of married MSM exist; in most cases their wives are unaware.

How does a bisexual find a life of true love and intimacy with one person? How can a bisexual man have the depth of feeling which comes from sharing everything when no one person can give him what he needs? Lies and deception are very destructive to relationships. That path may be very difficult to navigate and fraught with pain for all involved. The life of a bisexual can be very difficult unless their primary partner provides the support and freedom that allows the experience of intimacy with the other sex.

For non-heterosexuals, the major barriers to sexual self-acceptance are religion and the wish for a traditional, privileged "hetero-normative" life. Many gay activists suggest that one must simply abandon religion, but for some people, religion is the way they make sense of the world, giving up religion would be unthinkable. They believe that changing sexual orientation is more realistic than changing religious beliefs. By most accounts, conversion therapy, designed to rid oneself of homosexual attractions, has been a failure.

According to bisexuality describes how people feel, not necessarily how they act. They say a person can feel attractions to both men and women but make a conscious decision to remain celibate or to confine sexual activity to person(s) of one gender and still be considered a bisexual by themselves and others.

An article in the New York Times titled "Living the Good Lie" suggested that there may be a more nuanced approach. The article said that no therapy was necessary other than to guide a client closer to self-acceptance and identity integration. An authentic self might be achieved by balancing two mutually exclusive needs, acknowledging rather than denying sexual feelings but choosing not to act on them. Those interviewed for the article recommended:

  1. Admit conflicted feelings to any potential heterosexual partner
  2. Define the rules of behavior in your relationship
  3. Avoid anything that triggers same-sex attractions
  4. If necessary, use homosexual fantasies while having sex with your spouse

Sexual orientation is far more complex than just heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, or gay, straight, bi, and transgender. Both the gay and bisexual activists seem to wish to claim a purity of definition that does not exist. The function of research is to control and predict; a diverse group cannot be meaningfully studied. Sub-populations can be further divided into sub-sub-populations, and research demands these discrete categories. Important public health issues like HIV, depression, suicide, and substance abuse are at stake.

I don't really care much if bisexuality is defined as attraction or reaching into someone's pants if it helps to avoid feelings of shame and disconnection. All of us are worthy of being loved, and when labels are used to divide and reject, they are destructive. We seek to enjoy the feeling of love and belonging, and our wish to connect with others is the reason we're here.

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