What is Bisexuality?
Bisexuality is a diverse sexual orientation, because people within the bi+ community define it in various ways. Some identify as bisexual, while others use pansexual, queer, fluid, or no label at all to describe their attractions to more than one gender.
Whenever you ask someone “What is bisexuality? What does it mean to be bisexual+?” you may find the answer varies, depending upon who is answering the question. Is bisexuality defined by identity, behavior, attractions – or some combination of these? Where does bisexuality begin and end? Human sexuality is sometimes seen as a continuum, with same-sex attractions on one end and different-sex attractions on the other, a notion popularized by the Kinsey scale. Bisexuality, then, must fall somewhere in the middle. But where? Does bisexuality refer only to the middle point, or 50/50 attraction? Or does bisexuality encompass all the space between the extremes, or even outside of it entirely? How much bisexual+ attraction and/or behavior does it take to make a person bisexual+?
Is the concept of bisexuality meaningful across cultures, and does it always have the same meaning? Some cultures may not use the word bisexual+, and even in those that do, many people may be unfamiliar with or misunderstand it. Does bisexuality encompass people whose physical, sexual, emotional, and romantic attractions change over time? If you are once bisexual+ are you always bisexual+? If you are in a long-term relationship, do you stop being bisexual+ and “become” gay or straight depending on the gender of your partner? And for each of these questions, who gets to decide? (The answer to that last question, if you are bisexual+, is YOU and YOU alone!)
When talking about bisexuality, it is sometimes useful to distinguish between behavior, attraction, and identity. Someone who has had sexual experience with or even just attractions to people of more than one gendercan be described as bisexual+, but may not identify that way. Likewise, one can identify as bisexual+ regardless of sexual experience. Furthermore, identities can change over time or be used in different contexts, whether personal, community, or political. Definitions can change too.
Here’s Robyn Ochs’s story:
My own understanding of bisexuality has changed dramatically over the years. I used to define bisexuality as “the potential to be attracted to people regardless of their gender.”
Then one day I was chatting with my friend Alberto, who, like me, identifies as bisexual. I tossed out my definition and he looked at me like I was crazy.
“Regardless of gender? No, no, no! There’s no ‘regardless’ about it for me. For me it’s all about difference. I’m attracted to cheerleaders and football players. It’s precisely the extremes of difference that attract me.” Alberto is attracted to the poles, to super-masculine guys and super-feminine girls.
Others are attracted to masculinity and/or femininity, regardless of a person’s sex. Some of us who identify as bisexual are in fact “gender-blind.” For others—in fact for me—it’s androgyny or the blending of genders that compels.
Then, to complicate things further, I have learned a lot from my intersex, genderqueer and transgender friends. I now realize that I had been confusing gender with biological sex and that the two are not synonymous. Though in reality the difference between sex and gender is far more complicated, I find useful the expression, “Sex is between your legs; gender is between your ears.” In real people, sex and gender do not always correspond. I also learned that sex and gender each exist on a continuum; thus there are more than two sexes, and more than two genders. A male-bodied person can identify as a woman, or as a combination of man and woman; and a female-bodied person can identify as a man, or as a combination of man and woman. And some people’s bodies do not fit their cultures’ standards of male or female.
What does all this mean for our understanding of bisexuality? Dictionary definitions of bisexuality that rely on an idea of “both sexes” are inadequate. As human beings, we live and love in a world that is far more complicated than these narrow ideas allow. Our attractions do not stay within tidy borders, and our understanding of bisexuality must adapt to this. Every one of us must make sense of our own experiences and assign to them our own meaning.
Here’s my current definition of bisexuality. “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge in myself the potential to be attracted, romantically and/or sexually, to people of more than one sex, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”