Bisexuality: Why we do we label those with a same sex ex?
Bisexuality is still regarded as taboo, with those refusing to define their sexuality as gay or straight often derided as greedy or confused.
We like to think that we've come a long way in the last couple of decades in Ireland when it comes to sex. It's no longer taboo to do it before marriage for the vast majority, same sex marriage is a subject up for debate, contraception is widely available and we have free will to be with whoever we want. Or do we?
Would you date or sleep with someone who had exes of both genders? Would you be comfortable if the new love in your life had had a one-night stand with someone of the same sex? Or are you someone who has had bisexual experiences, but for whatever reason, have felt the need to keep this quiet?
The concept of bisexuality can throw even the most liberally minded people, from both the gay and straight communities. Lots of gay people have straight relationships before coming out, and lots of people who identify as straight have gay affairs. Many people have an attraction to both sexes, even though they may never act upon those urges. So why is bisexuality such a difficult concept to understand when it comes to relationships? Human sexuality is a complex and often fluid thing, so why do bisexual people still come up against prejudice and even disbelief?
When I started going out with my boyfriend, who has had relationships with men in the past, I was surprised by the reactions from some people. "Are you not afraid he'll run off with another fella?!" was a common question I was asked. Well, if you are living your life in constant fear that your boyfriend is going to run off with someone else, then you have bigger problems than his bisexuality. I was more concerned with the fact that he was my best friend's ex, but that's a story for another day. Incidentally, he isn't the first guy I've been with who has had bisexual experiences. Maybe this says something about me, or maybe the men I've been with are more honest with me about their past sex lives. Either way, everyone has a past, and has ex-lovers who they remember fondly and others who they would rather forget. Does it really matter if some of his exes are boys? Or some of hers are girls?
For some people, it really does matter. Conversations with women about hooking up with bisexual guys often result in a wrinkling of noses or a look of distaste. A girl I once lived with found out that an ex of hers had slept with a man in the past. She was devastated and, surprisingly to me, embarrassed. Even though she was no longer seeing him, and the one night stand had happened long before she was ever with him. "It just freaks me out" was all she could offer by way of explanation. When you do a quick poll of men, many have a more positive attitude to the thought of going out with a bisexual woman. Though this seems to have more to do with how female bisexuality is presented and fetishised in everything from soft-porn magazines, music videos and mainstream multimedia. In popular culture, a certain version of female bisexuality is treated as acceptable, since it can be exploited for male sexual pleasure. In The Good Wife, we have the mysterious, bisexual Kalinda. I can't imagine a male version of Kalinda in a prime time show, lurking around in leather, sharing sex scenes with both men and women. Britney and Madonna had that now infamous MTV awards kiss. And there's Katy Perry's truly awful proclamation that she had kissed a girl and liked it. There are loads of examples of a saccharine version of gay female behaviour which we are presented with daily, and if a man were to raise objections at the thoughts of being with a bisexual girl, it's more likely than not that he'd be ridiculed for not "living the dream" in lad culture.
Gala Tomasso is in her thirties and lives in Galway. Currently in a relationship with a woman, she has identified as bisexual since she was 19, and has come across some confusion, and even downright hostility to her sexuality. "I quickly discovered this was not a smart move. Heterosexual men thought I was into threesomes, while lesbians didn't want to touch me with a bargepole." Gala's experience reveals that bisexual women face the same prejudices as bisexual men when embarking on new relationships. Gala goes on to say, "I feel that ambisexuality is still met with distrust, as if you want to have your cake and eat it too". This seems to be a common thought on bisexuality, as if not choosing a side counts as indecision or even greed. In a video made for LGBT youth support group BelongTo in 2010, a young girl who identifies as bisexual jokes how some of her friends see bisexual people as "the greedy people" while others just encourage her to come out as gay. She shrugs and says how she might have a preference one day for either men or women, but not at that point. In our hyper-sexualised society, it seems that the one thing that is not accepted is indecision.
Michael Barron of BelongTo has some insight. "I think in general people are not used to dealing with anything outside of the straight-gay binary. We have been socialised to deal with absolutes, rather than anything that can be seen as ambiguity".
There are lots of bisexual people, but they just aren't very visible, for a number of reasons. One of these seems to be that there is a lot of secrecy surrounding bisexual affairs and one night stands, especially among men. I happen to have a lot of gay friends, both male and female. Among my male gay friends, there are lots of stories of one night-stands and affairs that they have had with guys who are in relationships with women, or who identify, publicly at least, as being straight. These liaisons seem to always be secret. I regularly would see guys out and about, sometimes with their girlfriends, and I would know that they had hooked up with one of my male gay friends only a few days before."
The fact that so many of the men involved were so desperate to keep these affairs secret, even if they were single, adds to the idea of a sense of shame around bisexuality - a sense that these people are in fact closeted. Even to those who are having bisexual encounters, it's not seen as healthy experimentation, but as something to secretly dabble in without having to make a choice. If there was more openness around bisexual affairs and one night stands as there is around heterosexual ones, then perhaps the true extent of how many people actually engage in same-sex relationships would be more apparent, and some of the mystery and negativity around bisexual people would be eliminated. The very act of keeping these affairs quiet adds to the idea that there is something not right going on – something to be suspicious and fearful of.
Bisexual women also encounter women who want to keep their affairs quiet, but not to the same extent. Gala describes how she has been "hit on a lot by straight women who were curious and it seemed to give them kudos to have had bi-sexual experiences... many heterosexual men seem to enjoy this idea so maybe in that respect there is less secrecy." Her experience seems to tally with the idea that because generally, straight men seem to like the idea of two women together, women who hook up with other women feel less inclined to keep these encounters secret. However, she also goes on to say that a lot of women who cheat on their boyfriends with women seem to think that it isn't cheating because it's not with another man – and I bet their boyfriends would beg to differ.
Like all aspects of human behaviour, sexuality is complex and not easily defined. There are lots of people who have had same-sex experiences, but who, for whatever reasons, either keep these quiet, or don't feel the desire to label themselves as bi or ambisexual. When it comes to sex, it's nobody else's business but those involved, yet there are always people who feel the need to judge other people's relationships and sexual preferences.
Attitudes to bi people say quite a lot about where we are when it comes to people who are outside of what we like to call "normal" parameters. Yet it seems that there are far less people who fit into these parameters than we think. Who knows what we could be denying ourselves when refusing to consider bisexual people as potential partners, or when repressing same sex attraction. Life is too short not to try everything at least once, if you're that way inclined. Or several times, just to be sure.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent