I clearly remember the first time I heard the word bisexual. I was around 12-years-old, and my parents were talking about a friend of theirs, a globetrotting female journalist who dated both men and women. The journalist, fast-talking and stylish, with a blonde pixie cut, had always struck me as one of the most exciting people in my parent's circle.
But now my mom was talking shit. "She's indecisive," my mother complained after learning that the journalist had just started a relationship with a man in Iraq, from where she was reporting. "She doesn't know what she wants."
My mother's reaction stuck with me. So much so that when, a decade and several boyfriends later, I fell hard for a woman, I was reluctant to tell her and my dad. I worried that they would label me as indecisive, too. Or that they would consider me flaky and immature.
And so, I waited. It was a few years before I felt ready to them that I liked to date women as well as men. That first day after I broke the news, my mom, an otherwise loving and accepting person, responded with the equivalent of stuffing cotton in her ears. "I don't know why you have to insist on giving yourself a label," she said. Of course, the problem wasn't my urge to label, but the label I identified with—"bisexual."
So I sympathize with the bisexual activists profiled in this week's New York Times Magazine cover story, "The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists".
As writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis notes, bisexuals are unlikely to be out about their sexual orientation—he cites a 2013 Pew Research Survey that found only 28 percent of self-identified bisexuals were open about it. That's no doubt linked to what activists call bi-phobia and bi-erasure, the idea that bisexuality is systematically minimized and dismissed as not being a "legitimate" identity. Bisexuals, myself included, have experienced that in both the straight world and the gay world.
But while the efforts of the American Institute of Bisexuality, the organization profiled in the piece, are well-intentioned—it spends millions of dollars to support academic and scientific research about bisexuality—I believe that using science to "prove" that bisexuality exists is problematic.
For starters, it's an insulting premise. Straight people aren't asked to scientifically prove that they're straight, just as people who like BDSM aren't asked to prove that they like bondage. When people ask me if I'm attracted to men or women, I often borrow a line from a male bisexual friend—"I like whatever's sexy." My self-expression of my sexuality should be enough.
More troubling, however, about experiments that test the legitimacy of bisexuality is the way they're carried out. Several studies cited in the article test the sexual-arousal patterns of bisexual men by measuring their response to both male and female pornography. That might have worked a century ago, before our relationship with the aesthetic experience of sex became warped by the sheer omnipresence of sexual images in our everyday lives.
The fact is, I've been force fed quasi-pornographic images in advertisements and movies since I first opened my eyes. My relationship with them isn't purely sexual; it's fraught with a million other cultural and political concerns. At the same time, my sexuality goes far beyond the aesthetic.
I agree with Robyn Ochs, a bisexual activist quoted in the story, who discounts the value of studying arousal in a lab setting. "Sure, sexual orientation is partly about our response to visual stimuli," Ochs told the Times. "But it's about other sensory inputs too. And it's about our emotional response. Sexuality is so complex, and I worry that valuable funding dollars are going to studies that don't actually tell us all that much about bisexuality."
I wonder what would happen if those dollars were spent in other ways, like pushing to have more believable bisexual experiences represented in the media or on fostering a greater consciousness of "queer" identity, which is more all-encompassing than simply gay or lesbian.
That's where I've made my home. My fluid sexuality isn't an issue in the queer club scene I inhabit, which includes not only gay and bisexuals but also people who identify as transgender and straight people who don't suck. Several months ago, I met up for a drink with a woman from that world, who identifies as a lesbian. By the end of the night, we were curled up together in the back of the bar. When she kissed me, I pulled back. "I need to tell you something," I said. "I'm bi."
She laughed and pulled me back toward her: "You stopped kissing me for that?"
Zoe Graves is a full-time reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper and part-time DJ.
Cover Image courtesy of The New York Times Magazine