Does “faux-bisexuality” cause bi-erasure?
You know how the “faux-bisexuality” argument goes by now, I’m sure. “Oh, these faux bisexuals. It’s these faux-bisexual women, lezzing it up for money, that makes life hard for ‘real’ bi women”. The most recent example has been Rihanna and Shakira’s music video for Remember to Forget You.
And yep, the exasperation that a lot of us feel at seeing lesbian romance being appropriated and commodified is valid and fair, and I’m not about to dismiss it. Yes, I hear you. I’m also rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth a little when Rihanna and Shakira grind at each other through a big wall, while singing about a man.
But there’s also a few implications popping up around that narrative that are starting to concern me more than the sexy videos. (NB: my judgement may well be clouded about the sexy videos. They really are very sexy.)
I was on a date not long ago with a lesbian woman who, when I mentioned that I was bi, not gay, told me she used to be one of those terrible bi-haters herself. She told me how once upon a time she would never have dated any bisexual women, and didn’t take us seriously. She’s learned what silliness that all is, which is great. But then she said, as so many people do, that what makes it hard for bi women is those fake bisexuals, the ones who are a bit curious, and kiss girls or sleep with us, then always end up with guys.
I’ve heard this a lot. The fault is with those pesky fake bisexuals. I used to think it too. But the more I turn it over in my mind, the more I don’t like it. Look, I’ve been hurt by women like that, I’ve been screwed around and lied to and hey, I was angry, when I was younger, in a sort of friendzony, she-led-me-on kind of way. But you know, I’ve been led down the garden path by straight men, too. Not to mention a couple of gay women.
If you make a sweeping judgment about the entire concept of bisexuality based on a minority of the people who temporarily identify that way, then guess what? You are what makes it hard for bisexuals. Not some seventeen year old girl who wants to snog (do people still use that word? Whatever, I’m bringing it back) another girl at a party because, to her, it’s a bit naughty.
Not only is it mainly women that we shame for a bit of experimentation (men who experiment are, funnily enough, more likely to be labelled gay and in the closet, rather than straight and attention-seeking) but, more than that, it seems to be overwhelmingly ‘femme’ women who get the most stick. The presumption that fake bisexuality is entirely for the benefit of men – as opposed to, say, for the fun of being an exhibitionist – seems interlinked with the presumption that makeup, short skirts, and classically ‘femme’ fashions are also entirely for the benefit of men. At times, the ‘faux bisexuals who do it for attention’ narrative veers dangerously close to the standard girl-hate tropes of ‘I’m not like other girls,’ or ‘pretty popular girls are all bitches.’
Faux-bisexual women may be annoyingly appropriative, trying on my sexual orientation for a bit of a buzz then dropping it before it actually costs them anything, but they’re not why female bisexuality isn’t taken seriously. If they were, male bisexuality would be treated the same: dismissed as attention-seeking, or presumed to be entirely for the benefit of women. It isn’t.
Bella Qivst has written about this whole mess in the Guardian. It’s not a bad article. But it ends up sounding like the whole reason why female bisexuality isn’t taken seriously is because of straight women dabbling in it a bit. In her piece, she cites a survey which found “16% of women aged 16-44 have had a same-sex experience, yet far fewer label themselves as anything other than hetero” and goes on to ask if this is because bisexuals are stigmatised as greedy or untrustworthy. I think those figures show something quite different: that most people who have a same sex experience understand that it doesn’t make them bisexual. It also suggests to me a younger generation more into experience and pleasure than boxes and labels.
The way we talk about sexual and romantic orientation is changing. On one hand, we have more words for our erotic compasses than we’ve had maybe ever before. Yet when Tom Daley, for example, came out he very specifically did not identify himself as gay or bisexual or pansexual or anything else. He simply said he’s in a relationship with a man, and also fancies women. If a famous femme woman came out using the same language – “I’m in a relationship with a woman but I also fancy men” – would it be covered in the same way?
And that brings me back to Rihanna and Shakira. Ironically, it feels extraordinarily heteronormative to assume Shakira and Rihanna are both 100% at the hetero end of the Kinsey scale. How do we know? Who is to say?
I also wonder about pushing people who just want a fun experience into taking on a label they don’t fully identify with, or else denouncing them as attention-seeking fakes. We push people into identifying as bisexual when they’re straight, then wonder why so many straight people temporarily label themselves as bi. What right do I, as a bi woman, have to tell other women not to kiss each other, or explore their sexualities, or question whether they might be bisexual or not, or even take on the label of bisexual, as if I am the ultimate arbitrator of whose sexuality is authentic and whose isn’t? Does anybody tell straight people that every time they kiss or fondle or fuck somebody, they must be deeply, profoundly attracted to that person? That they must want to live by it, forever? That it can’t just be a moment of curiosity, or exhibitionism, or a dare at a party? I certainly don’t live by those standards myself. People fool around with other people they’re not that fussed about, out of curiosity, all the time. Hell, I’ve even had some pretty damn good sex with straight women who are in the process of figuring out who they are. If everybody is honest, everybody is consenting, and everybody is having an orgasm, I’m not sure why anybody should care if she’s going to spend the rest of her life married to some man afterwards. Sure, you get entitled, arrogant straight women who assume you must be grateful for any sexual interest from them. Now, let me have a think if I can remember a time when a straight man was full of entitlement towards me.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the fact that fake bisexuality gets turned into a commodity isn’t the fault of straight women exploring themselves. It’s not the fault of women at all. It’s the fault of a sexist society that treats female sexuality as a commodity and treats women as objects, irregardless of what they do. It’s rooted in the same old fundamental lack of respect for women’s agency, especially when it comes to sex, which means that when women say we’re bi, we’re disbelieved, when women say we’re lesbians, we’re disbelieved, when women say they like sex with men they’re disbelieved, when women say no to sex with men we’re disbelieved.
And I feel like the best way we can start to tackle that is to listen to what women say about their own sexualities, let women express themselves however suits us best, and not be policing each other.