Lois Shearing explores the ways in which bisexual erasure and over-sexualised on-screen representations create an environment in which being bisexual is seen as a behaviour rather than an identity.
Bisexuality has had a hard time shaking off its stereotypes. From the confused college girl running back to men after graduation, to the married man in gas station bathrooms, one word can sum most of them up: insatiable. Bisexuals just can’t get enough. That’s surely got to be why they’d sleep with everyone, right?
The hypersexualisation of bisexuality is almost as universal as its erasure. Arguably, these two issues are different sides of the same coin, with the hush-hush around bisexual identities leading it to be considered a dirty little secret and a sexualised stereotype, with this association possibly driving people away from the bisexual label and deeper into the closet.
Some have even suggested that the term ‘bisexual’ itself contributes to its over sexualised reputation. After all, ‘sex’ is right there in the middle of it. Unlike homosexual or heterosexual people, there is no direct slang synonym like gay or straight to use instead. Some people will use queer or “I like [X] & [Y]” to avoid the sexualisation which comes with telling people what kind of ‘sexual’ you are.
The hypersexualisation of bisexuality is almost as universal as its erasure.
But why should bisexual people have to skirt around their identity to avoid the inevitable, invasive questions? In fact, this squeamishness to accept bisexuality as more than just a behavior or action, rather than an actual part of you, may have something to do with the issue.
Bisexual erasure is hugely prevalent in our society. Women in films and TV who are suggested to be bisexual are described as “complicated”, “open-minded”, or having a “sexy phase” and bi men, well they don’t really exist do they? The only media that seems to use the word bisexuality consistently and unflinchingly is pornography.
Collective refusal to discuss or represent bisexual people in any other way than our current choice of partner seems to be playing a part here. Instead of saying the word ‘bisexual’, a person’s bisexuality is demonstrated by what partner they have at any time, and if it’s not spoken, how else can it be shown other than through a person’s choice of sexual partners?
Why should bisexual people have to skirt around their identity to avoid the inevitable, invasive questions?
Orange is the New Black’s lead, Piper, is a pretty apt example of this; the character is pretty obviously bisexual, but the word seems almost taboo for the show. Neither Piper nor the characters around her ever suggest she could be bisexual. Her multiple-gender attraction is presented via her sexual relationships with men and women and saying she likes “hot boys and hot girls”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with portraying bisexual women as engaging with different partners or reveling in their bisexuality. The problem is that this is largely the only representation bisexual women receive, in which they’re only driven by sex, ignoring what it means to be bisexual.
Although it’s more common for female characters to be portrayed as hyper-sexual “I don’t like labels” types, as this leaves them open for consumption of the male gaze, the few bisexual men on TV receive the same over-sexualised treatment. One of the most famous bisexual characters, The Todd from Scrubs, who only ever acknowledges his sexuality by saying he “appreciates hot, regardless of gender”, is shown as having an insatiable sexual appetite and is highly misogynistic. The show even suggests that he might be ‘cured’ of his lust and problems towards women if he accepts his homosexuality but when this inevitably fails, he returns to his predatory ways. Not exactly a positive portrayal of a group that were only represented twice on television in 2014.
If bisexuality were shown as the loving parent, the diligent teacher, the kind-hearted elderly women, and yes, even the scantily-clad 20-something next door who were allowed to say aloud on television and in books and other media that they were bisexual, it wouldn’t be necessary to focus on their sex lives.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with portraying bisexual women as engaging with different partners or reveling in their bisexuality. The problem is that this is largely the only representation bisexual women receive.
The strangest and possibly most infuriating part of the sexualised image of bisexuality is that, of course, none of the women are really bisexual. They want to act out their bisexuality for a night, a semester, an episode. Then, naturally, they’ll come back to their senses and reunite tearfully with their ex-boyfriend or settle down with their new fiancé just before the credits roll.
The O.C’s Alex Kelly and Marrissa Cooper, for example, are both shown as being bisexual women. After a fleeting and dramatic fling, Marrissa decries that she was only ever in love with her ex-boyfriend while Alex conveniently leaves the show.
If they happen to be men, they’ll realise that they were gay (of course), because no man who has had sex with another man can return to the protective pen of straight masculinity, or their same-gender attraction will be used as a constant punch line, as with The Todd.
It’s impossible to discuss the issues around the sexualisation of bisexuality without covering the role played by the male gaze. Acknowledging that a woman is really bisexual means acknowledging that she’s not just doing it for men’s attention, pleasure, and sexual fantasy. It means acknowledging that there is something about her sexuality that isn’t for men, and accepting that a woman might decide to be with another woman and not a man.
This idea of choice may also go some way to explaining why men’s bisexuality is considered so taboo. Not only does male bisexuality play less of a role in the conventional male fantasy, it’s harder to other a man who has sex with/loves men if he also has sex with/loves women. It has been claimed that the presence of open bisexuality destabilises the narrative that men who have sex with men have no choice, and suggests that gay men aren’t so different to their straight counterparts.
It’s impossible to discuss the issues around the sexualisation of bisexuality without covering the role played by the male gaze.
The silencing of bisexuality as an identity and the over-sexualisation of bisexual relationships may have created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the image of bisexuality being an action rather than an identity, means more people are shying away from the label, and therefore life as an out queer person.
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