five assumptions, or i hate creamed spinach* (plus lots of fun news)

And once again, I’ve been too busy to post twice a week. Wow. If I can’t keep up now, what the heck am I gonna do if I get into grad school next fall?! Then again, grad school itself can’t be half as much work as preparing the applications for it (which is what’s been eating up all my time lately), so perhaps it won’t be that bad.

Fun news in the world of Sex Geek: Last week, I recorded a podcast with the lovely and talented Dart of Dart’s Domain. Check it out here, or download it directly for your iTunes here. Dart is a local Toronto Sir; he’ll be one of my fellow judges at Mr. Leather Toronto in November 2009, and he’s a fabulous conversationalist. We shot the shit about polyamory, mixed-gender play spaces, and the leather titleholding circuit, among others. Much fun!

The reason the titleholding question came up is that I’ve been invited to judge the International Ms. Leather competition in San Francisco this coming March. It’s an interesting request since the (kick-ass) team that runs the event, Glenda and Levi, are well aware of my dubious take on title contests. But I figure if they’re asking, they must be okay with me importing my value set to the process, so why not? Besides, IMsL is a blast. You should go. Seriously. They tell me I’m going to be their first Canadian judge since Glenda and Levi started running the event – which is quite an honour. I would actually be very intrigued to know if there has ever been a Canadian judge prior to IMsL’s most recent incarnation, so if you happen to be one of those people who knows such interesting tidbits about leatherdyke history, please do drop me a line.

And speaking of travel, I’m going to be in Halifax about three weeks from now to give a series of workshops at Venus Envy and a demo at the SheDogs bathhouse event. So far the specifics of the demo are a secret, but if you know anyone in Hali who might like to get fisted by a complete stranger while a bunch of people watch, drop me a line, eh? I promise I’ll trim my nails and use their favourite lube. Helluva a way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Heh. Anyway, please pass the word – I would love to meet a whole bunch of cool Haligonians while I’m in town, and all the better if they’re interested in the workshops! Demo bottoms needed. Details are on my Workshops page or at the link earlier in this paragraph.

Last but not least, I want to give a shout-out to the gals who are running a new women and trans kink weekend in Vancouver May 8-10. Yay for exciting new developments in the world of Canadian leatherdykes! I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it, but if you’re going to be anywhere near Van in early May of this year, check out Canadian Mayhem, and tell me all about it. Me, I’ll cross my fingers for low airfare.

And as for the meat of today’s post, here we go…

*I originally posted this on October 11, 2006.

***

A very interesting acquaintance of mine, Dr. S, whose brain I must really pick on numerous topics in the future, posted a really neat piece in her blog the other day about monogamy and bisexuality. (Check it out here if you’re interested in reading her post.) I found myself writing a response to it, which I posted as a comment, but while I was at it I realized that I had more to say than even a long-ish comment could hold… so here it is, the expanded version for your vicarious ranting pleasure.

(I warn ya, it is pretty long, but I promise it’s fun! At least, it is if you like picking apart poorly considered statements about bisexuals, like I do. Whee!)

Dr. S’s post was a response to an article by Kayley Vernallis entitled “Bisexual Monogamy: Twice the Temptation but Half the Fun?” (Journal of Social Philosophy, Volume 30 Page 347  – Winter 1999). Apparently Vernallis does think that bi folks are capable of committing to a monogamous relationship, but “given certain deep and pervasive constructions of gender and sexuality in our society, monogamy imposes greater sexual costs on bisexuals than it does on heterosexuals and homosexuals.”  (This appears as quoted by Dr. S in her blog – keep in mind that I haven’t read Vernallis’ full article meself, though I will if I ever get the chance.)

Vernallis seems to have an interesting thesis there, but like Dr. S, I don’t agree with it. I think that rationale remains based in a system that 1) assumes orientation to be the prime and overriding factor in relationship style, 2) assumes that the gender of sexual object choice is the prime force behind attraction and compatibility in the first place, 3) assumes that people need sexual and romantic relationships at all, 4) assumes that the “ideal” bisexual can and wants to sustain more than one relationship at once, and 5) with the idea of “sexual cost,” assumes that sexual and romantic practices are fundamentally different depending on the gender of the partners involved. I think these are all massively culturally reinforced ideas that don’t hold water.

I’ll start with #1 – the assumption that orientation is the prime and overriding factor in relationship style.

The very basic problem with Vernallis’ statement is that it assumes all monosexuals to like one kind of relationship—heterosexual, homosexual, doesn’t matter. This is quite a blanket statement to try and prove, given that straight and gay people pretty much run the gamut of relationship possibilities. In a backhanded sort of way, I appreciate the implication that homos aren’t radically different from heteros; at least Vernallis isn’t buying into the religious right’s bizarre beliefs about the purity and chastity of heterosexuality versus the sinful promiscuity of homosexuals. But by starting with this premise, she ignores the vast spectrum of relationship styles that monosexual people practice all over the world, and reifies the faulty idea that there’s some standard way of doing things that all the “normals” adhere to (even the ones who are only just now beginning to be considered “normal,” for better or for worse), or should adhere to, or mostly adhere to except for some weird exceptions.

A given orientation is not a prerequisite for a given “matched” relationship style or a predictor of particular relationship needs. Heterosexuality does not predict monogamy, for example; witness the enormous swingers’ culture out there that’s pretty darned heterosexual, not to mention the huge cheating stats. And it’s just as weird (some might say weirder) to try and state that homosexuality predicts monogamy—uh, gay bathhouses, anyone? Likewise, lots of straights and gays do want monogamy. I mean, even if the stats are dropping, heteros are still getting married and having common-law relationship, and at the same time, gay activists have been focused on same-sex marriage for years now! So right there we have two examples of polar opposites on the mono/poly spectrum, both of them within groups of (theoretically) monosexually-oriented people.

On a side note: Certainly, while bisexuality is promoted in swingers’ culture (one very narrow sort of female-only bisexuality, of course) and some guys who go to gay bathhouses are married to women, the premise of each culture starts with monosexuality. Bisexuality is considered to be either a pleasant additional thrill (female swingers) or something that might exist but that should be hidden (male swingers, gay bathhouse patrons). Hardly a bi-centric kind of culture in either case; in fact, I’d argue that the existence of either sort of group might in fact be destabilized by “full-spectrum” bisexuality, as opposed to incidental bisexual behaviour. In my admittedly limited experience, swingers’ clubs generally have no fucking clue what to do with a same-sex couple—one of these days I’ll post about the half-hilarious and half-offensive experience I had a few years ago with the doorperson when I showed up at L’Orage holding hands with a female friend (whom I wasn’t even dating). And while I may be stepping over the bounds of my own experience entirely here, I highly doubt that most men at the saunas openly advertise their married status when they show up to get an after-work blow job. I mean, can you picture it? Guy in a suit comes in the door, drops trou, and says, “Hey, anyone got a half-hour to polish my knob? I’m in a bit of a rush, I have to pick up the kids at daycare and get groceries on the way home to my gorgeous wife!” I’m not saying all gay guys are close-minded, nor that the ones who like anonymous bathhouse sex necessarily care where else someone’s cock has been, but if hearsay is any indication, this kind of situation is normally governed by the gay version of don’t-ask, don’t-tell.

Okay, back on track. Moving on to #2 – the assumption that the gender of sexual object choice is the prime force behind attraction in the first place.

The idea that bisexuals would naturally want to have (at least) one partner of either sex (not to mention the assumption that there are only two sexes) presumes that gender is the only factor in the sort of differentiation that might inspire someone to have a range of desires.
This ignores even one of the most classic heterosexual romance plotlines: The Choice. You know – the ravishing heroine is deeply in love with a sandy-haired, suit-wearing boyfriend who buys her flowers and takes her to the opera. All is well… but wait! The dark-haired motorcycle-riding man with the leather jacket and the five-o’clock shadow wants to throw her over his lap and spank her to heights of radical ecstasy after entrancing her with his musky man-scent when they encounter each other in a seedy bar in a part of town that she never usually goes to! What should she do? At least there’s no standard answer here – depending on the story, sometimes it’s the Sandy-Haired Suit-Wearing Guy who proves his true love to her while the Musky Motorcycle Man turns out to be an alcoholic low-life, whereas sometimes Sandy reveals himself to be a possessive, controlling corporate drone and Musky shows her how to let her hair down and they motor off into the sunset for a lifetime of adventures.
Now, in a poly world, Ravishing Heroine would tell Sandy that she’d like the space to see Musky every Tuesday and Friday, and Sandy would say, “I think I can handle that. Does he have any hot biker babe friends he could introduce me to?” And they’d all live happily ever after, or something like it. No need for bisexuality. (Though it could be hot to see Musky bend Sandy over his motorcycle and sodomize him in the opera parking lot, or for Ravishing to get it on with a dyke biker-bar bouncer. Hey, maybe I should be writing a story…)

All of this to say that, in my opinion, the likelihood of wanting multiple partners is based on a whole long list of things other than what, or how many, genders a person is attracted to. Why should gender trump all other factors in attraction? How reductive and boring! Even if we reduce the question to purely sexual compatability, what about other factors? As Dr. S pointed out to me in a recent e-mail conversation, say you’re into BDSM and you and your partner are both bottoms. Whether you’re gay or straight or bi, wouldn’t it perhaps be compelling to seek out compatible tops?

Not to mention, sex is hardly the only grounds for compatability in a relationship. So leaving sex aside for a sec… Generally speaking, we humans are social creatures. I firmly believe that part of the reason for that is our genuine enjoyment of difference. Among my friends, J is fun because she’s got a great sense of humour, while H is great for philosophical discussion; A is shy and shares her amazingly creative thought process only once you put her at ease, whereas with M, I can count on loud and elaborate stories about world travel and sexual adventures.

Now, it’s really not much of a leap to extrapolate from that to romantic relationships. As many poly folk can probably attest, one of the beautiful things about being poly is the opportunity not only to explore the unique and beautiful aspects of other people, but to explore the different things those other people bring out in us. I’m always me, but I’m a slightly different me when I’m having brunch with P than when I’m at the movies with T or at a dyke event with B. T, P and B are all fantastic people, and they’re each very different—from their career choices to their wardrobes to the things they like to do on the weekends to the kinds of fun we get up to when we’re alone. Of course there’s some overlap in the things I find attractive about them, but the point is, the differences that make them each unique and therefore precious to me can hardly be reduced to their genders or what we do in bed.

This doesn’t mean that appreciation of difference necessarily should lead everyone to be non-monogamous. But it does mean that virtually everyone, poly or no, has experienced the way our lives can be enriched by the presence of people who are different from one another. And unless you surround yourself with quasi-clones, you can probably also see that the dividing line of gender does not always determine what you want, or get, out of each relationship in your life.

Likewise, as a poly person, the genders of my partners don’t determine my interest in them. It’s not as though I always need to be dating at least one man and at least one woman; I don’t walk around half-satisfied if I don’t have both an innie and an outie to play with at all times. There is no slot that stays empty if a person of the “appropriate” gender hasn’t come along to fill it; I don’t hang a “vacant” sign on either the “lesbian” or “straight” half of my heart (groan!) when there’s only one person in my life, nor is there any guarantee that having a person of Gender X in my life means I won’t find myself interested in another person of Gender X. (Considering that 90% of my social world is dyke, I myself have remained more than a little bemused at times in the past few years when I’ve found myself involved with two or three guys at once.) Not to mention that (gasp!) sometimes poly people are single! Which leads me to…

Assumption #3, in the premise that bisexuals make a greater sacrifice than monosexuals if they choose monogamy, is that people need romantic relationships at all.

North American culture likes to promote the strange idea that we are not complete people on our own—that we cannot possibly be truly, profoundly happy unless we are attached to someone as part of a couple. That’s insulting to single people most visibly, but it’s equally insulting to everyone else. (Check out the Alternatives to Marriage Project for some excellent and well-articulated views on this issue.) Personally, I like to think of myself as a fully-formed, happy, self-sufficient individual regardless of my partner status. If I choose to be with someone, it’s because I find their company enjoyable, not because there’s some void inside me that needs to be filled by the validation provided by their interest in me.

If we approach the idea of romantic relationship as a need as opposed to a rich and wonderful bonus, and tack on the whole idea of gender as the most important factor in predicting the person one is likely to choose to fill that need, then of course it stands to reason that bisexuals must have twice the need as everyone else, and therefore that “settling for” a monogamous relationship must leave half our needs unfulfilled. The idea that all monosexuals are content with monogamy because they only “need” a person of one gender makes it sound as though bisexuals “need” people of two, which necessarily makes monogamy seem like a bigger sacrifice for us. Argh!

Just as it’s insulting to pretty much anyone’s integral personhood to think that all relationships come from a place of dissatisfaction with one’s own company, so is it insulting to poly people to see non-monogamy as coming from a place of dissatisfaction with a single relationship. I don’t require multiple partners to meet some intimidatingly long list of relationship needs that one person couldn’t possibly fulfil alone. In fact I don’t require multiple partners at all. I require the freedom to pursue people with whom I connect, plain and simple—whether that means I end up with five partners or none. The existence of a range of desires does not come with a requirement for their necessary fulfilment at all times. In fact, for many people, regardless of their range of desires, it simply wouldn’t be practically possible to fulfil them all at once, even if the appropriately matched individuals all showed up at once.

Which serves as a great segue to assumption #4: that the ideal bisexual can necessarily sustain more than one relationship at once—as though this were an innate skill that comes in a package with our orientation.

To take two opposing examples: I think a very sociable heterosexual woman with a high libido and a wide range of interests (sexual and otherwise) who connects easily with people at numerous levels and often finds herself attracted to the men she meets might theoretically find it challenging to limit herself to a single partner. On the other hand a bisexual who’s only interested in sex once every couple of weeks and really only likes people with a very specific sort of aesthetic or personality type might theoretically be overwhelmed at the idea of having to maintain more than one relationship at a time.

Whaddaya know! Bisexuality doesn’t come with a handy basket filled with limitless time, unflagging energy, top-notch communication skills, finely honed flirting technique, exquisite time management skills and boundless reserves of arousal! … Any more than heterosexuality or homosexuality does.

In truth, the “sacrifice” of monogamy is directly proportional to one’s desire for non-monogamy in the first place – on one’s interest in and ability to sustain relationships with multiple partners, irrespective of gender, rather than on how many genders one is open to boinking. In other words: if you tend towards non-monogamy, it could be a sacrifice to give it up; if you tend towards monogamy, it probably won’t be a sacrifice to practice it, any more than it’s a challenge to give up creamed spinach for Lent if you never really liked the stuff in the first place. The link between non-monogamy (and spinach) and bisexuality is incidental at best.

Equally problematic is assumption #5—that sexual and romantic practices are fundamentally different depending on the gender of the partners involved. Romantically, some people court for months or years; some fall into bed on the first date. Some people distribute responsibilities in polarized ways; some people share equally in all the tasks that come with living as a pair (or triad, or…). Some gay couples do butch and femme, just like some straight ones do; some flip the roles; and some don’t do roles at all.

Sexually speaking, of course there may be a few differences in body parts, but for crying out loud, we human beings are pretty creative creatures. If a person’s really into penetration and a convenient biological organ isn’t available for the purpose, there are plenty of reasonable facsimiles available for purchase. Penises and clits don’t come in packages, each with a matching set of practices; queer sex can just as easily happen between people of opposing genders just like straight sex happens within same-sex couples. So the idea of greater “sexual cost” for monogamous bisexuals is basically a dressed up version of plain, old-fashioned biological essentialism.

I prefer even creamed spinach to that, thanks.

5 Responses

  1. There is a imagined “ideal” bisexual relationship structure (which seems to be a relationship with a man, and a relationship with a woman) that is assumed in this article. Because all bisexuals are the same, of course! I personally have been, at some points in My life, partnered with genderfluid folks who did genders across whatever imaginary gender spectrum you might have. I have had a partner, say, who was both a boy and a girl to Me. Is that supposed to then free Me to be monogomous with no “sexual cost”? Is this the ideal bisexual relationship? I have to say, with those partners, I was no less interested in being poly. I’m clearly not the kind of bisexual this article is talking about, am I?

  2. Yes… gender-fluid people. Odd, for me, to re-read my post of two years ago and realize that I mention the possibility of interrupting the gender binary in that way only once (and then, only briefly, in point #2), when in the past decade my partners of choice have been trans and gender-fluid more often than anything else! Not to mention I’m no stranger to writing about trans politics and how to be a good ally. I suppose I’m just as vulnerable as anyone else to entering a debate on the terms set out by its instigator. Very strange. In any case, Corey, nice to meet you, and thanks very much for pointing that out!

  3. *smiles* it’s always a trip for Me to realize when I’ve left something out I thought I had down, or have accepted terms of an argument that I want to question.

    Very nice to meet you too. I definitely got a lot out of your two year old post…glad you reposted it…you broken down some assumptions that are often ignored.

  4. Thanks for the shout out!

    And if I see any low airfares, I’ll drop you a note. Why can I fly to San Francisco for a couple of hundred, but if either of us wanna cross our lovely country, we’ll pay about $1000?

    – Elaine
    Bringing the Mayhem

  5. I got into your writing a few months ago, through the mention of one of your articles (10 realistic rules for good non-monogamous relationships) from a previous partner of mine.

    I enjoy reading all I have read so far, and I find your perspective interesting, meaningful, and well thought out. And fun to read too.

    I found this (re)post to be quite harmonious with how my perspectives on relationships have developed, or are developing.

    Thanks!

    –Ken

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