My thoughts in this blog post rely on other frameworks to better understand bisexuality.
The first set of frameworks are eternalism/nihilism and monism/dualism as outlined by David Chapman on his project called meaningness. Very briefly,
- Eternalism says that everything has a definite, true meaning.
- Nihilism says that nothing really means anything.
I will be focussing on eternalism. Eternalism resolves the ambiguity of life by saying that, even if we can’t fully see or understand it, there is an ordering principle to everything. This ordering principle can explain everything, providing comfort and a sense of control. The most obvious examples are God, or the non-theistic Fate. However many things can be eternalist, such as staunch belief in Science (scientism) or political ideologies.
There are two common ways to futher enact eternalism, called monism and dualism by Chapman. Very briefly,
- Monism is the idea that “All is One.”
- Dualism is the idea that the world consists of clearly separate objects.
To take a religious example, Monist Eternalist thought appears in New Age religions that state “you and the universe are One”, meaning you will be saved because you are God. Dualist Eternalist religions say God is a thing, separate from you and he will save you.
I will also be looking at several of Chapman’s ‘Eternalist ploys’ and linking to them as I go along. I really do recommend an extremely long click-around the book linked here before reading my thoughts to come.
Problems of bisexuality
In the bisexual activist community, it is commonly known that advocating for bisexuality is extremely difficult because of a number of problems.
To begin, almost nobody actually identifies as bisexual because the label, or stereotypes of the label, do not fit their experience.
Most people believe they are ‘not bisexual enough’ because they don’t have equal and unbiased sexual attraction to all genders, all of the time. Many people disagree that “both homo- and hetero- sexual” is an adequate term for their feelings.
Many bisexually-behaving people either swing between identifying as ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ depending on their current partner or refuse labels entirely and state “I am just me”. Some find their way to the queer community, which is more of an umbrella term but some of their bisexual behaviour must be sublimated to fit into queer spaces (eg opposite-sex attractions), just as those who remain in a hetero society sublimate their same-sex attractions.
Tragically, despite feelings they are not a ‘true’ bisexual, most bisexual people’s experiences are very similar to each other and distinct from other people’s. This means that services of any kind which are tailored to straight, gay, lesbian or trans people are inadequate and unhelpful for bisexual people, whereas bisexually-tailored help would work, if it were available, or if anyone accessed it, which they don’t, which means funding for new services is hard to get, because no-one identifies as bisexual.
This leads to depressing statistics about mental and physical health amongst bisexually behaving people, with outcomes being far worse than any of the aforementioned groups.
When bisexual people come together in an understanding environment, the effects can be profoundly positive, but finding a way to reach bisexual people is notoriously difficult. The positive effects can also fade quickly over time as normal life once again denies bisexual experience.
Understanding bisexuality through frameworks
Having read Chapman’s ways of slicing reality into stances, I became very interested in how or why this might apply to bisexuality.
I believe bisexuality is inherently nebulous, complex, changing over time, with multiple things going on. It explodes neat binaries and refuses to be its own, easily understandable thing.
At the same time there are strong patterns of commonality between people who feel or behave in a bisexual way, grouped into clumps of common experience. Most bisexual people share some but not all of these groups of experiences, some but not all of the time. This makes the label bisexual more of a marker for a rough direction than any kind of explanation, leading to everyone’s frustration with it, and labels in general.
Common objections to bisexuality from the stances
The eternalist stance has a problem with any sexuality that is not fixed over a long time, while some gay activism has focussed strongly on eternalist principles to fight their cause, such as having no choice about sexuality, whether from a genetic or environmental standpoint – ‘born this way’.
However, bisexual people experience attractions to other genders fading in and out over time. Some bisexual people “decided” to become bisexual or first experienced another-gender attraction quite late in life.
This leads to many people denying that bisexuality can exist. It is dismissed as “just a phase”, as if sexualities must eventually become ‘stable’. Or dismissed as treacherous or dangerous, as ‘watering down the message’. Sexuality studies exclude bisexual people because they ‘muddy the water’.
The monist view that we are all one comes into play when bisexuality is denied by appealing to similarities. People either say “well, we are all human, that’s what matters” or the extremely pernicious statement “well, we are all bisexual really”. While it is true that most people could conceive of the idea that someone’s attractions may vary across gender boundaries, it is certainly not true that everyone behaves in a bisexual way. Otherwise everyone would be bisexual, really.
I believe this monist inability to see categories also leads people to entirely reject labels. The monist view says ‘I don’t see why we need labels anyway, it only serves to divide people unneccessarily’. However as we have seen, when bisexual people cannot rally around some words or identities, their health and wellbeing suffer tremendously.
When it comes to being gay, almost no-one gives the following advice: “well, you are just you, you are unique, you should only take up labels that suit you” but this is almost always given as advice to someone questioning whether they are bisexual.
Similarly, the dualist view ends up rejecting labels. Dualism insists on concrete categories, particularly gender of self and gender of the people to whom one is attracted. A bisexual person suspects that they do not fit neartly into the category of hetero or homo, so the dualist creates anthoer category called “both”. This category is entirely unacceptable to a bisexual person as briefly described above.
It’s also very hard to undestand as a dualist, since liking two “opposites” at once sounds suspiciously like categories shouldn’t exist at all. The dualist then wants a bisexual to ‘decide’. Parents constantly state “so you’re straight now”, “so you’re gay now” to a bisexual person when they have a new partner and bi people themselves swing between “gay” and “straight”. Other dualist biphobc statements include “pick a side”, “choose a team”, “stop being on the fence”.
Many valiant attempts to create categories that do seem to fit bisexual people have occured to better describe bisexual experience. These include:
- bi-romantic, to capture the relationship aspect of attraction only
- hetereo- and homo- flexible, to express a ‘mostly, but not always’ fit into dualist boxes
- pansexual, to describe attraction based less on gender than on other attriubutes
- queer, to express ‘not straight, but check the details’
- fluid, to desribe lack of fixity over time
And many others.
However, each label only decribes an aspect of bisexuality. The process of choosing and applying many labels which may change over time or not be an exact fit soon becomes absurd, and many people give up the idea of labels all together as unworkable.
As we have seen, the monist view dismisses labels as divisive, while simple dualist labels are not nebulous enough for real people to fit into, but at the same time applying mutliple, more fuzzy categories becomes absurd.
A couple of the eternalist ploys mentioned by Chapman struck home as being relevant to bisexuality.
The ‘continuum gambit’ is a ploy by eternalist thinking to regain control of, and create boundaries on, nebulous things.
When it becomes obvious that things are not either this or that, but somewhat both and neither—a typical manifestation of nebulosity—the continuum gambit suggests that reality is a matter of shades of gray, corresponding to numbers on a continuous scale.
This describes the Kinsey scale perfectly. Kinsey was radical and needed in his time and set us on a new course of thinking about sexuality forever. However, the Kinsey scale is misleading and useless about 10 minutes after it is first discovered.
A person will yield as many different numbers on the scale as there axes of experience around sexuality. The same person will have wildy different numbers depending on the history of their relationships, compared to feelings now, compared to the future, let alone actual behaviour vs desired behaviour in an ideal world vs fantasy life (which normally has no correlation with actual acts).
The Klein grid is an attempt to take into account these considerations, and involves some interesting thoughts, but the results seem to me to become immediately meaningless. A bisexual person will not be indentifiable from the general population when taking this test, and interpretation of the results is apparently complex. This is normally a sign that it is useless for ordinary people and indeed the website itself suggests it’s better to find a therapist.
(Lack of) wistful certainty & others
Wistful certainty is the idea that there definitely is a right system to do things that will solve all our problems, if only we can discover it. For example, the certainty that once we discover the correct laws of physics, they will explain the entire universe. Or the certaintiy that if we develop just the right combination of policies, there wil be a political system that works well enough for everyone.
The fact that this is not true is not immediately obvious (in my view), with the above examples. I believe many people are supported by wistful certainty surrounding many assumptions in their lives, making them more comfortable than they might be otherwise.
However, the lack of wistful certainty is immiediately apparent with bisexuality. There is no hope that someone is working on this stuff and it will all be figured out eventually. Rather, the bisexual person is simply weird,wrong and does not fit any systems.
No-one is examining the puzzle of bisexuality to give them hope. Rather they are excluded from studies as anomalies There are no meanings to bisexuality, fixed or otherwise.
This lack of eternalist bolstering leads to the opposite stance to eternalism, nihilism. Nihilism is not sustainable for very long and is very depressing. Bisexual people either switch back to dualist eternalist (“straight now, gay now”), monist eternalist (“I’m just me, I don’t need labels”) or tragically, commit suicide.
Stages of development
There is another way, however and hopefully many bisexuals reach this stage, at least eventually.
Chapman calls the answer to the eternalist/nihilist stances the complete stance, which sady he has yet to talk about in any great detail (but there are smaller sections on many of the other pages, take a look).
However, the next key framework I am looking at is Kegan’s framework for social and cognitive development, a summary of which can be found here. This is Chapman’s summary and I found it through the meaningness blog. I have yet to read the book, I have only read the summary but it seemed like a good summary that extracts and explains key points.You must read this first before anything I say next makes sense (and we’re at the end so you can stop here if you like).
The first 4 stages do not really relate to the stances, but the 5th one, fluid mode, seems relevant.
There is much discussion on the meta-blog about how few people reach stage 5, about how society operates largely in stage 4, providing no structures to support the transition from stage 4 to stage 5, leaving many stage 4.5ers adrift in nihilisitc depression.
Stage 5 is the moment when the system that a person has been using to have beliefs, achieve projects and relate to others has been replaced by the idea that there are many systems, none of which is objectively the ‘right’ system, because any system is founded on fallable axioms. Rather systems are simply a better or worse fit for situations. Where previously a person was adept at defining their role within a system, a person can now use and even define entire systems dependent on context. In this mode, conflict between systems seems less problematic, as do internal inconsistencies.
A bisexual person will hopefully come to realise that the system we currently have for gender and sexuality is flawed. Labels are both useful sometimes, but not descriptive other times. Categories like gender don’t really exist, but are still handy shorthand for a cluster of attributes. Bisexuality is something outside of gay/straight, it is not simply “both” but it is also not “neither”. That each bi person is different, yet there are commonalities of experience.
I will make a blog post soon talking about how lessons learned from bisexuality can help individuals and societies progress to Stage 5 / fluid mode / complete stance with more understanding and emotional support.