Feminism, Social Issues

bisexuality and purity culture

I’m going to my first-ever Pride event this weekend, so I’ve been paying a little more attention to the things people have been saying about bisexuality recently. Being bi has its own particular struggles, mostly because it seems as though people are just as confused about bisexuality as they used to be about being gay. I feel like our culture has a somewhat decent handle on what being “gay” means; while there are still plenty of ridiculous stereotypes about gay men, I get the feeling that many/most people realize that those things are just stereotypes.

The same is not true of bisexuality, as you can see from the following.

The first is a quote from Andrée Seu Peterson’s “B is for Bogus“:

The LGT guys should be asking themselves about now, “What’s with this ‘B’ guy standing over there in a circle having laughs and a martini at our party? He’s not a real anything! He’s not hard-wired homosexual or a tortured misfit in his own body trying to climb out; he’s just coming along for a free ride. He makes us look bad, because intelligent people will come to their senses and say to themselves, ‘The whole LGBT movement is as phony as a three-dollar bill; look at this “B” thing in the middle that’s just clear-cut straight-up promiscuity.’ This ‘B’ guy blows our cover!”

If there were a book for gays with parables in it like the Bible, the “B” guy would be the one at the wedding feast who gets kicked out when it is noticed by his lack of proper wedding attire that he is an imposter.

The second is from James Dobson’s radio show:

I’ve been thinking about those pastors, those people in the clergy who are compassionate to those who have attractions to same-sex individuals. So their inclination is to be all inclusive and put their arm around them. I would like them to think, just for a moment, about ‘LGBT.’ The ‘B’ stands for bisexual. That’s orgies! Are you really going to support this?

I hear things like that, and all I can do is:

seriously

Seriously. Where the hell does this come from? Just because my potential dating pool might, theoretically, be a bit larger than your average straight person’s does not mean I’m running around having sex with every single person I’ve ever been attracted to. All of them. At the same time. Where did they even come up with this?

Granted, hard-right-wing conservative Christians like Andrée or James aren’t the only ones to think this. There’s a heavy cultural link between bisexuality and our supposed inability to keep it in our pants, or maintain a monogamous relationship– a leap I’ve never been able to follow. Yes, bisexual people can cheat on their partners. Just like straight people. And gay people.

Bit, as s.e. smith points out:

In a society that hates women, and hates female sexuality, it would make sense for sexually active and comfortable women to be, naturally, condemned. And that goes double for bisexual women, who can’t just be happy with men like nice young ladies; they have to go around chasing women, too … There’s something people seem to find almost offensive about the idea that bisexual women actually exist, that they have relationships with both men and women, that those relationships may be long-term, committed, and monogamous …

I don’t experience the world as a bi man, but considering that female sexuality has always been strictly and harshly policed while male sexuality just hasn’t, this makes sense to me. Any time a woman steps outside the socially-acceptable constraints we’re going to run into condemnation.

But, a few days ago, it occurred to me that in a specifically Christian context, there’s some other things happening that create this horrified “THAT’S ORGIES!” reaction. I’ve written about this before (in a post about emotional adultery here and another about why purity culture doesn’t teach consent here), but I realized that what I talked about in those two posts come together in an interesting way when it comes to bisexuality.

If every person on the planet exists in a default state of consent– which purity culture subtly and overtly teaches– and if it’s impossible for men and women to “just be friends” (as argued in a recent Relevant article), then of course bi people will be promiscuous. Duh.

According to many Christians, the only real way to ensure that you don’t have an affair is to avoid deep, meaningful connections to people you might be sexually attracted to (which, for them, is always someone of the “opposite sex,” which erases bi people and non-binary people). To them, men can’t be good friends with women and vice versa, and everyone needs to take super-duper-extra-careful precautions to make darn-tootin’ sure you don’t develop pants-feelings for people. Because, as we all know, once you have pants-feelings for someone you will have sex with them, because consent isn’t a thing.

But, for bi people, the “obvious” precautions in this context don’t make sense. What are we supposed to do– have no close friends? Ever? Never be alone with any person? Lock ourselves in our bedroom, Elsa-style? So, they don’t advocate that. Instead, they either a) refuse to acknowledge our existence or b) call us all sluts.

Christian teachings about basically any relationship are horribly flawed, and I believe that a lot of the problems are rooted in this idea that people are incapable of controlling their pants-feelings unless you eliminate any possible way to express them. We’re all so deeply afraid. We don’t have sexual ethics based in consent and love, but in making us all terrified of our sexuality. That’s not healthy, and it should a concept we confront and root out– for all of us, not just bi people.

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  • John W. Baker

    Brilliant.

    The purity culture understanding is basically barnyard sexuality, animal husbandry. Truth is, we are all bisexual on a sliding scale. All.

    • I disagree. Dismissing all straight people as liars or merely ignorant is just as bad as dismissing any other experience.

      • John W. Baker

        No, they are not liars or ignorant; just not consciously aware. We are all bi-valent. Usually one end of the scale is conscious; the other subconscious, below the level of awareness. Sometimes both are conscious. Homophobia is the very real fear some straight men feel when they get a faint inkling of something beneath awareness and so bash gays in hope that something will stay submerged and no one will notice it. They fear their own hidden gayness.

        This is all too nuanced for the purity culture . Sexuality is breeding, propogation. Virginity is about when to breed a young girl to produce offspring. Fidelity is making sure no other man breeds your wife. The sexuality of women is motherhood.

        • I don’t think it makes sense to define someone who has never experienced sexual attraction to people of the same sex as being somewhere on the spectrum of bisexuality.

          For that matter, homophobia does not necessarily (though it can) come from someone’s own subsumed homosexuality. It can just as easily come from fear of other men looking at them in the (deeply objectifying) way they look at women. Or from being grossed out by the idea of gay sex and confusing their own individual orientation for some kind of moral absolute. Or from deep-seated misogyny that views gay men as lesser because they exhibit supposedly feminine traits.

          Yes, a lot more people are somewhere in the “bi” category than we commonly think…but that doesn’t mean everyone is, or that every straight (or exclusively gay, for that matter) person is deluded.

          • John W. Baker

            I would agree with you if the psyche were only comprised of the conscious mind. But the conscious mind is like the tip of an iceberg.

          • So I assume you have evidence to back up this assertion? For example, studies showing arousal in 100% of people who were shown naked people of the same sex?

            Sure, the conscious mind is the tip of the iceberg. But that doesn’t mean you have total access to and knowledge of someone else’s subconscious.

          • John W. Baker

            Yes, there are plethysmographic studies showing minimal arousal (homosexual erotica) along with maximal arousal (heterosexual erotica)

            I claim no such access, Freud’s theory was intended to explain what heterosexual patients reported to him of occasional fantasies, hints, fascinations, “man crushes,” etc, as well as homophobia. He saw the later as literal fear, and not of others but of their own subconscious “tendencies” (as they were called in the day)

          • When you make a claim that “everyone is bi” because “the conscious mind is the tip of the iceberg,” then yes, you are claiming some form of access to their subconscious to be able to make that determination—whether through studies or through other means. You’re claiming either a body of large enough, well conducted studies that you can safely generalize to a population of billions of people, or something innate about the way sexuality and the subconscious works to define everyone as bi even with evidence to the contrary.

            As far as Freud, did he report that *all* his heterosexual patients reported these occasional fantasies or hints?

            As far as the studies, do you have links or quotes? Again, you’re claiming that *everyone* without exception is bi to some extent. That’s a pretty extreme claim and requires some very significant proof. (I’ve looked at abstracts of a few studies, but I’m not willing to pay for the full articles just to see the percentages.)

            For plethysmographic studies in particular, it also requires the ability to distinguish cause from correlation. (For example, most men occasionally wake up with erections, but that doesn’t mean that sleep is inherently arousing.)

          • John W. Baker

            “You’re claiming either a body of large enough, well conducted studies that you can safely generalize to a population of billions of people, or something innate about the way sexuality and the subconscious works to define everyone as bi even with evidence to the contrary.”

            No, I am merely stating my opinion, based on studies or papers I have read plus conversations with those whose opinions I respect. My aim is less to convince than to explain. I think it’s an interesting theory. Hope you’ll investigate.

          • John W. Baker

            BTW the highest minimal or secondary arousal levels were from homophobic test subjects, heterosexual males shown homoerotic pictures

          • Which does not necessarily mean that all men are bi, only that the population of homophobic test subjects who self-identify as heterosexual includes a higher percentage of people who are *either* gay or bi and closeted *or* somewhere on the bi spectrum and not consciously aware of it.

            Again, I’m not claiming that there *aren’t* people who identify as straight but could be more accurately defined as “mostly straight.” I just don’t think you have enough evidence to claim that everyone, without exception, is bi (particularly when asexual people exist).

          • John W. Baker

            I have no quarrel with anything in your first paragraph. I am fine with reserving “bi” for only those who are consciously aware of their dual orientation. My assertion, a la Freud and Kinsey, is that if you take the unconscious into account, everybody (except asexuals?) is in some sense bisexual on a sliding scale, divided between conscious and unconscious. This is a psychoanalytic theory; not a hard fact. You may have the last word.

        • The sexuality of women is motherhood.

          You can take that biological/gender essentialist, transmisogynist bull and shove it. That statement is a slap in the face to every cis woman who has ZERO desire to become a mother (myself included), every cis woman who cannot have children for whatever reason (menopause, infertility, sterilization, illness), every trans woman who cannot reproduce (not every woman has a vagina; not everyone with a vagina identifies as a woman).

          Your assertion that everyone is on the bi spectrum is a also a load. It perpetuates asexual erasure, anti-gay bigotry, anti-lesbian misogyny, and it’s straight up identity policing.

          Virginity is a social construct.

          • John W. Baker

            Yes, I agree of course. I should have put quotes around everything following “purity culture,” as the statements were intended to represent Christian purity culture views of female sexuality; not my own. Apologies.

            The rest surprises me. Freud wrote about polyvalent sexuality in the 1920’s. The theory may be outmoded, but it is not usually considered disrespectful of any group. It simply asserts that human sexuality is far more complex than we (or fundamentalists!) think, and that conscious sexual orientation is built upon the unconscious. Many people don’t realize, for example, that both men and women have both estrogen and testosterone.

    • I’m going to put one more vote on the side of “not all of us are bisexual.”

      I am a Kinsey “0” and have been as far back as I can remember. It is particularly apparent in thinking about the borders of sexual attraction beyond the sex act itself. When I think about who I would be eager to snuggle (and I’m a physical guy), it is purely binary.

      This is why I believe I actually have more understanding of those with other identities, because I cannot imagine anything changing me. It is also why I wonder if those afraid that orientation can be easily changed are more like 3s or 4s on the scale.

      So, sure, plenty of people are in denial about being something other than a 0 or a 7, but there are those of us who definitely are.

      • John W. Baker

        Fair enough. It’s all an approximation, as I see it, and very complex. I agree with Kinsey when he wrote, “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories…” The last statement is dead on.

        Also, I for one am here as a learner. I am admittedly opinionated but do not intend to be (hetero-)mansplaining anything to anybody. Bear in mind I am 70 years old. LOL.

  • Bisexual = being sexually attracted to males and females.

    Polyamorous = having sex and being in a relationship with more than one person.

    Orgy = lots of shagging at once.

    Three different ways to be.

    • BiMarried

      Umm, no. Among those that identify as bisexual,

      Bisexuality is defined as sexual AND/OR emotional attraction to more than one gender.

      Further, you can be poly regardless of your sexual orientation, just as monogamous or [ethically] non-monogamous.

      Of course poly is not inclusive or exclusive of swinging, which is best described as socially sexual as non committed adults, which may or may not include orgies.

      You simply cannot take all these disparate traights of orientation and activities and roll them together because they do not fit a narrow definition of cis-gender, mono-sexual, monogamous society and assume if you are within this ‘other’, you engage in all these activities (not that there is anything wrong with that). That’s simply prejudice thinking.

      • agreed. I was keeping it from an either or decision. I think I was on my smart phone so I had to keep it short and pithy due to my crone status and fat fingers.

    • Bisexual = being sexually attracted to at least two genders.

      Gender isn’t binary. Non-binary bisexuals exist.

  • therainparade

    *climbs on top of desk and screams* YEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!

    …sorry, I know that wasn’t the most constructive response, but it’s all I can come up with right now.

  • 13thsong

    Yeah, I think you make a really good point. And thinking about this a little further, I think a lot of Christianity, with this concept of sexual ethics based entirely in marriage and ‘saving yourself [for marriage]’ also subtly empowers an idea of a (single) ‘future spouse’ or the ‘person god intends for you’ or your ‘one true god-chosen partner’ or, essentially, a soulmate. In which context, the idea of being attracted to both genders becomes baffling and promiscuous.

  • Aurora

    Have fun at pride!

  • According to many Christians, the only real way to ensure that you don’t have an affair is to avoid deep, meaningful connections to people you might be sexually attracted to (which, for them, is always someone of the “opposite sex,” which erases bi people and non-binary people). To them, men can’t be good friends with women and vice versa, and everyone needs to take super-duper-extra-careful precautions to make darn-tootin’ sure you don’t develop pants-feelings for people. Because, as we all know, once you have pants-feelings for someone you will have sex with them, because consent isn’t a thing.

    But, for bi people, the “obvious” precautions in this context don’t make sense. What are we supposed to do– have no close friends? Ever? Never be alone with any person? Lock ourselves in our bedroom, Elsa-style? So, they don’t advocate that. Instead, they either a) refuse to acknowledge our existence or b) call us all sluts.

    Christian teachings about basically any relationship are horribly flawed, and I believe that a lot of the problems are rooted in this idea that people are incapable of controlling their pants-feelings unless you eliminate any possible way to express them. We’re all so deeply afraid. We don’t have sexual ethics based in consent and love, but in making us all terrified of our sexuality. That’s not healthy, and it should a concept we confront and root out– for all of us, not just bi people.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head here, especially about the role fear plays. Purity culture conflates sexual attraction with sexual objectification with every form of sexual activity from kissing to sex and lumps it all together. So situations that might lead you to even think about sex are treated as just as potentially damaging to relationships as sex itself.

    • Sarah S

      So true. I got so tired of the fear and never being allowed to have guy friends. Even as an adult my mom tried to talk me out of the one close guy friend I had for a while (both married even), because supposedly something Bad ALWAYS happens when opposite genders are friends.

  • Raeann

    I love how this pulls together two things I think about a lot: “Bisexuals are people too, and people are capable of controlling their urges” and purity culture. I’ve seen a lot of stuff that critiques purity culture and some stuff that stands up for bisexuals as being capable of self control and even monogamy, but not the two combined.
    I’m bisexual and non-monogamous, but I would likely be non-monogamous even if I only got pants-feelings for one type of genitals and/or gender identity. The point being, being bisexual doesn’t mean you’re unfulfilled if you don’t have boy-parts AND lady-parts in your sex life, preferably at the same time because all bisexuals ever do is have threesomes, duh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been putting off cleaning my apartment all day so I’m off to do just that.
    You don’t believe me? You’re right, I’m going to call up all my sex-fiend friends (boys AND girls, whaaaaaat) so we can have our second orgy of the day. You caught me.

  • Thiiiiiiiiiiiissssssssss.

    Have fun at Pride!

  • I’m so glad you exist and not just for the phrase “pants-feelings.”

  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    Thanks, Samantha, for these insights. As a straight male who tries to accept, understand, and support LGBT acceptance, this post has given me insight into special bi issues I had not previously encountered.

    Your blog is always helpful. Thanks again.

  • John W. Baker

    ” ‘The ‘B’ stands for bisexual. That’s orgies! Are you really going to support this?’

    Seriously. Where the hell does this come from? ”

    I don’t know where it comes from, but you already see it in Rom. 1. It’s pretty clear Paul is not describing homosexuals but promiscuous sexual behavior, i.e. orgies among Roman married couples, nominally heterosexual. (A Roman husband was considered still within the bounds of monogamy even if he had sex with a slave or prostitute, male or female. Orgies would be out of bounds, not because of same-gender sex but because of having sex with a social equal of the wife.

  • I agree with Mr. Baker regarding the sliding scale and I think his explanation using the conscious and unconscious impulses/feelings is probably the most useful here.
    I am predominately hetero; married, with children but I have been in a long relationship with a man when I was younger. I know myself to be primarily hetero-oriented but must say nevertheless that I am bi as well: My history demonstrates that…. Now, that being said, if I had not had that long-term relationship with another man, I would probably have more trouble allowing Mr. Baker’s premise about the sliding scale. (It would sink into unconscious being.)
    For those of you convinced the scale does not slide, perhaps it doesn’t in your consciousness but it surely does for many of us.
    Christians are so sex-obsessed it makes me laugh. They just can’t shut up about sex because prude attitudes engender obsession and perversion. Dobson’s mind is perverted enough to make statements like his orgy one. Just way way out there with his one eye on the sky-gawd and his other on our pants.

  • Sarah S

    Well said Samantha.

  • This explains why my parents wrote off my bisexuality as if it couldn’t exist. To them, it didn’t. X

  • Male sexuality hasn’t been as policed as female sexuality… unless you’re a bisexual man and, honestly, I’ve found that religious beliefs is responsible for any such harshness when it comes to sex and sexuality: There’s the “right” way to be – heterosexual and making babies – then there’s the “wrong” way to be – anything that looks like homosexuality that isn’t going to produce babies.

    And as long as there are people who hold on to these archaic and somewhat illogical beliefs, that harsh policing you mentioned will always happen even though, admittedly, mindsets are starting to change, slowly but surely. We know the truth – not everyone is straight or wants to be – but we still can’t handle the truth.

  • I am personally impressed that this discussion is taking place on a blog frequented by a lot of Christians and that it has been rather respectful. I know how challenging that is and I, for one, am still learning and growing so bear with me if I put my foot into my mouth upon occasion.

    • John W. Baker

      I am glad if you have found it so. It is a shame that Christianity has become such that it is surprising when people try to “respect the dignity of every human being.” (as it says in the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal church).

      Jesus weeps, no doubt, at much that he hears in the churches. He tried in countless parables to say that his kingdom belonged first of all to “the last, the lost, the least,” the shamed and excluded, the marginalized, the despised, society’s discards. If today’s queerfolk don’t fit that description, then who does?

      • Don’t you think a lot of that is due to us thinking that Jesus was referencing “those people” whoever those (in other words other) people when the better way to look at that passage is to rightly put the self in the last-lost-least category with a heart of thankfulness at God’s compassion (a word I define as kindness without condescension. )

        • John W. Baker

          Of course. The shamed and marginalized “others” were defined as such by the authorities and the so-called righteous people, the shamers that crucified Jesus. Granted we have all been guilty of shaming at times, for which we must accept accountability and make amends. The resurrection was the vindication of Jesus as messiah of the last-lost-least, by the grace of God. Grace is for both the shamed and the shamers, but it reverses society’s ranking of the first and the last.

  • This is a really good point about purity culture. I’ve been thinking about this topic lately, and I think one reason purity-culture advocates seem to think bisexual means orgies is because only heterosexual male sexuality is seen as acceptable and normal. (Women apparently don’t want sex, just want romance. This can be seen in evangelical blog posts about porn- “yeah of course men watch porn and that’s a problem, but, oh dear goodness you guys, now our culture has gone so far down the slippery slope to destruction, even WOMEN are watching porn!”) All other sexualities could only come about if a person spends way too much time obsessing about sex- a person wouldn’t just naturally realize “oh I’m bisexual.” (To be clear, this is totally bullshit.)

    To actually identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, to see that as something central to your identity, means you must have spent a lot of time imagining what sort of sexual experiences you would like to have- and doncha know Jesus said thinking about sex is the same as having sex???!!! (Yeah no I don’t agree with that.) Clearly you must be obsessed with sex. Clearly you must want to be in an orgy.

    Meanwhile, because modesty, we have straight boys going around describing in vivid detail which particular style of clothing and body types turn them on, and they are held up as good examples, as weak brothers valiantly trying to do the right thing. And all the women need to reorder their lives so they fit with the horny straight guys’ standards. But nobody else is allowed to have a sexuality.

    • John W. Baker

      ” Jesus said thinking about sex is the same as having sex”

      Maybe the issue was not so much sexual fantasy as infidelity. Fidelity and infidelity he seems to say are really matters of the heart, whatever one’s orientation. Jesus always interprets the law to exclude the possibility of someone boasting of his own righteousness while shaming the neighbor.

      Does bisexual marital fidelity mean either partial celibacy, or being faithful to only one man and only one woman? Your thoughts?

      • Divizna

        Oh, dear. Bisexuality/biromanticism doesn’t mean that you need one of each. It means that you are potentially capable of forming a romantic/sexual relationship with a person of either gender. If you prefer a committed, exclusive partnership – and many bisexuals do, just like many straight or gay people do – there’s nothing lacking when you are committed and exclusive with your partner. Faithfulness in a monogamous partnership works just the same for a straight, gay, or bi person.
        Calling it “partial celibacy” if I sleep with Steve but not with Kate doesn’t make any better sense than calling it “partial celibacy” if I sleep with Steve but not with Mike.
        (In poly or open relationships the rules are different, although the core principles are the same. But that has nothing to do with sexual orientation.)

        • John W. Baker

          Thanks. I originally thought so too, until a recent conversation with someone who was saying just the opposite, that it was like partial celibacy in that in a monogamous marriage as bisexual there was this “road not taken.”.

          As a heterosexual, it seemed his situation was analogous to hetero-marriage, but I wondered if I was imposing my heteronormativity on his marriage. Gets complicated. Bear in mind I’m 70 and have been married to the same woman for nearly 50 years. This is all new to me, so I’m grateful for your insights.

          • Technically, even for the most monogamous person in the world, everyone you could theoretically be involved with but aren’t is a road not taken (unless someone believes in predestined soulmates, which I do not). If someone was dwelling on that, though, I’d be more likely to think they were nonmonogamous than that they were bisexual-but-completely-monogamous.