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Showing posts with label Bisexuality - We Are Everywhere. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bisexuality - We Are Everywhere. Show all posts

Saturday, March 6, 2010

1 of 5: We Are Everywhere: A Fiveway Review of A History of Bisexuality, Bisexual Spaces, Look Both Ways, Open, and Becoming Visible

Jonathan Alexander and Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio

Has appeared also in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality, co-edited by Serena Anderlini and Jonathan Alexander. Pre-published with permission of Routledge, New York. 
Steven Angelides, A History of Bisexuality.  University of Chicago Press, 2001.  281 pages (with index)
Clare Hemmings, Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender.  Routledge, 2002.  244 pages (with index)
Jennifer Baumgardner, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.  244 pages (with index)
Jenny Block,  Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage.  Seattle: Seal Press, 2009. 276  pages (with works consulted list)2
Beth Firestein, ed,  Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan.  Columbia University Press, 2007.  441 pages (with index)

For this special issue of the Journal of Bisexuality on the intersections among queer theory and bisexuality, we thought it would be useful to review books that have substantively engaged this intersection in critical, insightful, and provocative ways.  Two such books, Steven Angelides’ A History of Bisexuality (2001) and Clare Hemmings’ Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender (2002), are somewhat “older” texts that have not yet been reviewed in the pages of this journal.  To correct that omission, and in recognition of the importance that these two studies play in so many of the articles in this special issue, we offer our review and thoughts here.  To set the critical theory of these books in a more contemporary and applied context, we link them to three more recent text.  Two, Jennifer Baumgardner’s trade book, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics (2007), and Jenny Block’s Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage (2009) memorialize various levels of personal experience as avenues to theorizing bisexuality for the lay public, and observing the ways in which this trope deploys itself in one’s personal life and in the life and culture of our era.  Finally, Beth Firestein’s edited volume Becoming Visible (2007) offers a store of applied research as well as theoretical knowledge directed to professional counselors and therapists who intend to provide bisexual patients with the mental and psychological health care they need.  The volume’s subtitle, Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan, is emblematic of the volume’s intent to dispel the myth that “bisexuality is a phase” one can overcome with “proper” medical attention.  The idea here is that there are no reasons to “overcome” bisexuality, while there are many reasons why counselors and therapists, as well as society as a whole, should think of bisexuals as very healthy, wholesome, and valuable members of the human community.  An overview of these five books, we believe, will help readers of this collection get a fairly articulate sense of where bisexuality stands at this time in the realms of human knowledge and experience touched by these books.

To start, then, Steven Angelides’ A History of Bisexuality offers a much-needed historical and theoretical intervention in both our thinking about the history of what the modern era knows as sexuality, and our theorizing about the development of sexual identity categories.  Co-editor Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, who was raised in Italy, brings to our reading of this book the perspective of a Mediterranean education, where awareness of bisexual behavior registers across the cultural spectrum since antiquity.  This awareness  has been articulated in a study of bisexual behavior in ancient Greece and Rome by Eva Cantarella, a professor of classical history at the University of Milan.  The book’s title, Secondo natura, encodes the concept that there is nothing unnatural about erotic expression across genders: the title translates, quite literally, as according to nature, and even better, asgoing along with nature, or seconding nature, as one seconds a proposal in a meeting.  The English elides the poetic aspect of this and reads, objectively, as Bisexuality in the Ancient World (1992).  As might be expected of a scholar based in Australia, where the legacies of Western culture have arrived only recently, Angelides’ book focuses on the past 150 years.  Oddly enough, however, Angelides’ perspective on the recent history of bisexuality helps to explain why the title of Cantarella’s book did not make it into English.  Nature came to be studied scientifically in modernity, under the aegis of Christian monotheism.  At this time, bisexual behavior came to be it constructed as against nature,because nature itself was now seen as the creation of a single deity.    In the ancient world the divine was ubiquitous, it was in the body of nature and not separate from it.  Bisexual behavior was just as natural as could be.  Indeed, as Foucault would put it, the focus was on acts, not identities, and only after the onset of Christianity, with its separation between good and evil, certain acts came to be seen as sinful.  In pre-Christian Rome and Greece, Cantarella’s book exemplifies in great detail, amorous behavior was considered an art whose forms and styles of expression were infinite, and the scientific concept of sexuality did not exist.  In the arts of loving, the young were being initiated by those with more experience.  For obvious anatomical reasons, if the students were of one’s own gender, those practical lessons in erotic love would be much ere easier to deliver.  With English being a major language of modern scientific production (if not the most important one), no wonder the original title of Cantarella’s study either makes no sense or sounds outright pedophilic; the kind of thing that gets one in trouble in today’s academe, where mind-centered learning processes prevail.   

Angelides’ book helps one to see what has been lost in this scientific modernization, and what a postmodern perspective can recuperate for itself and humanity’s future, in the ways of bringing back a positive, sustainable notion of the primitive. Angelides uses deconstructive strategies and a Foucauldian approach to the history of sexuality to trace the development of the category of bisexuality, from psychoanalytical and sexological theories at the end of the 19th century, through post-war gay liberation, to queer politics at the end of the 20th century.  With critical sophistication and a general command of his subject, Angelides rightly points out how seemingly central bisexuality was, conceptually, to early psychoanalytic and sexological theory.  For instance, Freud’s theories of polymorphous perversity and naturally innate bisexuality serve as foundations for his theories of sexuality, even as they ultimately position bisexuality as the “immature” (e.g., “perverse”) state out of which sexual maturity (i.e., heterosexuality) must arise.  Angelides adeptly shows how bisexuality is cast in this role both ontogenetically and phylogenetically, namely in relation to the genesis of each individual and that of the species.  From this starting point, Angelides deftly demonstrates how a series of controlling binary oppositions—man and woman, but also, fairly quickly, heterosexual and homosexual—come to dominate theoretical, and cultural as well as political, constructions of sexuality and sexual identity.
In the process, bisexuality becomes, in Angelides’ accounting, a kind of “ghostly other” to sexuality itself—there in the shadowy background, but ultimately something that must be denied in the pursuit of more mature sexual expressions.  In other words, the persistence of bisexuality in this ghostly role embodies cultural fears that “sexuality,” per se, may not exist; that it may be nothing but a cultural construct.  Even with the rise of gay liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, when some gay liberationists advocated a “bisexual chic” or a sexual freedom that would return us to our original polymorphous-ness, bisexuality never seemed to gain traction, either as an identity or a community or even a politics.  

Consider, for instance, Adrienne Rich’s famous “lesbian continuum,” which seemed to acknowledge, explicitly, like Kinsey’s famous scale, a continuum of sexual, erotic, and intimate interest, from the fully lesbian to the singularly straight.  In the hands of gay and lesbian activists and thinkers, however, the two poles become the focus of attention—gay and straight.  The minoritizing logics of identity politics figure “gayness” as another identity, like straightness, and the in-between status of bisexuality seems to question too much the non-threatening innateness upon which much of gay politicking came to depend.  We’re born this way, after all, so please don’t discriminate.  Bisexuality, by comparison, seemed too much the sexuality “of choice,” and particularly in the advent of AIDS, it came to be seen as the dangerous sexuality that vectored disease from promiscuous homosexuals to an otherwise pristine suburbia. So while bisexuality seemed to be the “centerpiece” of much gay liberationist thinking, it was a bisexuality in name only, a very theoretical bisexuality. 

Angelides moves deftly from history into theoretical discussion, focusing on the work of sexuality studies scholars such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—thinkers whose work dominated the study of sexuality in the 1990s.  In particular, he uses the work of Judith Butler, particularly Bodies That Matter, to unpack the prevalence of binarisms that made bisexuality a difficult subject to consider, even at the headily questioning height of queer theory.  Angelides pointedly asks, “Why is bisexuality the object of such consistent and intense skepticism?  […]  In short, why has bisexuality been rendered, for the most part incidental and even irrelevant to the history, theory, and politics of sexuality”? (190).

Following the lead of Foucault and Butler, particularly in their genealogical mode, Angelides ultimately situates his historical survey of bisexuality less as a discovery of the truth of bisexuality or the revelation of a hidden history (see Marjorie Garber’s Vice Versa for that story), but more as a theoretical questioning of why bisexuality is a conceptually troubling category.  He writes, “[t]racking the epistemic path of bisexuality has been for me one way of bringing into clearer view the failure of our epistemology of sexuality; that is, the impossibility of any attempt to posit this thing called ‘sexuality,’ and its component identity-parts of hetero-, homo-, and bisexual” (196).  For Angelides, undertaking such a theoretical venture has real-world consequences, in a number of ways.  In many ways, attending to the theoretical difficulties that bisexuality poses to our conceptualization of sexuality mandates a complete theoretical reconsideration of sexuality; and indeed, Angelides calls at the end of his study for a substantive rethinking of how we understand the history of sexuality:

This deconstructive history has demonstrated that no analysis of sexuality can afford to ignore the category of bisexuality, which mandates a critical rethinking of some of the central terms and strategies of Foucauldian and queer theories.  While these theories have provided, and continue to provide, cogent political and theoretical tools for antihomophobic and anti-heteronormative inquiry, it is important to attend to their own structuring exclusions in order to strengthen their political and theoretical promise (199).

Put another way, a queer theory that misses bisexuality’s querying of normative sexualities is a queer theory that is itself too mastered by the very normative and normalizing binaries it seeks to unsettle; as he succinctly puts it, “[a]s deconstructive readers and cultural critics we need continually to monitor the sites through which the reiteration of sexuality, and its accompanying hierarchy of hetero- and homosexuality, is taking place” (201).

More interestingly, and speculatively perhaps, Angelides stretches the implications of his critiques beyond the humanities into the social sciences and even the hard sciences.  He suggests that “…science ought [not] to abandon questions relevant to those things assigned to the category of ‘sexuality,’ but…scientists ought to pursue a different set of questions altogether” (206).  For example, the much vaunted search for the “gay gene,” which seems to dominate some scientific inquiry into homosexuality, seems misguided at best, if not seriously theoretically flawed as an investigative project.  Angelides urges that we not let our scientific thinking be dominated by the same binarisms that have hampered psychological thinking.  Rather, he argues, we should consider other, potentially more interesting questions about the multiple and plural natures of desire, attraction, and intimacy—questions that would not simply replicate the old, normalizing, and constraining hetero/homo divide, which doesn’t do justice to the complexity of sexuality anyway, either theoretically or experientially. 

A History of Bisexuality is, in many ways, a stunning book, one which scholars and lay readers alike can learn from, appreciate, and ultimately enjoy.  What partially hampers Angelides’ approach in positing such questions is his failure to account for some scientists and medical professionals, such as Dr. Fritz Klein, in doing exactly what he suggests they do.  Indeed, Angelides’ elisions of Klein’s famous study and treatise, The Bisexual Option (originally published in 1978), seems grievous in this case, particularly since Dr. Klein’s Sexual Orientation Grid attempts to move questions about sex, sexuality, intimacy, and eroticism away from identity and towards a complex plurality of modalities.  Nonetheless,A History of Bisexuality still dazzles with the scope of its historical sweep and its theoretical acumen.

Also published in SexGenderBody.
Reprinted here with thanks to Arvan Reese and Routledge, NY.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

2 of 5: We Are Everywhere: A Fiveway Review of A History of Bisexuality, Bisexual Spaces, Look Both Ways, Open, and Becoming Visible

Cont’d, Book Two: Clare Hemmings’ Bisexual Spaces. (Routledge 2002.)

By Jonathan Alexander and Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio

Has also appeared in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality. Re-published with permission of Routledge, New York. 

Given such a sweep, Angelides’ text is well balanced by Clare Hemmings’ Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender, a text which is as every bit as theoretically savvy as Angelides’, but one which also provides nicely drawn portraits of actual communities in order to ground the theoretical consideration of bisexuality.  Published just a year afterA History of Bisexuality, Hemmings’ text examines bisexuality not just from the perspectives of the history of sexuality and queer theory but also from the analytics of cultural geography, which attends more to the lived experiences of bisexuals in specific locales.  Such an approach offers her, ultimately, a somewhat more nuanced and sophisticated analysis of bisexuality.

Much like Angelides, Hemmings sees bisexuality as offering a theoretically rich way to interrogate and potentially destabilize the dominant hetero/homo binary:
…if we consider bisexual meaning in spatial terms, it becomes clear that bisexuality is not only a location between heterosexuality and homosexuality, binary genders or sexes, but also resides at the heart of lesbian community, between lesbian and gay communities, and in parallel with transsexuality within queer feminist terrain.  As a result, a bisexual subject is capable of producing knowledge that is at odds with dominant and community formations of sexuality and gender, and for that reason alone is worth attending to. (196)

But Hemming’s approach to bisexuality through cultural geography offers us an acute awareness of the particularity of bisexuality as it is situated in specific locales; she maintains, for instance, that “…where bisexual identity or community is the result of…struggles over bisexual meaning, it is frequently at the expense of the specific nature of bisexual political and cultural location” (196).  Hemmings details in her chapters, through interviews, media analyses, community profiles, and theoretical explorations, how the particularities of lived experience shape different understandings of bisexuality.  In some communities, such as in lesbian communities in Massachusetts, bisexuality becomes figured as a space between lesbianism and straight male desire, so as to demarcate it as separate from lesbianism.  In this way, bisexuality seems a “masculine threat to lesbian safety” (13).  In contrast, in San Francisco, bisexuality becomes part of a fantasy of radical inclusiveness, a way to recognize and value the multiplicities of queer desire.  Given such differences, Hemmings ultimately argues that bisexuality can be perceived both as "subversive of gender norms" and as a "reinscription of dominant (i.e. heterosexist) gender and/or sexual discourse" (117).  Put another way, engaging in bi-erotic behavior can prompt us to question what a real ‘man’ or ‘woman’ should do; at the same time, other versions of bisexuality practiced by some people might allow men and women to maintain dominant heterosexual relationships while ‘playing around’ with homo-eroticism in the privacy of a bedroom—without having really to confront what it means to be openly queer. 

Hemmings is perhaps most convincing about such complexities, theoretically at least, when comparing bisexuality and transgenderism.  She notes, for instance, how “…there are a number of similarities in the ways that bisexuality and transsexuality are given and give meaning within queer and feminist studies currently…” (99).  On one hand, both bisexuality and transgenderism are increasingly seen among queer theorists and activists as the new frontier in sexual rights advocacy.  Trans studies in particular has a lot of current theoretical chic.  On the other hand, however, bisexuals and the transgendered strike many as embracing heterosexual privilege, particularly since transsexuals are viewed as reifying norms of gender as they seek to become “real men” or “real women.”  Ultimately, such attention to the complexity of lived bisexual experience prompts Hemmings to call for an approach to bisexuality that is aware of both its potential (theoretically) and its limitations (experientially):

A focus on bisexual knowledges found elsewhere, those not fully circumscribed by dominant formations of heterosexuality and homosexuality, …provides a strategy for resisting the narrativization of heterosexual and homosexual histories that rely on a denial of bisexual specificity.   Instead of celebrating dubious bisexual transgressions of sex, gender, and sexual positions, I advocate an approach that insists that bisexuality’s capacity to generate radical reconfigurations of those oppositions resides not outside but within social and cultural meaning.  (197)

As such, Hemmings’ approach, we feel, builds nicely on Angelides’ call for research that historicizes bisexuality in ways that both deconstruct older and limiting conceptualizations of sexuality while also paying attention to the historical particularity of how individuals and communities negotiate their relationships, both amongst themselves and in relation to controlling paradigms, including sexuality.

Also appeared in SexGenderBody

Friday, February 26, 2010

3 of 5: We Are Everywhere: A Fiveway Review of A History of Bisexuality, Bisexual Spaces, Look Both Ways, Open, and Becoming Visible

Cont’d, Book Three: Jennifer Baumgardner’s Look Both Ways. (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007.)
By Jonathan Alexander and Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio

Has appeared in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality. Re-published with permission of Routledge, New York. 

Both Baumgardner’s and Block’s books come in the feminist tradition of theorizing from the personal, namely of using personal experience to extrapolate theoretical propositions that are not exactly macro-political but nonetheless provide insights applicable well beyond mere identity politics.  While Baumgardner’s book uses the personal as a springboard to offer comments on the media and cultural politics, Block’s book is organized as a personal narrative, which, complemented by the author’s reflections about her own story, has the ambition to offer itself as an encouragement for any reader’s personal and political transformation.  In both their methods and intents, these books are a refreshing statement about what it means to have had several decades of women’s and gender studies as an official part of higher education.  One can see these disciplines in action as one reads how these authors take pride in their gender and acknowledge the importance of female genealogies in their lives, intellectual, political, and biological.  Block and Baumgardner come to bisexuality from different perspectives:  Block defines the space of her bisexual expression within the open marriage she and her spouse gradually create together, an amicable space where their daughter is raised with abundant parenting; more faithful to the feminist communities with whom she works, Baumgardner defines her profile as that of an independent professional whose choice to be a single parent is supported by her communities with abundant affection and help.  For both authors, embracing bisexuality is related to their sense of interconnectedness between women, and between generations of women.  Via different forms of self-affirmation and feminist practice, these interconnections ground Block and Baumgardner’s determination to own their sexuality, to proclaim their sovereignty over their own bodies and selves, and to honor their multiple desires.

If Angelides and Hemmings offer us robust histories and theories of bisexuality, then Jennifer Baumgardner’s delightfully accessible and narratively-driven call to Look Both Ways, in her exploration of, as her subtitle puts it, Bisexual Politics, serves to show us how much academic theorizing about bisexuality has, as it were, hit the streets.  The answer, surprisingly, is quite a bit.  We are not certain that Baumgardner has read either Angelides’ or Hemmings’ books (though she does cite Fritz Klein), but Look Both Ways is nonetheless an often astute and clever look at bisexuality that is aware, as is Hemmings, of both its seeming liberatory potential and its lived nuisances.
Baumgardner focuses primarily on women’s experience of bisexuality, which is not surprising given her previous publications and strong interest in feminism (Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism).  But she’s also savvy about the influence of popular culture in shaping our understanding of sexuality and in suggesting alternative trajectories for desire and affiliation.  She writes several times about the impact of Ellen Degeneres and Anne Heche’s former relationship on her own thinking about plural sexualities, and she recounts with glee a tension-filled movie theater in which young women expressed discomfort with hunky Matt Damon’s portrayal of the quite queer Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley; scenes of nearly missed kisses between Damon and co-star Jude Law elicited youthful squeals of discomfort.  For Baumgardner, such scenes show us how bisexuality and bi-eroticism permeate pop culture, offering many models for different trajectories of desire while still eliciting, among many others, unfortunate reactions of biphobia.  But that’s reality, as either an Angelides or a Hemmings might point out; as Baumgarnder puts it, “[t]hese subconscious and conscious images of bisexuality in ads, on TV, and in erotica reflect the lives of real women and girls” (9).  And she’s quite good at tracing such images and accounting for their personal impact on her life, all the while rooting them in their historical contexts—from considering bisexuality and second-wave feminism, to writing humorously about what she calls the “Ani [DiFranco] Phenomenon,” to musing about communal tensions among bisexual women and lesbians.

Admittedly, though, this is a “popular” text, and in comparison to A History of Bisexuality and Bisexual Spaces, Baumgardner’s analyses can seem at times too optimistic.  She seems at many points to grind the familiar axes of visibility: “Visibility is crucial to making bisexuality a political force, because it could take straight people from being the majority to being a minority” (222).  We’re not exactly sure what is meant by taking straight people out of the majority, per se, especially since, desirable as it might be, a wave of massive bisexual self-outing seems so unlikely at this time.  Also perplexingly, she writes that “…what is still usually invisible, within all of the rampant visibility that gay rights has achieved, is the insurgent role of bisexual people.  Because we are part of the mainstream, the alternative margin, and the gaystream (the mainstreaming of queer life), we have empathy for an insight into the straight and queer worlds.  Bisexual people are the primary conduits for the cultural conversation that America is having about gay rights” (35).  Yes, we agree in part: bisexuals are often invisible within both straight and gay communities; but we are still left wondering exactly how bisexuals are at the center of cultural conversations between straights and gays about gay rights. Indeed, the subtitle is misleading: there’s not much politics here, unless it’s the politics of the personal, which is an important politics, granted.  We’d hoped, though, for more macro politics, more consideration of how larger conversations, beyond pop culture, are taking shape around bisexuality in particular and around sexuality in general.  In accordance with prevalent styles in the trade book industry, the promise of such analysis is never quite fulfilled.

But there is meaty stuff here, nonetheless.  One nearly throwaway passage in the book’s final chapter gave us much pause for thought:

What Anne [Heche] symbolizes to me is the great what-if—what if it were okay for gay people to have straight expectations?  Not to “pass,” or become palatable, or go back in the closet, but simply to expect what Heche took for granted: to not have to be careful and quiet about her love life.  Heche’s cluelessness and her sense of entitlement were annoying, but they were also her weapons against fear—fear of being gay in a homophobic society and in a very homophobic (though very gay) industry. (217)

The insight here seems smart and dead on: perhaps what is necessary at times—not just to increase bi-visibility, but to help create a world of greater sexual freedom—is a bit of cluelessness, a willingness to claim a sexual empowerment even when such may not be willingly offered by those around you.  This is dangerous territory, but Baumgardner’s willingness to provoke discussion about a “bisexual politics” is dangerous, to gays, straights, and even some bisexuals too.  And while one may not be as theoretically provoked, as is the case with Angelides’ and Hemming’s books, a reader of Look Both Ways may find him-, her-, or ze-self personally provoked—and that might be the most effective kind of provocation of all.

Also appeared in SexGenderBody.  Reprinted here with thanks to Arvan Reese.

Monday, February 22, 2010

4 of 5: We Are Everywhere: A Fiveway Review of A History of Bisexuality, Bisexual Spaces, Look Both Ways, Open, and Becoming Visible

Cont’d, Book Four: Jenny Block’s Open. (Seal Press, 2002.)

By Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio and Jonathan Alexander

Will appear in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality. Re-published with permission of Routledge, New York. 

Similarly provocative, but in more subdued ways, is Jenny Block’s Open, a narrative about the author’s personal journey through the meanders of social prescriptions, expectations, and clich├ęs, and her endeavor to define herself as a bisexual, polyamorous subject, a woman capable of loving both men and women and of sustaining more than one amorous relationship at once.  Block’s narrative is presented as that of a modern “every(wo)man,” who, in the United States, tries her best to meet social and familial expectations while at the same time continuing her search for what is fulfilling on a deeper level, as well as honest and authentic.  The literary quality of the book is quite impressive, which also speaks well of where bisexual and polyamorous communities are at in the ways of nurturing talent beyond what is merely effective.  The prologue, written in the third person, gives a summary of this every(wo)man’s story in paragraphs that then repeat at the opening of each chapter.  The story that particularizes the person to whom these things happened comes alive as the first-person narrative of each chapter unfolds.  So we learn about Jenny’s liberal parents, about her desire and determination to own and explore her sexuality as a young adult and in college, about her socially acquired goal to find Mr. Right and marry him, about her wisdom in choosing the person, about her first sexual experiences with women and her first affair, while married, with another married woman, Grace, whose husband was possessive and homophobic. 
What is most moving about this book is the way the narrator explains how these events impacted her personal life and the relationship with her husband Christopher, including the different styles of communication and affection that enabled the couple not only to survive, but to grow, and become more deeply related.  For example, we find out that when Grace’s husband threatened to tell Jenny’s husband about the women’s affair, Jenny not only accepted to talk to this man, but also, eventually, when all danger was averted, decided to tell her own husband the whole story as well.  Clearly, Jenny wants to be appreciated by her partner for her honesty, and takes the risk of honesty even when the facts could be easily and conveniently concealed.  In another situation, we learn that via communication and negotiation Jenny and Christopher have agreed to open their marriage, and that the chosen person is a female friend of Jenny’s whom Christopher knows as well, Lisbeth.  The description of the lovely threesome, the trepidations that anticipate it, the act itself, the feelings and afterthoughts are quite discreet and gracious, yet concrete and palpable enough for any reader to get a sense of how joyful and intense these experiences can be. 

As Block remembers:

I couldn’t keep from smiling as I watched my husband run his hand over Lisbeth’s breasts and down her hips. He looked awed, as if this were the first time he had ever touched a woman like that—not just her, but any woman.  It was amazing to watch them together.  It was hot, but it was also sweet.  She was lost in him, and he in her.  I was able to see Christopher as a human being for the fist time in years . . . . as a man, as a sexual being, a person who needed to be wanted (140)

Even though Jenny was the one who suggested opening the marriage, and even though Lisbeth was primarily her friend, when Lisbeth decides to continue the sexual relationship with Christopher and not her, Jenny is obliging in a dignified, self-sustaining way.  She respects them, as she explains:

After the three of us had been together for several months, my husband continued to sleep with Lisbeth, but I didn’t.  It was her choice, not mine.  But I respected her interest (or lack thereof).  . . . I missed having sex with her, but it was important to me that she was honest about how she was feeling (144).

The author comes across as a woman with integrity, love, intelligence, and determination, a person one would want in one’s life, and one who is ready to fight her battles to define herself and her circumstances in her own terms.  Toward the end of the memoir the author goes back to some of the dramatic moments in the story to offer her reflections on how she and Christopher made it though the most difficult times.  She clearly knows how to establish the terms of a negotiation with her partner, as a person who chooses marriage rather than feeling obligated to accept it as a woman’s biological destiny.

Christopher and I recovered from our first debacle almost instantly, simply because we decided we would.  So much of navigating a new lifestyle involves letting go of the ‘norms’ and ‘meanings’ to which people have grown accustomed.  We were figuring things together, and we had to learn to talk to each other and to listen . . . we continue to work at that . . . (228)

A capable negotiator, she is also compassionate and empathetic. As she explains:

even though we know that talking is paramount, it’s not always easy, especially for Christopher.  For example, when things ended with Christopher and Lisbeth as we all went back to being ‘just friends,’ it was though for all of us, as any change is.  But Christopher suffered a different kind of loss than either Lisbeth or I did—and, I believe, a more difficult one.  She and I fell back into our friendship easily, but he had no real relationship with her before our sexual one started and so we was left feeling like and outsider . . . he was back to being the husband of her best friend (228-229).

Eventually, the life narrative Block presents in this memoir ends with the formation of a three-way relationship that has Jenny involved with both Christopher and Jemma, the younger woman who accepts to be her exclusive girlfriend.  This configuration can be described as a bisexual/polyamorous triad. 

Through the empathy for her partner(s) and her affirmation of multipartnering as a practice of love that enhances amorous relationships, the author successfully presents open marriage as a viable alternative between conventional monogamy and more liberal ways to practice alternative lifestyles, as in solo players and group marriage (also known as polyfidelity).  As presented in this memoir, open marriage involves various degrees of bisexuality and responsible non-monogamy, with secondary relationships including something as fleeting as Jenny’s brief flings while out of town, and something as stable as Jenny’s exclusive relationship with Jemma.  Open marriage comes across as a viable option for open minded people in a society like the United States, where the nuclear concept of a family is prevalent enough in the culture at large to determine things as basic as retirement and health insurance.  When understood in these terms, open marriage is a cultural construct that challenges two of the most important paradigms upon which the accepted concept of marriage in the West is predicated: monogamy and monosexuality.  Open marriage, demurely concludes Jenny Block, is “just a variation on an institution that is desperate for a remodel” (221).  Today, when “gay marriage,” as a frequent centerpiece in debates about queer politics, is often understood as a variant that only remodels the gender of the other person, her statement is especially poignant.  And indeed, with her genuine story, Block has persuaded us that “most people involved in open marriages are honest, open-minded, and intellectual” (216). 

Also appeared in SexGenderBody.
Republished here with thanks to Arvan Reese.
Opne by Jenny Block @ Amazon.com 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

5 of 5: We Are Everywhere: A Fiveway Review of A History of Bisexuality, Bisexual Spaces, Look Both Ways, Open, and Becoming Visible

Cont’d, Book Five: Beth Firestein’s Becoming Visible (Columbia University Press, 2007.)

By Jonathan Alexander and Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio

Has appeared in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality. Re-published with permission of Routledge, New York. 

Last but not least, this review will consider the collection Becoming Visible (2007), which was put together for the purpose of empowering the counseling profession to provide health services to people like Jenny, Christopher, Jemma, and others, such that would help them actualize their ideal amorous configurations rather than make them feel guilty for desiring them.  The collection takes the lead from what manifests as the urge that most clients bring to a counselor’s table, rather than what the counseling profession at large might consider appropriate.  As editor Beth Firestein announces at the onset of her introduction, “our clients are no longer coming to us because they want to be ‘normal.’  They are coming to us because they want to be whole” (xiii, original emphasis). 
As a person who, in principle, does believe in psychotherapy, and who, out of a desire for integrity with her own chosen communities and identities, has practiced individual forms of individual therapy only in the context of co-counseling with members of queer, bi, and poly communities, co-editor Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio could not be more supportive of this kind of endeavor, and hopeful that the very serious studies and research contained in this volume make a significant impact in the profession of psychotherapy, so that more counselors are available to help people like her.  “Whole” stands of course for fulfilled in one’s aspirations in creative, imaginative, unique ways, regardless of any normativity, and, in particular, heteronormativity.  It is a tall call for any therapist, since one’s personal experiences have an effect on the span of one’s imagination, and that tends to trace the contours of one’s belief systems as well.  So, while one cannot imagine how counselors who believe in “converting” gays to heteronormativity (like those the film Bruno makes fun of in a crucial scene) could be impacted by this book, one can certainly see how many liberal therapists open to the idea of wholeness as the goal of a counselor’s work, can find in the book’s pages the data, information, tools, and evidence to become more effective in their job.  Besides this, the book also of course empowers those accustomed to coaching, co-counseling, self-counseling, sharing with confidantes and in support and social groups, pillow talk, and other informal ways of accessing emotional resources, to find pot what it is that they need to get over a stumbling block in their psychological progress and development.

The book’s sections include an overview of critical issues in counseling bisexuals; a central section, “Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan,” that establishes bisexuality as a viable sexual identity acceptable to clients and therapists no matter for how long and at what age it is adopted to describe oneself; a section on the psychological situations faced by bisexuals who are part of cultural, racial, or ethnic minorities; and a section on diversity of lovestyles among groups of bisexuals. 

For the sake of this review, we will focus on three chapters in the volume.  Chapter 11, “Addressing Social Invalidation to Promote Well-Being for Multiracial Bisexuals of African Descent” (207-228), by Raymond Scott, emphasizes the challenges people of African descent face in the United States when they identify as bisexuals.  In the context of critical race theory, the author emphasizes how, when in the culture at large one is exclusively or at least primarily defined by color, any other non-normative self-definitions become fraught with the risk of being considered too deviant to be taken on, with the ensuing consequences of forced duplicity and closetedness, as in what is known as the “down low” lifestyle.  This situation in turn tends to produce self-destructiveness, loss of voice, invalidation, and all the severe emotional and psychological challenges these entail.  It is very important, the article claims, to begin with a self-defined notion of race.  The author models this by describing all people of African descent in the Americas as multiracial, including African-Americans who live in the United States.  Historically, by definition, this is the country where “whites” and only whites have been defined by “purity.”  Once this multiracial, self-defined multiple notion of race is recognized, affirmed, and embraced, the coming-out process of a multiracial bisexual client can begin to take place.

Chapter 17, “Counseling Bisexuals in Polyamorous Relationships” (312-335), by Geri Weitzman, focuses on the segment of the bisexual population that defines itself as polyamorous and whose members practice some form of responsible non-monogamy or multipartnering.  The chapter makes good use of a wide spectrum of data collected in well described informal online surveys.  It offers an articulate typology of the polyamorous population and the kinds of discrimination it faces.  Further, the chapter explains why poly people believe that practicing polyamory contributes to their stability and mental health; it describes their main concerns in a world unfamiliar with their orientation; and reports the incidence among polaymorists of individuals who identify as bisexuals: 51 percent of the total sample according to the survey (317).  Weitzman’s research also contributes to dispelling the myth that polyamorous bisexuals behave like what Fritz Klein calls concurrent bisexuals, namely that they need to be involved with a male and a female at the same time to be whole.  Another dispelled myth is that polyamorous bisexuals are more at risk for sexually transmitted diseases than others.  The report is that 71 percent of respondents affirm that their lovers’ gender does not matter.  It was also found that enhanced awareness of safer-sex practices have successfully protected polyamorous bisexuals from being more affected by STDs than the general population. 

Chapter 18, “Playing with Sacred Fire: Building Erotic Communities” (336-357), by Loraine Hutchins, focuses on counseling participants in “social or friendship networks that include sharing of sexual experiences between network members in various combinations” (336).  The author adeptly introduces the concept of erotic communities.  This trope shifts the focus not only from the sexual to the erotic, but also from the private (from what is supposed to happen behind closed doors, the famous ‘primal scene’ that would be cause for childhood trauma according for Freud) to the public, or at least to an open space where erotic energies can be shared by multiple participants in an amorous game.  With her subtle awareness of and respect for erotic communities based on notions of tantra and sacred eroticism, Hutchins engages a queer terrain indeed, as she proposes that counselors revise the prevalent notion of the orgiastic as the ultimate primitivism and negative loss of self, for a positive notion that revises this experience as one deeply connected with the divine and the sacred.  What happens to the cultural construct of sexuality, with its embedded paradigms of monosexuality and monogamy, when multipartnering in an eroticized space is revised as a religious experience?  Hutchins examines three sacred-sex communities, Carol Queen’s San Francisco based “Queer of Heaven,” the Pennsylvania based “Body Sacred,” and “The Body Electric School,” also based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She points out that leadership in the creation and development of these intentional communities has consistently been bisexual, and that the effect of the work of these communities in the culture at large has been that of teaching anew forms and styles of the arts of loving, some of which were quite well known in cultures ancient or other than the West.  In other words, when all life is recognized as a form of the sacred, as it was in classical antiquity and still is in Tantric Hinduism, then bisexuality, like other plural forms of erotic expression, are every bit according to nature, or, in secondo natura, as Cantarella’s original title explainsThis erotic knowledge, we would like to add, is indeed part of the sacred, as it helps to assuage pernicious fears that stand in the way of practicing love sustainably.  This knowledge helps to control risks involved in producing love in an age of uncertainty like our own, when production of this essential element that all life shares is especially necessary. 

The width of topics and disciplines, the range of interests and perspectives deployed in the reviewed books suggests that the intersection of bisexuality and queer theory is a space populated with multiple minds that vibrate together as their intellectual visions examine and gradually transform our cultural notions of the sexual, the amorous, and the erotic.

Works Cited
Angelides, Steven.  A History of Bisexuality.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Baumgardner, Jennifer.  Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Block, Jenny.  Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage.  Seattle: Seal Press, 2009
Cantarella, Eva.  Bisexuality in the Ancient World.  Yale University Press, 1992.  (Originally published in Italian as Secondo natura, 1988.)
Firestein, Beth, ed.  Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan.  Columbia University Press, 2007.
Garber, Marjorie.  Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Hemmings, Clare.  Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender.  New York: Routledge, 2002.
Klein, Fritz; The Bisexual Option. New York: The Harrington Park Press, 1993.

Also appeared in SexGenderBody.
Republished here with thanks to Arvan Reese.