“How do you know you are bisexual if you’ve never had queer sex before?”
I’ve had to answer this question just as many times as I have come out to my partner and my selected group of friends and family members. The answer always is, “How did you know you were straight before having heterosexual sex with someone else?”.
That usually catches their attention because, really, how did they know? Perhaps they have never questioned being straight.
But I have. Many, many times.
And my bisexuality – one part of my identity that gives me a sense of self – often gets dismissed with comments like “but your current (or past) partners are male though”.
I know, but this does not define how I identify myself. And to understand this, we need to realise that sexual orientation does not equal sexual behaviour or sexual identity and that this way of thinking contributes to bisexual erasure and biphobia.
Sexual Orientation ≠ Sexual Behaviour ≠ Sexual Identity
Michel Foucault, the king of sexuality studies (LOL), explains in the History of Sexuality: Volume II, that sexual identities such as ‘gay’ only became a thing in the 19th century. Before this, sexual acts defined the status of a man, not his sexual identity or sexual orientation (since they usually had wives and same-sex sexual acts were a rite of passage into manhood).
We can never assume people’s sexual orientation or how they identify themselves because of their sexual behaviour; and I will explain why through The OBI Model:
As one of my badass feminist idols, Melissa Fabello, elaborates more in depth in this article, the OBI Model was created by Don Dyson and Brent Satterly in 2010 to explain the complexity of what we usually think of as sexual orientation. They separated it into three related elements: Orientation, Behaviour and Identity (OBI).
O is for Orientation: describes the gender(s) the person feels sexually attracted to and fantasises about. I would add (not the original authors) that Orientation can be romantic and sexual, which are two different things.
B is for Behaviour: describes the gender(s) of the people the person engages in sexual activity with. (This sexual activity is not limited to intercourse, it can be anything!).
I is for Identity: describes how the person identifies/considers himself, herself or hirself*. Yeah, the label the person uses to better understand their inner sense of self (like queer, bisexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual, etc). Some people feel more comfortable not using a label to describe themselves at all, and that is valid too.
So listen up, straight folks! If you equate sexual orientation to sexual behaviour, then, your heterosexual identity before having sexual activity should be dismissed too, since you could not have known you were straight before having sex. And what happens to the straight people who engage in sexual behaviours that are not heterosexual? We cannot assume or force them to identify as something else because of that. Their identity labels (or lack thereof) can only be decided by them and them alone!
Disclaimer: I’m talking about heterosexual folks because that has been my experience when coming out to my friends and family. But people from the queer community could also question how I know I am bisexual before having queer sex.
Bisexual Erasure and Biphobia
To say that sexual behaviour determines sexual orientation and identity contributes to bisexual erasure and biphobia, and this is something both heterosexual folks and the LGBTQIA+ community alike reproduce in our society.
Biphobia and bisexual erasure go hand-in-hand. They usually cannot live without each other, but this is not always the case. Biphobia can be defined as the hatred, discrimination and fear of bisexual people. Just like homophobia, biphobia thrives on the belief that bisexuality is a threat to our heteronormative social order (since heterosexuality is supposed to be the norm). Bisexual erasure is the idea that bisexuality, as a sexual orientation, is not real. And this is an extreme form of biphobia.
Bisexual erasure and biphobia co-constitute each other, which means that they contribute to each other’s existence, they fuel each other’s fire. And simultaneously, they are both reproduced by the deep monosexism ingrained in our society.
Monosexism is the idea that a person can only be truly attracted to one gender, reinforcing binary thinking and legitimising the experience of straight, gay and lesbian folks. In our monosexist society, if a person that can only be attracted to one gender *feels* sexual attraction (because not everyone does!) to that one opposite/same gender engages in sexual behaviour, this person is considered either straight or gay.
So, if a bisexual person is engaging in sexual behaviour with someone of their opposite or same gender, this person is “not really” bisexual, they are just really straight or gay. Right?
Equating sexual behaviour with sexual orientation reproduces bisexual erasure and biphobia because bisexuality is dismissed by the gender(s) of the partners. If a bisexual girl is in a relationship with a guy, this does not make her straight. If a bisexual guy has sex with a guy, this does not make him gay. Even if passing as straight or gay, the person remains bisexual because they feel attracted to more than one gender. Or as it is also said, the person is bisexual because they feel attracted to people regardless of their gender, not because of it. Unless they identify as something else with time, because identity is contingent and fluid.
The sexual behaviour = sexual orientation equation furthers the stigma, myths and stereotypes bisexual individuals struggle with on a daily basis. The most common misconceptions are that bisexual people are closeted gays and lesbians; that they cannot be faithful or monogamous; that they feel equal attraction to all genders; that they are promiscuous and have more risk of getting HIV; that they are confused; that they are 50% straight and 50% gay; and that they are greedy, attention-seekers that are just going through a phase. Or that in reality, they are just barsexuals.
So, next time we assume someone else’s sexual orientation because of their sexual behaviour or because they pass as such and such, we need to think more critically about this. Think about how a person’s experience can be completely dismissed by one hurtful comment or assumption about how their identity is not real.
Remember that only YOU have the power to determine your sexual identity and that your experiences are always valid.