The One About Bisexuality
Hello and welcome to another Teatime!
I’m super excited to be joined today by Santino Hassell and Vanessa North. We’re going to talking about the representation and portrayal of bisexuality and other non-binary sexualities in romance.
AJH: Hello, and thank you for joining me.
VN: Hello 🙂 Thank you for inviting me to join you.
SH: Hey guys. Thanks for having me.
AJH: So, this is a pretty big and complicated topic (unlike all the other small and entirely simple things we talk about a tea-time) … I kind of feel I should be introducing everyone like this Bisexuals Anonymous or something.
VN: wellll… You could, or we could just start talking about representation and stuff
AJH: Or we could do that. But I think one of the broader problems of representing bisexuality is that it’s become this … invisible catch-all, in a way? Either the possibility of non-binary sexuality is completely erased (like in the majority of Gay For You stories) or any non-binary sexuality is automatically considered / lumped in with bisexuality.
VN: Well, even among bisexuals, we don’t necessarily agree on how our sexuality is defined.
SH: Agreed on that. One of the biggest debates I’ve gotten into was whether bisexuality should be seen as a “choice”, and whether or not “choice” is something that should even be discussed.
VN: Sexual attraction and romantic attraction are so complicated–and I do think we, on some level, may choose to date or fuck or marry an individual, but I don’t think we choose to be attracted to them.
SH: I tend to have the mindset that there are people who have always been sexually/romantically attracted to certain genders, or all genders, but that there are also people who choose to experiment, or to embrace desires that develop later on. It’s why I don’t find GFY totally offensive all the time. Just the way the narrative is sometimes presented.
VN: I don’t find GFY offensive–though sometimes, when clumsily written, it sort of sweeps aside the issue of genuine bi-erasure. “Oh he was really gay the whole time.” Well…no.
AJH: Yes. I think this taps into the root of a problem (if we feel there is a problem) in the sense that – regardless of the degree to which you feel attraction and/oor sexuality can be chosen – identity is definitely chosen. So if you sleep with 83736356272 women and 1 man, and you conclude you’re gay … then, you’re gay? And even if you sleep with people across the gender spectrum but don’t define as bisexual, then that’s entirely legitimate too, and not inherently bi-erasing. So essentially I think a lot of the limitations in representing non binary sexualities in fiction is the fact that you’re essentially dealing with the necessarily simplified identity of imaginary people.
VN: well, sure, and i support anyone’s right to self-identify however they like. I am writing a story NOW about a gay man who sleeps with women and doesn’t identify as bi–just lonely sometimes.
AJH: But given what a lot of people perceive to be (and I would agree) a lack of representation in fiction … I suppose there are some readers (I wouldn’t be one of them, I hasten to add) who might find that bi-erasing in a way? As in here is a character partaking of explicitly bisexual behaviour who is refusing to define as bisexual.
VN: And it may be. But it’s true to the character and true to the type of coming-out sometimes seen in men in their thirties from small rural areas–they are pressured into keeping their sexuality hidden for social–often religious–reasons, and don’t truly begin to identify as gay until they feel they have to. It’s not so much about the sexual behavior as the social behavior and doing what’s expected for the society they live in.
SH: I think there is a difference between bi-erasure and the type of narrative that Vanessa is discussing. There are plenty of men, even now and even in larger cities, that go through life living “discreetly”. Sleeping with women or getting married to women to keep up appearances, or because they feel it’s not safe to be gay, and I think that is a story that needs to be told in M/M. It just so happens that there are more stories told about men who have enjoyed sleeping with women all their lives, meet a specific guy, and then decide all of those other experiences were a mistake. That is what I consider to be bi-erasure.
AJH: Gosh, yes, of course there’s a different, and I don’t mean it sound like I’m picking on Vanessa’s story at all.
VN: Whatev, you’re totally picking on me. 😛
AJH: Noooo, it sounds great and I’ll totally read it. What I mean is, in fiction and in romance fiction especially you don’t really have the broader social context so there’s an extent to which you only really have behaviour. Sexuality is essentially reduced to what you do with your genitalia on page. So in order to depict bisexuality explicitly enough to be recognised as bisexuality you kind of have to have a character acting a certain way. And consequently stories in which characters “act bisexual” (whatever this means) and then identity a different way can feel erasing. When they’re could be a telling a perfectly legitimate other story (like the one Vanessa mentions) or just being a … crass GFY.
SH: I get what you’re saying, I think. When I come out as bisexual to people, I get a lot of these beady-eyed looks and questions as if I am “allegedly” bisexual. Like, can I back it up with any actual experience? As if the number of dicks I’ve sucked will validate my bisexuality more.
AJH: I’m kind of imagining this Wanted poster now: Santino Hassell – Alleged Bisexual.
SH: In books, it seems like there are certain requirements for a character to seem REALLY bisexual instead of just… allegedly bisexual. I had that issue recently when writing about a bicurious guy. I didn’t want to discount his experiences with women, or only talk about him being attracted to women in past tense, so I added a short M/F scene, but then realized few people will want to read it.
VN: I think maybe you’ve hit on something that strikes me as difficult in M/M and in poly stories… often, to prove bisexuality, we’re expected to show the sex on page, but M/M readers don’t often want to read “girl parts.” So, i actually see more representation in M/F menage stories–where bisexuality is basically treated as synonymous with polyamory–which as a monogamous bisexual, I find problematic.
AJH: I agree. I’m broadly monogamous too but they didn’t amputate my tastes and preferences when I signed the relationship paperwork. And this brings us back to the issue of our understanding of bisexuality in life and fiction being centred on acts, or considered “alleged” only. You kind of have this weird situation where someone else’s sexual-identity is derived in the moment from the person they’re with (sexually or romantically).
VN: The first woman I was ever attracted to, or consciously attracted to, was not someone I ever had a romantic or sexual relationship with–but obviously as a young woman discovering I TOTALLY had the hots for this other woman, it was a huge moment in my life, and she’s kind of a special person to me in my mind because of that.
SH: It seems like for some people, and this goes for both heterosexual and queer people, your sexual identity is only validated with sexual experience.
AJH: By which logic, biromantic asexuals do not exist. Obviously I’m being slightly silly here but…
SH: Maybe, but it’s entirely possible that some readers and authors both feel that way–it’s not a romance without sex, so romantic asexuals would get left out of the equation.
AJH: Or Christians who don’t believe in sex before marriage. Which is even more exciting.
SH: That kind of makes me want to write a historical about Puritans having sly sex.
AJH: Pretty sure I’ve read something like that.
VN: I think that’s true–people tend to expect sex in romance. However, those types of stories may be wildly popular among people who prefer not to read sex in their books.
AJH: Although actually – my semi-serious point is that obviously readers have expectations (and that’s fine!) and the genre itself comes with expectations (and that’s also fine!) but the way these intersect with sexualities that express themselves in less traditional ways (bisexuality, asexuality) makes writing romances that are recognisable and satisfying as romances about these characters … well … kinda complicated within those expectations.
SH: It definitely makes it complicated if you’re trying to represent the characters in a way that you feel is genuine. Part of the problem might be that in some romances, the main character’s love interest is portrayed as this one true love/best sex of my life type person, and past experiences are kind of… done away with. But avoiding giving that impression and falling into the “one true love/real love” trope gets tricky if you want to acknowledge those past experiences without taking the focus away from the current plot or love interest or whatever. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why it’s not always done very effectively or at all.
VN: I think it can definitely be traced back to the “one true love” trope–which often represents in virginity narratives or in narratives where the hero or heroine only has had limited, unfulfilling sexual experiences. It’s definitely not art imitating life, but art imitating a sort of social model that I would hope is becoming outdated.
AJH: Or it’s just the nature of our expectations about romance which may not, in themselves, be particularly problematic. I mean, a good romance (for me) presents essentially a convincing argument (argument in the broad sense) for two people being better off together than they might be alone, or with somebody else. So I can see why, under those narrative circumstances, diminishing the importance/value of previous lovers or alternative lovers serves a purpose. Even if it doesn’t necessarily represent life.
SH: That’s true. In the novel I’m working on now, there is a question of “why are you choosing to have a relationship with me and not any of the girls you have been with in the past?”, and it was… interesting having the bicurious guy respond to that question in a way that didn’t devalue his past experiences while trying to explain why he feels this guy is the right one for him. It boils down to he and his love interest bringing out the best in each other, and the strength of their connection, but I’m pretty sure someone somewhere will still think I was erasing his prior experiences.
VN: I hate to see past relationships vilified or discredited–in real life and in fiction. A lot of times, people think it’s healing to trash the ex–and for some individuals, it may be–but in most cases, two good people can have a bad relationship–or a good relationship that ends–and it’s just part of life. I think those relationships teach us a lot, and prepare us for better, more fulfulling relationships down the road. I love to see characters say “yeah, I liked this person, but it didn’t work out.” and let that be that.
AJH: Sometimes, though, there isn’t anything good to say. I have at least one relationship in my past – not abusive or anything, just not very good – where people would afterwards ask me “why were you dating that guy” and, not wanting to diminish the value of who he was and what we had together, I’d end up answering “well, he had a car.”
SH: I don’t have a car. Guess it will never work out between us.
AJH: Sorry, no. I’m a classy gent. You need your own transport in order to take me to fancy restaurants.
SH: :/ Whatevs. I still have Grindr.
VN: I always sort of feel that there’s nothing wrong with being in love, or like, or lust–even if it ends.
AJH: I agree (except in extreme cases), especially if there’s vehicles involved. I’m less troubled by it in romance only because I see it as sort of the equivalent of the virgin spinster with the Best Vagina Ever.
VN: Spoiler: She also has red hair and green eyes.
AJH: Aaaanyway, we should probably look at wrapping this up. Do we have any recs for books with bisexual protagonists?
VN: I’m a huge fan of Kit Rocha’s Beyond series, in which pretty much everyone has sex with everyone–F/F, M/F, M/M and just about every menage situation you can imagine. The characters treat their sexuality as something rewarding and fun–and it’s sexy as hell.
AJH: Oh, that reminds me of Megan Mulry. There’s lots of really cheerful everybody with everybody stuff in Bound To Be a Groom. Which is fun. And I like Cecilia Tan just all in the time in general. Basically everyone she writes is bisexual until proven otherwise, which I like. The hero of her billionaire dom series (the first one being Slow Surrender) is obviously with the heroine, as its hetrom, but he read as queer as hell to me.
SH: I would recommend Off Campus by Amy Jo Cousins. The main character is bisexual, but what I really liked about his narrative was his fear of calling himself bisexual to his love interest. I found it really honest, because oftentimes, it’s other queer men who are leery of dating bisexuals or who don’t “believe in bisexuality”/consider it a phase. It wasn’t as much of an issue in Off Campus, but I liked that Cousins acknowledged the existence of that type of mindset.
AJH: Thank you for joining me folks!
We do hope you’ll join us for more discussion in the comments. How do you find the portrayal and representation of non-binary sexualities in romance? Any peeves or concerns? Any tropes you love or hate. Do you have recs for us?
About Alexis J Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
About Vanessa North
Author of over a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories, Vanessa North delights in giving happy-ever-afters to characters who don’t think they deserve them. Relentless curiosity led her to take up knitting and run a few marathons “just to see if she could.” She started writing for the same reason. Her very patient husband pretends not to notice when her hobbies take over the house. Living and writing in Northwest Georgia, she finds her attempts to keep a quiet home are frequently thwarted by twin boy-children and a very, very large dog.
About Santino Hassell
Santino is a dedicated gamer, a former anime-watcher and fanfic writer, an ASoIaF mega nerd, a Grindr enthusiast, but most of all he is a writer of LGBT fiction that is heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.
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