Societal Norms Often Keep Us From Understanding Our True Sexuality
When we first got the call that my father’s brother Jacob had died suddenly, my mother and I knew we would be the ones to have to dispose of his things. We just didn’t realize that half of them would be women’s clothing. My dad had passed on several years before and that side of the family was dwindling quickly. What we didn’t know about Jacob until we got to the apartment he shared with a friend in New York is that Jacob was bisexual. He was also a cross-dresser, who had one closet full of men’s clothes and one closet full of women’s. We were completely taken by surprise!
At the time of Jacob’s death, he had just started dating a woman that he’d recently met and they were planning a weekend away together. Many years prior he’d lived with a woman named Phoebe for the span of about 10 years. But before and in between those relationships, he’d also been sexually and emotionally involved with men. In fact, I think Jacob had mostly been involved with men, and I got the impression from his roommate that he was quite active in the gay culture of New York.
I read a story the other day written by Sam Wilkinson, called I Identified As A Gay Man, Then I Fell In Love With My Female Housemate In Lockdown. Although that’s not necessarily a common story, it didn’t really surprise me, knowing what I did about Jacob’s bisexuality (or perhaps pansexuality). The other reason it didn’t surprise me is I had seen how my own sexual identification changed once I had different opportunities to explore it.
I think that Jacob largely identified as gay perhaps because that community was the place where he could express his true self more fully than the world where he pretended to be straight, in part because he could. After all, he’d had a serious live-in relationship with a woman for close to 10 years in the middle of his life. We, his family didn’t know any different, and I don’t think his work colleagues did either, even though he worked in a creative field and had a very refined demeanor. We were all stuck in binary thinking as well.
Bisexuality isn’t really understood or embraced by either straight people or the gay community at large. Both groups tend to look at bisexuals as indecisive, waffling, fooling themselves about their true sexuality, and greedy (yes, greedy). It doesn’t make it easy for bisexual or pansexual people to stand firm in their truth because there is so much cultural messaging that says they are aberrant. Even many queer people who ought to be their allies don’t really accept them.
Besides the fact that this is unkind, it’s also somewhat ironic, since according to the Kinsey Scale, which was first published in 1948, the vast majority of people are actually at least somewhat bisexual. According to the research of Drs. Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin, only about 14% of people are exclusively heterosexual and a similar number are exclusively homosexual. All the rest of us are somewhere on a continuum of bisexuality.
Although there has long been more acceptance for women who are “mostly straight” but who may occasionally find a woman interesting and attractive enough to have some sexual involvement with her, the same does not hold true for men. The gender binaries of a patriarchal society mean that anything that is remotely feminine (like being the person a man has sex with) is considered unmasculine. “I kissed a girl and I liked it” is hot, but two guys together makes a lot of people, including a lot of women, profoundly uncomfortable, particularly if they then want to kiss them next. Ew!
Many people have come to accept that gay men exist in the world, even if they don’t always accord them dignity or equal rights, but the notion of being bisexual still doesn’t sit right for many, even to the younger men who admit some attraction to or sexual experience with men.
A 2011–2013 U.S. government poll found that among 18- to 24-year-old men, 6% marked their sexual attractions as “mostly opposite sex.” That’s nearly 1 million young men. Yet when these men were forced to choose between straight, bisexual or gay, about three-quarters marked straight because for them bisexual, even if it is understood as “bisexual-leaning straight,” is too gay to accurately describe their identity. Given such constraints, these young men were left with no place to truthfully register their sexuality, thus forcing them to be less than honest. Source
Although we give women more room to be fluid in their sexuality in this way, there is still a lot of socialization towards the binary. You are either male or female, and either gay or straight. Growing up, I knew I wasn’t gay, because I was very interested in guys, so I figured I must be straight. Although I had taken a health class in college that introduced me to the Kinsey scale, it still never occurred to me that I might be bisexual. In addition to my programming around the binary aspect of sexuality, which was deeply ingrained, I just didn’t have any opportunities to explore that side of myself until I was 50 years old.
There are a lot of jokes and stories about female sexual experimentation with each other in college, but let’s just say I never had a roommate or other friend who opened that door enough for me to consider it. I’d had a sleep-over with a beautiful friend when we were about 11 where we’d massaged each other’s naked backs (and fronts) but that was as far as it went, and I think we just both assumed it was more about puberty than anything else, although maybe that’s where my love of breasts stems from. Most people’s first forays into sexual experiences are with people of the same gender because that’s who you mostly have access to, and yet most people grow up identifying as straight.
I’ve heard some pretty interesting stories of the mutual masturbation and other games that many straight-identified guys used to play with their friends when they were first discovering their sexual selves. There’s also a whole culture of men who just don’t have access to many women for periods of time due to work or prison who have sex with each other and consider themselves entirely straight. This is in part because there’s still a lot of stigma around being anything else, particularly for men.
As far as we’ve come with same-sex marriage, and other rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender people, there is still a huge amount of discrimination, bullying, and danger for them just being in the world. As with my Uncle Jacob, if you can avoid that by passing as straight, I can understand why someone might choose that. On the other hand, it also took a huge toll on my uncle’s life. He was an alcoholic and never did tell even those who loved him most what his life was really like. I’m sure that it cost him a lot to always wear that mask.
I was so proud of my fairly straight-laced mother for the way that she handled it all when we went to clean out Jacob’s half of the apartment. Her stance was, we loved him, and it was his life to lead as he chose. She was also sorry that he hadn’t felt that he could share himself with us more fully. We had a small memorial party with some of his friends before we left, most of them gay or trans and although I didn’t judge Jacob at all, it certainly broadened my horizons to really spend time with them. I’d had such a relatively cloistered existence before that and had exactly one gay friend at that time.
Fifteen years later I found myself asking my husband James if we could bring another man into our bed. It was a fantasy I’d had for a long time that got kind of put by the wayside when we married. James and I were in a very close and sexually exploratory phase about 6 years ago, and so I asked him what he thought about it. He was all for it, as long as we could play with a woman as well. How could I say no to that, even though I didn’t really know how I’d feel about being with a woman.
James wasn’t planning to be intimate with the other guy, so that was certainly an option for me as well, to not really engage with the other woman. But, I also knew that I was ready to try new things and to begin to find out what I really wanted. After all, a few months before, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask him about any threesomes. I realized I was more than a little bit bi-curious but had mostly just filed that away as off the table once I married James.
Once I realized it no longer was off the table, it didn’t take long for me to figure out where I really stood. I’m pansexual, meaning that who I’m attracted to is not determined by gender. I like who I like and some of those people are women. I’m still probably a bit more oriented towards men, although that may have to do with the fact that I’ve spent so many years dating and having sex with men and just a couple of years dating or having sex with women. Or maybe that’s just where I am on the Kinsey Scale naturally.
I love kissing women. The softness of their skin and lips just makes me want to kiss them forever, although I really like kissing men as well. Breasts are something I guess I’ve always noticed, even if I didn’t admit to myself in the past why that was. After all, we’re a society that is obsessed with women’s bodies, so it didn’t seem to be such a leap that I would admire nice breasts as well.
Well, some of that may still be a factor, I’m definitely a breast woman. Size isn’t the consideration so much as shape and just general form. I have to agree with James, that there are no bad breasts, but really attractive ones of any size, are a weakness for me. One of the first women I made out with was at the party wearing a white blouse that was unbuttoned quite a bit and I’d get a flash of her tits now and then as she danced. It was really intoxicating. When she came off the dance floor, I went over and talked to her. The flirting progressed to kissing fairly quickly.
We kissed and talked a little more until the kissing became more insistent and the talking stopped. We were sitting in a crowded club, with our husbands on either side of us, but at that moment, no-one else was around. I asked her if I could put my hands inside her shirt and touch those beautiful breasts. She nodded assent, and I ran my hands along the undersides, cupping them, and then fingered the nipples just in the same way that I liked to be touched.
The only thing I knew about touching women was by going on what I liked. So far, so good. In fact, after a while, she pulled me down until we were laying on the padded bench that we’d been sitting on. By then, she had partially unzipped my bustier and her hands were exploring my bare breasts as well. I started to play with the waistband on her jeans and after a while, I unbuckled her belt. A bit later I reached my hands inside her partially opened jeans and rubbed the top of her pubic bone. I wanted to see what it was like to put my hands there but to also give her the opportunity to stop me before I reached any further down.
She let me rub her there for a while but then eventually moved my hand away. I don’t know if she got scared or if her husband intervened, or if she’d just gone far enough. In any case, we stopped and sat back up. It was a little bit awkward coming back to reality after such a heady experience, but since the entire thing was completely consensual and ended when she wanted it to, I had no regrets.
In a few minutes she and her husband had gone back out onto the dance floor and the moment was over, but it didn’t matter; I’d had my first real experience with a woman. We had all of our clothes mostly on, but it is not an overstatement to say that it opened up a whole new world for me. Given the opportunity and the lack of censure or judgment, I discovered that I was actually quite interested in women also and that I liked being able to be the initiator some times.
If I’d had that same kind of opportunity when I was 20 instead of 50, would I have had the confidence to pursue it or would I have succumbed to my societal programming and the stories I’d been carrying around all those years about who I was? I think it very much would have depended on the environment and how receptive the other people around me were to such a break from the binary. When I made out with Susan, I was with my husband, who was supportive of whatever I felt comfortable doing, and I was in a swinger’s club where there were no judgment or safety issues.
I was ready to explore at that point, but it was also an environment that was supportive of that. I think that more people would be open to testing their potential fluidity if they had a way to do that without so much vulnerability. Case in point, Skirt Club, which is a private member organization for bisexual and bi-curious women started with a few clubs and now has sex parties in just about every major city around the world with thousands of members. It’s an upscale and safe place for women, many of whom are involved with men, to explore another side of their sexuality. No wonder it’s taken off so incredibly.
And how can guys who suspect they are at least somewhat sexually fluid explore that in a society that is so binary and so restrictive around what it means to be a man? How can people be open about their bisexuality when so few people accept or understand that it’s actually the most common option — that it’s not refusing to come to terms with their actual sexuality — it is their actual sexuality and in fact, most people’s actual sexuality?
I don’t know the answers but I do think that despite still rampant homophobia and despite other kinds of societal censures about sex in general, that none-the-less more and more people are at least asking themselves the question about whether or not their true sexual selves really fit into the boxes they’ve assumed for themselves long ago.
As Sam Wilkenson said about realizing that he had jumped to identify himself as gay when he first felt an attraction to men, “I wish someone had encouraged me to be kinder to myself in my teens, not to feel pressure to define or explain myself in a hurry. Had I done that, I think I would have had room to grow and develop at my own pace.” How nice it would be if we were all granted that grace?
Please feel free to answer one or more of these in the comments:
Have you ever discovered something new about your sexuality?
If you identify as straight, have you ever been intimate with someone of the same gender?
How can we create a safer environment for people to explore their true sexual selves?
James Finn wrote this, reflecting on thoughts and realizations he had reading the story above. If you would like to join the conversation, feel free to leave something in the comments or to write your own story, which we will then link.