Dear Straight Allies, Please Don’t Forget The Harassment Of Queer Women

By Casey Quinlan

Credit: flickr/FUMIGRAPHIK

I’ve read a lot of pieces on the so-called crisis that is modern dating. I’ve read a lot about men who require girlfriend responsibilities without committing to responsibilities boyfriends usually have. I’ve read about male Tinder users who treat women as disposable objects, although I doubt Tinder can be faulted for that. I’ve read about men and women who ghost each other. I’ve read about how awful casual sex with men can be. I’ve read about how bad sex isn’t the end of the world as we know it.

And I’ve read about online harassment of women on dating sites. Unfortunately, it’s usually framed only within the context of straight women’s experiences. I once read the clause “especially for heterosexual women” in a piece addressing the horrors of online dating — harassment and all — and wondered why the author, and authors of similar pieces at general interest publications, rarely consider queer women when they write pieces about harassment of women both online and off.

As a bisexual woman, I know I can find great coverage of issues that affect me at sites for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer-identified women, such as AfterEllen and Autostraddle. Larger operations such as BuzzFeed also address our concerns, but I’d like to see more outlets acknowledge us in pieces about women and dating experiences in general, because queer women do receive misogynist messages and various levels of harassment. Bustle was one of few sites geared toward women in general that has done this, writing, “Lots of people (usually women who are interested in men, though people of all genders and sexualities encounter such horrors) give up on OkCupid because they can’t take the barrage of graphic descriptions of sex acts, racialized sexual harassment, and general weirdness.”

The Erasure Of Queer Women

The standard lack of acknowledgement tells me that a lot of straight women think queer women can just opt out of harassment from men, both in the online dating world and on the street. When the dialogue on harassment does include queer women, it’s generally only implicitly, by identifying all the issues that affect “straight women.” But the truth is that women who identify as gay or lesbian aren’t given a free pass from objectification and harassment simply because they aren’t attracted to men. It doesn’t work that way.

First of all, no matter how you present yourself to the world, your sexuality is not clear to everyone around you. That means women who may be read as straight (how people attempt to “read” another person’s sexuality through their dress is a debate for another time), but are lesbian or gay, are still on the receiving end of the kind of harassment straight women receive — and sometimes worse once the harasser realizes they aren’t straight.

But even if we allow for the idea that a woman dresses and behaves in a way that makes men immediately assume she must be gay or lesbian, what makes us think the same kind of man who harasses straight women (or women “read” as straight) would suddenly stop their behavior in this scenario? Men who think straight women owe them attention, who think they deserve to sleep with the hottest woman in the room, no matter how much she avoids them, also resent women who shirk what they believe are their responsibilities — look feminine but in the prescribed manner, be sexually available to men, as in whichever man is reading their profile, not a variety of men, because a sexual history of any kind is disgusting to them, and submit to their interests and their sexual preferences.

Women who identify as gay and lesbian either aren’t doing most of these things or aren’t doing any of these things and it would be lazy to assume that straight men don’t ever resent them for that. There is a reason why so many men espouse fantasies about “turning” women straight, or actually believe they can, which are validated through porn labeled “lesbian” that is created specifically for them. It’s hard for them to absorb the idea that even one woman out of many women isn’t “available” to them. I once went on a first date with a man who sincerely thought he turned a woman straight because she said she dated only women before him and dated a man after sleeping with him. I asked him why he didn’t consider that maybe she’s bisexual. He laughed and said he never considered the possibility.

When thinking about straight men’s interactions with women who identify as lesbian or gay, one story in particular stuck with me. Years ago, a relative of mine recounted an anecdote where she and her girlfriend were at a bar with friends and a man approached her. She told him she wasn’t attracted to men. He continued to tell her why he found her attractive and described how well endowed he was, despite multiple protestations that she didn’t care. She said it was typical of men to assume that their penis offered something special, no matter what she told them she actually wanted. Does this not sound familiar to straight women who receive unsolicited dick pics, streams of hateful messages from men they’ve rejected, and are on the receiving end of aggressive harassment on the street?

That’s because queer women aren’t exempt from the same rape culture straight women experience. Men who don’t respect straight women’s sexuality and their ability to be a free agent in their sexual and romantic lives, won’t respect the sexuality of women who aren’t attracted to men either. That’s why the phenomenon of “corrective rape,” a hate crime where someone is raped in order to “turn” the person straight or make them conform to heteronormative values, exists. Strangely enough, men continue to message women who are only interested in women on platforms such as OKCupid. You can use a filter to avoid straight people, but that doesn’t stop straight men from creating profiles that get by the filter, all so they can message women who clearly don’t want to date them.

And I’ve only scratched the surface of the kinds of problems women attracted to women face on a regular basis. There are women who fear kissing a woman or showing any kind of public display of affection in public, lest men consider it a show intended for them; no matter what you do as a woman, there are men who will find a way to make it about their sexual appraisal of you.

But male harassers aren’t the only people making lives difficult for women on and off of the Internet. Other queer women are internalizing and expressing these same messages of sexual entitlement that they’ve also absorbed through rape culture — because although queer women can build alternatives to destructive and narrow paths for expressing sexuality and talking about consent, queer women didn’t grow up in a vacuum, sealed away from the same rape culture and glorification of domination of and violence against women that straight people know.

What Bisexual Women Face

In my experience, these issues manifest themselves in different ways for bi women, as well. When I have chosen to select both men and women and stated my bisexuality upfront, I am flooded with requests from couples. It doesn’t matter if my profile states the usual clause bisexual people are familiar with “No threesomes” or “No couples, please.” I put them in photo captions for extra visibility, a strategy that made absolutely no difference.

I would receive requests every other day, and if I responded and turned them down, however politely, some people would challenge my decision or call me a prude for getting in the way of their fantasy by reminding them through my actions that not all bi women aren’t up for this. To them, my sexuality only existed to enhance their sex life in some way.

I eventually became numb to these requests, but some of the worst experiences I had were with women who weren’t upfront about seeking a threesome and would carry on a conversation with me for hours or days before I found out what they actually wanted. One lazy Sunday, I matched with a doe-eyed woman I’ll call Sarah, whose profile was short but sweet. We exchanged phone numbers and shallow compliments and hours later she mentioned an attractive man I should know. I was a little miffed but not surprised, and told her I wasn’t interested but I wished her luck. I thought that was the end of it. Weeks later, as I sat in a cab on my way to a Halloween party, I received a text from a man along with a photo of himself. He said we met at a bar but I knew that wasn’t the case. I ignored him, and then only two weeks ago, received another text from the same man. I looked him up and realized he eerily fit the description of the man Sarah described to me.

The idea that she may have felt comfortable giving him my information or that he took it from her without her permission sends chills down my spine. Either way, he obviously didn’t care what I wanted. He didn’t care that I rejected him, and possibly, neither did she. I’ll never know what really happened, but I’m angry that this is a likely possibility I have to consider.

Unfortunately, as illogical as it is, there is an expectation that bi women’s bodies belong to every man. To be sure, men feel entitled to straight women’s bodies, but their entitlement toward bi women’s bodies may be stronger. Throughout their lives, men have been informed that bisexual women exist only to entertain them, to provide them with a sexual novelty. To straight men, as well as plenty of gay men and gay- or lesbian-identified women, bisexuality and promiscuity are one and the same.

Since straight men have been taught that a “promiscuous woman” (according to whatever their highly subjective definition of that is) belongs to any man who wants her, bisexual women are public property to them. And there is a degree of frustration with bi women when we reject these narratives and tell straight men that our experiences don’t belong to them, that plenty of us loathe the idea of a man watching our most intimate moments with a woman, and most of all, in the event they learn that we find their views of our sexuality to be simplistic, if not misogynist and biphobic.

I’ve experienced this sudden change in attitude too many times. I made sure to choose “bisexual” or “looking for men and women” in the list of options when I made my dating profiles, but sometimes men didn’t spot it and it probably never occurred to them that I could be bi. So to counter this, I would casually mention it at some point on a first date. The best responses I ever received were “Thanks for feeling like you could share that with me,” or a simple “OK” and a smile that told me it didn’t faze them at all. But many of the responses were either shock and disappointment, as if I lost a certain good girl credibility and became something more complicated that wasn’t worth understanding, or a grin would slowly spread over their faces and they would lean in, and coo, “Ooooohhhh.”

This second group of men would ask me, online and off, to rank all of the Game of Thrones women by hotness, and ask questions about how women have sex with each other, genuinely feeling entitled to these answers. In person, the more they had to drink by the time they discovered this, the more sexually aggressive they would become. When I appeared straight to men, they were far more careful about approaching me, but as a bisexual woman, I felt far more vulnerable to being sexually assaulted.

Lately I’ve become wary of telling men I’m bi soon after meeting them for exactly this reason, yet I’ve seen some bisexual men lament the fact that bisexual women are considered “hot” by straight men. I have sympathy for bi men and the assumptions they confront when they approach straight and bi women. Bi women should know better than to judge bi men, but I’d be lying if I said I never saw bi women engage in it. However, I’d trade in the “hot” factor of my bisexuality in a second if I thought I would be treated as a person and not a curiosity.

I understand that it’s difficult for straight women to consider experiences they’ve never seen or been through, and most of us have limitations on what we can directly speak to or understand. But when we’re talking about a wider culture of entitlement toward women and the wider dating environment for a certain age set, and you’re portraying your commentary as national in scope — you better consider queer women. We can’t opt out.

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