Friday, March 6, 2009

Light reading

I just finished reading Looking Both Ways: Bisexual Politics by Jennifer Baumgardner. I was eager to read it, as every time I check out the "GLBT Issues" section of a bookstore or library it's woefully lacking in specifically bisexual topics. However, I was a little underwhelmed by this book.

Part memoir of Baumgardner's own coming into her bisexual identity, LBW also looks at female bisexuality from historical, feminist, and sociological perspectives. One of the main questions raised by the book is why so many more women today are, if not embracing the bisexual identity, certainly participating in bisexual activities. Baumbardner's thesis is that it is a result of the "incomplete work of the feminist movement."

In short, she posits that, because of the Second Wave of feminism, young women today now know they are entitled to an equal, respectful, and fulfilling relationship. However, since obviously sexism still exists, they often have a hard time getting such a relationship with men. Thanks to the Third Wave, young women are secure enough in their sexuality to search for that ideal relationship elsewhere - i.e. with other women. So more women are having relationships with women to better understand, consciously or not, what they want from men.

It's an interesting concept, one that's never really occurred to me before. I've never consciously applied a philosophy to my sexuality; it's been entirely visceral. I like him, I like her. It just happens. And while my current relationship with Master is certainly healthier than my first (and only other) significant relationship with a guy, I think that has more to do with simple maturity than the intervening lesbian romances. I'm also unsure how I feel about the concept. On the one hand, I think the idea of women (or men, but the book specifically addresses women) exploring who they are and what they want out of a partner is an awesome idea. On the other hand, I worry it may fall back into the same old trope of "bisexuality as a phase," something that women grow out of once they've figured out what they want.

I don't feel that Baumgardner addresses this concern adequately - indeed, she seems to have written the entire book while wearing rose-tinted glasses. She seems blithely unaware that bisexuals are, by and large, more reviled by the general populace than homosexuals (something I found out, to my surprise, when doing research for a Sociology paper). While it's cute/hot/edgy for a woman to make out with another woman at the bar, to be bisexual means you're a slut/promiscuous/STD-riddled/commitment-phobe, what have you. There's a disconnect between acceptable female bisexuality (done for the viewing pleasure of men) and unacceptable bisexuality (done because the woman damn well feels like it), and Baumbardner only touches on this rift before moving on to how awesome Ani DiFranco is.

And that's another thing - who the fuck cares about Ani DiFranco? Baumgardner devotes an entire chapter (and good portions of the rest of the book) to how influential DiFranco has been in helping young queer women come into their own, but, frankly, I don't see it. I've heard all of one DiFranco song, and I still was able to figure out my sexuality just fine, thank you. I think it was in this chapter that Baumgardner's biases really shine through, because when she describes the legions of young women whose lives were changed by DiFranco's music, she's really talking about one demographic: twenty and thirty-something-year-old, white, upper-middle-class, sub/urban, politically far-left, east-coast women. (And even I fall into all those categories save one, yet she still completely missed the mark in describing my experience.) I suppose I should cut her some slack, since the memoir aspect of the book dictates a limit on perspective, but even then it wouldn't've killed her to mention queer WOC, women from blue-collar and rural backgrounds, etc etc etc.

Lest I give the wrong impression, there were parts of the book that I genuinely liked. Baumgardner examines the classic bisexual dilemma: unlike homo and heterosexuals, bisexual identity isn't static - take snapshots from various times in a bisexual woman's experience, and they won't seem to add up. If a woman is married for forty years, gets divorced, and suddenly finds new love with another woman, how do we interpret that? Does her current relationship invalidate her marriage, which was a "lie"? Or is the current relationship just a "phase," not as "genuine" as the previous one because it hasn't lasted as long? What makes a romantic relationship "real" or "valid"? Bisexuals have to grapple with these issues in ways that many hetero and homosexals do not, since the genders of their partners tend to stay more constant (and even then not really, further complicating things). Baumgardner admits she can't answer all the questions given our current vocabulary regarding sexuality, but does state that this exact difficulty is a sign that perhaps nothing regarding sexuality is static, and that perhaps our identities should be viewed more a sexual journeys. Which, when stated like that, is kind of a "duh" thing, but is something most people never really think about.

Baumgardner is a self-avowed feminist (she even worked a stint at Ms. magazine), and while our viewpoints tend to jive there were a couple aspects of her philosophy that I took issue with. For example, while I agree with her that sexual objectification is not inherently bad as long as the ubiquitous Male Gaze is met with an equally powerful Female Gaze, I feel like her cheerful acceptance of male objectification was a bit too... acquiescent? It's hard to put into words, but it made me profoundly uncomfortable. Not to say that her feminist ideas are inferior; I appreciate the fact that she's making me examine my own beliefs and conclusions. Her look at feminism's relationship with female bisexuality from a historical perspective was also insightful and interesting; I know that Third-Wavers like me sometimes feel that Second-Wavers were/are too curmudgeonly and isolationist, but this generational conflict has been going on since the Suffragettes. It's nice to put things in perspective.

Coincidentally, my brother gave me a book last night called Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent. Vincent is a cisgendered lesbian who, as an experiement, dressed up as a man for a year and a half in order to gain an understanding of what society was like from a male perspective and to get a closer look at what masculine culture was like. I'm about halfway through it right now, and it's an interesting read. I'll probably post more on it later.

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