Lesbian politics and bi women

6 July 2012 by Jennifer

Some quotes from an interesting book, and some related thoughts.

Julie Bindel wrote an article the other week, including an allusion to some research. By way of source, she linked to a book listing for Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics, by Paula C Rust. (Authors here noted as “JB” and “PR”.)

As it happens, I own a copy of this book. And JB’s article prompted me to go and noodle around in it a bit for the context of what she cited, though I didn’t actually re-read the whole book.

So I’m now in a position to write a sort of addendum to JB’s article, giving some background on this research.

JB’s allusion to the book

But many lesbians, and even bisexual women themselves, mistrust the concept of swinging both ways. One U.S. study of bisexuality, which draws on interviews with 400 self-identified lesbians and bisexual women, found that a substantial number of bisexuals prefer to hang out with lesbians instead of other bisexual women in social situations, and have greater political trust in lesbians than they do in other bisexual women. It was also found that “[s]ome bisexual women actually doubt whether bisexual women exist at all.”

(Here’s a link to JB’s full article in case you really want to read it. I wouldn’t recommend it as a resource for understanding bisexuality, but it’s an example of a certain kind of approach…)

Identity and numbers

JB cites a figure of “400 self-identified lesbians and bisexual women”.

In fact, 45 of them identified (at least implicitly) as bisexual, 332 as lesbian/dyke/gay/homosexual, the rest something else or “no label”.1

In this context, “a substantial number” means something like “a dozen”.2

That still seems like a lot of bi women to be mistrusting other bi women, though. Let’s look further at the context.

The theme of the research

It’s not really true to call Paula Rust’s 1980s/1990s work a “study of bisexuality”; it’s actually more like “a study of lesbians’ and bi women’s differing attitudes to bisexuality“. The title of the book is a clue.

Different lesbians define being a lesbian in different ways.

  • Is it about loving women and making women primary in your life?
  • Is it about having sex with women, or being sexually attracted to women?
  • Is it about rejecting men, as sexual partners or in other ways?
  • Is it something you’re born with or something you choose?
  • Do you have to live as a lesbian if you want to be a good feminist?

Depending on your answers about what it is to be a lesbian, it follows that you’re also going to have really different attitudes to what it means to be bisexual.

In a fascinating chapter entitled The Pink and Blue Herring: The Issue Is Lesbianism, Not Bisexuality, PR outlines a series of these disagreements among feminists through the years.

In the early 1970s,

… lesbianism was feminism’s skeleton in the closet. Nonfeminists used the charge of lesbianism to intimidate feminists and would-be feminists. Heterosexuals in the women’s liberation movement responded to these attacks defensively by declaring their heterosexuality, and lesbians remained hidden to avoid tainting the movement. Heterosexual feminists constructed lesbianism as a “lavender herring”, i.e., a trivial issue that would distract feminists from the “real” issues. (p124)

In response to this defensive heterosexist sidelining, lesbians developed arguments for the importance of lesbianism in feminism.

But they didn’t all agree on how and why it was important. Hence

… the faultlines in lesbian ideology that were created by these disagreements – faultlines that are exposed today when we talk about bisexuality. (p125)

JB’s article shows that arguments about the requirements of feminism still linger on even now. But in the 1980s, this was much, much hotter territory in some feminist circles – perhaps especially in English-speaking, majority-white lesbian circles. Scorchio!

There’s a sense in which bi women were seen in those times as living symbols of the era’s painful arguments, and objects of lesbian debate.

When and where

PR’s book came out in 1995. The research itself was done “in the mid 1980s”. (p230.)

It was based on a questionnaire, with responses from 24 of the United States plus Canada. (p39/p40.)

In a discussion of sampling methods, PR explains: “Bisexual-identified women were more difficult to reach than lesbian-identified women because there are comparatively few organizations for bisexual women; most bisexual women had to be recruited through primarily lesbian networks”. (p39.)

The bit with the quote marks

JB puts quote marks around one bit of text as if quoting from the book,

“[s]ome bisexual women actually doubt whether bisexual women exist at all.”

but I haven’t managed to find that bit.3

I did find a more detailed discussion of that subject, on p202:

Most bisexual respondents do believe that bisexuality exists, but a few have reservations. Emily [pseudonym], for example, has some doubt about whether true bisexuality exists. She wrote, “Sometimes I wonder if this is a cop-out for someone who can’t admit/accept being gay – but I also wonder if it isn’t possible to be truly attracted to both men and women.” Five other bisexual women also expressed some skepticism or argued that some people who claim to be bisexual are not really bisexual. The remaining thirty-six indicated either implicitly or explicitly that they do indeed believe that bisexuality exists.

Of course, doubting some people‘s bisexuality isn’t actually the same as doubting that it can exist at all. And given the “but I also”, which seems to me leading into a contrary view, I’m inclined to read “wonder if it isn’t possible” as an idiom for “think it may indeed be possible”.4 But yes, the results really do seem to indicate some “skepticism” on bisexual existence from at least a few bi-identified women back in the 1980s.

On the other hand, PR says on the next page of the book that bi women

… apparently feel little need to defend bisexuality against the lesbian community’s attacks on its right to exist. Instead, bisexual women look to their own experience as evidence of the existence of bisexuality. They experience their own bisexuality as essence and build their bisexual identity on this experience. Hence, it stands to reason that they would call on this essence when supporting their assertion of bisexual existence, and that they would not feel the need to seek political sanction to demonstrate the legitimate existence of something that they already know exists.

Interpreting the evidence

JB frames the mistrustful/doubtful answers in the Rust research as if telling us something about bi women as people; I think it might be telling us more about the kinds of stereotypes the women were surrounded by in women’s communities in the 1980s. I’m sure JB is familiar with the term “internalised oppression“.

This possibility is given some credence in the book too (p215):

The facts that bisexual women expressed so many of the same unflattering and existentially invalidating attitudes about bisexuality that lesbians did and that only one bisexual raised her voice in protest suggests that many bisexual women have accepted lesbians’ views of bisexuality.

Or as Sophia McDougall puts it in a comment to @stavvers’ related article:

I have met people, who had voluntarily gone to a bisexual meet-up, who said they were attracted to members of both genders, yet still said things like “But I’m not certain that bisexuality is a thing, or if it ought to be a thing, or if my attractions make me bisexual, and I’m not out anywhere else.”

… I thought that was fear and self-doubt and internalised biphobia, the product of being bi in a society that tells you at every turn that your experiences aren’t valid, that you don’t/shouldn’t exist.

I agree: it seems to me this kind of self-doubt is characteristic of getting one’s initial views of bisexuality from mainstream culture… and (in the case of women especially) from people with political views similar to JB’s.

And remember, we know that “most bisexual women [in the study] had to be recruited through primarily lesbian networks”, which tells us something about their social circles.

Sophia compares JB’s words to

… homophobes who say “gay people go through a lot of emotional turmoil; this proves that being gay is emotionally unhealthy and should be stamped out by whatever means necessary.”

It would be interesting to compare the 1980s results with the answers of bi women in the UK in 2012 who feel ourselves to be part of a bi community.

The politics in sex

JB’s article concludes:

I believed then, and I believe now, that if bisexual women had an ounce of sexual politics, they would stop sleeping with men.

Compared to the 1980s, it’s less common nowadays for lesbians to call for bi and straight women to become “political lesbians”, or to label bi women “traitors”. But that doesn’t mean there is no politics in sex any more. Among other avenues, we can still investigate and challenge the social/structural pressures of compulsory heterosexuality as they apply differently to different women.

Finding common ground behind our different experiences could be part of healing the scars which some queer women (and our communities) still carry from conflicts on that territory.

But in JB’s words, I’m not getting a sense of a search for the system’s roots, or an intention to heal anything. Her uncritical rehash of opinions seems to me more like kicking an old bruise to make sure it can’t heal.

For people who want to explore the territory of bisexuality and feminism, I recommend instead the anthologies Closer to Home (1992), Bisexual Politics (1995) and Plural Desires (1996).5

Footnotes, yes I’ve got footnotes :-)

1. 45 identified (at least implicitly) as bisexual: See p41 of the book.

Ten percent, or 42, of the respondents identified themselves as Bisexual. Three women failed to answer the question about sexual self-identity but followed the instructions for bisexual women throughout the questionnaire and were assumed to identify themselves as bisexual. Altogether, these 45 women will be referred to as “bisexuals”.

Similarly, the “lesbian” cohort includes 9 who didn’t label themselves but “followed the instructions for lesbians throughout the rest of the questionnaire”.

2. A dozen: Not every figure from the research is given (or not that I found in my noodling around), but some estimate can be reverse-engineered from the graphs in Appendix A.

Figure 7.8 on p300 is a graph of bi women’s responses to questions about whom they’d prefer to work with on a political campaign. When the question was “as a campaign worker”, it looks to me as though about 25% of the 45 bi women expressed a slight to strong preference for working together with a lesbian rather than a bi woman. The figures for “as a lobbyist” look to me comparable. Hence, “a dozen”. In each case, the figure near 2% for “strongest preference for working with a lesbian” must indicate only one bi woman.

For “substitute speaker”, no bi woman chose the strongest-preference option for sending a lesbian, but approx 13% had some degree of preference that way: that is, about half a dozen.

For each of these three similar questions, the most common response (around 45% of the 45 bi women, that is around 20 women) was “no preference”, i.e. it did not matter to the respondent whether her hypothetical colleague identified as lesbian or bi.

As an aside, I’m curious in an intrigued/thought-experimenty way about the process of thinking that went on here. I wonder what mental images of lesbians and bi women the respondents drew on, to conceptualise and then answer this kind of question. I can imagine, for instance, thinking of an actual lesbian, X, whom you know and trust, or whose politics you trust, and then thinking “I’d pick someone like X”. Other evidence suggests to me that many or most respondents socialised in circles where bi women were in the minority; (a) the proportion 332:45 as cited (about 7 times as many lesbians as bi women), and (b) recruiting participants via lesbian networks (see section When and where). It therefore seems to me likely that in these circles, most of the most visible leaders too would have been lesbians. The results could thus be influenced partly by a numerical weighting in political visibility, rather than entirely by beliefs about bi women or lesbians “in general”. If it were possible to travel in time and space, it’d be interesting to go back to the women just after they’d answered the questions, and ask how they’d thought them through.

But there you go. Things we can’t know. All part of the tricky nature of doing research :-)

3. Haven’t managed to find: Searching on the Google books copy doesn’t turn it up, but that might be because it’s only a partial copy, omitting some pages. I also read through the chapter on Bisexual Women’s Voices, with special attention to the section entitled “Does Bisexuality Exist?”, without spotting it. Julie if you’re reading this, maybe you could comment with the page number? (But anyway, I’ve stuck a post-it note into my copy of the book reminding me to look out for it next time I do a proper re-read.)

4. “Wonder if it isn’t possible”: “Wonder if it isn’t” to mean “wonder if it is” is certainly a form of words I’ve heard in other contexts. My impression is that it indicates a more speculative/tentative suggestion than “wonder if it is”, perhaps with connotations of optimism.

5. Books: There have been other books since, which I’m less familiar with, but these three remain valuable and are by no means out of date. All three have material on the dynamics between bi women and lesbians and our communities.

Plural Desires: Writing Bisexual Women’s Realities originated in Canada, and is still unusual in being 50% written and edited by women of colour.

Closer to Home: Bisexuality & Feminism originated in the US; the process of creating this book began in 1988, and not surprisingly it has plenty on the territory I’ve been talking about.

In Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries & Visions – another US-based one – a particularly relevant section is Coalition-Building and Other Queer Stories.

Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics is also worth reading, at least for its fascinating history chapter. But that doesn’t have a lot of bi women’s own political thinking, whereas these three do.

2 thoughts on “Lesbian politics and bi women”

  1. After writing this, I was re-reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and this (from the intro) struck a chord:

    Next we will examine how the media promote the public misunderstanding of science, their single-minded passion for pointless non-stories, and their basic misunderstandings of statistics and evidence, which illustrate the very core of why we do science: to prevent ourselves from being misled by our own atomised experiences and prejudices.

    I don’t know to what degree JB did understand the statistics herself, but her use of Paula Rust’s work was a classic “find a piece of research, pick out a tiny bit of it and tell whatever story suits you, far, far away from a clear account of what the research actually showed”.

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