Biphobia in the lesbian community manifests itself in many different ways. Bi women call themselves “queer” or “gay” even when they feel that “bisexual” describes them better, because they’ll be more accepted that way. Lesbians refuse to date bi women. Bi women find their sexualities under constant scrutiny by their fellow queer women. There’s a lot more, too, which you should read about in Lucy’s post.
What I’d like to do in this post is explore some of the reasons why I think some lesbians are biphobic, beyond simple prejudice and fear of the Other. Note that I’m a lesbian myself, but I have had bi women as romantic and sexual partners, and I am appalled by the way my bi friends and lovers have been treated by my fellow lesbians. I hope that if we understand the root causes behind these harmful attitudes, we can work to change them.
1) Defensiveness and fear about sexual fluidity.
Our society demands that women be attracted to men. Adrienne Rich famously called this “compulsory heterosexuality.” However, there are some insecure straight people who are less threatened by bisexual women than by lesbians, because at least they’re still attracted to men, and obviously bi women end up with men in the end, because why would they choose anything else?
This is total bullshit, of course, but it does result in a lot of straight people pressuring lesbians into behaving or identifying as bisexual. I have faced this attitude approximately 327 times. “Are you sure you’re not bi?” these straight people (usually men) say. “Have you tried it with a guy? Women are sexually fluid, after all. You might find a guy you like.” I’ve heard this crap so many times that I don’t respond to it gently or calmly. I say, “NO. I am absolutely not interested in men, period.”
It’s not hard to imagine how this defensiveness might end up shifting from its appropriate target (straight people who think they know your sexuality better than you do) to people who are not at fault: bi women. There’s resentment, because bi women don’t experience this constant pressure to be sexually interested in men – they already are. But that doesn’t mean that bi women don’t face other kinds of awful shit from straight people, some of which lesbians don’t have to deal with.
I think another source of fear around sexual fluidity among lesbians is this fear that we may end up attracted to men someday. This happens sometimes. I know bi women who previously identified as lesbian but found later that they liked men too. That’s totally fine, of course. But I know that if that were to happen to me, I would face a metric ton of “I told you so’s” from every single smug straight person who insisted that I should be attracted to men. On some level, it would feel like those straight people were right about me, and that would be intolerable. That’s not true, of course. The problem isn’t that I’ve been told that I should be bi, but that anyone’s ever felt they had the right to tell me what my sexuality ought to be. Even if I were to identify as bi, those straight people would be wrong, and they would probably find some other aspect of my sexuality to criticize anyway.
I’m sure I’m not the only lesbian who’s thought about this. The idea that we might be sexually fluid and eventually identify as bi is scary, and some lesbians take this out on bi women, even though again it’s not their fault.
2) Internalized feelings of inadequacy.
This applies particularly to why lesbians are sometimes irrationally afraid that their bi partners will cheat on them with men. Part of this fear comes from the perception of bisexuals in general as sexually insatiable and incapable of fidelity. This false notion is damaging to bisexuals and their romantic partners. But it doesn’t explain the particular fear of being left for a man.
I think this comes from the false idea that sex with men is somehow deeper, more intimate, and more satisfying than sex with women (as I’ve discussed in this post). Even the word “sex” itself in common parlance refers to penetrative intercourse involving a penis. This sex act is perceived as the pinnacle of all sexual activity. This discourse about the primacy of sex with men comes from the same place as the belief that lesbians can be “cured” by the magical powers of the penis. It is unimaginable in our culture that a woman might have the option of sex with a man and sex with a woman and choose the latter over the former.
On some level, lesbians can believe that about ourselves too. If our partners are attracted to men, it can be hard for us to be certain, deep down in our bones, that we are good enough to satisfy them – so of course we have to be on the lookout for bi women leaving us for men.
But we don’t have to be afraid. We are good enough. If a bi woman chose to be with you, then trust in her choice. She wants you, and she will respect the monogamy of your relationship if that’s what you want.
This whole attitude of the primacy of sex with men also contributes to the perception that bi women looking for women as partners are doing so either to get attention from men or so they can have a threesome with their boyfriends. Again, it can be hard for us to believe that women can want sex with women for its own sake when men are an option.
I’m less equipped to speak to this, but I think internalized feelings of inadequacy about pleasing women sexually contribute to internalized biphobia as well. I’ve heard bi women who have more sexual experience with men than women express insecurity about their ability to please other women. Again, there’s a fear that they can’t be truly satisfying to other women. Unfortunately, this internalization of negative ideas is common to all marginalized groups, and can be one of the hardest forms of oppression to root out.
There’s an association in the lesbian community between femme expression and bisexuality. If you present someone with a butch woman and a femme woman and ask which one is lesbian and which one is bi, they’ll probably say the butch woman is lesbian and the femme woman is bi, because femininity is associated with attraction to men.
This is bullshit, of course. There are butch and femme people of all genders and sexual orientations. Still, the association exists, and there’s a lot of stigma, undue scrutiny, and hatred directed toward femme people of all genders and sexual identities. This hatred stems fundamentally from misogyny. Fear and hatred of women transfers over to feminine expression, no matter who happens to present it, and in the lesbian community in particular femmes are often viewed as “less queer” or “less radical” because of their gender expression. I think that femmephobia and biphobia are bound up in one another in the lesbian community.
You may have noticed something about all the observations I’ve made about the reasons for biphobia: they all come down to heteropatriarchy, the toxic structure of power maintained by misogyny and homophobia. That’s what’s so insidious about heteropatriarchy. It sows all these terrible ideas about gender and sexuality that we all grow up with and internalize, and these ideas turn us against one another when we ought to unite as queer women to fight the system that oppresses us all.