Activist-writer-extraordinaire Julia Serano’s ongoing work around sexualization casts a spotlight on how pervasive certain stigmas are for queer individuals, especially in regard to bisexuality.
Julia Serano personifies the idea of what it means to be a true multi-hyphenate individual. Serano is a celebrated writer, whose work has appeared in the likes of The New York Times, and The Guardian; she’s also an activist in many realms. Serano, too, is a performer — musician and biologist.
Her work spans the gamut of creative and scientific expression, as well as sexuality and culture. There’s a reason why some have described Serano as a “tour de force” on under-theorized topics — like sexualization.
Her most recent work, Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us and How We Can Fight Back, tackles the destructive connotations often associated with queer people, e.g. that all gay men are “hypersexual” and that bisexuality is merely a roadblock on the path to becoming “fully gay.”
Sex often is synonymous with stigma — a subject Serano explores in many tones and textures in Sexed Up. Among the most dangerous, societally malignant stereotyping around sexuality? That bisexuality doesn’t exist; it’s why the term “bisexual erasure,” described as the widespread tendency to either falsify or need to offer additional information as to why bisexuality exists, has grown in popularity… both online and offline.
Ahead of Serano’s upcoming talk at the SF LGBT Center’s Queer & Well x The Optimist Collective: Bi The Way with Julia Serano event, which will explore the topics she dived into in Sexed Up — including a reading from her of her bi-themed novel, 99 Erics: a Kat Cataclysm faux novel — we discussed the pervasiveness of queer stereotypes, how to navigate them, and even other expressions of bisexuality in nature.
Matt Charnock: Being a biologist, I was curious to know where else bisexuality might exist in the animal kingdom.
Julia Serano: Same-sex attraction and mating practices have been observed across many species. These usually get labeled as examples of “homosexuality” by default, even though the individual animals in question may have had “bisexual” histories that the researchers were not aware of.
The example of bisexuality that has been most extensively chronicled is in bonobos, who are humans’ closest relatives along with chimpanzees. For bonobos, sex also plays a social role, so it is quite common for individuals to engage in sexual activities with both females and males. A quick Google search shows that there are plenty of other species for which bisexuality has been reported, although I don’t personally know much about those cases.
It’s important to stress that distinctions between “homosexual” and “bisexual” don’t mean quite the same thing as they do with humans. For us, these terms can refer to sexual attraction, sexual histories, or identities that help us make sense of our lives, while animals likely just do whatever feels “good” or pleasurable to them without having their behaviors policed the way that LGBTQ+ humans often experience.
MC: You’ve mentioned that queer stereotyping, like that all gay men are “hypersexual” and bisexual men are really “just gay,” is pervasive. How do their proliferations damage the mental health of bisexuals?
JS: All LGBTQ+ people (as well as other minorities) face erasure—people often won’t believe us when we tell them who we are, or they’ll insist that we’re merely “going through a phase” or “seeking an alternative lifestyle,” and such. And all LGBTQ+ people (as well as other minorities) face sexualizing stereotypes—we’re either “hypersexual,” “deviant,” or “predatory,” or “sexually deceptive” in their eyes.
Most of us understand firsthand the mental stress associated with having our identities routinely erased, dismissed, stereotyped, and sexualized. And we understand how such pressures are likely to coerce some people into the closet in an attempt to avoid those negative reactions.
For many bi+ people, we experience these stereotypes in both the straight mainstream as well as in certain segments of the queer community. While there are established gay and lesbian communities, there are relatively few settings that are centered on and fully supportive of bisexual people. This extra layer of invisibility and difficulty finding an accepting community exacerbates these problems for bi+ people.
MC: How do we move away from these labels? And when they do come up in conversation, how should we navigate through them? On top of that, how can we continue advocating away from these harmful labels — and, if anything, should we turn the tables and replace them with more supportive words?
JS: LGBTQ+ people have long faced these sexualizing stereotypes. Some of us may reclaim them, proudly announcing “yes, I’m “hypersexual!” or “a slut,” or “a pervert,” or whatever the accusation is. Others may loudly insist that “no, gay (or lesbian, or bisexual) people are not like that! We are ‘just like you’ except for our sexual orientation.”
The argument that I make in Sexed Up is that this is a double bind—a no-win situation. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if we respond with “yes, I’m hypersexual” or “no, I’m sexually normal,” because the problem doesn’t reside in our behaviors, but rather in the minds of those who judge us.
In Sexed Up, I show how in our heteronormative world, we are taught to associate “sex” with stigma, which leads us to view anything and anyone we associate with sex (including sexual minorities) as dirty, polluting, corrupting, contaminating, contagious, and permanently spoiled. If we can learn to recognize our tendency to project these meanings onto sex and sexuality—and the marginalized groups we (mis)perceive as “excessively sexual”—then we can work to transcend them (as we do with other negative stereotypes of minorities).
In Sexed Up, I warn about the “hiding sex” strategy to end sexualization—the notion that we should hide or play down the existence of sex or sexuality as if that would magically disappear. But that simply doesn’t work, as the religious right and social conservative sexual abuse scandals show. Instead, I argue that we should strive to sever sex from stigma—that’s one of several strategies I forward in the book to help foster sexual equity without sacrificing sexual diversity in the process.
To view more of Serano’s work, including her long archive of past, present, and future works, visit juliaserano.com; for additional details on tomorrow’s Queer & Well x The Optimist Collective: Bi The Way with Julia Serano, as well as how to RSVP for the event, click here.