Hot sexy bi babes: media depictions of bisexual women

This is a excerpt from my book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. If you like this text, please consider buying a copy.

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The curious case of bisexual women

In an article called Curiouser and Curiouser: the Strange ‘Disappearance’ of Male Bisexuality, British gay journalist Mark Simpson writes about biphobia against bi men, and compares their status to that of bisexual women. “It’s unques­tion­able,” he argues, “that female bisexuality is today much more socially acceptable than male bisexuality, and in fact frequently positively encouraged, both by many voyeuristic men and an equally voyeuristic pop culture.” [This quote is dealt with in greater depth earlier on the chapter]. In this section, I would like to look a bit deeper into this “positive encouragement” and to question whether it really is so positive.

Simpson, of course, is right. Female bisexuality truly is encouraged by voyeuristic men, as well as by voyeuristic (male dominated) media. Spelling out media presumptions, Simpson writes that as opposed to male bisexuality, female bisexuality is considered “almost universal. It’s as natural and as true as it is wonderful and real and… hot!” And indeed, it seems that the main context in which female bisexuality appears in mainstream media is that of “hotness.”

In this section [of the chapter], I want to be looking at media representations of female bisexuality in attempt to show the ways in which it is depicted, and the terms under which it is allowed to appear in mainstream culture. I wish to argue that while female bisexuality seems to be ‘encouraged’ on the surface, this encouragement applies to only one form thereof: that palatable to straight men. Bisexual women are presented in hypersexualized* contexts, as sexual objects for the hegemonic** straight male gaze, while directly or covertly appealing to a quasi-pornographic fantasy of a (2 females and 1 male) threesome, and while also reassuring us that these women are not really bisexual, but are rather simply behaving so for the satisfaction of the presumed male spectator.

Now, before I go on to talking about all these things, I need to say something about sexuality and context: my arguments about hypersexualization and sexual objectification might sometimes be read as implying that there’s something wrong about female bisexuality, female sexuality or sex in general, in and of themselves. This is not so. The reason why I think that these depictions are negative is not that they are sexualized, period. Rather, it is because they reflect a form of imposed sexualization that centers around the presumed needs of the straight male viewer – above, beyond and instead of those of the women themselves. Therefore, my goal here is to expose how patriarchal and phallocentric*** understandings of bisexuality are projected onto bisexual women for the purpose of satisfying the presumed male viewer.

Hot bi babes

Running an online search for “bisexual celebrities” yields several lists such as 11 Famous Bisexual Babes, The 30 Sexiest Bisexual Celebrities [PHOTOS] or Hollywood’s Bisexual Leading Ladies (PHOTOS) – right on the first page. As the titles seem to suggest, these ‘magazine items’ contain lists of female bisexual celebrities alongside pictures containing varying degrees of revealing clothes and sexual postures. The texts, in the same vein, present these bisexual women as delectable objects for the straight male gaze and straight male sexual appetites, often under a thin guise of ‘supporting’ bisexuality, and always while reassuring us that these women are not actually bisexual.

COED Magazine, in what seems to be stroke of grim irony, has assembled its list of The 30 Sexiest Bisexual Celebrities [PHOTOS] in honor of the international Bi Visibility Day. Eschewing any political meanings attached to this day, the only bi visibility that counts here is that catering to the eye of their straight male viewer. The list contains 30 pictures of bisexual celebrities who all appear in sexualized contexts, shown in seductive or sexual positions, beckoning to the viewer or looking invitingly. In fact, in only 6 of the 30 pictures, the women in question can be said to be fully clothed.

One particularly telling picture shows American TV personalities twins Erica and Victoria Mongeon photographed together, hugging each other and looking at the camera, in a way suspiciously echoing the accompanying text of the item: “To quote Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake, ‘it’s okay to put us in a three-way’ with any of these ladies.” Another telling sentence appears before this one, stating that the writer has “argued ad nauseum with many friends about whether or not someone can be a ‘true’ bisexual.” How reassuring for the straight readers, who mustn’t feel threatened, but rather aroused, by these women’s bisexuality.

Bisexual twins. All they need is you?

Likewise, The Frisky‘s item 11 Famous Bisexual Babes contains 11 photos of famous bisexual women in revealing photos. The text follows suit, using such terms as “the occasional girl-on-girl action,” “lady-loving,” “a lover of lady parts,” and of course, “bisexual babes.” In addition, and just like at COED, the text at the same time reassures us that bisexuality doesn’t really exist and that these women are only out as bisexual to satisfy the straight male viewers’ tastes. A telling example: “Tila Tequila has spent her career trying really hard to make us believe she is, in fact, bisexual […] Whatever, Tequila.”

In general, it seems as though various publications use female bisexuality as a really great excuse for posting pictures of “hot” women, in a way equating between female bisexuality and hypersexualization. News of female celebrities coming out as bisexual are often treated in similar ways.

The Sun, in an item about Gillian Anderson’s coming out as bi, sees fit to mention that Anderson was “voted the sexiest woman in the world in 1996.” At the same time, it also reassures us that she couldn’t really be bisexual by writing that she “started experimenting with girls after moving to the US from London as a teenager,” and that “despite [her] enjoying many lesbian flings they were ‘the exception, not the rule‘” (all emphases mine). Of course, in a ‘traditional’ vein, the item is also accompanied by photos of Anderson in revealing dress and suggestive postures (such as the one below).

Gillian Anderson. “The exception, not the rule.”

One Star Plus headline screams: Sofia Vergara & Sharon Stone To Get Hot And Heavy As Bisexual Lovers. The item is accompanied by – you guessed it – a revealing photo of actress Sofia Vergara. The text of the item also follows the same route, stating that “Sexy Colombian actress Sofia Vergara and Sharon Stone are set to heat up the big screen as bisexual lovers in a new comedy.” It also includes a source quote, according to which “Sharon thinks it’s going to be a lot of fun playing the lover of one of the hottest actresses out there. The scenes will be steamy!” (all emphases mine). As per usual, the text also reassures us that the women in question aren’t really bisexual, since they’re only acting in a (“sexy!“) movie.

“Whatever, honey”

As we can see, bisexual women are only allowed to appear in mainstream media when they follow certain conditions:

  • Firstly, they must be considered conventionally “sexy”;
  • Secondly, they must appear in a sexualized context, including suggestive texts and photos; and
  • Thirdly, they mustn’t be thought to be “true” bisexuals, but rather presented as women who perform bisexuality for men.

Female bisexuality is thus co-opted into the hegemonic male gaze, which in turn produces female bisexuality on its own (patriarchal, phallocentric) terms.

The fact that these women are in fact bisexual, and that some of them have spoken in ways that suggest a fondness of threesomes or casual sex is only used here to exacerbate these effects of the male gaze. In her article “Pleasure Under Patriarchy,” Catharine MacKinnon argues that, in the hegemonic male imagination, women are allowed to want sex – as long as what they want reflects men’s wishes: “the object is allowed to desire, if she desires to be an object.” Further, she argues, “Anything women have claimed as their own – motherhood, athletics, traditional men’s jobs, lesbianism, feminism – is made specifically sexy, dangerous, provocative, punished, made men’s in pornography.”

What this means for bisexual women is that their desires are appropriated and transformed by the mainstream media, into the straight male gaze. In this case, it doesn’t really matter what a bisexual woman wants herself, as long as what she wants can be taken to comply with straight men’s presumed desires. What she truly wants doesn’t matter at all, since she is only there to be sexualized and objectified.

What to do?

The response to all of this in the bisexual movement has overwhelmingly been a backlash: de-sexualization and slut shaming, claiming that “we are not like that” or that “those ‘bad bisexuals‘ (party bisexuals, barsexuals, bi-curious…) are giving us ‘true bisexuals’ a bad name.” Those responses do nothing but allocate the biphobia, misogyny and objectification unto other bisexual women whose behaviour is deemed “lewd.”

Bisexual slut shaming

Instead of following the path of misogyny and biphobia, bisexual women can reclaim our sexualities as our own, reaffirm our right to be sexual without being objectified, co-opted into the straight male gaze or being the target of sexual violence. We can create tools of subverting the male gaze and of representing our sexualities in our terms rather than those of hegemonic straight men. Instead of rejecting our (bi)sexualities or attempting to de-sexualize ourselves, we can reclaim bisexuality and bi ways of being sexual, call out biphobic sexual violence while still affirming women’s bisexual choices.

* Hypersexualize means presenting someone, or something, as excessively sexual.
** Hegemonic here meanings according to hegemonic discourse, i.e. according to what those in power (mainstream media, etc.) think about it, how they talk about it or define it.
*** Phallocentric means centered around the male penis and male sexual satisfaction.

36 thoughts on “Hot sexy bi babes: media depictions of bisexual women

  1. One of the forms of bisexuality in both women and men that I have lived and have seen both women and men live is idealizing and pursuing the troublesome opposite sex while gaining emotional and sexual comfort from the same sex (usually after a heartbreaking relationship.)

    In such a case there is a tremendous amount of personal power that one can gain, especially if you tend to over idealize the opposite sex. In retrospect this seems actually very healthy as one gains maturity. The issue is it does not fit into Gay and Lesbian culture very well because of their idealization of same sex love. There is often a resentment of the bisexual as a User of Gay and Lesbian culture – gay tourists, traitors, etc.

    And a bigger problem with a Bisexual movement is it emerges from a negative bisexual history:

    “Show me a man who before the 1970s ‘aims for bisexuality’ – as D. H. Lawrence is said to have done – and I will show you a tormented man who is unable to admit his homosexuality to himself.” – Rictor Norton

    Norton may very well be accurate in that observation save a few cases like Paul Goodman, the Beat Poets, Robert Rauschenberg. But this is the phantom of history that both bisexual men and women live under. And the pure desire to affirm both same sex and opposite sex love for different reasons, at different times of life is still washed away and framed as a denial.

    The more revealing side of this phenomenon though are out gay men and women who consistently slip into opposite sex relationships while completely out as gay.

    A contemporary bisexual movement constantly must deal with this phantom of history, because even today, the more you are out as a bisexual the more you are branded a coward, the more you speak your truth “I am bisexual” the more you are a liar, and the more you know what you want and like, the more you are in denial.

  2. BBC Woman’s Hour is about to discuss whether it’s more acceptable to be lesbian or bi. I tweeted them a link to this and some of your other articles, I hope you don’t mind!

      1. They didn’t use them in the end, but hopefully someone’s reading them. As usual, they were talking about attitudes and equality in the abstract without looking at the material/violent effects on women’s lives… /derail

  3. I’m not a vampire.
    You are — you were.
    Something very strange is happening…
    It’s extraordinary.
    It’s horrible. That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.
    Just remember that a vampire’s personality has nothing to do the person it was.
    (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  4. brilliant post. :) i love your vision of bisexual revolution. i saw once a “liberal” club advertised online which warned people, “bisexual women are welcome. bisexual men will be kicked out and beat up.” and on top of it people found it funny and found it funny how upset it made me. >.< but many people don't see how these two treatments are really connected, really two sides of the same coin. straight men want to erase us for the same reasons they want bisexual women as property and sex objects. it all serves the same purpose for them, the same agenda. machismo is at the root of it, the underlying poison for us all. i totally agree we shouldn't live in thrall to straight male gaze. look at lesbian community. straight male gaze defines lesbians also as sex objects, and the whole power of the mass media backs them up. but lesbian people fight back and still build community and claim an autonomous sexuality and right to be sexual without being objectified or co-opted. why shouldn't we? we don't have to be colonised either.

    i love your blog! much solidarity from madrid! :)


  5. Well, for about the last three thousand years the main way to insult a male is to denigrate his masculinity (/ heteronormativity). That’s why bi men are less approved; (to heterosexists) they represent a psychologically dangerous transition area where hetero sex acts do not act as “protection” against gayness.

  6. Thank you for writing this post! I think about this topic whenever I come out to friends or co-workers, and you’ve written it so well.
    I’m unequally attracted to women and to men (having had short relationships with men but serious ones with women), and thus recently have tried out using the term “lesbian” to describe my sexuality. This stems from exactly what that photo of the bi flag says. Unfortunately, “lesbian” feels like a lie, and I don’t want to negate my past by using a term that has no room for it. I have a problem with the word “bisexual”s implications of equal degrees of attraction, as well as the implication of there being only two genders, but I’ve never really liked “pansexual” (or explaining it every time I use it). “queer” is all right, I guess.

  7. God bless you and this article. For a few years now getting I’m more and more irritated by biphobia and generalisation of bisexuals. Everybody else knows best how we should feel, act like, whom we should date – both gay and straight people. Enough of this, already – let us be and live our lives as we like it.

  8. I love your writing, and also own your book (twice, I accidently purchased both the hard copy and the kindle version, not that I’d mind). Reading this just now makes me wish there was a German translation of it, because damn it people in Germany are not thaaaat good at English generally and just as ignorant – or thirsty for educating themselves – as everywhere else.

    Are there any translations in work or planning?

    Also, thank you so much for the trigger warnings in your book. It is the first book I have ever seen with trigger warnings and this sense of choosing content, while not avoiding everything out of the fear for a trigger, is really helping me in my recovery.

    1. Thank you!

      I’m afraid the only translations of my book planned for now are Italian and Hebrew. There are, however, German translations of the Bisexual Umbrella and the Monosexual Privilege Checklist. I’m not sure where to find them, but if you add me on facebook, I can put you in touch with the people who translated them.

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