Mixed Feelings: The Power and Limits of Labels

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Dear Mixed Feelings:

I think I’m bisexual, but the emphasis is on the bi and not on the sex. I have never had sex with anyone, nor do I have the powerful urge to. I would like to have sex someday, but doesn’t really keep me up at night. I’m not asexual. Maybe I’m not bisexual. What am I?

Sincerely,
Bi and still curious

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Dear Bi:

One day last week, I was googling something totally unrelated when I stumbled across an article on something called Joint Hypermobility Syndrome. The description sounded oddly familiar. I clicked through and there it was: my life in a neat list of symptoms, including the chronic neck pain I’ve been living with (ignoring) for years. I had the same feeling you get after you complete one of those Internet quizzes about which Hogwarts House you belong to and it totally confirms what you’ve suspected all along: you’re half-Ravenclaw, half-Hufflepuff. I felt completely seen.

Labels have authority. They matter. They give us ways to think about ourselves. And they assure us that the things that make us different are still within the realm of nameable things. The desire to be named is really a desire to be seen, to be counted, to feel that you are not broken or weird or defective.

It’s totally normal to feel attracted to men or women, to men and women, to people who don’t identify as a man or a woman, or to anyone for whom none of our words for gender feel like a perfect fit.

Just as most of us agree that it’s normal to sometimes want sex without romance, it’s also totally normal to want a romantic relationship without sex.

It’s normal to want a romantic or sexual relationship with more than one person at the same time.

And it’s normal to not be especially interested in romance or sex—for a little while or forever.

It’s also normal to not know—about love or sex or what you want or whom you desire. It’s normal to take time to figure that out. Or to change your mind.

If you want to think systematically about gender, sex, and attraction, the Gender Unicorn is a handy tool. As you can see, the designers make a distinction between emotional attraction and physical attraction. This is important.

We tend to talk about sexual (or physical) attraction and romantic (or emotional) attraction as if they always and inevitably go together. But this isn’t the case—and a lot of problems arise from this assumption. The biggest problem is that it simply erases anyone who isn’t particularly interested in sex. Or it implies that these folks don’t know their own desires. But they do—and they are, for the most part, perfectly healthy, normally functioning humans. At it’s most extreme, this thinking is used to justify rape culture—because it implies that if someone likes you, they must also want to have sex with you—which is, for the record, never a reasonable assumption to make. Calls for “enforced monogamy” and the “redistribution of sex” are dangerous precisely because they validate this way of thinking.

The fact is that, while we are all entitled to our own desires, no one is entitled to sex. I’d fling open my door and shout this from the patio if I thought it would help: NO ONE OWES YOU SEX. Not ever. Just as you are never under an obligation to have sex with anyone. Not even if you love them. Not even if you’re married to them. Not even if you said you wanted sex earlier but then changed your mind. Not even if you got their hopes up.

I know this isn’t quite what your question is about, but the better we get at having nuanced conversations about sex and desire, the more likely everyone is to be having the kind of sex they want to have—and that includes no sex at all.

Maybe knowing what to call yourself—bisexual, demisexual, biromantic—will help you find your place in the constellation of desires. I hope so. The glossary on this asexuality site is a great place to start. I can’t tell you what you are, Bi, but the beautiful thing about sexual orientation is that you get to decide.

I sent your question to my friend (and preeminent sex researcher) Meredith Chivers, who said the following:

If a label is helpful, and you’re certain that heterosexuality isn’t your thing; perhaps Questioning—one of the Qs in a more inclusive version of the LGBTQ acronym, LGBTQQIP2SAA—or Queer, the other Q and often used by some as an umbrella term for non-heterosexual, is a good fit.

To anyone who’s ready to start complaining that the acronym has gotten too long and too clunky, remember this is an argument you have the privilege of making because you already feel seen in the world. For those who feel invisible because, for many years, we didn’t have the language to discuss fundamental parts of their identity, these letters matter. As David Jay, the founder of AVEN, points out, we talk about sex a lot, but we still aren’t especially thoughtful about it:

It’s not that we talk about sex too much. It’s that we celebrate sex in a way that is inauthentic. If we were to have a widespread, accurate discussion of sexuality—all the things that it means and doesn’t mean to people—that would include a discussion of the fact that sex is not interesting to everyone at some points, and that’s okay, and sex is not interesting to some people all the time, and that’s okay. Instead, I think what we have is a dialogue that fetishizes and celebrates sexuality, and equates it with the sum of our value and relationships.

This brings me to another point: you don’t have to have a label if you don’t want one.

Labels can expand our sense of self. They legitimize our pain and our longing; they help us find community. But they can also simplify and flatten. The word “bisexual,” for example, will never capture all the things you might desire, and the people you might love, and all the ways you might express that love or desire over the course of a lifetime.

Sexual orientation is just that: an orientation, a way to hold your compass up to the world. Desire is where you go from there.

When and if you decide to have sex, sex educator Emily Nagoski offers “one simple rule to radically improve your sex life.” I’ll be shouting this one from my patio too: ONLY HAVE SEX YOU LIKE. This is a magical rule. “Pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing,” she adds. “Not desire. Not frequency of sex or type of sex or number of partners or anything else. Pleasure. If you’re struggling with sexual desire, arousal, orgasm… the answer is to do what feels good to you.” Figuring out what feels good may take some time. If you want to figure it out with someone else, find someone patient and generous, someone you trust.

We’re all stuck in the bodies we live in, with their indecipherable pains or unnamed desires. We might as well be good to those bodies in whatever ways we can. We must think of ourselves as people who deserve care. If you want to wait to have sex until it feels like a genuinely good and comfortable thing to do, take as long as your want. And, while I know you didn’t ask if it was okay to want love without sex, if this is what being good to your body looks like, it’s an absolutely excellent thing to do, too.

Happy Pride Month, Bi!

Yours,
Mixed Feelings

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Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.


Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Walrus, along with literary journals and anthologies. She writes about love and love stories at The Love Story Project, and she teaches English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essay collection How to Fall in Love with Anyone was published in 2017. More from this author →