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Thursday, August 30, 2007

What almost everybody else doesn't get about bisexuality

When I was a child in elementary school, a friend turned to me and said one day, "Hey, what color is that crayon?"

"Blue," I said.

"What does it look like to you?" he pressed.

"Um. It looks blue," I said.

"What if it looks green to somebody else?"

Hmm. Now here was an interesting thought I had not previously pondered. How would I describe what this blue crayon looks like to someone to whom this crayon looked green. I first thought that I could use the word "green" to describe "blue" but quickly realized that method of color-swapping would fall apart when I needed to explain what green looked like to me. (Would I call it blue? We'd be back in square one, only with the terms reversed—even if it "worked" to avoid a situation wherein I was handed a green crayon when I wanted a blue one, the colors would still look "reversed" to the other person.)

This elementary thought experiment is not just relevant to recess periods in schools. It's something everyone grows up trying to figure out and is an example of the budding awareness in children that different people think about things in different ways.

The exposure to this thought started me thinking about how to use words to convey meaning. Eventually, after this question had been percolating on the back burner of my mind for literally years, I came to an ever-evolving (for lack of a better word, pun intended) conclusion that the only way to convey meaning perfectly and be assured that my meaning had been understood perfectly—that is, understood in exactly the way it was intended—was only possible through some kind of Vulcan-esque mind-meld telepathy communication mechanism that I'm probably never going to get the chance to experience in real life. That's a pity, really, because the fact of the matter is that verbal communication is a pretty pathetic substitute for mind-melds.

The problem of trying to figure out whether or not someone really understood you is very hard to solve. In computing, guaranteed-delivery protocols like TCP have built-in methods for acknowledging the receipt and integrity of a message (TCP uses flow control algorithms and checksums for this). That is to say that when the sender transmits a message, it waits for an acknowledgment from the receiver that says it has been saved correctly. (Technically, this is still not guaranteed to be perfect but it is extremely reliable.)

However, human communications are not always so simply verified. There is no checksum I can calculate for my message, for instance. People do often use similar protocols to that which computers use for the purpose of acknowledging receipt of a message. Sharing a telephone number is a pretty good example: "My number is 555-5555. Did you get that?" "Yeah, you said 555-5555, right?" "Yes, that's right." "Great." See how much back-and-forth there is? That's all a (social) verification protocol.

However, the more abstract or emotional the payload of your message gets, the greater the uncertainty of successful verification becomes. Little wonder couples fight about "not being understood" over and over and over again. Communication isn't just a matter of transmitting a message, it's about receiving (and believing) an acknowledgment that states the message was understood as it was intended. That's quite a tall order, especially when you consider how difficult it is to express your own emotions accurately in the first place. (It is for me, anyway.)

So what can you do to help mitigate this situation? I strive for precision. I say what I mean (transmission) using the most accurate words (payload) that are most likely to reproduce the originally intended meaning (checksum) in the listener (receiver). Yes; precision such as this is actually a learned skill.

But there's still a problem here. What if the person I'm talking to thinks of green when I say blue? (Even this is not so abstract a question when you consider I am partially colorblind in reality.) Clearly, we have a miscommunication. That fact might not even make itself evident immediately, but it probably will at one point or another if we keep interacting.

More to the point, what if they think of binary gender ideals when I say I'm bisexual? (After all, that's what my blog's tagline labels me as—a submissive and bisexual man. More people read that tagline than have read this far into this particular entry.) Do I use another word, such as pansexual, to try and get readers thinking about gender fluidity and try to steer them away from making an assumption about gender that I think isn't true?

I've chosen not to do that for this simple reason: when I say I'm bisexual, I'm not talking about gender fluidity, I'm talking about my own sexual orientation.

The claim that the word bisexual implies two binary genders isn't one that is actually a part of the word's literal definition (though it has become so engrained in today's understanding of the word that you'll find this assumption even in most dictionaries). People will tell me that "bi" means two and therefore bisexual means "one of two sexes" (like bicycle, literally "two wheels") but this definition still assumes that the "bi" in bisexual is talking about two singular points—man and woman.

Instead, possibly because I never liked riding bicycles and while still a child I was diagnosed as bipolar (a medical condition that causes one's emotional state to swing wildly between euphoria and depression), I have always understood the word bisexual to refer to the range between two points, and not just two points, and, even more to the point not just a range of gender identity but of sexual identity and gender role and a whole lot of other things, too.

Gender theorists such as the estimable Kate Bornstein talk a lot about the existence of many different axes of various qualities that, together, make up a person's gender identity. However, at their fundamental level, these axes all have this in common: they are a range between two points. That's what the "bi" in bisexual means to me.

That's the only thing that makes any logical sense for the "bi" to refer to that doesn't also have some kind of assumption concocted from cultural subtext. After all, sexuality is generally accepted even in the mainstream to refer to psychological, spiritual, physiological, social, and emotional makeup of an individual.

That's why I don't like the word pansexual, by the way. I don't think it's quite as precise.

That doesn't mean it's wrong to use the word pansexual to describe oneself or to use it for the purpose of raising awareness of issues relating to gender identity (in fact, I encourage raising awareness of gender identity issues in whatever way people want, as long as they're nice to each other about it). It does mean, however, that using the term pansexual (like its near-synonyms polysexual and omnisexual and a slew of others) validate its use for a more ambiguous meaning. It makes the term obtuse. I don't like that.

Overloading terminology in that way causes problems for people who wish to be precise in their use of English to maintain accurate communications.

It is not my fault that people are ignorant of gender fluidity, even though it is occasionally problematic for me that they are. However, I don't see why I should have to dull my communication tools (the English language in this case) in order to accomodate their ignorance. Instead, would it not be more mutually beneficial to simply educate these people about the gradations of gender identity that exist? And would it not be more effective to do this by specifically discussing gender fluidity rather than overloading a perfectly acceptable term used to describe a perfectly legitimate sexual orientation (namely, pansexual) for this secondary purpose?

Is this love of precision too idealistic to work? In a casual sense, yeah, probably; I consistently have to define the words I use to remind people to take me with utter literal understanding, for the most part. (Even the word literal, by the way, has its etymological roots in scripture—in literature and writing.) But then again, I've found that this works exceedingly well once people learn that what I say is what I mean and what I mean is all that I've said.

It also makes people aware of just how much subtext they assume is present in their communications with other people after they start seeing how often and to what extent they have added it to conversations with me. Communicating with subtext is all fine and well (really), but it is dangerous to do so without intending to or without an awareness of what part of the message was subtext and what part was not.

17 comments:

Eileen said...

a perfectly legitimate sexual orientation (namely, pansexual)

Can I get a definition for that? What do you think when I use the word pansexual? I would like that checked, please.

maymay said...

"What do you think when I use the word pansexual?"

I think of what you said, quoted here: "Pansexuality is a sexual orientation characterized by the potential for aesthetic attraction, romantic love and/or sexual desire for people regardless of their gender identity or biological sex."

This is totally fine, but I have found that I am not attracted to people regardless of their gender identity or biological sex, but rather because of their gender identity or biological sex (or personality, or mixed gender qualities, or androgynous qualities [especially androgynous qualities; androfolk are fucking hot], or whatever).

The "all" stated by pansexuality may be accurate for some, but not for me, and you know how carefully I treat a word's meaning.

I find the word pansexual most suitable to describe a welcoming atmosphere wherein all sexualities are invited to express themselves, but this is very different from the notion that my sexuality expresses itself that way.

Eileen said...

Not to be picky, but this statement:

"I have the potential to be attracted to people regardless of their gender identity or biological sex, etc."

Is very different from this statement:

"I am attracted to people regardless of their gender identity or biological sex, etc."

maymay said...

I know; the "potential" part was in your earlier definition.

Anyway, this is exactly why I don't find any added literal value in the word pansexual when the word bisexual already encompasses that very definition in quite an already elegant and, in my opinion, a more precise way. Again, if you want to talk gender identity, that's fine, do that, but I'd much prefer to see people doing it directly than doing it through cultural subtext. We've already seen how poorly the mainstream interprets subtext.

Richard Evans Lee said...

When I read Eileen's entry I thought this is the difference between literary and technical people (a gross simplification I know, I'm just confessing the thought).

To be pedantic (you can tell Alexandra to punish me) nouns don't have much meaning without qualification. The word "chair" conveys little without the details.

I've been frustrated myself by the loose and often ignorant way in which many people use words. They obstinately personalize words with comparatively clear meanings. Certainly with sexuality. But I've made peace with that.

Often you just have to accept that people have their own idiolect. And that you may as well. I've accepted that I need to - as often as I can without being wearisome - make it as clear as I can what I mean when I use certain terms.

I was heading toward some sort of point, which I seem to have forgotten. But I am enjoying watch the two of you work over this.

maymay said...

Richard,

"To be pedantic (you can tell Alexandra to punish me) nouns don't have much meaning without qualification. The word "chair" conveys little without the details."

:) I will totally encourage Alexandra to punish you; you'd like it anyway.

"I was heading toward some sort of point, which I seem to have forgotten."

That's what I'm going to have to tell her to punish you for. As a self-described pansexual for a relatively long time, I was very eager to hear your comments on this!

Anyway, your remark on personal idiolects is not really that pedantic; it's a good point and not one that had escaped me. When I talk about such precision being a little too idealistic for the casual conversation, I am referring to quite a few things you write about in your posts on communication (which I adore, by the way). Ultimately, subtext and labels and assumptions are all necessary and quite useful, nor are they even that dangerous, I think, as long as one remembers that they are labels and subtext and assumptions, of course.

Eileen said...

The claim that the word bisexual implies two binary genders isn't one that is actually a part of the word's literal definition (though it has become so engrained in today's understanding of the word that you'll find this assumption even in most dictionaries).

. . . when the word bisexual already encompasses that very definition in quite an already elegant and, in my opinion, a more precise way.


Bouncing off of these two points as well as the comment you made to Richard about cultural subtext, here's my question:

What dictionary are we working from? I think this definition of bisexuality is part of your personal dictionary, not necessarily part of the general understanding of the word. You noticed just as I did that the binary definition is a part of almost every dictionary source. It also seems that the cultural definition changes from binary to fluid depending on what culture you're speaking to. (I.e. most kinky people seem to understand bisexual as implying fluidity, most vanilla people do not.)

In the end, if we can't all pull out a book of definitions every time we want to know just what someone means when they say something, then cultural subtext becomes the means by which we define those words. Either that, or by conversation. Conversation is clearly our preference. :)

maymay said...

"I think this definition of bisexuality is part of your personal dictionary, not necessarily part of the general understanding of the word."

Yeah, I know, you're correct in that assessment. My point, however, is that I've always found it more effective (for me) to address issues of subtext by calling them that, by identifying, calling out, and making the listener aware of how their own assumptions have (possibly) changed my message, filtered it, shaped it, if you will, rather than trying to change my message outright.

Of course, like most people, I practice both techniques. I'll use different words for discussions with different people, and I'll even behave differently, altering non-verbal communication just as I do verbal communication.

But who's reading this blog? Vanilla people? I think not (at least, that's not the majority of my audience). I'm talking to kink people, and frankly, kink people do not need an understanding of gender fluidity nearly so bad as they need an understanding of their own assumptions in general.

I think, as I mentioned last night, you and I are saying the same thing but doing so differently. This is actually a good thing. If you recall some of my rants on pro-dommes, one of the things I think is helpful to combat culturally negative stereotypes is to attack them on all fronts and in all ways, instead of just taking a single viewpoint and using it as a battering ram.

Eileen said...

frankly, kink people do not need an understanding of gender fluidity nearly so bad as they need an understanding of their own assumptions in general.

::laughs:: Yes, yes indeed.

Yes, we are saying the same thing differently, as we were doing last night. And I like it too. As long as we know we're doing it. :)

Richard Evans Lee said...

Even though from 1999 - 2005 I wrote about pansexuality almost all the damned time it has always remained a very personal thing for me. (There was much less to be read about it and often it seemed annoying like saying "I'm cool.")

For me the term pansexual is very personal. As the last illusion of erotic prejudice dropped away it liberated me - it was a satori if you will - from the limitations of the word bisexual.

So I've always thought of what it means to me: freedom.

terisa said...

"What do you think when I use the word pansexual?"
As a member of bicupid.com,
I found most of the bi friends can appreciate the beauty in both men
and women, and attracted to the person regardless of their gender.

Bitchy Jones said...

So you're trying to increase your own visibility as someone who is attracted to more than one gender and Eileen is to do that *and* trying to challenge assumptions about gender itself. And you're worried that by doing both things the impact of the first is lost.

But Eileen is in a very different situation to you. She'd already queered by having a kinky sexuality. A woman in a kinky space is assumed to be bisexual (believe me!) She doesn't need to be so clear, because the assumptions of the wider world will have already pegged her as fucking women.

Whereas you, even though you are queered by being submissive you are assumed to be straight. If you pick out a label like 'pansexual' you are in danger of it sounding like a trendy pose (a la metrosexual) rather than a clear message that you suck more than one kind of cock. Especially as your primary relationship is straight. (Submissive men even get to indulge in an awful lot of homosexual and homosexuallish acts and still be 'straight'.)

So you *need* to use bisexual. Eileen doesn't. Not because the words mean different things, but because your assumed defaults are different and these kind of labels are almost always about expressing how you deviate from the default.

I think that's right. I'm sorry my answer embodies a binary thinginess of gender.

maymay said...

Good points, Bitchy. We're both using words to instill the message we want and because people react to us differently because of who we are, we've chosen different words to try and instill similar messages.

Of course, that's exactly what this whole entry is about. The words were fine from the start, but people's own filters, their inability to understand the distinctions between their own added meaning and the message they've been given from someone else, always fucks communication right up right well. The sooner people get a handle on that the better this world will be.

Eileen said...

I'm sorry my answer embodies a binary thinginess of gender.

Bitchy, I f'ing love you.

devastatingyet said...

I feel like "bisexual" is a bit limiting because if there were some other gender (not an in-between one, but an actual other one, like aliens) I think I would like them too. "Bisexual" is also a bit strong for me because I'm really more hetero than not, alas. I need some word that means, like, "mostly hetero but will sleep with anything that can give a good conversation first."

marcus said...

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

oh my, maymay, you've got an awful lot of words coming out of your mouth.

maymay said...

Marcus: "blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

oh my, maymay, you've got an awful lot of words coming out of your mouth.
"

Oh my, Marcus, you don't seem to have a lot of words coming out of yours.