One of the points of the post Why I loathe “Everyone’s bi” was this:
Not everyone struggles with the times when their lovers — their beloved, committed, beautiful partners — don’t feel like they have the right shape/right reactions/right gender, though they feel so very right at other times.
I was surprised at the reaction it got — to me, this is one of the more obvious, fundamental and problematical parts of bisexual monogamy. Not because we can’t be monogamous, not because we cheat any more often than anyone else does (and on the flip side, not because I have been brainwashed against polyamory), but because of the very nature of sexuality, and non-monosexuality in particular. The nature of my sexuality.
Inspired by the term gender dissonance1, the term sexual dissonance attempts to describe the experience of not-rightness that some people experience when in (or imagining) a sexual situation with someone of a nonpreferred gender. Monosexual queer people (such as gays and lesbians) might have experienced this trying to be “straight”. Straight folk might have if they tried “experimenting”2. And, though it’s not quite the same as monosexual dissonance, nonmonosexuals can too.
This is complicated — because while nonmonosexual people can experience it, not all do. Not all monosexual people have any idea what I’m talking about either. And it’s a feeling that’s so very hard to put into words:
Kissing. Touching. Loving. Wanting. Panting playful sweaty messy fun-having. But… not-right-ness. Wrong shape, wrong smell, wrong feel, wrong reactions, wrong movements, wrong… something, when everything was so right before, last week, last month, last year.
Where does this come from, in those of us who are attracted to multiple or many or all genders? If we’re bisexual, surely we should be immune to sexual dissonance, right?
Sexuality fluctuates. It changes over months, over years, over days. Some — most? me, anyway — nonmonosexuals are familiar with this, with our attraction to any gender, or to variations on expressions of that gender, changing over time. More for some than for others, sometimes imperceptibly, but it does; it dances and weaves and sways, like a lover on display, back and forth like lovers joined. And for those of us in the middle, as it were, we can dance and weave right out of attraction to the gender of our current partners.
I joke (and it is a joke because sexuality doesn’t work quite like this and gender definitely isn’t a binary but in a very important way it’s also not a joke at all) that 5% of the time I wish The Man were a woman, and 5% of the time I’m really glad he’s a man, and 90% of the time I just want to get off — which makes him perfect for me 95% of the time. And really, who can ask for better than that?
Working around it
We work around that 5%, The Man and I. We can work around it, because I am nonmonosexual and his gender isn’t repulsive to me sexually, even then. We can work around it because when it comes right down to it what I want is him, the person I’ve loved for my entire adult life, even if he’s not always exactly right for me. We can work around it because he’s known about my sexuality since before I told him, since before we were together. We can work around it because he gets it, as much as any monosexual person can, and respects that he can’t ever get it more than that. We can work around it because he has no jealousies, no hang ups about gender or machismo, no feeling like he has to be everything to me all the time. We can work around it because he has a lower sex drive than I do, and he doesn’t complain when I just don’t initiate. We can work around it because my frustration during those 5% times is met with sympathy and creativity from him, not shaming or anger.
Monogamy isn’t something I feel particularly attached to, but loyalty to The Man is, and he is monogamous. Polyamory can be a workable option for some nonmonosexual people who experience flux like this and sexual dissonance from it, but it isn’t the only one.
We’re all really queer
I’ve talked to a lot of really clever nonmonosexual folk3 about this phenomenon. Some have known almost instantly what I was talking about — and some of them were relieved that it wasn’t just them, that it didn’t mean something was wrong with them that they felt this wrongness sometimes. Some have no idea what I mean, and while they don’t doubt it, they don’t get it, either, even when explained to them. I haven’t been able to discern any patterns in who experiences it and who doesn’t. Male-partnered, female-partnered, non-binary-partnered; doesn’t seem to matter. One relationship for life or serial monogamy, all one gender partners or “one of each” — those who’ve experienced it and those who haven’t seem spread across the board.
But we — all of us monogamous nonmonosexuals, whether we have experienced sexual dissonance or not — are all queer.4 We are all bisexual, or pansexual, or whatever term we prefer. We are no less queer because we have/n’t felt this even when monogamous for years, or for a lifetime.
“I don’t see gender”
Sometimes nonmonosexual people — especially those who have never experienced sexual dissonance — say something like “I don’t see gender” or “gender doesn’t matter to me”. And I get it. I’m bisexual/pansexual/multisexual. I get where that comes from, because, frankly, I do not understand how someone can simply NEVER be attracted to a given gender, can not EVER be attracted to someone because of their gender. I don’t understand monosexuality, because I’m not monosexual. (I accept it, and respect its validity — but I don’t understand it.)
But here’s the thing — gender is real. Gender does matter. Maybe you don’t discriminate against someone because of their gender, even in sexual attraction, maybe you find yourself attracted to people of all sorts of gender, maybe you really will shag anything that moves, but still? Gender matters. We all have gender, even if it isn’t a big deal to us personally, even if it isn’t binary or singular, even if it isn’t what society expects us to have based on our bodies at birth. And to say gender doesn’t matter, or that you don’t “see” gender, is dismissive, insulting, and hurtful, especially to those of us who experience dissonance from gender, in ourselves or in our partners. It’s saying you don’t see us, don’t see our pain, don’t see our triumphs, don’t see our work, don’t see our lives.
Not everyone experiences sexual (or gender) dissonance. Not everyone cares what gender their partner is, in general or ever. Not everyone gets what the big deal is. That’s ok.
But gender is still real. See it.
Why does this matter?
I don’t ever hear anyone talk about this. From some of the reactions I’ve gotten from other bisexual people in monogamous relationships, they haven’t heard anyone else say it before either. For whatever reason — fear of rejection, self-doubt, invisibility of bisexuality itself — we don’t talk about this. But it happens. For some of us, because we don’t talk about it — because we can’t talk about it because we don’t even have the language5 — it’s a really big deal. It can bring self-recriminations or break marriages.
And it shouldn’t. There’s no valid reason it should. Only kyriarchy. Only bigotry. Only ignorance. Only silence.
I was afraid of putting this post up. I was afraid of contributing to stereotypes about bisexuals, of giving fuel to the idea that we are incapable of monogamy or are more likely to be unfaithful. Because I have to say that sometimes — during that 5% especially, yes — monogamy is hard. But (for us, I speak only for us) it is worth it, in the end. Its very difficulty, coupled with honesty, with working through it and around it, strengthens our relationship. He knows exactly what I put aside for him; I know exactly what he’ll do for me.
I won’t call sexual dissonance a blessing, exactly, but neither does it have to harm a relationship.
Get honest. Then get creative.
- “Gender dissonance: A form of cognitive dissonance experienced by trans people due to a misalignment of their subconscious and physical sexes.” ↩
- Though straight folk who are not Kinsey 0s might have experienced sexual situations with people of the same gender without experiencing sexual dissonance, so it’s not guaranteed. ↩
- Mostly women, because, well, mostly I talk with women. ↩
- Queer is an inclusive term for non-heterosexual sexualities. Saying nonmonosexuals are all queer is not to say that monosexuals are not. ↩
- I spent several hours talking with many smart people on Twitter trying to name this phenomenon before we came up with sexual dissonance. The next best idea was MC Hammer Syndrome (“can’t touch this“), from the clever Emma. Among my many queer and straight and monosexual and bisexual friends, none of us knew a term for this experience. How can we talk about it if we can’t even name it? ↩