Bisexuality and pansexuality have been playthings in pop culture for a long time, and been toyed with as an experimental mania or a state of confusion. Either way, it has been touted as a phase.
A notable example of this is how the iconic sex-positive show Sex and the City dealt with bisexuality. Samantha Jones, the most sexually adventurous in the girl squad, known for her raunchy escapades with many men, had a short-lived relationship with a woman which went stale very quickly. Her own friends treated the relationship like a confused aside. Carrie remarked, “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown.” This is just one among many bi-phobic pearls of wisdom that have been dished out on screens over the years.
Sexual fluidity as an experimental tool is so overused, it is as mundanely palpable as the air we breathe. The popular trope of heterosexual girls “experimenting” or “playing around” with their female friends has long been used as a gag or a tantalising slice in pop culture. Songs like ‘I Kissed A Girl And I Liked It’, and on-screen meaningless sexual encounters between female friends (like the Friends episode in which Rachel and Monica kiss in front of Joey and Chandler to win their apartment back; or even Bonnie Plunkett’s brief same-sex flings in Mom) are such examples. While the aforementioned song or scenes are far from problematic, they have fostered the notion that sexual fluidity – particularly female sexual fluidity – is an unserious affair.
What has pop culture, then, projected? The idea that girls experiment with each other for fun in their predominantly heterosexual lives, simply because they can, and sometimes because men find it sexy?
Everyone is free to experiment with their sexuality regardless of their orientation. While experimenting with sexuality is far from a terrible thing, the pop culture depictions of experimental female non-heteronormativity have had some unfortunate consequences. It has led to female sexual fluidity being viewed as a fleeting juncture, not a valid sexual identity. The perception of female bisexuality or pansexuality being a phase has seeped deep into the minds of many, even among those who view themselves as queer affirming.
This is the harsh reality that I have encountered as a pansexual woman.
When I came out to my parents, my mother soothed herself by calling my sexuality “a phase”. I did not take this to heart, and in fact, it was the reaction I was expecting. As is the case with most Indian parents, non-comforming sexual identities is a seemingly new phenomenon for her. She cannot comprehend how her daughter can like boys and girls. She asserted that she knows about some of my adolescent boy crushes, and is confused about how I can suddenly like girls as well.
What baffled me more was how my sexuality was viewed by my peers up until recently, including some queer friends. While nobody has overtly disregarded my sexuality, the subtleties of their language with respect to my romantic life has wounded me. My friends know about my past relationships with boys. So, whenever there were lighthearted discussions about potential romantic commitments, they would always refer to my partner as a man. For instance, I hear things like “Shash would have a perfect family with a hot husband and many dogs”.
This may sound insignificant and I acknowledge that such statements are not malicious. But the casual assumption by some well-meaning friends of a heteronormative future for me – in spite of them being aware of my sexuality – has made me feel uncomfortable. In fact, during one such exchange, I meekly added that I can imagine a future with someone who is not a man, to which my friend, with innocuous bewilderment, exclaimed, “Wow really?”
There have been agonising nights filled with self-gaslighting sessions. In these phases, I have dissected every crush I have ever had. I have gone as far as contemplating whether I have been acting being queer in some sick quest for attention. Fortunately, these thoughts are not frequent visitors.
My sexual fluidity has been taken seriously by my peers after ratification with sufficient evidence – I use the term evidence quite literally, as I feel like some data had to be presented for my sexuality to become valid. It took me to openly engage in non-heterosexual dating for my sexuality to be taken seriously. This has convinced me that bi-erasure and pan-erasure are inescapable, even in supposedly queer-affirming safe spaces.
None of the individuals I have talked about are insensitive or homophobic. I am affirmative that their casual disregard for my sexual fluidity has been completely unintentional. This article is not intended to be a scathing attack on anyone. I simply want to spotlight on how sexual fluidity is something most people don’t truly comprehend.
However, it is worth noting that the representation of female sexual fluidity is evolving in pop culture. Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a bisexual icon. Her romantic relationships with both men and women are not exoticised. They are heartwarmingly normal.
The film Someone Great also explores female bisexuality through the character Erin Kennedy. What is particularly noteworthy, is that the film spotlights her commitment issues which have stemmed from a past romantic entanglement that made her “feel like an experiment”. These are just two among several examples. Since representation has improved, perhaps hoping for a real change isn’t naive.
While I can see that sexually fluid identities are gradually emerging from the shadows in reel and real life, we need to tease it out more and drag it to the forefront. We still have miles to go before we can accept it unquestioningly – one shouldn’t have to prove the validity of their sexual fluidity.