By Garrett Jones, part eight
When you are actually living bisexually, this often looks like the wrong question. One knows so many couples who have split up because he has fallen for another woman or she for another man it sometimes looks as if it is exclusive heterosexuality which is incompatible with a viable lifestyle.
What makes bisexuality seem more problematic than either straightforward straightness or gayness is its conflict with the monogamous tradition enshrined in our culture. How can you really love a person if it turns out you also love somebody else? Even if you think you can, how can either of your partners agree to be shared like this?
For many people, it is the simultaneity of the two loves which is the stumbling block. A kind of serial bisexuality, where a fellow loves a man for a time, then switches to a woman for a time, does not raise the same kind of problems because it resembles the familiar situation where a man decides he no longer loves his wife and leaves her in favour of another woman. The only difference in the serial bisexual case is the gender switch when the partners change. The principle which maintains you only love one person at a time is not violated.
We now have to look rather carefully at that principle. If you can only really love one person at a time, how can a parent love a partner as well as a child, or vice versa? For some, the answer seems to be it can’t be done: a husband complains to his wife “you’ve never had much time for me since little Johnny (or Jenny) arrived.” For most, fortunately, there is no problem at all: the child is the fruit of a joint love and is the recipient of that same love.
When there is more than one child, how can a parent love all of them? Again, for some parents, the answer is they can’t; they unashamedly have favourites. You hear things like, “I’ve always loved Jane but I’ve never felt close to Michael”. This may be honest, but it isn’t much fun for the child or children who get left out. Fortunately most parents see each of their children as unique individuals, delight in their uniqueness, and love each of them without ever attempting to allocate their love on some kind of graduated scale.
Whilst all this may be true, there are still many people who strongly feel sexual love is different. They claim it is, by its very nature, so very total and intimate it simply cannot be shared. Once passion loses its single focus, it either gets intolerably diluted or spawns corrosive jealousies.
This implies sexual love is always the same thing.
But this is absurd. We all know it isn’t. To start with, a good deal of sex does not have much to do with love at all. A fellow wanking on his own for instance is doing something undeniably sexual but not necessarily anything which has to do with love – though it may have, depending on who or what he is thinking about at the time.
This first way of differentiating sex, what used to be thought of as the difference between love and lust, is in fact the way many men justify their extra-marital sex to themselves: sex with the wife is lovemaking; anything else is just sex. A problem about this is, insofar as these men are being honest with themselves, they are condemning all their other partners to a very truncated kind of sexual encounter and denying themselves anything beyond physical need and relief.
Some men who live bisexually adopt this kind of stance. They have accepted the fact, although they are happily married (or partnered), they do sometimes crave another prick. But they are anxious to convince themselves and their male partners this is all they crave; they will not give or receive kisses, strokes, hugs or terms of endearment when with another man.
The distinction between love and lust may fairly accurately describe some kinds of extra-marital sex, but it has decided limitations if pushed too far. Is it not rather strange to make a virtue of the withholding of love, even if designed to safeguard a kind of fidelity to one’s cohabiting partner?
Virtually all men will admit there are times when the urge for sex is so strong, the absence or non-availability of lovers so acutely felt, almost anything short of rape will do.
But most men know this semi-desperate kind of casual sex will not do very much for them and they try to arrange their lives in such a way they are driven to it as rarely as possible. They are very aware, although sex of this kind has the advantage over solitary wanking of providing the excitement of another human body, it has the big disadvantage of trying to treat another person as just a body. In terms of a total sex-life, such episodes may furnish an occasional garnish to the regular diet, not a satisfying meal.
Admittedly, there are men, some of them living bisexually, who constantly deny themselves and their partners the satisfaction of a complete sexual meal. They will have nothing to do with emotional involvement or relational commitment; all they want is constant variety, always at a narrowly physical level.
Most men find this kind of denial very puzzling and can only account for it by supposing it betokens some deep, unresolved psycho-sexual conflict. How can you live on a constant succession of snacks, however tasty? Won’t they wreck your appetite for a square meal or, better, a regular diet of square meals, if and when the opportunity to sit down to them presents itself? A snack is a snack, handy when needed, but not a diet to live on. The only possible satisfaction of such an obsessive promiscuity is that it enables its more successful practitioners to notch up their ‘conquests’ and count bodies, much as a miser counts coins.
The kind of married bisexual man who claims to have ‘loving sex’ with his wife, as opposed to ‘just sex’ with the occasional male ‘on the side’, is in an intermediate position. According to his claim, sex with the wife is on an altogether more exalted plane than his excursions into malesex. Whilst the first is tender and loving, involving his total self, the second is “nasty, brutish and short”, just to satisfy a fleeting physical craving.
Most of the married bisexual men with whom I have been involved have wanted, and been happy to give, a good deal more than this: sex which is also loving. They find no difficulty about loving their wives and also loving at least one male friend at the same time.
Men who live in this way have learned that sex which is really loving does not need to be exclusive, along the lines of the “forsaking all other” vow in the traditional Christian marriage service, but it does need to keep itself within the bounds of the possible.
My own experience suggests there is still a good deal of confusion about all this, much of it the inevitable consequence of having shuffled out of the old sexual straitjacket without any clear guidelines about how best to exploit our new freedom.
If we have learned anything about sex over the past few decades, it is this: people cannot simply be classed as male or female, then be expected all to conform to the same rigid gender stereotype. Temperaments, physiques, sex drives, sexual biographies, conditions of work, geography, climate, these and many other factors vary enormously. How could a truck driver, on the road for days at a stretch, adopt the same pattern of sex as a bank clerk who is virtually always at home? How likely is it an Eskimo will have evolved the same kind of sexual rhythm as an Amerinidian? If even identical twins are never exactly identical, we should be prepared for much wider variation between people of disparate backgrounds; the kind of sex-life which may work extremely well for one person may be a non-starter for another.
Allowing for this range of variation, I have been surprised to discover how many men there are whose sexuality and lifestyle are, in broad outline, similar to my own. To the casual observer, we look like ordinary married men, most of us with families. We feel ourselves to be perfectly normal, having no desire to hit the headlines or be saddled with notoriety. Yet many of the people who take it for granted we are just like themselves would get quite a shock if they knew that we enjoy spending some of our time in bed with another man or men. In quite a few cases, the wives or heterosexual partners of these men would be even more shocked if they knew what was going on.
This absence of sexual candour within a marriage may seem reprehensible but I for one would concede it could be very difficult, perhaps even unwise, for a man to tell his female partner about his male partner(s) if she has been nursing the illusion – which probably at one time was no illusion – she has his sexual self all to herself. Suddenly having to make such a radical reappraisal of the man she thought she knew so well could cause the relationship to fall apart. Even if that did not happen, she could abruptly feel herself to be completely isolated because, when she looks around her, she can see no other husbands like her own, seemingly wanting the best of both worlds. It may take some time before she realises her own husband probably does not look that way from the outside – and she certainly would not want him to!
I was lucky in that my own wife knew about my gay drive before we even got engaged. This knowledge certainly did not solve all problems, but at least it ensured the fact of my inherent gayness never came at her like a bolt from the blue. What did surprise both of us was the eventual realisation, although sex had worked out beautifully within the marriage, the gay side of me was not going to go away. Sooner or later it was going to demand satisfaction.
It is very hard for a wife not to feel this as some kind of slight. How is it possible, when sex is going so well, when you both so thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, feel so completely at home with each other, take such delight in your children and your shared interests, how is it possible this other thing can threaten to come between you? In a situation where people were far more clued up about sexuality and its complexities, feelings like these would be avoided, but we still have a long way to go before that situation arrives.
As things are at present, even when a wife has known all along her husband finds men sexually attractive, she is likely to be both surprised and disappointed to discover their love for each other has not relegated his homosexual cravings to history. She had hoped to be able to regard his homosexuality as just an unhappy phase of his development which her love had vanquished for ever.
What she will have to go on to discover is this other love he yearns for does not reflect on her at all. He is not finding her inadequate in any way; she is giving him everything a woman ever could give him; on that score he is totally satisfied. But he also needs what only a man can give him. If he can fulfil that need, so far from taking him away from her, it will complete him for her, making him a far more rounded and a happier partner than he could ever have hoped to be otherwise. To return to the gastronomic analogy, nobody suggests, if you start eating an apple with relish after eating a pork pie, you have suddenly and puzzlingly gone off pork pies. Everybody understands and sympathises with the need for a balanced diet where food is concerned, so why should a desire to strike a similar kind of sexual balance be thought so strange?
The beauty of a bisexual lifestyle is it introduces a far more important sexual distinction than that between love and lust: the difference in the way it feels to love two genders. As the previous chapter will have made clear, these two kinds of love, whilst they have quite a lot in common, also have some important differences. This means there is very little risk the one mode of loving will get in the way of the other or try to usurp its place. Loving a man may not be quite as different from loving a woman as a pork pie is from an apple, but the two modes of loving live extremely well together and make an equally balanced meal.
Having said this, it would be remarkable if a couple living together heterosexually were both able to accept the active bisexuality of one or both of them as if it were the most natural and welcome thing in the world. Inherited ideas about gender roles and what constitutes a ‘proper marriage’ are unlikely to be thrown off in five minutes. It takes time to come to terms with the reality of the situation and to discover, far from being a disaster, it is actually an improvement on most conventional ideas about marriage.
If it is possible for both partners to come to an acceptance of the active bisexuality of at least one of them, knowing neither partner’s sexuality is getting bottled up or distorted, the bonds of love which bind the family close together are all the stronger for not becoming chains which imprison. If there are children, and if they gradually become aware of the way their parents’ relationship works, this will radically affect their ideas about gender and influence their own sexual relationships.
What are the basic requirements for any pattern of bisexual living which deserves to be designated a ‘lifestyle’.
Honesty is probably what matters most in the long run. There is no satisfactory reason why anybody should try to force himself into a shape which distorts or masks his real nature. “But I need to do this in order to hold down my job”, like other similar pleas, is not a good reason for becoming a bogus person.
This applies both ways. A man who tries to act bisexual merely in order to click with his friends or be in with a trend is being as dishonest as the man who strenuously tries to deny his bisexuality although he knows it is there.
This honesty should be a little more than skin deep. If we badly want to believe something about ourselves because it would be convenient or less scary to believe it, we are quite capable of overlooking or suppressing some of the crucial evidence. We should be aware of pressures upon us to conform to what is socially approved and be prepared to resist those pressures the moment we are convinced our survival as authentic people depends on that resistance.
So far as other people are concerned, we should not be dishonest but we should have some care not to “frighten the horses”. We need to cultivate good judgement about how much self-disclosure is required in a given situation or with a given person. Your own wife, for instance, may appreciate knowing the truth about your sexuality and being given the opportunity to understand how you really tick, but she may make it clear she does not want to be treated to any blow-by-blow accounts of what goes on between you and the men in your life. It is easier to live and let live if any borders one puts up around one’s life are respected.
Closely allied to honesty is integrity and fidelity. ‘Being unfaithful’ does not mean having more than one love in your life; it means being untrustworthy – saying one thing and doing another, lying, being deceitful, being totally unpredictable and unreliable. If you want to be trusted, you have to be worthy of trust.
Perhaps the most important additional qualification for anybody wanting a viable bisexual lifestyle is clarity about what is and isn’t possible.
If you are cohabiting with a woman and having (or hoping to have) children with her, that is a commitment. It does not have to be all-embracing but it should not be underestimated. You have to work out, in relation to any other projected sexual or emotional involvement, whether or not it is consistent with that central commitment. The third person also needs to be involved in this process. At the end of the day you may have to conclude ‘yes, if human life were not limited in the ways it is, what we hoped for could have been wonderful; as it is, it just isn’t possible’.
The same limitations apply to all other extra-marital relationships. You can sustain a number of low-key relationships simultaneously which are understood on all sides to be strictly limited in their scope but, if you want to foster one or two really rich, in-depth relationships with men as well as with your female partner, they must have priority over these more peripheral friendships. There should be no problem about this so long as everybody knows where they are.
There is something in most of us which resists all this talk of viability. It is this which gives the great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet and its modern counterpart, West Side Story, their appeal. We respect the love which is tragically ‘impossible’, which bursts the bounds of conventionality, which finally comes to grief, yet which leaves the rest of us feeling relatively small and ashamed. In the long run, such a love can become a ferment for change in social attitudes.
But nobody in his senses wills a tragedy. The kind of tragedy just mentioned happens because of the clash between social prejudice and bigotry on the one hand, and individual hopes and loves on the other. The quality of the tragedy depends on what this clash does to and for the parties involved in it.
There is nothing tragic or magnificent about failing to come to terms with oneself or the limitations of the human condition. It may be sad to see somebody nursing a death-wish or a totally anarchic rage or lapsing into alcoholism or compulsive smoking or drugs, but it is hardly tragic.
Generally speaking, if a person says he or she enjoys life, we expect that person’s lifestyle to be of the kind which enables them to go on enjoying it. Where that is not the case, we can be pretty certain something has gone badly wrong.