Art: Caroline Sykora
Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics
By Jennifer Baumgardner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Jennifer Baumgardner looks both ways, which in her parlance means that she sleeps with both men and women. Her latest book explores what it means to be bisexual. While it is provocative and entertaining, it sidesteps several important aspects of American sexual pathology, which renders it less comprehensive than it might have been.
The book merges memoir, cultural critique and polemic with a “look-who-I’ve-slept-with” bravura. Along the way, it attempts to deconstruct bisexual behavior and elbow its place onto feminist and queer agendas. Time will tell whether this gives the “B” in LGBTQ organizations more clout or adds bisexual demands to feminist wish-lists.
“Bisexuality, like feminism, has freedom at its root,” Baumgardner writes, “the need to have more, not less, to say ‘and’ not ‘or.’” She sees bisexuality’s political invisibility as a reflection of society’s love of the binary and desire to keep things simple – straight or gay, normal or deviant.
Of course, life is rarely this cut-and-dry. Baumgardner heralds public figures like Ani DiFranco, Anne Heche and Alice Walker as exemplars of sexual freedom, because they have publicly affirmed their bisexuality. This, she argues, forces conversations open. Furthermore, it shifts the domestic paradigm, creating what she calls “gay expectations” – intimacy, openness and female orgasms – in straight relationships, and “straight expectations” – visibility, marriage, children – in queer ones.
In some ways she’s right, and celebrities are to be commended any time they publicly declare their identity or politics. Nonetheless, I’m not 100 percent sold on the argument. The chasm between superstars and regular folks is enormous, and their example is no more likely to lead to tolerance than Ciara’s ode to abstinence, a song called Goodies, will slam a psychic chastity belt on horny adolescents.
Similarly, when Baumgartner writes that,“College campuses are good barometers of this moment in history” because they are rife with bisexual exploration, she is getting only part of the story. According to the American Council on Education, less than half of U.S. residents get college degrees. What’s more, commuter schools, including community colleges, are vastly different from institutions in which students live in dorms; the experimentation rampant at Princeton or Smith is far less likely at Nassau Community College.
Yet in all spheres, people do check each other out, and anyone or anything that encourages openness is to be lauded. Baumgardner’s assessment of her own relationships illustrates what it means to adopt a consciously chosen identity. Honest and forthright, she questions whether the Jennifer who dates men is “just a straight girl,” then analyzes what “just” means. Her candor is refreshing.
At the same time, I wished that she had paid less attention to Freudian missteps and turned, instead, to helping people appreciate the continuum of desire and concomitant behavior at the core of human existence. Such understanding might mitigate the trend of men denying that they have sex with other men in order to preserve the illusion of heterosexuality. It might also allow those who eschew monogamy to talk about ways to safely love multiple partners, a topic that tends to be avoided despite many people’s forays in this terrain.
Despite these flaws, Look Both Ways is important. Sassy, bold and cleverly written, Baumgardner celebrates bisexual women as major players in the pro-sex feminist movement. Likewise, she reminds us that political and psychic liberation are entwined, that social reorganization requires that we address the impulses that goad our behavior. Lastly, she revels in her power to attract and go after what and whom she wants. The power to objectify, coupled with subverting the male gaze, can be heady. Take it, she tells us, and don’t look back.