I listened to this fantastic podcast last night (http://www.makeminemanlove.com/episode-5-bisexual-erasure/), and it’s given me a lot to think about. I’m writing about the subject of women and m/m elsewhere, so I’m going to keep this to a very specific point brought up in the podcast which I think is relevant to bisexuality in m/m literature.
A point which gets brought up over and over (to the point of exhaustion) is whether or not women authors/readers of m/m are objectifying and using gay men for their own gratification. There are multiple views on this, which have been addressed better by other people (seriously, Google it—there are too many to list). I do not believe women are intentionally objectifying gay men, and I’m not going to presume to tell people what they can read or write.
That said, there’s a measure of insensitivity among women in m/m, which does need to be called out. First of all, I think it’s dangerous territory to suggest that women’s sexuality can only be free of shame if they are eliminated from the equation. To suggest so denies the many, many women (and some men) who are writing intentionally feminist m/f romance*. It’s also lesbian erasure and has vague tones of internalized misogyny. Many lesbian and bi women authors write f/f for the exact same reason—to uplift and celebrate women’s love and sexuality, free of patriarchal shame.
Where this gets even further complicated is in the intersection with bisexuality. Genuine stories about bisexual people in which the relationships and sexuality of bi folks are honored are few and far between. Because m/m and f/f respectively as genres have the expectation of a certain outcome, there isn’t much room for something which is neither. The closest we get are menage stories. Those can be fantastic when well-written, but they are not the sum total of bisexuality. (For what it’s worth, polyamory which is not menage gets the shaft too, even when the relationships are exclusively multiple m’s or f’s.)
Readers of m/m would prefer authors leave the vaginas** off-page. Many are exceptionally put off by even the suggestion of m/f interactions. If this is what removing the shame of women’s sexuality looks like, I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want bisexuality—mine or anyone else’s—reduced to being in name only. We get erased enough by the world as it is because who we are is based on what people read us as on first sight. If I look like a cisgender heterosexual person when I’m out with my spouse and kids, then that is who I become to everyone who sees us. It forces a kind of repeated coming out with all the accompanying fear of explaining who I am. This is not a thing I want to put my characters through, that they be read as “gay now” because the genre dictates a happily ever after with two (usually cisgender) men.
I am fully aware that writing specifically for a bisexual audience carries risk. It’s not the popular thing to do. Well, I’ve never spent my life sitting at the cool table anyway, so maybe that shouldn’t matter to me. But strangely, it does. It matters to me when it feels an awful lot like schoolyard bullying to have straight women drown out my queer voice because they are bothered that a vagina** might be present in a story. It’s disappointing to be told—again, mostly by straight women—that the complex realities of bisexual lives don’t matter because what they want is hot sexy times and I haven’t delivered properly.
About a year ago, I answered a poll question about what kinds of men readers like in their m/m. I was really horrified by the results. They read like a bad Grindr profile: no fat men, no Black or Asian men, no femmes. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Equally, book reviews are a cesspool of vicious commentary. The list of complaints against authors who dare put a toe out of line is long—just reading the reviews for some books is enough to make me want to take three showers. Add in the way readers cry foul when a favorite author writes outside their usual genre, as though they’ve been fatally betrayed.
This is why I don’t support the idea that stripping away the shame of women’s sexuality is an adequate reason by itself to read and write m/m. In f/f, there can be bi erasure and transphobia, but there isn’t the same degree of generalized queer-erasure that happens in m/m. And if a straight woman cannot tolerate other forms of queerness, we have many different words for that: homophobia, biphobia, sapphobia, transphobia, misogyny, femmephobia.
We bi writers have just as much right to cast off shame in our sexuality. I have the right to create stories which celebrate bisexuality in its many shapes. I’m allowed to explore the fluidity of my gender and orientation through genres other than romance; through multifaceted relationships; through characters outside binaries; and through multiple partner configurations, from m/m to m/f to f/f. I don’t deserve to be shredded for it. Don’t read it if it’s not your thing, but don’t write reviews that complain about how I didn’t comply with your narrow expectations, either.
I happen to agree with the podcast’s panel that infighting doesn’t take down the system, the patriarchy, which has oppressed us. But at the same time, when a genre has an overall tone of being anti-femme, that isn’t taking out the patriarchy either—it’s supporting it. It’s still implying there is something bad, worthless, and dirty about women and feminine-spectrum people. Let’s not contribute to that.
*In particular, it erases women of color who are writing m/f romance. Sexuality is infinitely more fraught because of racism, and there are a number of phenomenal women of color who write sensual, empowering stories which celebrate their multi-faceted expressions and identities. It is not necessary to take women out of the picture in order to de-shame and liberate women’s sexuality.
**I really do mean vaginas. Occasionally trans men get a free pass in m/m for the “novelty,” but often not. Trans women, on the other hand, typically do, usually because they are non-op and can provide the requisite genitalia to be fetishised by the audience. Either way, both are another method of directly excluding non-binary people and cisgender women from the equation. Don’t get me started on how unrealistic most sexually explicit material with trans women actually is. Google is your friend, people.