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When Jennifer Baumgardner came out as bisexual, her concerned mother had Elton John as her only available point of reference. Now every TV show has a bi-girl subplot, LUG is a familiar term and even the most straight-seeming girls will make out at a party. In her new book, Look Both Ways, Baumgardner chronicles female bisexuality's blossoming in the wake of feminism and gay liberation. Yet, as she points out, bringing a girlfriend to a family wedding still sends ripples of confusion and unease amongst the relatives. Baumgardner quotes Phoebe Buffay on Friends singing, "Sometimes men love women / sometimes men love men / and then there are bisexuals / though some people say they're kidding themselves." How is it that with so many signs of bisexuality running rampant through our culture, it remains an unpopular label that conjures up images of "crazy Anne Heche," undergraduate girls gone wild and closeted waffling? In Look Both Ways, Baumgardner tries to make sense of it all by taking a long, hard look at her own past relationships, as well as those of friends and acquaintances. — Sarah Sundberg
Do you think ladies dating ladies is actually more common now, or is it just more visible?
It's more common and obviously more visible. Visibility gives people the idea to do things. Acting on a desire is based on having opportunities. You know in the movie version of The Hours when, out of nowhere, the '40s housewife kisses her neighbor? Stuff like that did happen, but there was no framework to put it in. I think now there are a lot of entry points to kissing a girl.
It's almost become a rite of passage.
My mom would be shocked to learn that any of her friends had kissed a girl. I don't know if it's just that they wouldn't own up to it, but I've grilled her and she hasn't done it. I can't think of any of my own friends who haven't. It is still shocking if you thought you were straight to suddenly be in love with a woman, but I think it makes a difference that you're not as likely to be rejected by your family, or fired, or beaten up.
It seems like female bisexuality is pretty visible compared to male bisexuality.
I think in general women's identities have a lot more space for fluidity. Guys feel more pressure to be either/or. In part it's practical — we're the ones who are like, "I'm trying to juggle work and parenting." Male bisexuality is probably more common for all I know, but it's more submerged. I know a lot of "straight" men who have had same-sex experiences.
Feminism questioned the roles that were imposed on women and gave us some space to be who we are. Nothing comparable happened for men. How do you think that affects the difference in how men and women label their sexuality?
Feminism raised women's expectations of sexual fulfillment, emotional fulfillment and equality within a relationship. I think that has turned women toward women a lot. But I think the reason we have that fluidity has more to do with women not being taken seriously. As a woman, no one takes notice of what you do anyway, so you can just do whatever you want.
There's that trope of "straight" girls making out in front of guys at frat parties, and that they're not really gay at all, that it's just a performance. I wonder how true that is. Why would you kiss somebody you were repulsed by?
You don't kiss someone who is absolutely unattractive to you. You kiss someone because there is some pleasure to it. That's something people are scared of acknowledging. It's much safer to invalidate it and say that they're doing it for a stupid reason and we shouldn't take seriously. The first few times I got together with a girl, I wanted that male audience around me because I was scared of the feelings. That gave me a foothold in what I was used to. I don't know if I would have been able to get from there to here without that.
In the book, your discussion of women being with women is very bound up in feminism. Do you worry about presenting lesbian relationships as a political statement, rather than as sexy and hot?
I certainly don't believe that love and sex should be a political strategy. There was a certain vein of political lesbianism in the '70s that I'm critiquing, though I am sympathetic to it. I think that the idea of women being better than men is actually very anti-woman at its core. I don't believe in the idea that you should be with women to simplify things and avoid messiness and not deal with your own problems.
You talk about women's colleges, and workplaces with a lot of intelligent women, as breeding grounds for female bisexuality. Men find themselves in that situation all the time — how come they don't become bisexual in that environment as well?
When I came to Ms., I felt that I would normally attempt to get attention from men, but at Ms. the people to get attention from were these smart, powerful women I worked with. And so the object of my attention shifted. I don't think men see themselves as objects as much as women do.
I assumed that you meant that being in a place dominated by women frees you up to be more proactive sexually. That you were like, "Oh, she's hot."
No, it was more like, "I hope she thinks I'm hot." I think I experienced it as more seductive — the same old thing, but different object.
You use the term "situational bisexuals," referring to the situation catalyzing an attraction instead of the attraction already being present. But isn't sexual behavior always situational and triggered by cultural and social expectations?
I think it's a mix. I don't think that gay-ish people go to Smith. I think that you get to Smith, and find there's a whole culture that welcomes sexual exploration. I think that does activate a whole lot of homosexuality or bisexuality.
Your personal life and your sex life is very much on display in the book. How do you feel about that?
Everything I write contains my life in a pretty personal way. There is nothing that I've done that I can't tell my grandmother. I think it is a political act to be open. Having said that, it is a little embarrassing. Glamour excerpted the book, and they fact-check everything, and they were on the phone with my high-school boyfriend, who I haven't seen in ten years, and I felt very exposed and embarrassed.
How did your exes react?
They were really nice. It was deeply humiliating for me, and brought up a lot of feelings about the breakups. But if my exes are feeling in any way freaked out by this, or bitching about it behind my back, they're above complaining to me about it.
To purchase Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, click here.