July 24, 2008

Teen Breakthrough, Part 2: "Resistance Bisexuality"

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[This post addresses another positive development on the gender front among teens, not as recent as the erosion of male homophobia I reported on earlier this week, but among girls.]

About 3 years ago, I noticed that girls in the NYC high school where I work were starting to call themselves "bisexual." Lots of them. Wearing rainbow logos on all kind of clothing articles. And it was becoming almost impossible for a guy to upset a girl, or pressure her into sex by calling her a "lesbian," because the term was losing its stigma. (It's still possible for guys to pressure a girl into sex, but one maneuver has been eliminated).

For teenagers, identifying as "bisexual" has often been a step toward acknowledging that they're lesbian or gay, a milestone on the road to coming out. I knew this from the literature and had heard it anecdotally from friends whose teen kids went to more elite schools. But until that point I had seldom heard the term used as a self-identifier by the predominantly Black and Latino working class kids whom I counsel.

The new self-identification, which has also been observed by my friends in other cities who are either teachers or parents of teens, has many sources as well as multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings for the girls who use it. Some of my colleagues see it as a simply a ploy by girls who are basically heterosexual to attract more boys or have more leverage in a relationship ("I don't need you, I can have romance and sex with girls") or to titillate boys with the thought of two girls doing it (and the paradisiacal possibility of joining in). These colleagues say that this new trend, which I've seen affect maybe up to 25% of the girls in a school, doesn't represent any erosion of or challenge to male supremacy.

I think that this view is a bit one-sided. Kids often try out several identities through the teen years; they'll come back in September with a whole new look, self-label ("emo," "ghetto," etc.) and group of friends. So the fact that some girls may later go straight doesn't mean that their bisexual self-classification was simply phony or a ploy. What I pick up is that they're often turned off to men by seeing how women are put down and abused by men, and they're grappling with how to live and have some agency in what is still a "man's world." That's why I like to call this very mixed and contradictory phenomenon not a conscious political act or rebellion, but a kind of "resistance bisexuality."

One girl, for example, said to me in discussing her bisexuality, "I guess I don't like the way I see men treat women, " She had a stepfather who had tried to cop a feel once or twice when he was drunk (and since that hadn't occurred recently, she didn't want to give her mother heartache by telling her about it). She'd seen her mother hit by an earlier boyfriend. She felt more connection and empathy with her female friends, and that led her to explore physical closeness with them. I heard similar statements from other girls who had experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse.

One encouraging by-product of the bisexual self-identification is that it cuts against the widespread "I don't have no females for friends" attitude, which I used to hear all the time from girls: "They act nice, but then they talk about you behind your back and stab you in the back and steal your man." While I'd be the last to minimize how mean girls can still be to each other, the bisexual girls do seem to value their female friendships more highly and are often very conscious about giving each other support.

On the down side, as someone who does conflict resolution, I have to note that this phenomenon creates endless new possibilities for drama. Two female friends find they're attracted to each other but then often they're also attracted to the same boys. So part of the girls' relationship is comparing numbers of suitors and getting jealous if the other girl is getting more male attention, and confusing or toying with a lot of guys--who then get angry and into beefs with each other...

Still, I would hold that the option of claiming bisexuality represents an advance in the deep, ongoing cultural revolution (or, using Gramsci's formulation, "war of position") against male supremacy.

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