I like a good advice column as much as the next person, mostly because I like to get a glimpse into the lives of other people. What better way to do that than by reading about their problems? Sometimes the questions are tough and I don’t envy the job of the columnist who has decided to take it on. Other times, well, the advice is so bad that I can’t believe someone got paid to give it.
A recent question submitted to Dear Prudence received the latter treatment.
The question went something like this from someone calling herself Irrelevant Closet: A woman is happily married to a man. However, through a lot self-reflection she has come to the realization that she is bisexual. She plans to stay monogamous with her husband, and he is supportive of her. But they are having a disagreement. She wants to come out as bisexual to her family. He doesn’t think she should. Her question indicates that her husband thinks her bisexuality is “irrelevant” because she’s in a heterosexual marriage. Emily Yoffe, Slate’s advice guru, agrees with the husband.
Letís say you discovered a late breaking interest in plushophilia, or you now realized you were turned on by being a dominatrix. This would not be news youíd be required to announce at the next Thanksgiving gathering. The rapidity with which society has accepted, even embraced, gay sexual orientation is a glorious phenomenon. But you are confusing your personal sexual exploration with a social imperative. It would be one thing if you left your marriage because you were pursuing relationships with women. That would be worth talking about ó if you wanted to ó as a way of explaining the dissolution of your marriage. But you say you are planning to not only stay with your husband but remain monogamous. I agree with your husband that making a public announcement about something so private will not be illuminating but discomfiting.
Well let’s not make the relatives uncomfortable by being open and honest about who you are. How uncouth.
Her answer was only a paragraph, but there are a lot of misconceptions that need to be cleared up. First is the comparison of bisexuality to a sexual fetish. While the lines can be blurry at the margins, generally a fetish and a sexual orientation are two distinct things. A fetish refers to a thing that someone finds sexually arousing. A sexual orientation has more to do with how we interact sexually with others.
So the comparison right off the bat is inappropriate and really sets the tone for how the rest of the answer is going to flow.
Yoffe’s answer to this woman’s question is universally belittling, from her description of it as “your personal sexual exploration” to the opinion that it might — might — be worth discussing if her marriage was falling apart from it. Implicit in this answer is that since she’s in a heterosexual marriage, she’s basically straight, right? Just hide the part of you that finds women attractive. It is irrelevant to who you are.
It should go without saying that the person with whom you are currently in a relationship doesn’t get to define who you are. If you are bisexual, you are bisexual. If you are using common definitions, you do not suddenly become heterosexual if you date someone of a different gender and you do not suddenly become gay if you date someone of the same gender. Sexuality, as a general matter, doesn’t work like that.
This is something people seem to have a hard time understanding. Back in July, actress Anna Paquin did an interview with Larry King. Paquin is bisexual, but she’s also married to a man. King did not get it at all.
King: “Are you a non-practicing bisexual?”
Paquin: “Well, I am married to my husband and we are happily monogamously married.”
King: “But you were bisexual?”
Paquin: “Well, I donít think itís a past-tense thing.”
Larry King: “No?”
Paquin: “No. Are you still straight if you are with somebody — if you were to break up with them or if they were to die, it doesnít prevent your sexuality from existing. It doesnít really work like that.”
Bisexual people are the victims of a lot of myths, from assumptions that they are just confused or doing it for attention to suspicions that they can’t be monogamous. Telling a woman to hide who she is for the comfort of others isn’t helping. Being bisexual, like being gay or straight or a person of color, informs who you are and how you interact with the world. If your bisexuality is something you don’t want to hide, no one should ask you to unless they have a pretty dang good reason. Worrying about confusing your relatives isn’t a very good reason.
Yoffe mentions that just because the question-asker is bisexual, that doesn’t create a “social imperative” to tell people about it. Does Irrelevant Closet have to tell anyone? Of course not. She should do what feels comfortable and what she thinks is safe. Oddly enough, Yoffe is helping create a social imperative to keeping quiet when others don’t see the point in bringing it up.
So, Irrelevant Closet, if you’re out there, don’t listen to Emily Yoffe on this. Follow your heart.