By Lila Hartelius
“…It’s great they did that for Women’s Day.”
My mind snapped into focus. “What happened?” I asked a dance classmate as we redressed ourselves for the cold.“Nocibé had a 20% discount on women’s perfumes.”
“Oh,” I said and slipped my shoes on in silence.
Her innocent enthusiasm at this apparently benign sales offer seemed, in fact, symbolic of an idea that, by giving less of one’s money than usual to a chain store to obtain a product designed to apply on one’s body to enhance women’s allure to men, one is getting a deal. How many women, I wondered, who have felt a similar excitement upon discovering a discount on women’s beauty products, have considered the idea that they are intellectually and emotionally buying into a male-gaze-centered, consumerist ethic that perpetuates the myth that women must contribute monetarily to a misogynistic, commodity-based system to acquire something external that will, in theory, render them alluring enough for men to want them? How many such women have considered the idea that they are feeding into an ethos that says their value is based on how much men desire their bodies? How many women have considered the idea that this puts them in a position of being, to a certain degree, viewed by society as commodities?
In this light, women’s social identities are reduced to their bodies and their bodies to fetishized commodities. Women flocking to buy the latest dress, lipstick, or weight-loss program to try to make themselves look like models in the latest fashion magazines suggests a commodification of one’s own body in order to render it more “sellable.” This commodification’s focus is not on increasing the use value of one’s own body to oneself (e.g. by making it more efficient at what it does) but on increasing its exchange value.
Coupled with the societal message that women, inasmuch as they are their bodies, should be desirable to men, there is another message: women should not allow their bodies to be too easy for men to obtain. Saying a woman is “easy” is not a compliment. In a sense, if women follow the instruction of these paired messages, they participate in a social process whereby their bodies come to represent the equivalent of, for example, an expensive perfume. This is echoed in certain aspects of how men tend to be traditionally socially educated to regard women, with catch-one-if-you-can attitudes that teach men that women are desirable possessions that must be “won” or “bought” (with roses, expensive jewelry, mortgages, etc.).
Metaphorically speaking, if, in society’s eyes, women – or, rather, women’s bodies – are expensive perfume, then bisexual women – or, rather, their bodies – are expensive perfume on discount. In other words, if we argue that women’s bodies are, in society’s view, coveted fetishized commodities – highly desired objects whose value is, similar to that of a pearl, realized only via exchange – then bisexual women’s bodies are seen by society as coveted fetishized commodities on discount. This is evident in the co-existence of two stereotypes about bisexual women: 1) that they are exotic in bed, and 2) that they are “easy.” The first attributes to bisexual women a hyper-desirability or comparatively elevated social value. Yet in the second it is clear that the societal attitude is this: easier access may not always mean better quality in the long run and almost certainly guarantees against it. “The floodgates are open!” is what seems to resound from the conception that bisexual women are comparatively easy to seduce. Yet there is a question mark in the minds of those invited to “ravage the spoils”: why is this perfume “on discount” (or, in other words, easier to attain)? Is there a defect? Is it almost expired? Has it not sold very well? It is as if the facilitated access makes the “shopper” wary of the “product’s” value.
From this perspective, it seems society tells women that their value, inasmuch as it is equated with the social exchange value of their bodies, is directly proportionate to their body’s desirability to men and inversely proportionate to its accessibility to men. Bisexual women, then – and, more specifically, their bodies – inasmuch as they are seen by society as being both hyper-desirable by and hyper-accessible to men, would be regarded by society as having short- but not long-term value.
It might be tempting for some who are unacquainted with the LGBT community first-hand to say that within that community bisexual women can find a haven from this objectifying, degrading attitude toward them. However, I personally have experienced and heard of, with disappointing frequency, incidences of this same objectifying message about bisexual women expressed or implied in non-bi-specific LGBT circles. Whether it comes under the guise of compliments suggesting a view that bisexual women are wild creatures with sexual prowess and have “tried everything in bed,” or in the form of comments revealing an opinion that bisexual women are promiscuous, exhibit risky behavior, have STIs, or are bound to leave their partner for someone of the ‘opposite’ gender, it seems both heteronormative and queer cultures circulate the message that bisexual women are “not relationship material.” Given society’s insistence on monogamy as a relationship ideal – and given the predominance of the idea that once one has “settled down,” so (at the risk of being seen as perverse) must one’s sex life – this is not surprising considering the stereotypes that bisexual women are “easy” and “wild in bed.”
It is as if society is saying: “Save your big money for an expensive perfume, because then, in addition to the proof you’ll have from its character and personality, you’ll know it’s of exceptional quality and will render itself timeless. But until you find that one perfume that’s just right for you, why not have a little fun? Life is short. You might be disappointed, but, if you buy one of these perfumes while they’re on discount, at least it won’t put a dent in your wallet – and it’ll be fun while it lasts.”
Translation: “Save your heart for a woman who has the capacity to be attracted to members of your gender only, because then, in addition to the proof you’ll have from her character and personality, you’ll know she’s of exceptional quality and won’t leave you for someone of the ‘opposite’ gender. But until you find that one woman who’s just right for you, why not have a little fun?
Life is short. You might be disappointed but, if you have a fling with a bisexual woman, at least it won’t be a big disappointment because it wouldn’t have come to much of anything anyway – and it’ll be fun while it lasts.
This message puts a spotlight on society’s tendency to disproportionately perpetuate an image of bisexual women, as compared to non-bisexual women, that reduces their worth to the desirability of their bodies. If all one is good for is one’s body, then where does that leave one’s place in society? If many desire you but few want to keep you, where can you be expected to feel truly welcome?
Both heteronormative and queer spaces seem reluctant to welcome bisexual women, and the site and axis of this discord is bisexual women’s bodies. The question of bisexual women’s place in society is effectively a question of where bisexual women’s bodies – both literal and symbolic – belong. The idea, in minority communities, of a “safe space” is a space into which only certain bodies, carrying certain identities, can enter (whether for good reason or not). The phrase “lesbians only” implies that bisexual women’s bodies are unwelcome in the space denoted. In heteronormative society and LGBT circles alike, commenting that bisexual women are “exciting,” “exotic,” “sluts,” or “cheaters” implies that, in the spaces the commenters inhabit or traverse, bisexual women’s bodies may in some cases be welcome, but only temporarily.
In French, “SDF,” which stands for sans domicile fixe (“without permanent residence”) refers to homeless people. In a sense, bisexual women – and, more specifically, their bodies (metaphorically, and sometimes literally) – find themselves without permanent residence in society. They are too often either used for others’ pleasure or shunned. Where they are not treated in these ways, they may still be regarded as worthy of such treatment. For example, using bisexual women for sexual gratification might be argued by some as justifiable by way of the stereotype that, because bisexual women are “easy,” they cannot be “faithful” (in other words, that they cannot consecrate their sexual body to the hands of only one partner). Shunning bisexual women might be argued by some as justifiable by way of the stereotype that, because bisexual women are “easy,” their bodies are “diseased” (in other words, that they have STIs). Whatever the excuses for such attitudes, the message broadcast seems to be that bisexual women’s bodies have no place in society, or that, if they do, it is – like the discount on women’s perfumes at Nocibé – for a limited time only.
Lila Hartelius, BA (lilahartelius.wordpress.com) is a bilingual (English/French), published writer and editor who has written funded grant and business proposals and served as editorial assistant for the International Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Her work has been published in Bi Women Quarterly, Weird Sisters West and Tendrel (Naropa University’s diversity journal). With competencies in communication techniques and active learning pedagogy, she has been a workshop leader at EuroBiCon and has contributed to the efforts of Bennington College’s Queer Student Union, Naropa University’s GLBTQ student group, and Boulder Pride.