Bi-Focal

A bisexuality book puts pleasure before politics

Part memoir and part pop history, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politicsclaims transformative potential for sexual relationships between women. Yet Jennifer Baumgardner also argues that same-sex desire need not make women "lesbians." Despite the subtitle, she doesn't address male bisexuality; politics are also missing. Culture and emotion are Baumgardner's real focus, along with the sexual legacy of second-wave feminism. Look Both Wayspicks up from that era the idea of the "political lesbian" for whom identity signaled not just desire but solidarity with other women against male supremacy. Baumgardner believes that second-wavers like Kate Millett and Alix Kates Shulman are bisexual foremothers for her generation, but their critique of patriarchy has dropped away altogether. The book also stumbles into predictable traps, like invoking "lesbians" but not being clear who counts as one. "Is she or isn't she?" moments become distracting, even though the liberating potential of bisexuality might lie in not asking or answering that question. Baumgardner reverses the old formula—a bisexual is a lesbian in denial—and reveals that many "lesbians" are, or have been, bisexual. But she glosses over history and experience by not acknowledging that homophobia is still a powerful incentive for closeted lesbians to try to stick with the straight life.

Look Both Waysmight have acquired focus—and political edge—if it had addressed the ideological norms that render bisexuality invisble. Identity-politics and monogamy presume that everyone's erotic life will be focused on a single person and that sexuality is the expression of a unified, essential self. By characterizing bisexuality as serial monogamy with different genders, Baumgardner misses a chance to explore the potential for feminist politics in a more fluid sexuality.

 
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