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Sexual fluidity and ‘Call Me By Your Name...

Sexual fluidity and ‘Call Me By Your Name’

Recently I got interviewed for this great article about sexual fluidity which interviewed author André Aciman about his work. As a huge fan of Call Me By Your Name I was very pleased to be interviewed about my thoughts, based on my book with Alex Iantaffi, Life Isn’t Binary.

You can read the article here, and my full interview below.

Why are people calling this gay instead of sexually fluid or bisexual?

This story is being treated in a very similar way to ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which was almost unanimously hailed as a ‘gay cowboy story’ although it could more accurately be described as a ‘bisexual shepherd story’, given that both male characters had female partners and there was certainly some depiction of romantic and erotic attraction within those relationships too.

The reason for this is certainly that we’re culturally mired in the gay/straight binary. We see a similar thing when celebrities mention attraction to more than one gender, often mainstream media announces that they are ‘gay now’. Unfortunately the interconnected binary understanding of gender and sexuality is strongly embedded in Western culture. Until recently even the science of sexology insisted that humans could only be men or women, and could only be attracted to the ‘same’ or ‘opposite’ sex. 

Thankfully the work of sex historians, queer theorists, bisexuality researchers, and scientists have challenged this view, pointing out that this is a relatively recent way of understanding human experience, which is a poor fit for many people, and which isn’t supported by either biological or psychological research. Not only is sexual attraction not a same/opposite binary, but sexuality is fluid (our attractions, desires, and identities can change over time), and multidimensional (not just about gender of attraction). 

Is bisexuality still being erased or considered non-existent? Do we need more fiction like this that envisions desire as unmoored from gender and sexual identities?

Sadly bisexuality is still erased. Until recently most mainstream depictions of characters with attraction to more than one gender were almost always depicted as going from straight to gay or gay to straight. If they were depicted, bisexual characters were confused, going through a phase, or otherwise suspicious. Still bisexual characters are often represented as evil, greedy, or manipulative, think of Frank Underwood in House of Cards, for example (check out the media section of The Bisexuality Report for more examples).

It would be great to see more fiction that unmoors desire from gender and sexual identities. We know that around 40% of young people experience their attraction as somewhere between ‘exclusively heterosexual’ and ‘exclusively homosexual’. Many identify as bisexual (attracted to more than one gender), pansexual (gender not being the key feature of their sexual attraction), or queer (challenging the whole gay/straight binary). 

Going back to multiple dimensions of sexuality, many find that their extent of sexual attraction is equally – or more – important than gender of attraction (people on the asexual spectrum). Many define themselves more in terms of the kind of people they’re into (e.g. sapiosexual), the kind of desires they have (e.g. people in the kink or BDSM community), the positions they take (e.g. top, bottom, switch), or the kind of relationships they form (e.g. solo-poly, monogamish). People can be in different places in relation to their erotic attractions and their nurturing attractions (the people they want to form more romantic or close bonds with), and in relation to what they enjoy in solo sex or fantasy, and in sex with other people. Sari van Anders is one key researcher who is teasing apart these dimensions in scientific research (basic overview here).

Is there something political or profound about imagining non-normative desire/ love that is unhindered by the usual obstacles, and not sensationalized or othered?

In a world which is still mired in an outdated understanding of sexuality as fixed, defined by gender of attraction, and only acceptable within a monogamous context, I would say that this kind of fiction is indeed political. It’s worth remembering that the dominant cultural understanding of sexuality – where heterosexuality is normal, homosexuality is less than normal (still requiring of explanations and people ‘coming out’) and anything else is invisible – is grounded in a historical approach to science and psychiatry which saw its purpose as delineating ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’ behaviour. This, itself, was related to the early 20th century scientific projects of delineating different races as inferior/superior (in order to justify colonialism), and the eugenics movement (trying to prevent supposedly inferior classes and races, as well as disabled people, from reproducing). 

Producing depictions of non-normative desire are a step in the direction of challenging all sense that there is a normative (white, middle class, male, heterosexual) way of being that everyone should be judged against, and questioning the related view that some bodies and lives are inherently more valuable than others. Follow this thread and it leads to some far more obviously political questions about the way we relate to other humans, other species, and the planet. 

Are portrayals of desire as sexually fluid/ bisexual becoming more common? Are there any examples in contemporary culture that you feel are getting it right?

The majority of depictions do still fit the monogamous gay/straight binary model sadly. However, we do now have some excellent stereotype-busting bi characters now in the form of Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn 99 and Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy. Bisexuality is also well represented in Issa Rae’s TV show Insecure, and will be centred in her follow-up Him or Her. Relatedly, we’ve seen some good depictions of non-binary gender in shows like Billions and Grey’s Anatomy.

Very few mainstream depictions ever truly acknowledge that a person can be attracted to – or love – more than one person without that being a problem. So much drama revolves around the love triangle.

Sense8 is an example of a nice recent exception. The movies Shortbus and Kinsey from a while back, and more recently Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, are pretty positive. The TV shows You, Me, Her and She’s Gotta Have It deal with this topic, but fall into some more stereotypical and problematic portrayals of open non-monogamy. Queer fans enjoy the depictions of gender, sexuality, and relationships in the cartoon series Steven Universe for being far less normative, and sci-fi and fantasy in general can be better places to turn for non-normative depictions. 

What are the possible benefits of seeing examples of openly non-monogamous desire in fiction and film?

The benefits are potentially huge. Monogamous relationships are currently under huge pressure to meet all of a person’s needs, with partners expected to provide sexual passion, best-friendship, caring support, co-habiting, co-parenting, and more, for life. Therapists like Esther Perel point out that it’s incredibly hard to get both ‘warm love’ and ‘hot love‘ within the same relationship, and this may explain why over fifty percent of people see themselves as having one or more sexual dysfunctions, and rates of infidelity are similarly high.

The pressure on monogamy keeps many people in unhappy and damaging relationships, while others go from break-up to break-up because nobody can match up to these high ideals, collecting more emotional bruises along the way.

We need depictions of people doing relationships in all kinds of other ways in order to know that these are available and to have some model for how to navigate them. Open non-monogamy is just one example. It would be great to also see positive depictions of soloness and singledom, people who prioritise friendship over love when it comes to close relationships or cohabiting, aromantic people, relationship anarchists, people whose relationship style is based around friends-with-benefits, fuckbuddy, or hook-up arrangements. People are living their lives in these ways but struggling to see themselves represented.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. gypsyb

    30 October

    Wow really interesting thank you for this post.

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