Cont’d, Book Five: Beth Firestein’s Becoming Visible (Columbia University Press, 2007.)
By Jonathan Alexander and Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio
Has appeared in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality. Re-published with permission of Routledge, New York.
Last but not least, this review will consider the collection Becoming Visible (2007), which was put together for the purpose of empowering the counseling profession to provide health services to people like Jenny, Christopher, Jemma, and others, such that would help them actualize their ideal amorous configurations rather than make them feel guilty for desiring them. The collection takes the lead from what manifests as the urge that most clients bring to a counselor’s table, rather than what the counseling profession at large might consider appropriate. As editor Beth Firestein announces at the onset of her introduction, “our clients are no longer coming to us because they want to be ‘normal.’ They are coming to us because they want to be whole” (xiii, original emphasis).
As a person who, in principle, does believe in psychotherapy, and who, out of a desire for integrity with her own chosen communities and identities, has practiced individual forms of individual therapy only in the context of co-counseling with members of queer, bi, and poly communities, co-editor Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio could not be more supportive of this kind of endeavor, and hopeful that the very serious studies and research contained in this volume make a significant impact in the profession of psychotherapy, so that more counselors are available to help people like her. “Whole” stands of course for fulfilled in one’s aspirations in creative, imaginative, unique ways, regardless of any normativity, and, in particular, heteronormativity. It is a tall call for any therapist, since one’s personal experiences have an effect on the span of one’s imagination, and that tends to trace the contours of one’s belief systems as well. So, while one cannot imagine how counselors who believe in “converting” gays to heteronormativity (like those the film Bruno makes fun of in a crucial scene) could be impacted by this book, one can certainly see how many liberal therapists open to the idea of wholeness as the goal of a counselor’s work, can find in the book’s pages the data, information, tools, and evidence to become more effective in their job. Besides this, the book also of course empowers those accustomed to coaching, co-counseling, self-counseling, sharing with confidantes and in support and social groups, pillow talk, and other informal ways of accessing emotional resources, to find pot what it is that they need to get over a stumbling block in their psychological progress and development.
The book’s sections include an overview of critical issues in counseling bisexuals; a central section, “Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan,” that establishes bisexuality as a viable sexual identity acceptable to clients and therapists no matter for how long and at what age it is adopted to describe oneself; a section on the psychological situations faced by bisexuals who are part of cultural, racial, or ethnic minorities; and a section on diversity of lovestyles among groups of bisexuals.
For the sake of this review, we will focus on three chapters in the volume. Chapter 11, “Addressing Social Invalidation to Promote Well-Being for Multiracial Bisexuals of African Descent” (207-228), by Raymond Scott, emphasizes the challenges people of African descent face in the United States when they identify as bisexuals. In the context of critical race theory, the author emphasizes how, when in the culture at large one is exclusively or at least primarily defined by color, any other non-normative self-definitions become fraught with the risk of being considered too deviant to be taken on, with the ensuing consequences of forced duplicity and closetedness, as in what is known as the “down low” lifestyle. This situation in turn tends to produce self-destructiveness, loss of voice, invalidation, and all the severe emotional and psychological challenges these entail. It is very important, the article claims, to begin with a self-defined notion of race. The author models this by describing all people of African descent in the Americas as multiracial, including African-Americans who live in the United States. Historically, by definition, this is the country where “whites” and only whites have been defined by “purity.” Once this multiracial, self-defined multiple notion of race is recognized, affirmed, and embraced, the coming-out process of a multiracial bisexual client can begin to take place.
Chapter 17, “Counseling Bisexuals in Polyamorous Relationships” (312-335), by Geri Weitzman, focuses on the segment of the bisexual population that defines itself as polyamorous and whose members practice some form of responsible non-monogamy or multipartnering. The chapter makes good use of a wide spectrum of data collected in well described informal online surveys. It offers an articulate typology of the polyamorous population and the kinds of discrimination it faces. Further, the chapter explains why poly people believe that practicing polyamory contributes to their stability and mental health; it describes their main concerns in a world unfamiliar with their orientation; and reports the incidence among polaymorists of individuals who identify as bisexuals: 51 percent of the total sample according to the survey (317). Weitzman’s research also contributes to dispelling the myth that polyamorous bisexuals behave like what Fritz Klein calls concurrent bisexuals, namely that they need to be involved with a male and a female at the same time to be whole. Another dispelled myth is that polyamorous bisexuals are more at risk for sexually transmitted diseases than others. The report is that 71 percent of respondents affirm that their lovers’ gender does not matter. It was also found that enhanced awareness of safer-sex practices have successfully protected polyamorous bisexuals from being more affected by STDs than the general population.
Chapter 18, “Playing with Sacred Fire: Building Erotic Communities” (336-357), by Loraine Hutchins, focuses on counseling participants in “social or friendship networks that include sharing of sexual experiences between network members in various combinations” (336). The author adeptly introduces the concept of erotic communities. This trope shifts the focus not only from the sexual to the erotic, but also from the private (from what is supposed to happen behind closed doors, the famous ‘primal scene’ that would be cause for childhood trauma according for Freud) to the public, or at least to an open space where erotic energies can be shared by multiple participants in an amorous game. With her subtle awareness of and respect for erotic communities based on notions of tantra and sacred eroticism, Hutchins engages a queer terrain indeed, as she proposes that counselors revise the prevalent notion of the orgiastic as the ultimate primitivism and negative loss of self, for a positive notion that revises this experience as one deeply connected with the divine and the sacred. What happens to the cultural construct of sexuality, with its embedded paradigms of monosexuality and monogamy, when multipartnering in an eroticized space is revised as a religious experience? Hutchins examines three sacred-sex communities, Carol Queen’s San Francisco based “Queer of Heaven,” the Pennsylvania based “Body Sacred,” and “The Body Electric School,” also based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She points out that leadership in the creation and development of these intentional communities has consistently been bisexual, and that the effect of the work of these communities in the culture at large has been that of teaching anew forms and styles of the arts of loving, some of which were quite well known in cultures ancient or other than the West. In other words, when all life is recognized as a form of the sacred, as it was in classical antiquity and still is in Tantric Hinduism, then bisexuality, like other plural forms of erotic expression, are every bit according to nature, or, in secondo natura, as Cantarella’s original title explains. This erotic knowledge, we would like to add, is indeed part of the sacred, as it helps to assuage pernicious fears that stand in the way of practicing love sustainably. This knowledge helps to control risks involved in producing love in an age of uncertainty like our own, when production of this essential element that all life shares is especially necessary.
The width of topics and disciplines, the range of interests and perspectives deployed in the reviewed books suggests that the intersection of bisexuality and queer theory is a space populated with multiple minds that vibrate together as their intellectual visions examine and gradually transform our cultural notions of the sexual, the amorous, and the erotic.
Angelides, Steven. A History of Bisexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Baumgardner, Jennifer. Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Block, Jenny. Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage. Seattle: Seal Press, 2009
Cantarella, Eva. Bisexuality in the Ancient World. Yale University Press, 1992. (Originally published in Italian as Secondo natura, 1988.)
Firestein, Beth, ed. Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan. Columbia University Press, 2007.
Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Hemmings, Clare. Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Klein, Fritz; The Bisexual Option. New York: The Harrington Park Press, 1993.
Also appeared in SexGenderBody.
Also appeared in SexGenderBody.
Republished here with thanks to Arvan Reese.