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I'm bisexual, so why don't I feel exactly the same about men and women?

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nathanielthegreat asks:

I'm 17, male, and have considered myself bisexual for 2 years now. I find myself emotionally attracted to women and sexually attracted to men. I like women in a certain way, I like to be in relationships with them. I see myself having kids, many in fact. But I'm not feeling sexually attracted to them, except for a few but can't find myself to have sex with them. As for men, I like them almost strictly sexually. Even if I didn't enjoy the sex, half the times I couldn't get hard with men, I prefer it and don't feel scared to. But when I try to be with them emotionally, I'm just not that into it. I don't feel like I put any limits on myself, for I have tried.

What does this mean? I won't limit myself to one gender but I'd like to feel for them equally in order to find the right person for me. What do you think? Please help.

Heather Corinna replies:

I don't think it's very realistic to expect most of us to feel the exact same way, or "equally," about all men, all women or all people whose gender is outside of that binary.

There are bisexual people in the world who find that they have fairly equal levels of sexual and emotional attraction to people of all genders, but I'd say it's more common for any of us to find that we have some differences in how we experience areas of feeling for different genders and in different relationships. And how we feel, be it identical or differing, really is not something that we can control or forcibly change: we feel however we feel at any given time, based on who we are at that time and what our experiences are and have been to that point. It also may not be how we feel for the whole of our lives: we all grow, after all, and every new experience, every additional relationship, tends to shape us in some way if we let it.

I want to start by introducing you to the whole range of areas of connection with others we consider when we're talking about sexual orientation or relationships. Larger group of variables, meet Nathaniel; Nathaniel, meet a larger group of variables.

See, we don't just have the two you mentioned, sexual and emotional. We also talk about romantic, spiritual, affectional, and/or relational attraction and connection. With that many variables, you can see how if a person of ANY orientation made a list of the genders they have all of those kinds attraction to, or who they have been in relationship with so far in any of those areas, we'd be unlikely to come out perfectly equal on all accounts. It'd be seriously unusual if all our relationships -- including those which are totally nonsexual -- with people of differing genders we had so far were or felt identical in all those areas. Same goes with our expectations of different people or genders all being the same in all areas.

I think that "so far" is important (which is why I said it twice). We can only really base our ideas on how we have felt on what our experiences have been to date, and at your age, those experiences have been more limited than they probably will be five, ten, twenty or forty years down the road. Again, how you feel now may not be how you always feel, especially given the fluidity of sexuality. And the depth of our interpersonal relationships also tends to get deeper as we grow and get older, both per what you're bringing to the table and what any of your partners are.

You might also find the Klein Grid helpful. When addressing orientation, the Klein model takes our sexual attraction into account, but also our sexual fantasies and sexual behavior; it includes our emotional, social and community preferences as well as our preferences about our own identity. It considers all of that based on the past, the present and also our ideals or wishes. It's something that might be able to help you see the much-bigger picture when it comes to orientation that I think might be missing in terms of how you're framing it now.

Don't forget: even for a person who is only attracted to one sex or gender, it's highly unlikely they are going to have the same kinds of or levels of attraction to every single person in that group, you know?

You're young. I don't say that to patronize, but to point out that life experience does usually make a big difference. At 17, even if you're ahead of the curve compared to your peers, you're still sussing out who you are in a very big way, you've barely been sexual as a young adult when it comes to both sexual development and relationships, and your life and relationship experience has been limited by the short number of years you have had to have it in and reflect on it throughout. For myself, for instance, even though I knew I was attracted to all genders before I was even in my teens, and dated men and women alike as a teenager, it took me until I was near my thirties to truly identify and then start to really work through some massive emotional barriers I had with women.

In your teens, your social circles are also pretty limited unless you travel a lot or live in a highly diverse area, and you probably haven't yet met a wide array of people who you might even consider for sexual or romantic relationships. Who you have had relationships with to date has probably had more to do with who you had any opportunity to have them with now than it will later on in your life. And when we're queer, our dating pool is always much smaller than it is for those who are young but straight. It may be that you just haven't yet met women or men in your life to whom you feel a very strong sexual and emotional connection. Of course, finding people we feel strongly for and connect deeply with on all levels, no matter what our orientation is, is something that usually takes a while, because that kind of total connectivity just doesn't happen every day. It's rare stuff.

Relationships at your age probably haven't been very long-term, either. It's not like we just walk into perfect relationships that have everything we want all tied up with a bow; in which all aspects of them are high-key and totally developed. Relationships are a creative enterprise: they're something we make together, not something we just passively have or are given.

One other humongous thing to take into consideration is how common it is for people, especially younger people and/or people who have been raised with very heteronormative or gendernormative ideas or social structures, to find that it is more difficult to envision or have deep emotional relationships with those of the same sex or gender. If I had a dollar for every queer young person who said, "I'm sexually attracted to men/women but I just can't see myself in a serious relationship with them," who even just ten years later either had no such challenge of imagination or was in a serious emotional/romantic and sexual relationship with someone same-sex I'd be one wealthy dame.

A rare few of us manage to grow up without a ton of social conditioning when it comes to who we should have romantic or deep feelings about: nearly all cultures are overdosed with pervasive messages that romance, lifelong emotional relationships of depth, and/or families, are things that are about men being with women, not men with men or women with women, or anyone at all with anyone at all who doesn't fit into any of those boxes. I'd say those norms are even bigger and tougher to shake than norms that say who we should and shouldn't have sex with: just listen to how often people make same-sex relationships all about sex and that's pretty obvious. There are also a lot of strong cultural messages that tell us that even our same-gender or same-sex friendships and family relationships are less important than those we have with people of a different sex or gender than us.

I can see some of that conditioning even in one of your own statements. We can have families or kids with people of any gender, after all: we don't need opposite-sex relationships to do that. (And all the female partners you have may not want to have kids, either: being female doesn't mean we want to become pregnant or parent. So, saying that a female partner is who one has a family with also makes a lot of assumptions about women and what the wide range of women do and don't want.) I don't point something like that out to make you feel bad, just to show how internalized and pervasive these ideas can be, to the point that we might not even realize we have them. All of us do have some level of them. Even those of us who are queer can and often do have internalized homophobia or biphobia. Unlearning all that conditioning and getting to new ways of thinking, more inclusive ways of thinking, is something that tends to take a lot of awareness, effort and time. But throughout that process, those cultural ideas and messages can have a pretty big influence on us. It may be that the way you view men in terms of emotions, and the way you view women in regard to sex, are both influenced by some of these ideas.

By all means, give all of this some thought, but also do what you can not to sweat this idea that to have a satisfying relationship, now or later, you have to feel the same way about all genders. You don't.

Throughout your life -- and straight people have this happen, too -- you're likely going to find in your relationships that you have a wide range of levels/areas of feeling and connection with each person you're with. With one partner, the sexual part of your relationship may lead a bit more, or be more charged or strong. With another, it may be the emotional (though we can't really say any of this is all that separate: sex has emotion in it too, even if it's casual) aspects that lead or are stronger.

Relationships where ALL aspects of a relationship are highly charged, pose no challenges, where nothing ever needs to be compromised, adapted or improved, where you feel perfectly met in all areas? They're about as common as unicorns or leprechauns.

When we're in relationships, we don't remain in them or leave them the exact same person we were when we began them, and neither do our partners. Instead, we all will tend to grow, change in various ways, and as we grow, so does the relationship. In long-term relationships, we can even find that an area of the relationship which started out as the strongest at some point takes a back seat while another area becomes the super-big deal. So, for example, in a relationship where the sex is off the charts and has a physical attraction you feel very strongly, but the emotional connection outside the sex doesn't feel as strong, over time, if you both invest in the relationship, that part can develop and grow stronger. The same goes for a relationship that starts off very strong emotionally or spiritually, but where the sexual attraction doesn't start off as strong. However, it's usually the emotional arena where the most growth happens, and which tends to be more gradual as time goes on: sexual attraction tends to be pretty instant, even if the sex we have with it isn't aces right away.

I'm going to mention again that you're 17, even though it's probably annoying because you know full well how old you are. You do not have to have all of this figured out right now: that is a lot for anyone to expect of themselves, unless you can see the future. You're not likely TO have all of this figured out by now, no matter what: the way we feel at one age often is not the way we feel at another. Remember how many people don't even get any kind of handle on their orientation or come out until their 20s, 30s, 40s or even later! You finding a lifelong partner at your age is also not a likely proposition (and many people find we have more than one important partner in the course of our lives anyway, not just one person), so worrying overmuch about it now is probably not a sound place to put your energy, and goodness knows, no one needs extra stress just because. I'm not even sure how feeling exactly the same about men and women would result in you finding one, right lifelong partner in the first place.

My advice for right now would be to just lead with your heart and your head, and pursue the relationships which feel best to you and your partners, sexually, emotionally and otherwise. What I think matters most about any kind of relationship is that anyone involved in it feels benefitted by it, able to really be themselves, and is cared for, accepted and respected. If in any relationship, all of that is going on for you and who you're with, it's always a good thing, even if that relationship is not one you'll have for your whole life.

Give yourself space and time to grow, and permission not to magically have everything figured out or miraculously feel the same about every single person you're with based on gender or any other single criteria. Not only is it okay not to have your whole interpersonal life figured out before you graduate from high school, it's neither likely nor necessary to be happy and to have happy, healthy and mutually-beneficial relationships.

Here are a few more links to pack in your bag and take with you as you journey on:

written 31 Oct 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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