To choose or not to choose

Sex on Tuesday

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Most bisexuals and pansexuals I know often get asked which gender they prefer. Apart from the underlying innocent (if occasionally off-putting) curiosity, I assume people ask for the vicarious entertainment: Almost invariably, it is straight people who ask me, and almost as invariably, they’re bashful but rapt as they do.

Perhaps surprisingly, I agree it’s a good question.

The notion of preferring one gender strikes me as a very heterosexual way of thinking, but preferences aren’t so crazy, even if you really like all your options. And I often used to wonder: Do I have a preference? And if so, why?

After I came out, I felt a lot of unfortunate pressure (mostly just ginned up in my own head) to actualize my burgeoning bisexual identity, and it felt like eons before I had any sexual experiences with boys. In high school, I felt I had to make an active nonchoice: I needed to invest my time equally in relationships with boys and girls — or else risk feeling somehow “fake,” as if my bisexuality required proof. But every time I kissed a boy, I compared it to kissing girls; every time I flirted with a girl, I noticed the differences in flirting with boys. So if I don’t have a preference, it’s not for lack of thought.

But choosing presumes your options are predictable, and in my view, stereotypes only get you so far. Yes, boys I’ve liked tended to be more confident, assertive and forward, ready to chase what they wanted from the start. Yes, girls I’ve liked tended to be more patient and took longer to decide in the first place — at times to my chagrin. Mostly, though, intimacy with boys and girls ranges so much that it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

The boys I’ve kissed, for instance, tend to be worse kissers, but not necessarily because they’re too assertive or forceful. (One time, a gay guy did criticize my kissing by saying I “kissed like a girl,” but how he would know, I’m not sure.) More interestingly, the girls I’ve kissed have typically been subtler yet more passionate, while the guys have often been less inspired, less supple and less intense. (Sorry, boys.) And one girl I dated felt my lips were “too soft” — a complaint I still don’t understand.

These intricacies and unpredictabilities of people and their emotions are generally what make love and sex exhilarating for me. One of the great joys of being bisexual is that these nuances are multiplied by the variation within each gender. Although I deplore the stereotype that bisexuals are promiscuous or sexually distractible, the universal human desire for novelty probably inflects my bisexuality; even if I love not needing to choose among genders, my mood still varies. 

In the months or seasons when I want the energy or clarity of a cut-to-the-chase sexual partner, I find myself pining for the authoritativeness of the guys I’ve liked. Every boy I’ve been involved with has been older than I was — something of a necessity, given how long boys take to mature — and all of them have kept me on my toes. And in my experience, if boys are one thing, it’s unpredictable.

In more emotionally introspective times, by contrast, I crave the intimacy, self-knowledge and immersive affection of the girls I’ve dated. In my life, girls have typically varied more widely, but whether they show it visibly or not, girls are typically savvier, more emotionally intricate and more dynamic. Girls have the sexual range of boys and then some, but it all depends on the circumstances.

If I had to choose a favorite aspect of being bi, it would be the joy and variety of these fluctuations — of these celebrations of my nonchoice. After breaking up with my first serious girlfriend, for instance, I had my heart set on a boy entirely her opposite: assertive, flamboyant, shrewd. But he defied my expectations for boys. Despite being the first boy I ever kissed, he made me wait for quite some time and wanted me to be very sure of my feelings before starting a relationship.

Perhaps unfortunately (for him?), the tumult of our drawn-out courtship coincided with a renewed desire for ease and simplicity in my life, and I opted for another girl I’d been smitten with for years, a girl whom I’d thought was cerebral and predictable but who instead gave me one of the most adventurous years of my life.

Pretending I could reliably prefer one gender ultimately ignores the fact that gender or sex have limited bearing on who someone is, and any statement of preference would revolve mostly around genitals, which (obviously) vary immensely in quality. I’ve fallen in love with very different people, and no matter what traits I presumed based on their gender, they surprised me.

If I said I preferred boys to girls or vice versa, it would be like saying I preferred Braeburn apples to mandarin oranges even though I preferred tangerines to Gala apples or (God forbid) Red Delicious, which are, in fact, abominable. In short, it would be somewhere between a lie and an oversimplification.

So facing the choice to choose or not to choose, I’d choose not to choose because choosing is meaningless, impossible and, above all, blessedly beside the point.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].