Image by philippe leroyer via FlickrI once asked an online forum whether, in their opinion, a bisexual person could be best described as 'both gay and straight' or 'neither gay nor straight'. The vast, vast majority of respondents said the latter: that it was a third-way, something seperate from either extreme.
I felt a bit disappointed with the response, and just the other day, thinking about it in retrospect, I think the reason was this: in order to see bisexuality as 'neither of the others', you have to define sexuality in terms of who people aren't attracted to. And it seems a bit strange to me to define 'gay' as 'not attracted to the opposite sex' - while that might be true in general terms of gay people, it doesn't strike me as the defining factor of homosexuality. So, if you look only in the positive sense - namely that sexualities are defined by who people are attracted to, then the logic that 'bisexual' = 'attracted to the opposite sex' + 'attracted to the same sex' seems unavoidable. To put it differently, "bisexuality" is defined as "+gay" and "+straight", where "gay" means "attracted to the same sex" and "straight" means "attracted to the opposite sex". "Asexuality" could thus be defined as "-gay" and "-straight".
It might not even matter, if you subscribe to the theory that all people are essentially bisexual: that, as opposed to a duality, or division into three or however many parts you'd like, that sexuality exists on a spectrum, ranging from exclusive heterosexuality at one extreme to exclusive homosexuality at the other. Certainly the Kinsey Institute proposes such a range, and its voice is influential.
I agree with it, to a certain extent: even adding a second dimension that could incorporate asexuality in degrees, like those panels of colour that paint programmes bring up when you want to choose a hue: containing a full spectrum from left to right, but softening down to the same white across the board as you get to the bottom. I think it gives an idea of human sexuality as much more complex than mere labels.
But I think I realised the one thing I didn't really like about the spectrum approach to sexuality, and namely it's this: I have a gay friend who can, in degrees, admit to liking certain things about the opposite sex. While that certainly fits in with the idea that everyone is a certain degree of bisexual, in this particular case it seemed strange that admitting what might be described as 'slight heterosexuality' in some way made her 'less gay' than someone who wouldn't make such an admission. While that second person's needle would be at the limit of the meter, hers would be a bit more inclined to the middle. It seemed like, if you'll pardon the crudeness of the comparison, a heavy metal fan who also liked some country was in some way less of a metalhead than someone whose CD collection consisted entirely of acts in black leather.
So then I got to thinking of those games I never played when I was a kid: Dungeons and Dragons, or those card games where people seem to collect all kinds of different characters and have them fight each other. Or perhaps fantasy video games, too. Anyway, I'm picturing the kind of game where characters have statistics like 'stamina', 'strength' and 'charisma', and numbers attached to them. They're parameters, you could say, and by looking at them all in full do you get a sense of that particular character's strengths and weaknesses.
What if human sexuality, instead of individual boxes or even a cline by degrees, was seen in terms of such a checklist? One exclusively heterosexual person might be "Heterosexuality: 10, Homosexuality: 0", whereas a fundamentally heterosexual person who might find some appeal in same-sex relationships might, for example, be "Heterosexuality:10, Homosexuality: 2". In other words, the existence of some homosexual urges don't in any way negate or diminish the person's essential heterosexuality. In other words, the second person isn't in any way 'less heterosexual' than the first; if anything, they're 'heterosexual plus'. And where perhaps this person would be a candidate for the term 'bisexual', there's a good chance that this person would reject that label and feel most comfortable identifying as straight. An asexual person with slight gay tendencies might, perhaps, be "Heterosexuality: 0, Homosexuality: 2".
It would be silly for people to identify their sexualities with a scorecard. But I think the tendency to break things down to simplified absolutes denies us the full range of human sexual responses that exist out there, and making hundreds of tinier and tinier labels is of little use either (to that end, I should say that my card of stats should probably read 'male-attraction' and 'female-attraction', as opposed to 'heterosexuality' and 'homosexuality' so as not to exclude transgendered, two-spirited or gender-ambiguous people).