As a bisexual woman, the controversy surrounding Rita Ora's latest song Girls has very much been on my radar.
Dubbed a ‘bisexual anthem’ by Ora, it has been criticised by female musicians including Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani and Shura who feel it shows a poor representation of queer women for its references to threesomes, booze and drugs, but were they right to be upset?
It’s certainly true that bisexual women are starved of any representation that doesn’t cast them as confused, experimenting, promiscuous or playing to the desires of men. Growing up as a bi girl in England during the noughties, positive depictions of my sexuality were few and far between. Willow from Buffy was our only saving grace, but everyone I knew described her as a lesbian, her previous romances with men and her bisexual identity totally forgotten, something which is typical of bisexual representation in the media.
It's no wonder I've often found my own sexual identity frequently denied by those around me. When I tried to come out at school, one well-meaning friend commented that you couldn’t really be bi until you’d had an exact mix of male and female sexual partners. Another friend at university cheerfully told me bisexuality doesn't exist, even after having met both male and female partners of mine.
So when a song comes along that actually acknowledges your existence, while simultaneously playing into the old familiar stereotypes (promiscuous, doing it for male attention), it’s hard not to feel conflicted.
Should lesbian women comment on the bi experience?
Nonetheless, some criticisms have left a sour taste. In particular, I can’t help but wonder if lesbian women like Shura and Kiyoko are best placed to comment on a song written by a bi woman about her experience of being bi.
Referring to Ora's lyrics about snogging women under the influence, Kiyoko called the song 'tone deaf', saying ‘I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls, I’ve loved women my entire life’.
Is this the lesbian equivalent of saying ‘I liked it before it became popular’? Why feel the need to suggest there is a hierarchy of legitimate same sex feelings and insist you are sat at the top as a gold star, Kinsey 6?
This attitude suggests there is only one way to be a queer woman and that bi women need to prove they are 'gay enough' to earn their seat at the table, rather than just speaking truthfully about their own experiences. Yes, some women have liked women all their lives but others, for whatever reason, have been more into men initially and only realised they liked women later.
Yes, some bisexual and gay women don't need to drink alcohol to have sex but others like to, just like some straight people do. Using alcohol as a means of approaching people you fancy isn't a new concept and it certainly doesn't make Ora's experience of being queer any less real or valid that Kiyoko's. I'm teetotal so I don’t drink alcohol when I have sex but I’d never suggest that makes me more queer than anyone else... just more socially awkward!
It only takes a little bit of imaginative empathy to realise just because you don't experience something in one way, it doesn't mean everyone does.
Bisexual women are not ‘lesbian lite’
Kiyoko’s comments highlight a pervasive attitude within areas of both the straight and LGBTQ world where bisexual women are seen as ‘lesbian lite’ rather than having a legitimate sexual identity.
As a bisexual woman, it’s all too common to be asked by lesbian women that you’re dating if you’re just experimenting, whether you’re genuinely attracted to women and to be probed for your 'credentials' to be in a same sex relationship. I’ve been told by lesbian women that being bisexual is disgusting, that bisexual women are not to be trusted, promiscuous and even that bisexuals make them sick.
Obviously this is #notalllesbians but it's widespread enough to be a problem and it’s hard to meet a bisexual woman who hasn’t experienced the same or worse. In fact, the sisterhood, solidarity and support I have found from my bisexual friends around these issues has been unparalleled. Only they have been able to understand how it feels to be both part of a community and outside of one, of feeling you need to prove and validate your ‘gay’ experience to the queer world while still experiencing homophobia and biphobia from the straight world.
When it comes to Kiyoko's frustrations, I do get it. Queer women are tired of being seen through one very particular, sexualised lens but we can't police what it means for people to be queer (no threesomes! no drugs!) or expect them to pull out their credentials to be accepted under the LGBTQ umbrella. We have to let people express what being queer means for themselves, in their own words. Otherwise any representation is meaningless.