How Male Gaze of Porn Industry Hypersexualizes Bisexual Women and Fosters Violence against Them

At the current stage, the Lithuanian society seems to be a victim of a bizarre paradox. On one hand, the society is still struggling with the taboos and inhibitions inherited from the Soviet regime on any subject related to sex, pleasure and intimacy. With an entire generation of people raised within the no-sex epoch, the current Lithuanian population seems to have difficulties in accepting more progressive sexual awareness and non-conventional forms of sexual/romantic orientation and gender expression. On the other hand, the overwhelming industry of porn knows no state boundaries in the globalized era, where we live in. Pornography becomes a very accessible platform in Lithuania as in many other countries of the globe. Hegemonic expectations regarding women’s sexuality and behaviors create an absurd contrast with the sex-repressed reality of the post-soviet country.

In a society not open to any form of transgressive behavior, porn industry seems to dictate the modalities of “transgression” (i.e. outlining which norms are pleasing to be transgressed in a male, heterosexual and patriarchal society). Bisexual women seem to be in the target of this compromise on transgression.

If bisexual women tend to be rigorously portrayed in hot, sexy and provocative ways by the voyeuristic male gaze of the porn industry, this is the immediate product that the male society digests. Bisexual women become crushed under the weight of mechanisms of hypersexualization and sexual objectification, perpetuated by media as a field notoriously dominated by cisgendered heterosexual men.

To this purpose, a feminist, a bisexual researcher and a writer Shiri Eisner pointed out that inside the society bisexual women tend to be associated with “hypersexualized contexts, as sexual objects for the hegemonic straight cis male gaze, while directly or covertly appealing to a quasi-pornographic fantasy of a (two females and one male) threesome, and while also reassuring us that these women are not really bisexual, but are simply behaving so for the satisfaction of the presumed male spectator”. In this voyeuristic pop culture, acknowledgement of the existence of bisexual women depends exclusively on whether these women meet the standards of bisexuality palatable for straight cis men.

Another asset of expectations comes along when unconventional forms of love and attraction are used to define the person’s identity. At present time, the European societies still struggle with any concept different from monogamy. From a male perspective, bisexual women, who experience and enjoy polyamorous relationships, would be ready to engage in sex with anything that moves. This consideration derives from the hypersexualization process of an entire group of women and fuels prejudices and stereotypes by labelling bisexual women as “promiscuous”, “open”, “easy”, “eager for sex” with anybody, at any time and at any condition.

The difficulty that present societies manifest in metabolizing the subject is mirrored inside polyamorous relationships themselves. Male partners tend to recreate patriarchal systems inside the relationship, by being the only ones entitled to dictate the women’s behavior and engagements towards the other members of the polyamory relationship. Everything needs to follow the strict lines defined by the handbook of the good polyamorous bisexual woman. Three elements (i.e. “polyamorous”, “bisexual”, “woman”) seem to be translated into three cons in a patriarchal and conservative society of Lithuania. Three cons that might lead to self-blaming justifications by a victim of domestic and/or dating violence, thus representing a reason for not reporting crimes of domestic violence to the competent authorities. According to our interviewee Milda, authorities seem to perpetuate this notion of victim blaming and shaming even further.

A feminist and a polyamorous and bisexual activist Milda, interviewed for the project “Bleeding Love” on domestic and dating violence among LBT women in Lithuania, highlights how the same process is perpetuated by partners inside the mechanisms of relationships. The victim is “acting as a victim”, thus discrediting the fact that the victim is a victim for real. Milda, who identifies as a victims of domestic and dating violence, tells me how in Lithuania is almost impossible to report any minor form of this violence. Authorities and society is simply discarding them as not serious episodes. The victim is left alone, abandoned to an inner process of self-catharsis, in which time will heal the physical and emotional wounds. For many women suffering through the experienced abuse themselves is a preferable strategy than actually reporting it. As a result, another inevitable paradox is occurring.

Interview to Milda

I: Milda, would you like to introduce yourself?

M: My name is Milda and I am 26 years old. I have a Master’s degree. At the moment I live on my own with my daughter and my brother. I am a bisexual woman. In the past, I was married to a man but now I am divorced.

I: Do you identify as a victim of domestic and/or dating violence?

M: Yes, I do. Two main episodes happened, i.e. one of domestic violence and the other of dating violence. The first episode involved my ex-husband. At that time, we were not together anymore and I had already started the procedures for divorce. However, we were still living together in my apartment, since he was still in search of a new place where to live. It was not a problem for me. I discovered later on that he was not actually rushing to move out. I clarified that I did not want to have sex with him anymore. We were sleeping in the same bad – it is a really big bed – but there was no touching as we were not a couple anymore. There was no problem until one time I woke up in the middle of the night and I found his hands not at their place, where they should not be. I immediately rejected him and asked for an explanation. He tried to justify his behavior by saying: “Oh, I am so sorry, I assumed that it was fine, because you were asleep and I thought you might like it”. So I replied: “Well, I already stated before that I did not want to have sex with you anymore, so why would I change my mind just because I am asleep?”

I: What happened in the second case?

M: In the second case, I had this very clingy ex-girlfriend from another country, who did not exactly understand what does “no” mean. We already separate at the time when this episode happened. I was in Brussels (Belgium) for reasons related to work and she came from a different country to meet me there even though I said that she did not have to come. But she came. I told her that it was over between us and she knew that. However, when we met she was saying things such “Oh my God, let me kiss you!” and she kissed me a lot. I did not want that. She accompanied me to the airport, we took a train to get there and in that train it was so horrible, I was feeling really embarrassed. People were staring at us. Usually, I do not have any problem with publicly demonstrating affection, really. But that time it was different, as I really did not want her to touch me. I guess, it was harder for me to oppose her as a woman. I would have reacted much more firmly if the act of violence came from a man.

I: Did you talk to both your ex-partners about how you felt for what happened? What was their reaction?

M: In the first case, my ex-husband apologized and said that he understood my reaction. However, when later we argued about something unrelated to that, he got mad at me and he told me that I was pretending, that I was behaving as a “fucking victim”. He showed his true face. This for me was an eye-opener. How can you possibly say something like that? As if, sarcastically, I was not a victim at all since eventually nothing really happened. He was aggressive to me. After this episode we really stopped talking and we did not hang out anymore. In the second case, my ex-girlfriend and I talked a bit about what happened, but not that much. I was really scared about hurting her feelings and nothing major really happened. However, she did not see it as a problem. During all our conversations, I could not really say to her how I was really feeling.

I: Would you classify the first episode as a form of sexual violence and the second one as an emotional one?

M: Yes, I guess so.

I: You mentioned before that it was easier for you to react to an offence coming from a man rather to the one coming from a woman. Why is that, in your opinion?

M: I guess this is related to the society’s perceptions. If a man wanted something from me which I do not want to give him, I would feel more comfortable to deny him that. I would have no problems in saying to him: “I do not want to be touched”. I would expect people from outside of our relationship to support me and to support my decision. If he did something to me that I do not want to be done, society would see that as a violation of my privacy and of my sexuality. However, if a woman does something like that, I am quite sure nobody sees this as an abuse. I would not even know how to explain this to most people.

I: Were the causes of your divorce with your ex-husband related to a possessive or controlling behavior from him?

M: He was really “shitty” about my bisexuality. I was not allowed to speak loud in the street about stuff I wanted. He was judging me because I was working in [Organization X] and thus I was working on many LGBT* rights related issues. I was an “out and loud” feminist and when I was starting to talk about something, he was immediately turning to me saying “Shhh, people could hear you”. This happened many times. In those moments, I just wanted to scream in the streets something like “Tampons, tampons, tampons!”, just in order to make him feel embarrassed. In addition, he was ashamed to tell his family about my sexuality. This was not the biggest factor contributing to our divorce, but it was surely one of them.

I: You mentioned before that your ex-girlfriend was really clingy. Was this a reason that contributed to the break-up?

M: Yes. Also, none of those relationships were monogamous. I guess these ex-partners had problems in dealing with that. Another reason was that there was always the assumption that if I was doing something with a partner, then I had automatically to do the same with the other, as if it was something I owed to the other partner, an obligation. This is something that often happens in non-monogamous relationships.

I: An obligation in sexual terms?

M: In all the terms. For example, if I wanted to spend the night with a partner, it was difficult for the other to understand that maybe I didn’t want to spend the night with this person too. Or if I do blowjob to a boyfriend, why would not I do blowjob to the other partner too? Just to give an example.

I: Did you talk to anybody about these episodes of domestic and dating violence that happened to you?

M: I said everything to a friend of mine, who was very supportive. On the second case, my friend commented that this girl [the ex-girlfriend] was really abusive towards me in the way she talked to me, in the way she demanded things, in the way I always had all the time to run after her in order to fix everything. My friend made the observation that she was abusing me. My ex-girlfriend was a gender-related specialist and expert, this makes me think that she probably knew she was being abusive towards me.

I: Did any of your ex-partners ask you not to talk around about what happened?

M: No, they did not.

I: Were they behaving in a jealous or possessive way towards you?

M: Yes, they were.

I: Were they having an unpredictable temper during the relationship?

M: No, I would not say that. They were normal. I guess these are the scariest examples. You do not expect to be violated by a nice guy or a really nice girlfriend, persons who you had an awesome time with and a strong emotional connection. But this sometimes happens.

I: Did you report these episodes to the police?

M: No, no. Even now, sometimes I feel like this is something that should not be talking around, because it is so minor. It is not violence, sexual abuse or anything like that. I felt really shitty about this, because anyways these were things done to me without my will. However, in general, I do not think society would consider these episodes as abuses. Probably not.

I: Do you think in the bisexual community episodes of such kind are often experienced?

M: I think so. In particular when you tell to some men that you are bisexual, they assume that you are very “easy”. Or otherwise, sometimes I have been told: “You know, when you told me that you are bisexual, I immediately wanted to have sex with you”. This is not a compliment, this is just something really disgusting. Is really this your first thought after meeting each other? I am bisexual and I am very open about my sexuality, I do not hide it, most people know that. I never thought that somebody could associate myself with sex immediately, because this is not what being bisexual is for me. I do not see this inside the bisexual community, I do not see bisexual people raping other bisexuals, I do not think this is happening. However, men definitely tend to sexualize bisexual women. I know that for bisexual men the situation is not very good either, but I cannot comment on that properly.

I: Do you feel that episodes of domestic and dating violence can happen more often in relationships/affairs with men, rather than with women?

M: As I said before, it is different with women. I noticed that before in other cases as well. Once, I attended a community event for Valentine’s Day. It was a queer event in a lesbian and gay club. People were participating in this kind of show, they had to answer questions to their “special someone”, then that “special someone” answered the same questions and then they check how truthful that was. Those questions and answers seemed extremely violent to me. At one point, I had to leave, I just could not stand this anymore. They were saying stuff such as: “Oh yeah, she would definitely beat me up if I was unfaithful” or something like that. People around were laughing, it was something really funny for them. If a man says that, it is so funny. If a woman said the same thing about her husband or a boyfriend, people would not be laughing, they would perceive it as a threat.

I: Do you think this problem of domestic and dating violence against LBT* women is a visible in the LGBT* community? And outside the community?

M: I think that everybody knows that these things exist. But people from the outside are probably not allowed to see these things, because right now we have different struggles. We still do not have proper standards of human rights here in Lithuania and obviously violence between same-sex partners is not something we want to showcase for public. On the other side, this problem needs to become visible because otherwise it looks like nothing is happening. When violence happens inside a partnership or a couple, their friends or families probably do not know about this – this is something that stays between them. But everybody should know about this.

I: Why do you think LBT* women victims of violence do not report abuses to police?

M: Well, victims do not report abuses even when they are all beaten up and blue, lying on the floor. Thus, minor cases of sexual violence are even easier to hide. From my sex life experience, I think most people just prefer to suffer through it rather than go to police and talk about it. If talking about sex is in general so shameful, such a taboo, talking about being violated is probably never going to happen for most people. I assume in other countries, reporting is easier – they have infrastructure for victims and police is ready to deal with such issues.

I: Do you think police will be helpful and receptive to reports on domestic and dating violence here in Lithuania?

M: No, I don’t think so. Not in this country.

I: When you said that sex is a taboo for many people here, do you think it is something related to the culture of the country?

M: I think it is something probably related to a post-Soviet mentality. I am not a sociologist, and I was not doing research on this, but there was no sex in the Soviet Union, nobody was talking about it. Then another generation was raised up by these people who lived in a no-sex society. Thus, obviously nobody talk about that. I remember when my mum gave me a sort of “sex-education” lecture and said: “Your daddy was the first for me.” That was it. During this explanation, my father turned to me to add: “If I find you with somebody in bed, I would kill you both.” Because he had a gun. That was my upbringing, I assume most people had the same upbringing. What I also want to mention is that it is hard to figure out that you are lesbian, bisexual, transgender in such society. Plus, you are also a female living in a patriarchal society. That is like two minuses in your basket! You are already underprivileged with these two big issues pending on you. That is why you can end up as a victim inside a relationship, because you already feel in a worse position than others.

I: Do you think the Lithuanian legislation protects victims of domestic violence?

M: Now we have legislation on the subject that was introduced a couple years ago. Since this introduction, something has been done by the police against the perpetrators of violence. […] Before this law, these episodes were treated as “disturbances”, business belonging to the domain of the family, not to anybody else. And I assume domestic violence often happens, but victims do not really go and report that by themselves. If somebody calls the police, I guess it is usually the neighbors. However, I do not think the law is able to cover every situation, maybe it applies to just half of the cases, not to the minor ones. But there are some cases that are not even reported, for instance, rape inside marriage. This probably happens every day – every, every day! – because women think that it is their duty to have sex with a man when he wants. And if he pays for your dinner, then you also have to have sex with him because he paid for your dinner, things like that.

I: Is there any law in Lithuania covering dating violence?

M: No. I guess the same law related to domestic violence would apply also to dating situations, but nobody would call the police for that. Eventually, I only hear about cases getting to courts or cases on prostitution when really horrible rape cases are happening. However, even in these cases, they [law enforcing authorities and police officials] keep perpetuating victim blaming and victim shaming practices. It is horrible. Thus, I am not surprised if women who have been raped in dating cases will just shut up about it. In the best case scenario, they will never see again in their lives the perpetrator of that violence. In the worst case scenario they will be raped again and never tell anyone about that. That is how I imagine it goes.

I: Which is in your opinion the most vulnerable group inside the LBT* women community?

M: As data suggest and according to my belief, the most vulnerable group is the one of bisexual women. They are massively targeted for sexual violence because of the sexualization that the porn industry is conveying upon them. Porn industry makes men believe that all the women who are bisexual would automatically have a threesome with them or have sex with them because they are so “easy”. So accepting of them or anything. In cases of bisexual women, there are not cases of “correction” as it happens with lesbians. And I know that in other countries, transgender women are highly fetishized and sexualized. With bisexual women here, there is probably not risk of sexual violence but there is surely a huge risk of being beaten up.

I: Where can victims of domestic or dating violence seek for some kind of psychological help or emotional support?

M: Well, I guess they can find these in friends. That is where I would go. I would not even go to women’s shelter or anything like that, because I know they target mostly straight women, not LBT*women. I heard about those places and they are definitely not the best, so I would never go there.

I: What about LGBT* organizations? Would a victim seek for help there?

M: I would not assume they can work on these issues, I do not know. My previous organization was not working directly with LBT* violence. If I came ther saying that I was raped, how would they help me?

Interview was conducted in July 2015 by LGL’s EVS volunteer Alice Michelini. It has been published with consent and approval of the respondent for the purpose of “Bleeding Love” research project. Milda has been chosen as a nickname to protect the respondent’s privacy.

Shiri Eisner, Bi Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Seal Press, Berkeley, 2013