A Brief History of Bisexuality
The concept of bisexuality is not a modern phenomenon. When discussing bisexuality, many people seem to believe that the idea of being attracted to more than one gender is a relatively new -and therefore not valid- sexuality. This, however, is a completely inaccurate depiction of LGBTQ+ history.
The term bisexuality was first coined by Charles Gilbert Chaddock in 1892 while translating Richard Von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in order to describe a person who experienced attraction to men and women. Prior to this point, the term “bisexuality” was used to refer to intersex persons who display male and female sex characteristics (1). This is where the term as we know and use it today originated, however people have been documented as engaging in activity that we might deem to be bisexual since around 700 BCE in Ancient Greece.
When discussing Ancient Greek sexual relations, scholars refer to the practice of men engaging in homosexual sex with younger boys as “pederasty.” Many Ancient Greek men had relations with teenage boys that were both sexual and apprentice-like in nature. The men taught the boys how to be members of society while also engaging in sexual -albeit non-penetrative- intercourse. At the same time, most of these men also had wives. The Erastes (as they were named) would be having sexual relations with their wives as well as their Eromenos.
However, the concept of pederasty is not referred to as bisexuality. This is partly due to the Greeks not having the same gender definitions as modern Western Culture does. The Greeks had a binary that was male/ non-male as opposed to man/ woman. The definition of male was also fairly restrictive; one had to be a biological male, over the age of 18, free-born, a property owner, and a citizen. Anyone who didn’t fit all of these criteria was deemed non-male and thus eligible to engage in sexual acts with males and not be considered homo or bisexual. Albeit so, if we view the practice from a modern lens, one could argue that these acts would be classified as bisexual (2).
The study of bisexuality and the visibility of bisexual Americans began to gain recognition moving into the mid 1900s. Alfred Kinsey famously wrote two books based on his study of human sexuality called Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Perhaps the most well known outcome of the studies was the creation of the Kinsey Scale (3).
This is a scale from 0 to 6, with 0 being exclusively heterosexual, and 6 being exclusively homosexual. With the Kinsey scale, individuals who did not identify as exclusively gay or straight had 5 different categories they might fit into better than the straight or gay binary.
The findings of Kinsey’s study shocked the American public. People simply couldn’t believe the prevalence of individuals engaging in homosexuality was as high as reported and that he must have fabricated his statistics. Many researchers have since conducted similar studies to quantify how many people identify within the LGBTQ+ community.
In 2011, Gary J Gates of the Williams Institute of the University of California: Los Angeles published a study called “How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender?” This study found that 1.8% of the population identifies as bisexual, compared to 1.7% that identifies as either gay or lesbian, for a combined total of approximately 3.5% of the total population. This shows that not only are bisexual people a significant population within the United States, but are more prevalent than those that identify as strictly homosexual (4).
Defining Bisexuality, “The Binary,” Monosexism, etc.
- MOGII- Marginalized Orientations, Gender Identities, and Intersex
- LGBTQ+ Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (+)
- A term used to refer to the modern Western societal concept of gender as men and women
- This idea is flawed as it excludes non-binary individuals and persons who identify as another gender
- In other cultures, there isn’t a binary but as many as 5 genders (5)
- The most common term (historically and currently) when referring to attraction towards more than one gender/sex
- The traditional definition of bisexuality is “sexual or romantic attraction to members of both sexes” (6)
- This definition is problematic in that it assumes that there are only two sexes/genders
- If the definition is expanded to include all genders as opposed to both, it represents a more accurate depiction of many bisexual people (7)
- Attraction to all genders is also referred to as pansexuality, omnisexuality, or even queer
- Monosexism is the idea that one can only have attraction towards a singular gender
- Enforces the idea that if you aren’t straight then you must be gay
- Another term for “biphobia”
- Monosexism is inherently anti-bisexual as it devalues the concept of experiencing attraction towards more than one gender or sex
Monosexism from outside the LGBTQ/MOGII Community
Bisexual individuals often face significant monosexism when coming out to individuals who are outside of the LGBTQ+ community. “You’re just confused,” “you haven’t picked a side yet,” “you’re just saying you’re bi for attention,” and “you’re just greedy” are all examples of common monosexism faced by bisexual people. The belief that a person can’t be bisexual or is going through a phase is the very core of monosexism. This is often seen in media representations of LGBTQ individuals in a practice called “bi-erasure.”
One famous example of bi-erasure is in the television series Orange is the New Black. Many of the characters on the show experience attraction towards multiple genders, but the term bisexual is never mentioned once. Piper, for instance is documented as having relations with men and women, but is either called straight or a lesbian (8). In Season 1 Episode 10, Piper states “I like hot guys. And I like hot girls. I like hot people. What can I say? I’m shallow.” This statement is severely problematic in that not only does it deny the identity of bisexuality but it also labels people who have attraction to more than one gender as “shallow.”
Deeply rooted in monosexism and biphobia is the patriarchy -which is the term coined to discuss a culture in which men hold the majority of the societal power (9). When a woman deems herself bisexual, the common stigma she might face is people telling her she is “actually straight” and just experimenting. When a man identifies as bisexual, many people seem to think that it is just a stepping stone to “actually being gay.” Both of these not only delegitimize the notion of being attracted to more than one gender but also make the presumption that the person is actually solely attracted to men, which is monosexism and patriarchal expectations working together in oppression.
Monosexism from inside the LGBTQ/MOGII Community and Identity Policing
Monosexism within the LGBTQ+ community is far less common, but it is often harder to recognize or refute to the average person. The arguments I have heard against bisexuality that came from other LGBTQ+ individuals are “bisexuality is transphobic,” “bisexuality excludes non-binary individuals,” and “bisexuality enforces the gender binary.” At first these all seem like pretty reasonable things to think, but upon further inspection prove to be largely false.
Let’s start with the idea that bisexuality is transphobic. This is simply wrong. If one were to believe that bisexuality is transphobic, then you would have to ascribe to the view that transgender men and women aren’t “real men and women.” Therefore, bisexuality doesn’t discriminate against trans individuals. Trans men are men and trans women are women. Enough said.
Next is the idea that bisexuality excludes non-binary people. If you are using the flawed definition of bisexuality meaning attraction to both men and women, then it is very easy to see how this might be the case. The definition of bisexuality that I personally identify with actually varies from this. In her book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, Julia Serrano gives a definition that I could finally agree with: “The bi in “bisexual” does not merely refer to the types of people that I am sexual with, but to the fact that both the straight and queer communities view me in two very different ways depending on who I happen to be partnered with at any given moment.” This particular explanation resonates with me as it details the dual and dueling societal views that both queer and straight people have on bisexual individuals (10).
Another explanation I have found for bisexuality that doesn’t exclude non-binary people is that bi-sexuality is the attraction to two genders: gender that is the same as mine and gender that is different. Both of these definitions show the complexity of not only our understanding of bisexuality but also our understanding of the binaries in our society. From personal experience, I have found bisexual people to be some of the least discriminatory people towards trans and non-binary identified people.
The third and final claim I have heard from LGBTQ+ individuals against bisexuality is that it enforces the gender binary. This is a problem that is unique to bisexual people. Those who identify as strictly straight or strictly gay do not get told they are enforcing the binary. With homosexual individuals, they are attracted to a person of the same gender or sex. With heterosexual individuals, they are attracted to a person of different gender or sex. Bisexual individuals are attracted to both, so why are bisexual individuals being told they are enforcing a gender binary, while straight and gay people aren’t for the same reason? The answer: monosexism.
This idea of telling bisexual people that their sexuality is not acceptable or incorrect is an example of identity policing. This policing comes (typically) from those with systemic privilege and disenfranchises marginalized peoples. In this case it comes from others claiming that the term “bisexuality” is incorrect, inaccurate, and shouldn’t be your identity if you’re “truly inclusionary.” This model is extremely harmful as it allows those in power to assert dominance over a marginalized person’s own terminology. If a bisexual person chooses to use the term “bisexual” to describe their own sexuality, who are you to tell them that’s wrong? We don’t go around policing your labels.
Wrapping it all up
Bisexuality is a real and legitimate sexuality that has existed in some form or another for thousands of years, yet it is still delegitimized and discriminated against by mainstream media, non-LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as other people within the MOGII community. The best ways to combat this are to educate yourself and others, respect an individual’s choice of terminology, and advocate for social change such as including and not erasing bi characters from media. The woman who I believed summed it up best is Lani Ka’ahumanu, a bisexual rights activist, in a speech she made at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in 1993:
“What will it take for the gayristocracy to realize that bisexual, lesbian, transgender and gay people are in this together? We can and will move the agenda forward. But this will not happen until public recognition of our common issues is made, and a sincere effort to confront biphobia and transphobia is made by the established gay and lesbian leadership in this country.” -Lani Ka’ahumanu
- Merl Storr, “Transformations: Subjects, Categories, and Cures in Krafft-Ebings Sexology,” in Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desire (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
- Martha C. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 268, 307–308, 335; Gloria Ferrari, Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece (University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 144–5.
- Alfred Kinsey “The Kinsey Scale” (Indiana University, Kinsey Institute) https://www.kinseyinstitute.org/research/publications/kinsey-scale.php
- Gary J Gates. How Many People Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute, ULCA School of Law , April 2011. Accessed April 14, 2017.https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBT-Apr-2011.pdf
- Graham, Sharyn. “Sulawesi’s Fifth Gender”. Inside Indonesia. http://www.insideindonesia.org/sulawesis-fifth-gender-2. Accessed April 16, 2017.
- “Bisexual.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed April 17, 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bisexual.
- Shiri Eisner. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. Berkeley, CA. Seal Press. July 2, 2013.
- Orange is the New Black. “Bora Bora Bora.” Season 1 Episode 10. Directed by Andrew McCarthy. Written by Nick Jones. Netflix Original Series, July 11 2013.
- “Patriarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed April 17, 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/patriarchy.
- Julia Serrano, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements more Inclusive pp. 81–98; Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited (Berkeley, CA. Seal Press, 2013)