Historicising Contemporary Bisexuality

Lachlan MacDowall. Journal of Bisexuality. Volume 9, Issue 1, 2009.


This article examines the production of contemporary bisexuality through a consideration of the range of discourses that work to constitute it. Against recent theorisations of bisexuality that have often been reluctant to view bisexuality as a culturally located formation with a distinctive history, this article argues that r to account for recent articulations of bisexuality, it is necessary to situate it in relation the development of sexuality in the 19th century.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a spate of publications about bisexuality, primarily from Britain and the United States and often influenced by burgeoning bisexual organisations. The focus of much of this work has been on responding to bisexuality’s absence from the historical record and from the contemporary moment. As a result, contemporary accounts have generally sought to legitimate bisexuality as a sexual identity and an object of academic inquiry, through highlighting bisexuality’s presence in history, the specificity of bisexual experiences, and its existence as a viable form of sexual identification. This focus on reparative history and positive representations of bisexuality means that contemporary theory has often been reluctant to historicise the category of bisexuality itself.

Key to historical accounts of bisexuality is its relationship to modernity, in particular the development of distinctively modern forms of sexuality that take place in Western Europe from the middle of the 19th century. The 19th century sees the inauguration of a distinctively modern form of bisexuality, a term that comes to have at least three different uses. From the middle of the 19th century the term bisexuality is used in the fields of anatomy and physiology to refer to forms of life that are sexually undifferentiated or thought to exhibit characteristics of both sexes. By the early years of the 20th century, bisexuality is used to describe a combination of masculinity and femininity in an individual—psychical rather than physical traits—and had also come to signify a sexual attraction to individuals of both sexes. A further distinction is made in later sociological and psychological research, particularly since the advent of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, between bisexuality as a form of sexual attraction or identification and bisexuality as a sexual practice.

Although the three meanings of bisexuality—a combination of male/ female, masculine/feminine, or heterosexual/homosexual—have different histories, they are far from distinct. This range of historical models of bisexuality continues to affect how bisexuality is articulated. As Steven Angelides (2001) notes, “[i]n contemporary discourses of sexuality … what bisexuality does and what bisexuality might do are in large measure conditioned by what it has done and has made happen within discourses inherited from the past” (p. 191).

Bisexual Erasure

A central theme in contemporary theorisations of bisexuality is bisexual erasure, which refers to the ways in which bisexuality as a mature form of desire is deferred, elided, or made invisible. Kenji Yoshino (2000) offers an explanation for the broader, sociological absence of bisexuality, suggesting that bisexual erasure can be explained by the “shared investment” and “overlapping political interests” heterosexuals and homosexuals have in keeping bisexuality invisible (p. 353). For Yoshino, the two dominant sexual orientations deploy strategies of “class erasure, individual erasure and delegitimation” to elide bisexuality (p. 353). He argues that given that the numbers of bisexuals in the population are as great or greater than homosexuals, bisexual invisibility is a “product of social erasure rather than a reflection of the numbers of bisexuals” (p. 357).

Theorists such as Angelides (2001) and Du Plessis (1996) concur that bisexuality’s absence occurs not through neglect but through a structural erasure. For Du Plessis, this “ideologically bound inability to imagine bisexuality concretely … is common to various ‘theories’ … from Freudian to ‘French feminist’ to Anglophone film theory, from popular sexology to queer theory” (p. 22). Along with Wark (1997), Du Plessis and Angelides are critical of theorists such as Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Diana Fuss, Elizabeth Grosz, and other critics central to queer theory for their lack of engagement with bisexuality. Christopher James (1996) has also noted the “exclusion of bisexuality as a structuring silence” within much queer, gay and lesbian theory (p. 232). James argues that theories of “mutual interiority” (the theorisation of the “straight” within the queer and vice versa) are used to elide bisexuality (p. 232).

An example of the problematic nature of theorising bisexuality in queer theory is Eve Sedgwick’s (1990) mapping of modern sexuality around the poles of “universalizing” and “minoritizing” (p. 85). For Sedgwick, sexual definitions such as “gay” will designate a distinct minority population while at the same time suggesting that sexual desire has a universalising impulse; that “apparently heterosexual persons and object choices are strongly marked by same-sex influences and desires, and vice-versa for apparently homosexual ones” (p. 85). The intractable “incoherence” of this duality and the impossibility of finally adjudicating between the two poles is a key component of modern sexuality for Sedgwick and has been influential in contemporary theorisations of sexuality (p. 85).

However, within Sedgwick’s model, bisexuality can be seen as an extreme oscillation of this minoritising/universalising system. As Angelides and others have argued, Sedgwick’s framework, though having tremendous explanatory power also reproduces the common sense of “everyone is bisexual” (extreme universalising) and “there is no such thing as bisexuality” (extreme minoritising) (Angelides, 2001; Garber, 1995, p. 16). Sedgwick’s schema, though proving useful in articulating the universalising and minoritising impulses of bisexuality also contributes to bisexual erasure, proving unhelpful to Du Plessis’ (1996) project of insisting on “the social viability of our present bisexual identities” (p. 21).

Bisexuality as Universal History

Attempts to theorise contemporary bisexuality are hampered by its marginalisation in contemporary theories of sexuality. Theorists of bisexuality have generally responded to this absence with a militant insistence on the specificities of bisexual experience, the social viability of bisexual desire, its transgressive nature, its importance as a mode of academic inquiry, and as a worthy equivalent to lesbian and gay identities. An important work in this regard is Marjorie Garber’s Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995), which traces bisexuality from antiquity to the present day. Vice Versa makes a substantial contribution to bisexual scholarship by presenting a collection of readings of bisexuals across history, alongside an analysis of bisexuality’s consistent elision. A central theme in Garber’s work is the relationship between bisexuality and “the nature of human eroticism” in general (p. 15). Garber argues that people’s erotic lives are often so complex and unpredictable that attempts to label them are necessarily restrictive and inadequate. Vice Versa attempts to normalise bisexuality and to bring some measure of justice to people’s sexual practice, otherwise stuck within the terms of the stifling heterosexual/homosexual binary.

Although a powerful and persistent account of the widespread nature of bisexuality, there are significant limitations to Garber’s (1995) work as history. Vice Versa emphasises the universal nature and existence of bisexuality, but in doing so, produces bisexuality as a trans-historical object. Vice Versa rarely attempts to historicise the terms of the definition of bisexuality. As Angelides (2001) notes, Garber’s book “is less a study of history than an examination of particular instances of bisexuality as they have appeared in a wide range of historical texts” (p. 12). Vice Versa borrows heavily from the Freudian tradition, which sees sexual desire, and particularly bisexual desire, as preceding the subject. For Garber, desire is that which is fettered and which finds release in her narrative. The historical fact that bisexuality has been erased, made invisible, and repressed makes it easy for bisexuality to stand in for the desire that is repressed in Freud’s theories. For Garber, the sexual definitions of homo/heterosexuality are the tools of repression, representative of a larger totalising system of binary logic. Vice Versa’s approach is made intelligible by its own historical location, 1995, a moment when the project of the bisexual movement’s attempts to establish bisexuality as a viable sexual identity had gained public and international momentum.

Bisexual History Without Culture

Alongside the general reluctance to historicise bisexuality and the limitations of Vice Versa (Garber, 1995), there are several theorists who have produced more sophisticated historical accounts of bisexuality. Recent histories of bisexuality have been influenced by Du Plessis (1996) and Clare Hemmings (1997) who theorise bisexuality as a key part of modern sexuality in general.

Du Plessis (1996) argues it is not just the absence of bisexuality but also its appropriation that contributes to erasure: “how we have come to be unthought, made invisible, trivial, insubstantial, irrelevant” (p. 21). Du Plessis suggests that sexual discourse consistently erases bisexuality by assigning bisexuality to modes of temporality other than the present tense, as if “everyone were once bisexual, or will be bisexual in the future, yet no one is bisexual here and now” (p. 30). Theories of sexuality either relegate bisexuality “to some distant anterior time” or anticipate them “in some unspecified future. The end result is that bisexuality can always be held off, never to interrupt the present moment” (p. 21). Bisexuality’s absence from the present moment poses particular challenges for historical accounts of bisexuality. Hemmings (1997) argues that bisexuality is a necessary absence from the definitional field of sexuality itself. For Hemmings, “heterosexuality and homosexuality are meaningful in their contemporary forms only because bisexuality is produced as potential, as before and beyond sexual identity formation … the notion of bisexuality as ‘outside’ is, of course, absolutely produced through existing structures of sexual identity” (p. 19).

Merl Storr and Angelides have responded to these arguments by investigating the production of bisexuality as a category. Storr’s research on the development of the categories of race and bisexuality in the 19th century and her editorship of Bisexuality: A Critical Reader and Angelides’ A History of Bisexuality mark a recent move to historicise bisexuality in detail (Angelides, 2001; Storr, 1997, 1999).

Angelides’ (2001) account offers a response to Du Plessis’ (1996) argument that bisexuality is always “out of time,” “always before, after, or outside (rather than alongside) the imposition of cultural order” (Du Plessis, p. 29). Drawing on gay and lesbian history and queer theory, Angelides deploys a “queer deconstructive methodology” to produce “not a social history of the bisexual movement, a history of bisexuality as an autonomous identity, a reading of bisexuality in historical texts of sexuality, or an attempt to determine what bisexuality is” (p. 13). Rather, A History of Bisexuality traces the systematic ways in which bisexuality has functioned as a nonidentity necessary for the production of the heterosexual/homosexual binary. The focus of the book is on how notions of bisexuality and bisexual identity have come to be elided in the construction of modern sexuality itself. Angelides’ history takes as its starting point the absence of bisexuality from gay and lesbian history and queer theory. Against the views of theorists such as Sedgwick (1994) and Lee Edelman (1993) that bisexuality functions to reinforce the homosexual/heterosexual binary, A History of Bisexuality argues that bisexuality has a role to play in its deconstruction.

Angelides’ (2001) history examines the appearance of bisexuality as a primitive form of subjectivity in the fields of biology and evolutionary theory in the mid-19th century. Detailed examinations of Freudian theory, the work of Alfred Kinsey, discourses of gay and lesbian liberation, and the antipsychiatry movement all confirm his thesis that bisexuality is consistently erased to preserve the intelligibility of the heterosexual/homosexual binary. This article follows Angelides in emphasising the importance of 19th-century Darwinian heritage for contemporary bisexuality. Angelides is one of few theorists to begin his historical account with theories of evolution in the mid-19th century. For example, Bisexuality: A Critical Reader (Storr, 1999) begins its genealogy with the later psychical aspects of bisexuality examined in the first volume of Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex, published in 1897, rather than with Darwin. A discussion of bisexuality’s roots in biology and evolutionary theory is powerful because it provides historical evidence for Angelides’ claim that bisexuality is central to the constitution of modern sexuality in its nascent years. That is, that bisexuality should not be thought of as a universal potential existing outside of history—even though this putative characteristic is a key aspect of contemporary bisexuality. Rather, in the Foucauldian tradition the sexual subject may be thought of as having “no intrinsic meaning or agency that might be identified, accounted for, or repressed” other than its historical articulation (Dean, 1995, p. 146).

However, Angelides’ (2001) argument overstates the impact of psychomedical theories and institutions in producing contemporary definitions of bisexuality. His exclusive focus on the institutions of knowledge production (such as biology, sexology, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry) mean that his approach is unable to account for the increasingly visible and popular contemporary forms of bisexuality. Angelides approach implies that the sphere of culture simply recirculates the truths of the human sciences or reproduces the capitalist relations at its base. Instead, the diverse appearance of bisexuality in popular culture—in films such as Chasing Amy (1997) or Bedrooms and Hallways (1998) for example, or recent television drama and talk shows—demonstrate that in late-capitalist postmodernity, bisexuality is repressed and popular, erased and highly visible. Viewing culture as a commodified, yet contested and productive space is essential for understanding contemporary bisexuality.

Modern Bisexuality

This section draws on the work of Storr and Angelides in mapping the modern history of bisexuality. It charts the beginnings of the complex definitional development of bisexuality as a concept, noting the modern character of bisexuality’s origins in the mid-nineteenth century.

The first use of the term bisexuality was in 1859 by anatomist Robert Bentley Todd, the same year that Charles Darwin’s published his The Origin of Species. Todd’s detailed descriptions of the configuration of the male and female human “reproductive apparatus” in his Anatomy and Physiology were characteristic of a burgeoning interest in classification and description in the emerging scientific disciplines of anatomy, physiognomy, biology, and natural history. These new disciplines, along with Darwin’s popular presentation of his theory of evolution, helped inaugurate a distinctively modern bisexuality.

This modern bisexuality broke with an earlier, largely theological, tradition that had existed since the early 17th century of describing the human race as “bisexed” or “bisexous” (Rosenblatt & Schleiner, 1999). It also reconfigured the “very old tradition of the homo androgynus, that is that the original man … was bi-sexual” described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1824, calling to mind ancient Greek and Near Eastern mythological thinking about primordial androgyny (Coleridge, 1866). As Eli Zaretsky (1997) suggests, bisexuality was “an ancient idea that had been reborn in many late nineteenth-century cultural spheres” (p. 77).

There are three reasons why Todd’s (1836–1859) “bi-sexuality” should be considered modern. Firstly, to name biological bisexuality modern is to suggest that it signified a break with previous modes of conceptualising human sexuality. This “discovery” of bisexuality took place in the context of what is broadly termed Western modernity, an historical epoch associated with the development of capitalism in the West. As Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar (1999) among others has argued, modernity sees the rise of both a new mode of production and a new type of subject. Bisexuality is modern because it is central to the inauguration of this new type of modern subject.

Second, Foucault (1977) argued that an increasing interest in studying human sexuality from the early 19th century in such disciplines as “demography, biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, ethics, pedagogy and political criticism” produced a distinctly modern sexuality that gradually replaced a medieval view of sex (p. 33). For Foucault, the effect of the proliferation of secular discourses about human sexuality was to place sex at the heart of human subjectivity and identity, an idea that has persisted through the 20th century in the West. It is within this historical context that bisexuality became an object of study and scrutiny, an established quality or condition that was authorised by the burgeoning scientific disciplines of anatomy and physiology in Western Europe and the technology of the microscope.

Although focussed in Western Europe, these scientific disciplines and the increasing production of scientific knowledge in biology and physiology were underpinned by the extensive collection and cataloguing of plant and animal specimens from across the globe. The development of modern forms of knowledge was intimately linked with the project of colonialism and imperialism of Western European nations across the 19th century. Thus, to name the biological origins of bisexuality as modern is to argue, with Foucault, for the importance of the 19th century in producing our contemporary understandings of human sexuality. Although much contemporary analysis of bisexuality elides its 19th-century origins, bisexuality’s origins in anatomy and physiology are central to understanding its contemporary significance.

Finally, 19th-century bisexuality should be thought of as modern because of its centrality to Darwin’s theory of evolution. In a sense, bisexuality was modern because it was primitive—it helped to anchor an enlightened and civilised sexuality by being its undifferentiated and undeveloped ancestor, phylogenetically and ontogenetically (i.e., across the life of the species and of the individual). These biological origins of bisexuality and their connection to Darwin’s theories are now considered in more detail.

Nineteenth-century bisexuality was located in the observable physical characteristics of plants, animals, or humans and referred to sexual dimorphism or “having both sexes in the same individual” or organism (Oxford English Dictionary [OED], 1986). Importantly, the term bisexuality grouped together two distinct categories: organisms in which sex is undifferentiated, often at an early developmental stage, and hermaphroditic organisms, which display characteristics of both sexes. As Kinsey notes:

In regard to the embryonic structures from which the gonads of some of the vertebrates develop, the term bisexual is applied because these embryonic structures have the potentialities of both sexes and may develop later into either ovaries or testes. Hermaphroditic animals, like earthworms, some snails, and a rare human, may be referred to as bisexual, because they have both ovaries and testes in their single bodies. These are the customary usages of the term bisexual in biology. (cited in Storr, 1999, p. 37)

At the time of its first usage, general physical characteristics such as male nipples or female facial hair were also considered bisexual, to the extent that they were thought to be lingering traits of the original bisexuality of the human species (Storr & Prosser, 1998, p. 76).

This original bisexuality was thought to be “ontogenetic (in the sexually undifferentiated and hence bisexual human foetus) and phylogenetic (in the sexually undifferentiated and hence bisexual primeval ancestors of the human species)” (Storr & Prosser, 1998, p. 76). The combining of the ontogenetic and the phylogenetic is common in early-19th-century embryology’s Theory of recapitulation that argued that each embryo had to repeat the adult developmental stages of its biological predecessors, an idea pioneered by German Darwinian Ernst Haekel in 1866. Recapitulation theory provided the basis for other important 19th-century concepts such as atavism, degeneracy, and arrested development.

The origins of bisexuality are also connected to a number of changes in the ways in which sexual difference and the relationship between sexed bodies were being reconceptualised in the 19th century. Although bisexuality in plants had been recognised since the beginning of the 19th century, the discovery of human bisexuality stemmed in part from medical experiments in the middle of the 19th century, demonstrating that in the first few weeks of conception “the urogenital system of the human embryo is undifferentiated as to sex” (Dynes, 1990).

Bisexuality was also connected to the rise of evolutionary theory, the most influential being the theory of natural selection developed by Darwin. The theory of natural selection held that the diversity of life forms could be accounted for by a combination of competitive behaviour in response to a changing natural environment and random variation through breeding. Darwin emphasised that random variation only occurred through sexual reproduction, making procreative sex central to his theory.

To the idea of natural selection, Darwin added his theory of sex selection which attempted to account for “the often profound male-female differences within species” (Walsh, 1995, p. 146). Sexual selection involves “competition for reproductive partners and favours characteristics that lead to success, even though those characteristics may not be favoured overall by natural selection” (p. 146). Darwin argued that as organisms evolved through a process of natural selection they showed greater signs of sexual differentiation. Sexual difference is explained by the fact that “our male and female ancestors faced sex-specific environmental challenges involving reproduction, which led to the selection of sex-specific propensities” (Walsh, 1995, p. 140). Under this schema, bisexuality was seen as evidence of a lack of sexual differentiation and thus as primitive (in a phylogenetic sense) and immature (in an ontogenetic sense). Two years before the first appearance of bisexuality, the French doctor Bénédict-Auguste Morel had invented the notion of degeneracy, the idea that “individuals manifest characteristics that mark them as biologically and hence socially defective” (Dean, 1995, p. 8). Foucault (1977) notes that “for a long time hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union” (p. 38).

The development of modern bisexuality was also implicated in larger shifts in the conceptualisation of sexual difference. Thomas Laqueur (1990) argues that the 19th century sees the rise of a new model of human sexuality in which fundamental differences between men and women were tied to discoverable biological differences. For Laqueur, where once a one-sex model had held sway, from around 1800 it was challenged by a two-sex model. Under a one-sex model, the female is the lesser version of the male, but the two are essentially of the same kind or type. The vagina is considered a version of the penis, the ovaries a version of the scrotum, and sex is considered a variable, “a sociological and cultural fact rather than the ontological one that it is to become under the two-sex model” (p. 8). This one-sex model world included monks who lactate and women who give birth to rabbits.

Under the two-sex model however, the relation between men and women is figured, in the words of Moreau, as a “series of oppositions and contrasts” (cited in Laqueur, 1990, p. 5). The female is figured as incommensurably opposite to the male, and the idea of sexual difference is born. For Laqueur (1990), “a physiology of incommensurability replaced a metaphysics of hierarchy in the representation of women in relation to men” (p. 6).

A number of writers, including Laqueur (1990), have stressed that the development of a two-sex model of sexual difference was “not the consequence of scientific discovery but rather of an epistemological and socio-political revolution” (p. 21). As Judith Butler (1993) argues, “sexual difference is never simply a function of material difference which are not in some way both marked and formed by discursive practices” (p. 1). Laqueur claims that the invention of sexual difference is not a result of advances in scientific knowledge but rather of an attempt to find an objective rather than transcendental justification for social relations. This view is supported by Dean (1995) who argues that the move to a two-sex model matched the development of two distinct social spheres, the public and the private (p. 2). Laqueur notes that “no one account of sexual difference triumphed” (p. 10). The one-sex model continued throughout the 19th century, supported by discoveries in developmental anatomy “which pointed to the common origins of both sexes in a morphological androgynous embryo and thus not to their intrinsic differences” (p. 162). Darwin’s theories helped explain the transition from a one-sex to a two-sex model in terms of the evolution of the human species. Thus, bisexuality was conceived not simply as a description of the physical facts of sex but as a particular conceptualisation of sexual difference and the relation between sexed bodies.

The category of hermaphroditism had fitted into the world of the one-sex model where sex was often considered variable. Now, bisexuality was used to buttress the emerging two-sex model. The prevailing view of the time was that “bisexuality, in the sense of co-existing male and female characteristics is a feature of primitive humans; and that the adults of ‘primitive races’ resemble the children of ‘civilised races’ and vice versa” (Storr, 1997, p. 21). Thus, bisexuality was considered an immature phase of human development that stood as evidence for the more evolutionarily advanced two-sex model in which sexual difference becomes distinct. Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the many other contemporaneous theories that Darwin borrowed from and took issue with, bisexuality was also a kind of theory of the origin and development of the human species. This model of sexual difference would underlie the later organisation of sexual behaviour into the homosexual and the heterosexual for, as Yoshino (2000) notes, “without a clear and privileged distinction between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ there is no clear and privileged distinction between ‘straight’ and ‘gay”’ (p. 378).

Darwin’s theories provided a sophisticated mapping of humans’ animal characteristics that reconfigured the way in which the relation between human and animal traits usually appeared in fable and satire. Darwin’s The Descent of Man helped establish sexual conduct as a privileged site in “Victorian (and later) attempts to construct the boundary that demarcates the fully human from the animal” (Jann, 1996, p. 79). Darwin’s theories were influential in establishing a Victorian framework in which bisexuality is associated with primitive, racialised, and indecent sexual conduct that is bestial, animalistic and thus not fully human. As James G. Kiernan wrote in 1888, “[t]he lowest animals are bisexual and the various types of hermaphroditism are more or less complete reversions to ancestral type” (cited in Angelides, 2001, p. 23).

In conclusion, Darwinian logic is central to the continuing and contemporary history of bisexuality. The terms established by Darwin continue to be influential in describing bisexuality as a form of social adaptation (in sociological, psychological, and popular discourse) as it is for sexual behaviour in general (e.g., the view that bisexuals are sexually predatory).

To some degree, more recent theorizations of bisexuality, such as the pioneering work of Fritz Klein in psychology and in the bisexual movements that have emerged in the United States and internationally, have worked to undo the negative effects of bisexuality’s Darwinian heritage on its establishment as a healthy social identity and sexual practice, particularly the emphasis on bisexuality’s primitivism or immaturity. Despite this, contemporary bisexuality often oscillates between being an inferior and unevolved state and a form of superior adaptation. It is also possible to see traces of other evolutionary models, such as the reproduction of Wilhelm Stekel’s claim that bisexuality represents a more advanced form of psychological development or, for instance, in the lyrics of Ani DiFranco (1992), who, with lines such as “what about the other sex, what about the other hand,” works to ground bisexuality in the biological symmetry of the human body.

Finally, Darwinism also returns to frame contemporary bisexuality through discourses of social Darwinism, particularly of social competition and the sovereignty of consumer choice and consumer desire, which create opportunities for the articulation of the rights of bisexual, while also foreclosing the kinds of identities and practices which can be affirmed, Recent political and technological transformations, such as the rise of genetics and gene technology along with the prevalence of neo-liberal economic policies that stress the primacy of the individual as a competitive economic unit have contributed to the contemporary proliferation of evolutionary terminology, creating what Pierre Bourdieu (1998) terms “a Darwinian world.” Although the Darwinian definition of a distinctively modern bisexuality as a combination of male and female characteristics is transformed at the end of the 19th century by the emerging fields of sexology and psychoanalysis, the move from biological to psychical and sexual categories remain dependent on this Darwinian heritage.