Kinsey and the Politics of Bisexual Authenticity

Jennifer E Germon. Journal of Bisexuality. Volume 8, Issue 3-4, 2008.

Let me admit therefore that the proposition “we’re all bisexual” has its political uses, and I applaud whatever contribution this piece of fuzzy thinking has made to improve the lot of homosexuals. … All this is not to deny that there are persons whom it would make genuine psychological sense to call bisexual, although I think the breed exceedingly rare. — Robinson (1976), p. 117 [emphasis added]

Even when recognized, bisexuality tends to be rendered so exceptional that it might as well not exist. The above quotation is typical of that oft-heard refrain. The persistent refusal of bisexuality as a sexual identity can be read as an effect of institutionalized norms that function to reproduce homosexuality and heterosexuality as two mutually exclusive categories (Angelides, 2001; Hemmings, 2007). Such refusal is a prime example of the “epistemic violence” of the binary logic of identity that affords some things intelligibility while everything else is either marginal or meaningless (Angelides, 2001, p. 197).

Although our current model of sexuality is more accurately described as bipolar than binary, sexuality remains intricately tied to binary gender. Whenever bipolarity is harnessed to a binary, a series of tensions are created between the two. Predictably the former gives way to the latter and is subsumed into it. Under these conditions, sexuality appears to mimic the dyadic character of gender by demanding that everything be apprehended in either/or terms. The only way that bisexuality can be rendered intelligible is through co-option into one or other of the two legitimate sexual categories such that bisexuals are “really gay,” or “really straight.” People are rarely deemed “really bisexual” (Ault, 1996; Eadie, 1993; Esterberg, 2007; Hemmings, 1993, 2002). As a result, bisexuality becomes an abstract theoretical concept that does not, and cannot, exist in the here and now (Angelides, 2001; Esterberg, 2007; Hemmings, 1993, 1995, 2007; Rust, 2000a). Cast out of the present, an abstracted bisexuality simply reinforces the supposed naturalness of monosexuality and its privileged categories.

There remains little scholarship outside of bisexual studies that renders bisexuality visible in the here and now. There is even less that accords bisexuality equivalent status with the privileged terms of monosexuality. Still less again that considers bisexuality to have a critical valence. As Angelides (2001) has demonstrated, it is not bisexuality per se that shores up binarian categories of sexuality but rather “the temporal framing of bisexuality—the persistent epistemological refusal to recognize bisexuality in the present tense—that has functioned to reinforce the hetero/homosexual binarism” (p. 194) In other words, the homosexual/heterosexual dyad is reinforced and reproduced by the selective sanction of just some of the many meanings of bisexuality. In turn, the constant reiteration of those meanings serves to naturalize a compulsory mono sexual order.

In the following pages I examine the epistemological status of bisexuality in North America since the mid-20th century. Selecting this particular temporal moment is not intended to elide the much lengthier history of the term but rather to offer a snapshot of the various ways in which bisexuality has been banished from the here and now during the past 60 years. It also allows me to draw parallels with another population of marginalized Others whose epistemological banishment has gone hand in hand for the past 50 years with their material banishment via the scalpel. I refer of course to the intersexed. Like bisexuals, the intersexed are perpetually cast out of the present to shore up normative categories of gender and sexuality.

The work of Alfred C. Kinsey provides the anchor for much of the discussion that follows. In the postwar North American climate, his was one of the few voices to challenge conventional sexual orthodoxy and the pathologizing impulses of an ascendant psychoanalytic community. Kinsey also stands as one of the few sex researchers of the day to attempt to normalize bisexuality and thus bring it into the here and now. As I demonstrate, that attempt was ultimately doomed to failure because of his aversion to sexual identity categories. Sixty years after the publication of Sexual Behavior of the Human Male (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948), and after more than three decades of successful lobbying by gays and lesbians to decriminalize and depathologize same-sex desire, bisexuality remains marginal—conceptually and ontologically.

“Endless Intergradations”

Alfred Kinsey began venturing into the realms of human sexuality research in the late 1930s. He applied the same nominalist principles and penchant for large-scale empirical projects that marked his entomological studies of the gall wasp. Aiming for 100,000 case histories Kinsey began the mammoth task of data collection shortly prior to World War II. In an article published in 1941 we see an early articulation of the methodological and conceptual principles that were to become hallmarks of his work. In the article Kinsey took endocrinological researchers to task over their quest to find the hormonal origins of same-sex desire. Rather than wasting time and resources analyzing urine samples, Kinsey argued that it would be more fruitful for researchers to consider what “a study of the phenomenon themselves show” (Kinsey, 1941, p. 425). He made a strong case that though there were individuals who were exclusively homosexual or exclusively heterosexual in their practices, “the picture is one of endless intergradations between every combination of homosexuality and heterosexuality” (p. 428).

In his later work Kinsey reported that almost 50% of the North American white male population had engaged sexually with other males. This meant that bisexual behavior was effectively the rule rather than the exception. In universalizing bisexuality, Kinsey was able to posit it as a foundational norm from which homosexuality and heterosexuality derived—without framing it in temporal terms. This point is crucial. Within a Kinseyan framework, bisexuality is not simply relegated to the past as a vestige of evolutionary development or a form of primordial potentiality; nor is it cast into the future as a utopic (im)possibility. Rather, bisexuality exists in the here and now: it has a presence in the present, a point I will return to.

Kinsey was a vocal critic of moralistic approaches to sexuality. His position is summed up in the advice he offered his colleagues: “sex is a normal biologic function, acceptable in whatever form it is manifested” (Kinsey et al., 1948, p. 263). He strongly believed that the key to increased social well-being lay in a liberalized sexual climate. Enhancing the sexual satisfaction of individuals would also serve to enhance the sexual satisfaction of the social body (Garton, 2004). Thus, there were significant social benefits to be had from a return to what he referred to as “natural” practices. This of course was antithetical to the kinds of moral strictures promoted by the North American psychoanalytic community and imposed by the postwar political crusade to rid the nation of the twin evils of homosexuality and communism. Where Kinsey saw civilization as hindrance to sexual response, psychoanalysts saw unbridled sexuality as a threat to civilized order.

Revisionist Psychoanalysis

Following Sigmund Freud’s death in 1939, North American psychoanalysts wasted no time in laying claim to jurisdiction over the nation’s sexual and moral health. As a body of professionals, the North American analysts were inherently conservative, their work inflected by a moralism not as evident in the European tradition. In fact their belief that they were duty bound to act as moral compasses for patients and the wider social body was antithetical to Freud’s vision of the discipline. So too, was their pathologizing of same-sex desire.

As Angelides (2001) notes, Freud’s refusal to treat homosexuality represents an antihomophobic therapeutic approach that he supported theoretically with his notion of sexuality as acquired and constitutional. By contrast, the North American analysts rendered same-sex desire as a thoroughly morbid psychopathological condition. Ironically, they deployed Freud’s theory of libido as the conceptual tool to justify their homophobic agenda (p. 75). Fully appropriating homosexuality as psychoanalysis’ rightful object had a number of effects. On the one hand it enabled psychoanalysis to distance itself from the biological sciences. On the other it served to augment the discipline’s cultural capital in North America. That was effected by the promotion of a homophobic discourse during a period of acute political paranoia around the imagined threat to national security posed by sexual dissidents. Homosexuality then provided midcentury psychoanalysis with a vehicle for expanding its discursive power.

The psychoanalytic campaign to pathologize same-sex desires and practices tied neatly into the postwar purge of sexual deviates. Nothing less than national purity and the fitness of the (dominant) race were at stake (Garton, 2004). Psychoanalysts and medical professionals who claimed they had not only the capacity to identify sexual deviance but also the means to cure it lent support to the conservatives’ political agenda (Robinson, 1976; Terry, 1999; Weeks, 1989). Such claims relied, of course, on the existence of a discrete and identifiable population of homosexuals. The oppositional categories heterosexual/homosexual and normal/abnormal were put to work to ferret out sexual dissidence and, at the same time, secure the alleged normality of the general population.

Explanations of the “affliction’s” cause varied, as did the techniques employed to eradicate it. Along with the talking cure, coercive and violent forms of behavioral modification were put to work in the interests of national purity. A veritable smorgasbord of technologies were deployed to that end including the use of chemical emetics, electric shocks administered to the genitalia in an attempt to produce adverse reactions to homoerotic imagery, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and frontal lobotomy—undoubtedly the most extreme of all the so-called conversion therapies (Bancroft, 1974; Best, 2005; Murphy, 1992; Smith, Bartlett, & King, 2004). Although psychoanalysis cannot be considered a project of liberation in the way we would usually understand the term today, it did promise to free individuals from the curse of their “unnatural” proclivities and thus free society of the scourge of perversity.

As noted the psychoanalytic crusade against homosexuality required a clear-cut division between the privileged terms. That demarcation in turn demanded the repudiation of bisexuality. Just months after Freud’s death Sandor Rado published an influential article that claimed there was no such thing as an original bisexuality. The idea of a primordial bisexuality was, Rado (1940) declared, nothing more than a tenacious myth catering to the “primeval, emotional needs of animistic man” (p. 460). In one swoop Rado rewrote a foundational tenet of Freudian psychoanalysis. Bisexuality was erased not just from the present tense—from the here and now—but “from all temporal modes” (Angelides, 2001, p. 192).

Foundational Form, Foundational Norm

By contrast Kinsey interpellated bisexuality as the foundational norm from which monosexuality derived. One of his central arguments in Sexual Behavior of the Human Male (Kinsey et al., 1948), was that the capacity to respond erotically to both (recognized) sexes was part and parcel of the human condition. According to Kinsey, the diversity inherent in human sexual behavior was a product of our mammalian heritage and physiology of erotic response. Monosexuality, by contrast, was produced by the conditioning effect of experience and the “social pressures which tend to [direct] an individual into an exclusive pattern of one or the other sort” (Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953, p. 450). Here monosexuality is constituted as constructed Other to a naturalized bisexuality.

Although the naturalization of bisexuality in Kinsey’s work represents an essentializing maneuver, I suggest that it can be read as a strategic essentialism because it allowed him to do a number of things. Kinsey was able to put taxonomy to work for critical rather than constructive ends. He used his research findings as the basis of a dialogic aimed at psychoanalysis to argue that sexual differences were constituted by degree rather than kind. In other words, these differences were quantitative rather than qualitative. Abnormality became taxonomically meaningless (Robinson, 1976). This provided a clear counterpoint to North American psychoanalytic discourses that linked nonnormative sexual practices to “diseased personalities” (Terry, 1999, p. 24).

In Kinsey’s view there were no sexual identities, just a plethora of sexual acts and behaviors. The use of the terms homosexual and heterosexual as substantive nouns in his view was a complete misnomer (Garton, 2004). Because people were more than the sum of what they did sexually, the terms were only useful to Kinsey as descriptors. Clearly, if there were no species named homosexual, heterosexual—or bisexual—there could be no condition to cure. Kinsey therefore ruled the disease model of homosexuality out of order (Robinson, 1976). In keeping with his nominalist principles, Kinsey was less puzzled about why people engaged in the types of sexual behaviors they did than he was by the question of “why people were not involved in every type of sexual activity” (Kinsey et al., 1953, p. 451, emphasis added).

Although Kinsey’s work brought bisexuality into the here and now, its presence in the present was momentary. He was unable to anchor bisexuality because he would not name it. The moniker bisexual seems to have been especially problematic for Kinsey, arguably more so than homosexual and heterosexual. It was his view that bisexuality’s multiple meanings just created a lot of conceptual confusion since they “had never been strictly delimited” (Kinsey et al., 1948, p. 657). Of particular concern was the historic connection bisexuality had to hermaphroditism. Kinsey lamented the root meaning of the former and the way it was often used to imply “persons [with] both masculine qualities and feminine qualities within their single bodies” (p. 657).

Nonetheless, Kinsey was fully aware of how much currency the term bisexual had among the general public as much as those who studied human behavior. He predicted that it would continue to be used as a substantive noun for some time and so offered a caution. Kinsey stressed that it was important to be mindful that the term bisexuality—like heterosexuality and homosexuality—referenced the sex of one’s partner(s) while indicating little about “the constitution of the person who is labeled bisexual” (p. 657). Another model was clearly called for, one that could capture those “endless intergradations” between sexuality’s privileged end points.

Kinsey’s solution was to devise a unidimensional scale to plot patterns of sexual behavior. At one end of the scale lay exclusive homosexuality and at the other end lay heterosexuality. The vast region between—arguably the most interesting and certainly the most expansive—signified degrees of bisexuality. In the place of identity categories he offered a sequence of numbers as stand-ins: 0 and 6 represented the monosexual categories and 2 to 5 marked permutations of bisexuality. This schema provided him a way of sidestepping identity categories and at the same time a way of extending sexuality’s explanatory reach—or so he thought. What Kinsey failed to realize was that splitting sexuality seven ways was little different to splitting it three ways. This meant he was unable to anticipate later critiques of his scale for perpetuating an “illicit hypostatization of an essentially fluid reality” (Robinson, 1976, p. 74). He also painted himself into a conceptual corner by making it acceptable to say of a person, “she’s a [Kinsey Scale] 4,” but not acceptable to say of the same person, “she’s a bisexual.”

Kinsey was convinced his research lent empirical support for an increased tolerance toward same-sex desire and thus for legal reform. We see this most clearly in his discussion of the social application of his data. Addressing his comments to social workers, armed services officials, administrators of penal institutions, and the judiciary, Kinsey argued that it was foolhardy to focus solely on an individual’s history of homosexual behavior when at least one third of the male population had sexual histories that included homosexual and heterosexual behavior. Recognizing the prevalence of such behavior would, in his view, lead to a reduction of social stigma and ostracism. To those who sought to banish same-sex desire, Kinsey et al. (1948) suggested that ostracism and social isolation played a significant role in the “development of exclusively homosexual histories” (p. 663). In other words, ostracism produced the very behavior that it sought to mediate. Clearly Kinsey’s findings provided him with considerable ammunition with which to refute psychoanalysis’ pathologizing impulse. Yet his reluctance to name bisexuality unwittingly supported the psychoanalytic disavowal of bisexuality.

Scholars of sexuality remain divided on Kinsey’s contribution. Jeffrey Weeks, for example, has suggested that Kinsey’s finding that considerable numbers of men had engaged in same-sex practices challenged the idea that homosexuality was the preserve of a perverted minority. Moreover, his research served to undermine the concept of (sexual) normality as natural and innate (Weeks, 1985, 1989). Others consider Kinsey’s privileging of the behavioral ultimately sidelined the emergent homophile movement’s quest for sexual rights (McLaren, 1990). Although the jury is still out, there is no denying that Kinsey’s critique of identity categories and his conceptualization of a variance or continuum model of sexual behavior were radical concepts for their time, anticipating as they did poststructuralist critiques of identity (Garton, 2004).

Authenticating Sexual Subjectivity

In the years since Kinsey’s death, sexual identity categories increasingly provided succor to homosexuals, both gays and lesbians. Persistent lobbying by social movements over the past 40 years has of course led to significant legal and psychomedical reforms (decriminalization and depathologization the most noteworthy of these). Yet because of the way those gains were secured, bisexuality has remained marginal. This aspect of the history of gay rights specifically and of sexuality generally is worthy of interrogation.

Early gay liberation represented a constructionist politic with a universalizing impulse that challenged binary notions of gender as well as sexuality. Liberationists looked forward to the “end of the homosexual” and the breakdown of socially constructed divisions between sexual subjects. By appealing to the Freudian notion that an exclusive orientation toward the same or the opposite sexes involved the repression of an innate bisexuality, liberation in this context involved freeing everybody to realize their potential for erotic orientation toward both (or all) genders (Clausen, 1996; Weeks, 1985). It was a politic that rejected the notion of a fixed identity, preferring instead to “glory in the subversive effects of alternative lifestyle and of a plurality of sexual practice, in breaching the norms of sexual orthodoxy” (Weeks, 1985, p. 200). Here we see another example of bisexuality being cast as past and future potential, everywhere present but in the present.

As the movement consolidated, the frontal assault on boundaries between sexual identities was abandoned in favor of the concept of a gay minority. By arguing for civil rights within a liberal humanist framework, activists fashioned an ostensibly ethnic identity. Framing a politic around a minority status had obvious advantages for gays and lesbians. It fitted easily into the neoliberal discourse of modern Western societies, offered legitimacy to rights claims, and acted as a springboard for legal reform (Weeks, 1985). Those advantages however, did not extend to bisexuals.

Because the homosexual/heterosexual dyad relies upon binary gender for its reference points, sexual-identity politics are necessarily invested in sexual difference to the order of two. A political economy of sexual difference has a broad-based constituency, as broad as monosexuality itself. Those invested in gay or lesbian identities, for example, have a particularly keen interest in being able to demarcate between male and female bodies. As Alice Dreger (1998) has wryly noted, “if you don’t know who is a male and who is a female, how will you know if what you have is a case of heterosexuality or homosexuality?” (p. 9). This compulsion to know represents one the central demands of a binary logic of identity and thus of compulsory monosexuality.

The shift from a radical liberationist perspective to a more moderate gay-rights agenda is indicative of a basic philosophic difference that has haunted sexuality since the “birth of the homosexual” (Sedgwick, 1990). Appearing and reappearing in various guises over time, its most recent manifestation can be found in the debates between queers who want to challenge the straight and gay worlds with a defiant Otherness, and gays and lesbians intent on winning a “better chance to swim in the mainstream” (Clausen, 1996, p. 90). Despite the queer repudiation of identity, the term queer has itself been appropriated as identity in some quarters. Such is the tenacity of the compulsion to know oneself and to be known as a sexual subject.

The field of Queer represents yet another site from which bisexuality is banished in the here-and-now. As an umbrella term, queer has provided shelter for various marginalized gendered and sexual subjects. But while Queerdom has embraced transgenderism for example in recent times, the same cannot be said of bisexuality. Again this is the result of particular definitions of bisexuality being privileged and others elided (Angelides, 2001; Hemmings, 2007; Rodriguez Rust, 2000a).

When invoked by queers, bisexuality is generally used to explain the capacity to “go either way” and is thus reduced to “bit player” in the facilitation of sexual-subject formation (Hemmings, 2007, p. 14). This discursive turn resonates with a sense of imperialism because bisexuality is cast as a primitive vehicle through which gendered and sexual identities come to materialize in the “civilized” individual (Angelides, 2001, pp. 112-113; Hemmings, 2007). As a potentiality, bisexuality is easily precluded from Queer’s embrace. Bisexuality remains Queerdom’s poor cousin, recognized neither as a valid critical perspective nor as identity category. Once again bisexuality is banished from the here and now.

The Other “Others”: Kinsey on the Transgendered

I want to turn for a moment to Kinsey’s research on transsexuals. Although they were not included in the data sets he used for SBHM and SBHF, Kinsey had extensive communications with cross dressers and transsexuals throughout the 1940s and 1950s (Meyerowitz, 2001). It is clear that Kinsey et al. (1953) regarded the sexuality of male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals as a form of female sexuality because the discussion of this population appears in SBHF in a chapter dealing with the “psychological factors” of sexual response (pp. 679-681). Yet curiously little mention is actually made of their sexualities. Although passing mention is made of sadomasochism, he framed that in terms of personality characteristics (rather than erotic practices). Interestingly, a short passage on erotic attractions toward the “opposite” sex represents one of the few forays Kinsey made into motivational explanations in either volume. Generally he left that task to those working in the psychological sciences. In essence Kinsey found nothing remarkably different about the sexuality of transsexuals from that of the rest of the population.

Kinsey et al. (1953) was at pains to warn against conflating transvestism with homosexuality because “transvestism and homosexuality are different phenomena, and our data show that only a portion of the transvestites have homosexual histories” (p. 451). Note the terminology in this statement. Kinsey et al. (1953) registered the desire to live full-time as the other sex as a “true” and “permanent” form of transvestitism (p. 679). Under the conventional wisdom of the day, a person became transsexual postoperatively, transitioning in fact from transvestite to transsexual as much as they were transitioning from male to female or vice versa. So in this sense, transsexual subjects are produced by medical technologies.

The fundamental tenet of Kinsey’s sexual ideology was one of tolerance. Kinsey et al. (1948) repeatedly stressed the need for “sympathetic acceptance of people as they are” (p. 16). Yet it was more than mere ideology, for Kinsey’s whole approach to those who provided his data reflected that perspective. We know as a result of Meyerowitz’s (2001) research that Kinsey grew to have enormous respect for many of the transgender people he knew despite his considerable discomfort with the idea of sex-reassignment surgery. His discomfort represents, for Meyerowitz, the limit of Kinsey’s sexual liberalism (Meyerowitz, p. 89), yet is entirely consistent with his privileging of sexual outlet (orgasm) and frequency. That someone would willingly compromise their capacity for orgasm baffled and disturbed Kinsey.

The Other “Others”: Kinsey on the Intersexed

This brings us to the intersexed. Given Kinsey’s discomfort with adult sex-reassignment surgery, one wonders how he would have viewed intersex case-management practices that are generally performed on the genitals of infants and children. It does not seem too big a stretch to imagine his overriding concern would have been for the child’s future capacity for sexual functioning—particularly with regard to outlet. Although we can only speculate, I think it safe to say that Kinsey would not have been in favor of such practices: practices codified just a year before his death.

Since the 17th century, medical science has had privileged status as the authority on hermaphroditism (and on intersexuality since the 1920s). That means that all of our contemporary ways of knowing what hermaphroditism is are grounded in a medical paradigm where diagnostic categories serve as substantives. We “know,” for example, that hermaphrodites and intersexed people are “really” unfinished males and females; that theirs is a purely physiological condition; that their bodies need “fixing” to ensure adaptation to a gender; that once “fixed,” they are no longer intersexed; and, that medical science can and must make an intervention. So in addition to producing a hegemonic discourse, medical science provides its own mandate for managing disorderly bodies into neutrality. As a result the intersexed are banished discursively from the here and now at the same time as their bodies are banished materially.

As a biologist, Kinsey was fully aware of the phenomenon of hermaphroditism across many different species. In a brief discussion in SBHM under the heading “Bisexuality,” Kinsey was concerned to dispel the then-common conflation of bisexuality and intersexuality. He was at pains to sever any and all links between those whose bodies defied monosexuality at a corporeal level and those whose sexual proclivities defied monosexuality at an erotic level, as the following quotation indicates. There was no link, he said, between bisexuals’ “catholicity of taste,” anatomical structures, or somatic capacity:

We have objected to the use of the terms heterosexual and homosexual when used as nouns which stand for individuals. It is similarly untenable to imply that these “bisexual” persons have an anatomy or an endocrine system or other sorts of physiologic or psychologic capacities which make them partly male and partly female, or of the two sexes simultaneously. (Kinsey et al., 1948, p. 657)

This statement speaks to a late 19th-century, early 20th-century notion of a third sex variously known as uranian, invert, intersex, transvestite, and psychosexual or psychic hermaphrodite. The figure of the third sex had loomed large in early sexual scientific thought but had begun to fade from view toward the middle of the 20th century. In the 1940s psychologist Albert Ellis put the final nail in the coffin, so to speak, when he boldly declared that hermaphrodites’ eroto-sexual status was either heterosexual or homosexual, and in some rare instances bisexual. In apprehending their sexuality in this way, the figure of a third or differently sexed “Other” was instantly made redundant. It disappeared in a flash from the here, and order was restored. There is, of course, no place for those who are differently sexed within a compulsory monosexual order.

Kinsey’s statistically based continuum was designed to put to bed the idea that that any clear-cut division could be made between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Although sexual behavior was a matter of degree rather than kind, Kinsey did not apply the same logic to somatic sex. Thus he passed up the opportunity to consider some of the larger issues raised by the existence of those who defy the idea of one sex, one body: particularly in regard to how we understand sexual subjectivity.

When male and female are the only legally and socially sanctioned options, hermaphrodites can only ever be “unfinished.” This point is exemplified in the premise that if something had not gone wrong in utero, hermaphrodites would have been born as “normal” males or “normal” females. If male and female are the only legitimate options for intersexed people to be, then it follows that their sexualities are no different from that of their unambiguously sexed counterparts. This seems to have been the underlying assumption in Kinsey’s discussion of intersexuality. But what are we to make of the fact that much of that discussion amounts to a quibble over what forms of genital and genetic variation actually and accurately constitute intersexuality? (pp. 657-659). Within the context of the broader discussion there seems no point to such a quibble except perhaps to highlight Kinsey’s inability to deal with sexual variance at a somatic level.

Hermaphrodites or intersexed people are assigned, however, temporarily, to the space between sex categories to render them intelligible; transsexuals traverse the space between gender categories (again temporarily); and bisexuals are relegated to the space between monosexual categories. Apprehending these populations within and between the privileged end points of the respective binaries represents an attempt to ward off or, at the very least, contain the threat of a crisis of identity. Yet sexual identity, as with all other forms, exists in a state of perpetual crisis. As Jacqueline Rose (1986) has convincingly argued, because there is no continuity to psychic life there can be no stability of (sexual) identity. Although the stability of sexual identity may well be illusory, the price of defying the imagined boundaries of sex, gender, and sexuality is all too real.

Paying the Price

Intersexed people are rendered pathological because they defy monosexual categories at a somatic level. That is, they defy the idea of one sex per body. For the past 50 years the “solution” has been to subject them to violent and invasive surgical interventions, such as clitoridectomies (for those assigned female). The interventions are designed to shore up normative categories of gender and sexuality. So too is the idea that they are “really” males or “really” females with a (correctable) condition. This reinforces the idea that there are only two sexes and so relegates hermaphrodites to the mythical, beyond the realms of human, and thus, outside of the here and now.

Transsexuals are rendered psychopathological and required to submit to various disciplinary regimes to access medical treatments that will assist their passage from one gendered category to another. Although crossing is permitted, it can only be in one direction and must be a singular event. Transsexuals too are subject to institutional and social stigma and violence for willfully crossing the great divide. Similarly bisexuals pay a price for crisscrossing the imagined line between the two privileged sexual categories, although theirs takes a somewhat different form.

Bisexuals defy the demands of a monosexual order at an erotic level. As a result, violence operates epistemically rather than materially. Censure takes many forms, and all serve to trivialize the lived experience of bisexual subjects and render that experience inauthentic. Bisexuals are commonly considered a menace, whether as “vectors of disease,” polluters of an imagined “pure” lesbian community, or as double-crossing double agents (Esterberg, 2007; Hemmings, 1993). In slightly more benign terms they are variously seen as confused, fence-sitting, amoral, promiscuous, hedonistic, self-deluding individuals who want to have their cake—iced with heterosexual privilege—and eat it too (Angelides, 2001; Eadie, 1993; Germon & Hird, 1999; Hemmings, 1995, 2007; Weiss, 2003). Although the technologies used to manage disorderly sexualities differ in degree and in kind from those used to manage disorderly bodies, it is clear that each has the effect of banishing: casting bisexuals and the intersexed from the here and now. (Mono)sexual order is temporarily restored.


Despite the limits of Kinsey’s rating scale, one of the things it does—however crudely—is draw to our attention to bisexuality’s complexity. At the same time it gestures toward the impossibility of capturing that complexity with a single signifier (or in fact a one-dimensional model). Bisexuality as a descriptive noun covers a vast array of non-gendered sexual styles, sensibilities, and practices because there are countless ways in which one can be bisexual (Eadie, 1993; Hemmings, 1993; Klein, 1993; Rodriguez Rust, 2000b; Stein, 1999). As Carol Queen (1995) has acerbically noted, “we may not fuck anything that moves, but, in our rainbow of difference, we are practically anything that moves” (p. 158). This sentiment sums up the character of bisexuality as a mode of non-gendered sexuality. But more than this, it speaks to the fierce resistance activists and scholars have to a single unambiguous definition of bisexuality.

Where Kinsey saw only mess and confusion in bisexuality’s multiplicity, contemporary activists and scholars revel in its productive possibilities. Bisexuality encompasses a broad range of individuals whose affective relations are not determined on the basis of gender. Therefore a single, fixed definition would only serve, they say, to reduce the rich diversity of bisexual subjects and bisexual practices. Because definitions come to equal intelligibility, as Clare Hemmings (1993) states, once defined there would be no further need to discuss or fully theorize bisexuality’s multiple meanings. The challenge, then, is to find ways to bring bisexuality firmly into the present, in all its messy glory.

Angelides (2001) has argued that we need to take seriously the poststructuralist insight that all identity categories are relational. By his reckoning, bisexuality is not just a key player in the production and reproduction of the homosexual/heterosexual opposition; it is in fact the third term of a trinary relation. “In each and every instantiation of homo- or heterosexuality, … the figure of bisexuality, as repudiated Other … forever lurks” (p. 200). Before we can ask what work bisexuality might do, we need to explore how best to bring it to light.

It is vital that we be vigilant in critically examining the structure of modern epistemologies of sexuality and interrogate their workings. The concept of monosexuality allows us to shift the terms of the debate away from the privileged homo/hetero coupling. As a category of analysis, monosexism has a critical valence that extends beyond the reach of equivalent concepts such as biphobia and heterosexism. As a conceptual tool, monosexism makes visible those forms of sexuality—and sexed subjectivities—whose materiality is constantly elided from the real and from the present.