This essay appeared in “Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia.” ed. Bonnie Zimmerman, Garland, 2000, pp. 114-116.
The capacity to be romantically and/or sexually attracted to individuals of more than one sex. Part of the confusion surrounding the term ‘bisexual’ is that it may have many different meanings. It may describe a person’s historic behavior or attractions: someone who in her or his past has been attracted to, and/or involved with, at least one man and one woman. It may describe one’s current behavior and/or attraction: someone who is currently attracted to, and/or involved with, at least one man and one woman. It may describe an individual’s potential range of romantic and/or sexual attraction, or it refer to a person’s self-definition. It is not necessary for a person to meet all of the above criteria to be considered bisexual. To understand bisexuality, it is important to distinguish between identity and behavior. Like her heterosexual or lesbian counterpart, a bisexual woman may be monogamous, nonmonogamous, or celibate. She may never have had sex with men, with women, or with anyone at all. And conversely, many, if not most, people whose historical or current behavior and/or attractions are bisexual do not identify as such.
This reluctance may be a result of the negative stereotypes attached to the word; of the strong societal pressures to choose either a heterosexual or a homosexual identity (usually in correspondence with the sex of one’s current romantic partner), of the pressures of homophobic culture which make it difficult for anyone to proudly claim her same-sex attractions, and of our tendencies to write life histories backward from the present, omitting or discounting facts that do not fit the writer’s current understanding of herself.
Some attempts have been made to identify types of bisexuality. A few of these are self-identified bisexuality (any woman who calls herself bisexual); experimental bisexuality (a woman who is basically lesbian or heterosexual but who has experimented heterosexually or homosexually); situational bisexuality (someone who is usually heterosexual but who has homosexual relationships while in a sex-segregated environment such as a girls’ school, prison or the military); historical bisexuality (someone who in the past has had attractions and/or experiences with people of more than one sex, regardless of their current behavior or self-identification); defense bisexuality (someone who is homosexual but continues other-sex relationships as a cover for their homosexuality); and technical bisexuality (for example, a sex worker who is attracted to people of one sex but sleeps with people of another for money).
While bisexuality has received far less attention than heterosexuality and homosexuality, sexologists and other scientists and scholars have taken some notice. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), for example believed that all human beings are born bisexual, that is, without gendered object choice. He wrote in the 1915 edition of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality that “…psychoanalysis considers that a choice of an object independently of its sex — freedom to range equally over mail and female objects — as it is found in childhood, in primitive states of society and early periods of history, is the original basis from which, as a result of restriction in one direction or the other, both the normal and the inverted [homosexual] types develop.” Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) put forth the idea that human sexuality does not consist of two mutually exclusive categories, heterosexual and homosexual, but rather is best understood as existing on a continuum. He argued that it is the human mind that forces sexual behavior into separate pigeonholes. He rejected the widely held idea of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” types of individuals, and argued for the conceptualization of people as individuals with certain amounts of homosexual and heterosexual experience. Anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), who was herself bisexual, believed that bisexuality far more widespread than we realize. She (1975) wrote: “We shall not really succeed in discarding the straight jacket of our own cultural beliefs about sexual choice if we fail to come to terms with the well-documented, normal human capacity to love members of both sexes.”
Bisexuality and Lesbians
Bisexuality has been a controversial subject within lesbian circles, and the place of bisexual women within “women’s communities” has often generated heated debates. Some lesbians believe that all women who have the potential to love other women have an obligation to do so, and a political obligation to identify as lesbian and cease interacting with men. Others believe that the compulsory nature of heterosexuality in our cultures precludes the possibility of a woman freely “choosing” a heterosexual relationship, some going so far as to believe that due to the negative pressures on people in same sex relationships, and the positive benefits attached to opposite sex relationships, a bisexual woman will inevitably end up leaving a woman partner for one of the other sex. As a result of these lines of thought, bisexually-identified women have often had their integrity and their commitment to feminism questioned. A study conducted in the late 1980s by sociologist Paula Rust found that most lesbian respondents held far more negative than positive view of bisexuality, though she emphasizes that lesbians are by no means unanimous in their views, with some holding positive opinions about bisexual women. Political shifts in the 1990s have doubtless shifted the landscape of opinion toward a greater acceptance of bisexuality.
In the 1990s, increasing numbers of women have begun to identify as bisexual. On college campuses, it is not uncommon for bisexually identified women to comprise a majority of women active in the campus’s lesbian, gay, and bisexual student group. (Interestingly, this does not hold true for male students). Bisexual groups, including a number of women-only groups, have been increasing in numbers in the United States and a number of other countries since the early 1980s. In addition, many lesbian and gay and queer groups have in recent years recognized that bisexuals were included in their membership, and some have changed their names to be more welcoming to bisexuals. The term “lesbigay” became commonplace throughout the United States.
To understand bisexuality, one has to remember that our lives are not unidimensional, fixed objects, but rather we exist on many planes: our pasts, our presents, our futures; in action and in imagination. Thus bisexuality, like life, is complex.
Bi Academic Intervention. The Bisexual Imaginary. London: Cassell, 1996.
Bode, Janet. View from Another Closet. New York: Hawthorn, 1976.
Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
George, Sue. Women and Bisexuality. London: Scarlet, 1993.
Klein, Fritz. The Bisexual Option: A Concept of One Hundred Percent Intimacy. 2nd ed. New York: Haworth, 1993.
Mead, Margaret. “Bisexuality: What’s It All About?” Redbook 144:3 (January 1975), 29-31.
Rust, Paula. Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
Wolff, Charlotte. Bisexuality: A Study. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Quartet Books, 1979.