Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality
The author, herself bisexual, undertook the book “to bring the colourful world of bi-sexual scholarship out of the shadows” and to show that bisexuality “is a normal part of sexuality,” an ambition which to some readers, familiar with the diverse discussions and assertions relating to sexuality and gender identity as a spectrum, has perhaps a slightly old-fashioned ring? The B for Bisexuality has for many years been part of the well-established acronym LGBTQ+ in its long and short forms, though Shaw considers that bisexuality has been erased by being subsumes under the larger LGBTQ+ umbrella.
As Shaw rightly notes however there still exists confusion about what bisexuality stands for as either action or identity, and resistance from many different quarters to acknowledging it as a valid state. Some critics within the LGBTQ+ community consider that bisexuals reinforce the idea of gender binary in distinguishing between opposite- and same-sex relationships; others consider that if the term encompasses attraction to all identities, including trans and intersex, bisexuality is pansexuality by another name. Shaw uses the term bisexuality to mean attraction to multiple genders including “those who identify as bisexual, pansexual, plurisexual, polysexual, sexually fluid, bi-curious and questioning.” And yet she still attempts to define how many bisexual people there currently are.
Shaw reviews inter alia the analytical frameworks and grids of Alfred Kinsey (who thought bisexuality was the default mode), and Fritz Klein developed to identify for research and for therapy purposes the gradations of sexual identity and orientation. The continued fighting over different ways to slice the various sexual labels has prompted many contemporary scholars and activists to suggest that we do away with such labels, though Shaw is not there yet; “it is not practical for most of us to get rid of labels entirely but we must also not attribute too much power or elegance to them.” It is not entirely clear through the remaining chapters that Shaw is following her own advice.
She traces the historic trials and tribulations of bisexuals, the accusations made against of female bisexuals that they are failed lesbians, the stigma particularly attached to male bisexuals during the AIDS crisis.
An amusing chapter on the nature versus nurture theme that covers some of the usual mammals (giraffes, sheep, and bonobos) as well as human sexuality under conditions of incarceration, demonstrates to her how practical and evolutionary bisexuality is.
This data and argument do not lead Shaw down the sexuality and gender-identity spectrum path, however, but rather to considerations of how to get more people out of the bisexual closet, and questions as to how bisexuals can more visibly express a clear bisexual identity through their behavior and appearance including through employing the tell-tale pink-purple-blue color combination, which she assumes to be widely recognized. She describes the visual style of the bi-community as “cute.”
In concluding chapters she challenges, along with the ideal of default heterosexuality, the equally worn ideal of monogamy for any sex or gender. These chapters are enlightening as well as amusing, though seem to sit oddly with her insistence on bisexuality as a separate state requiring more recognition and protection.
She records in the course of the book how her views on sex and gender have evolved in the light of her own experiences and research. Perhaps in the next book she may be closer to Alison Bechdel’s recently expressed opinion (Guardian newspaper, July 5, 2023): “If humanity even survives another 100 years, which I’m not so sure of, I think that there’s going to be a lot less attachment to sexual or even gender identity. I think it’s going to be much more fluid and we’ll be fine with it.”