views updated


The concept of bisexuality is notoriously unstable. Historically, the term has signified a wide range of often-contradictory definitions, many of which have shifted in line with transformations of Western paradigms of sexuality. There are at least five meanings of the term:

  1. A synonym for biological hermaphroditism;
  2. A form of psychological androgyny;
  3. A psychological capacity of individuals to sexually desire both men and women;
  4. A sociological adjective describing sexual behaviors or practices;
  5. A collective and political identity category.

Although these five meanings of bisexuality might at first glance seem somewhat disparate, contingent, and unrelated, there is a series of important historical and epistemological relationships and continuities among them (Angelides 2001).


Bisexuality appears to have been first used as a biological concept. In nineteenth century evolutionary and embryo-logical theories it was widely used to refer to the state of human primordial hermaphroditism. Evolutionists such as Charles Darwin and his contemporaries assumed bisexuality was the missing link in the descent of humans from invertebrate organisms. Some "remote progenitor of the whole vertebrate kingdom," declared Darwin, "appears to have been hermaphrodite or androgynous" (Darwin 1901, p. 249). Within this paradigm, human development was thought to pass through various stages beginning with a state of originary bisexuality (or biological hermaphroditism), wherein the embryo displayed both sets of sexual organs before the atrophy of one of them after the third month of development (Darwin 1901). It was believed that the more advanced a racial group, class, or civilization, the more they had progressed beyond this phase of primordial hermaphroditism. In other words, the so-called "higher" races, classes, and cultures were seen to exhibit greater degrees of sexual differentiation. There was, of course, also a gender difference in this model, and men were deemed more advanced than women by virtue of having developed further beyond biological bisexuality. Existing racist and sexist social hierarchies were legitimated with this evolutionary paradigm, revealing the ways in which both "nonwhites" were sexualized and Western notions of sexuality racialized.

With the advent of sexology in the latter part of the nineteenth century, men of science such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), and their contemporaries appropriated the theory of bisexual evolution in order to explain deviations of the "sex instinct." Individuals exhibiting homosexual desire were believed to have either regressed to, or be developmentally arrested at, this ancestral bisexuality. It was partly on the basis of this concept of embryological bisexuality that the nineteenth century classification of individuals into two opposing types, the homosexual and the heterosexual, hinged. As Ellis, the venerated sexologist, noted around the turn of the nineteenth century, "Embryologists, physiologists of sex and biologists generally, not only accept the idea of bisexuality, but admit that it probably helps to account for homosexuality" (Ellis 1928, p. 314). Bisexuality was not itself considered a separate ontological typology or identity category but was rather that out of which either homosexuality or heterosexuality developed.


Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founding father of psychoanalysis, inherited the theory of primordial bisexuality and made it the bedrock of his psychoanalytic framework. Aiming to erect a psychological theory of gender and sexuality that would complement the biological foundations of psychoanalysis, he posited a kind of psychological bisexuality as an analogue to evolutionary notions of embryological bisexuality. Borrowing the idea from his friend Wilhelm Fliess (1858–1928), Freud argued that just as primordial bisexuality manifests physically in every individual by "leaving behind only a few traces of the sex that has become atrophied" (Freud 1905, p. 141), so too does it manifest mentally such that each individual is "made up of masculine and feminine traits" and desires (Freud 1925, p. 255). For Freud bisexuality also played a pivotal role in the theory of the Oedipus complex. "It would appear … that in both sexes the relative strength of the masculine and feminine dispositions is what determines whether the outcome … shall be an identification with the father or with the mother. This is one of the ways in which bisexuality takes a hand in the subsequent vicissitudes of the Oedipus complex" (Freud 1923, p. 33).

Freud also referred to the third meaning of bisexuality—what is often referred to as a bisexual orientation—that is, the psychological capacity of individuals to sexually desire both men and women. However, like the sexologists, he also to a large extent foreclosed the possibility of a bisexual orientation or identity, in spite of his theory of psychological bisexuality (masculinity and femininity). This was because it was difficult to reconcile, on the one hand, bisexuality as both cause (biological) and effect (psychological), and on the other, an individual being capable of simultaneously desiring and identifying with the same gender. That is, in the Freudian schema an individual could only sexually desire the opposite of his or her gender identity. In order to be bisexual in the third meaning of the term, therefore, an individual had to have a shifting gender identity.

In the three decades following Freud's death the concept of biological bisexuality (and its role in psychological androgyny and bisexual desire) was largely repudiated within the disciplines of psychoanalysis and psychiatry (for example, Rado 1940; Bergler 1962; Bieber 1962). This coincided with a shift toward environmental or adaptational approaches to the study of sexuality. Rather than view an undeveloped embryonic structure as bisexuality, Sandor Rado (1900–1980) argued that it ought instead to be viewed as possessing "bipotentiality of differentiation." "Under normal developmental conditions, as differentiation proceeds and one type of reproductive action system grows to completion, the original bipotentiality ceases to have any real significance" (Rado 1940, pp. 143-144). The notion of a capacity to be sexually attracted to both sexes was also largely denied by psychologists and psychiatrists at this time. Psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler described it as "a state that has no existence beyond the word itself" (Bergler 1962, p. 80). People were assumed to be at core heterosexual, resorting only to homosexual sex as a result of neurosis, stress, or in instances when the opposite sex was not available. As psychoanalyst Irving Bieber, a widely touted expert in the 1960s, put it, "We assume that heterosexuality is the biologic norm and that unless interfered with all individuals are heterosexual. Homosexuals do not bypass heterosexual developmental phases and all remain potentially heterosexual" (Bieber 1962, p. 319).

Despite its apparent irrelevance to dominant twentieth century psychological theories of sexuality, bisexuality has been shown to be instrumental in propping up a binary model of sexuality by virtue of its erasure as an authentic sexual identity (Angelides 2001).


Although hegemonic psychiatric and psychoanalytic discourses rejected bisexuality, the concept played an important role in describing individual biographies of sexual practice with both men and women. Within the discipline of sociology, several important studies demonstrated the prevalence of bisexual practices and the need for more expansive terminology for describing the variability of human sexuality than that provided by the rigid and exclusive binary of hetero/homosexuality.

The groundbreaking studies of Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956) and his associates in the late 1940s and 1950s spearheaded an implicit challenge to what he perceived as the normative and homogeneous psychomedical categories of hetero- and homosexuality. Bisexuality was recast in the sense of the third meaning noted above, as "the capacity of an individual to respond erotically to any sort of stimulus, whether it is provided by another person of the same or of the opposite sex." This, it was argued, "is basic to the species" (Kinsey 1948, p. 660). Kinsey backed up this claim with data that revealed around 46 percent of men and up to 14 percent of women had engaged in both heterosexual and homosexual activities in the course of their adult lives. Eschewing psychomedical concepts of "normal," "abnormal," "homosexual," and "heterosexual," Kinsey instead referred to sexualities as mere "statistical variations of behavioral frequencies on a continuous curve" (1948, p. 203). The Kinsey seven-point scale was created to describe more accurately this statistical variation. The aim was "to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each [person's] history" (1948, p. 639). Notwithstanding the broad-ranging critiques made of Kinsey's methodology, his data revealed for the first time the reality of widespread bisexual behaviors in American society.

Other researchers have attempted to refine Kinsey's scale and further his efforts to provide an alternative to the binary model of sexuality that might incorporate a more accurate concept of bisexuality. The most notable of these is Klein's Sexual Orientation Grid (Klein 1978). The shift away from viewing sexualities as reflective of ontological typologies and toward viewing them as reflective of behavioral variations was also bolstered by cross-cultural and cross-species research, which similarly revealed that bisexual variability was the norm and not the exception (Ford and Beach 1951). More recently, burgeoning global HIV/AIDS research has reinforced the need for thinking about bisexuality as an important sociological category for describing (usually) men who have sex with men but who do not identify themselves as homosexual (Aggleton 1996).


The emergence of a collective and political identity category of bisexuality has certainly been constrained, if not often foreclosed, by the history of bisexual erasure within Western binary models of sexuality. Until at least the 1970s (if not beyond) a prevailing psychomedical view was that bisexuality did not constitute a sexual identity or "orientation." Instead it was routinely envisioned as a form of immaturity, a state of confusion, or a transitional state on the way to either hetero- or homosexuality. This is in stark contrast to homosexuality, which has formed the basis of collective self-identification at least since the late nineteenth century. However, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that bisexuality constituted a palpable collective and political identity category in many Western societies. In addition to a perceived absence in the historical and cultural record, self-identified bisexuals were animated to assert a political identity due to the experience of marginalization within gay liberation and lesbian feminist movements in the 1970s and 1980s (Rust 1995).

With steadily expanding bisexual activism, identities, organizations, and publications, activists and theorists of bisexuality have issued wide-ranging critiques of binary models of sexuality. They have attempted to expose how the historical neglect or cultural trivialization of bisexuality has been fuelled not by scientific "fact" but by misleading historical, cultural, and political assumptions. Terms such as "biphobia" and "monosexism" have been coined as a way of highlighting the cultural, political, and theoretical bias against people who sexually desire (or who have sexually desired) more than one gender in the course of their lives (Ochs 1996). Activists and theorists of bisexuality have also attempted to interrogate the political, theoretical, and cultural interconnections between feminism and bisexuality (Weise 1992), and between bisexuality and gay, lesbian, and queer cultures and theories. (Hall and Pramaggiore 1996; Angelides 2001).

Existing research has demonstrated that, far from being marginal to broader representations and practices of sexuality, bisexuality is in fact centrally implicated in the Anglophone epistemology of sexuality and the global production of sexual desires, behaviors, and identities.

see also Sexuality.


Aggleton, Peter, ed. 1996. Bisexualities and AIDS: International Perspectives. Bristol: Taylor & Francis.

Angelides, Steven. 2001. A History of Bisexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bergler, Edmund. 1962. Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life? New York: Collier Books.

Bieber, Irving, et al. 1962. Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study. New York: Basic Books.

Darwin, Charles. 1901. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

Ellis, Havelock. 1928. "Studies in the Psychology of Sex" In Vol. 2, Sexual Inversion. 3rd rev. and enlarged. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.

Ford, Clellan S., and Frank A. Beach. 1951. Patterns of Sexual Behavior. New York; Harper & Row.

Freud, Sigmund. 1905. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 volumes, ed. and trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1974.

Freud, Sigmund. 1923. The Ego and the Id. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19, ed. and trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1974.

Freud, Sigmund. 1925. "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19, ed. and trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1974.

Hall, Donald, and Maria Pramaggiore, eds. 1996. Representing Bisexualities: Subjects and Cultures of Fluid Desire. New York: New York University Press.

Kinsey, Alfred C.; Wardell B. Pomeroy; and Clyde E. Martin. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Kinsey, Alfred C., et al. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Klein, Fritz. 1978. "The Bisexual Option: A Concept of One Hundred Percent Intimacy. New York: Arbor House.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. 1965. Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico Forensic Study, trans. Harry E. Wedeck. New York: Putnam.

Ochs, Robyn. 1996. "Biphobia; It Goes More Than Two Ways." In Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority, ed. Beth A. Firestein. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 217-239.

Rado, Sandor. 1940. "A Critical Examination of the Concept of Bisexuality." Psychosomatic Medicine 2: 459-467.

Rust, Paula C. 1995. Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty, and Revolution. New York: New York University Press.

Weise, Elizabeth Reba. 1992. Closer to Home: Bisexuality & Feminism. Seattle, WA: Seal Press.

                                             Steven Angelides