MEDIA REVIEW: Bisexuality and Agency

Article excerpt

What's the relation of bisexual to gay/lesbian?" would be one important question, but "What's the relation of bisexual to queer?" would be a different one, also important. And bisexuality, as a political concept, could function to break boundaries in the first context and yet to preserve them in the second.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick

Sedgewick puts her finger on a key issue in teaching on bisexuality -- how does it fit in relation to gay/lesbian or to queer? In the first part of her answer, Sedgewick implicitly refers to a schema of sexuality that has been with us since the late nineteenth-century sexological musings of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. Surveying sexology in America, Jennifer Terry suggests that this model may be rendered as a binary opposition wherein a number of attributes align to produce the heteronormative categories of woman and man as follows (1999):

sex: female male

gender: woman man

gender role: femininity masculinity

sexual orientation: heterosexual woman heterosexual man

sexual inversion: homosexual man homosexual woman

sexual aim/mode: passive active

One goal in Women's Studies and GLBT Studies courses is to uncover the way that this paradigm works to disempower women, gays, and lesbians (sometimes including bisexuals and transgendered people) in a variety of political, social, personal, and economic contexts. These study areas reveal that this model of heteronormative sexuality is a cultural and historically contingent construct rather than being rooted in nature as sexologists and others have claimed.

While homosexuality is portrayed as an inversion of sex/gender attributes on the heteronormative scale, bisexuality is conceptualized as a median between "normal" orientation and inversion, and as sitting midpoint in the polarity between genders, roles, and sexual aims. For this reason, Sedgewick notes that bisexuality defies the oppositional heteronormative schema wherein sexual orientation is figured as heterosexuality (opposite sex desire) versus its inversion, homosexuality (same sex desire). According to this argument, bisexuality bridges the difference between heterosexual and homosexual orientations, thus raising the question of how natural this opposition and its assertion of heteronormativity is in the first place.

For many of the courses I have taught in Women's Studies I have found that students are familiar with this oppositional model of sexuality because of its social currency, but reject it due to the simplistic way it associates homosexuality with sex/gender inversion and hence abnormality. At the same time, students are apt to accept and interpret the median placement of bisexuality through the post-60s lens of the gay/lesbian and women's liberation movements, where bi was problematically portrayed as the idealistic "best of both worlds," as well as threateningly "faithful to neither world." In terms of idealism, some theorists and activists have celebrated bisexuality as the natural extension of what Freud and other psychoanalysts call the primal state of sexual androgyny or "polymorphous perversity" into which humans are born. Consequently, bisexuality is an emancipated state that exists previous to the monosexuality that culture imposes upon us, sometimes at great psycho-social cost. Despite this idealism, since the turn of the twentieth century bisexuality has also been blamed for a number of social ills ranging from the decadence of the 1920s to the spread of the AIDS virus in the 1980s-90s. In the classroom I have found that works by Amanda Udis-Kessler (1996), Marjorie Garber (2000), and Amber Ault (1996), alongside selections from Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahmanu's Bi Any Other Name (1991) offer useful historical and personal testimonies for the process of unpacking the mythical blossom/thorn dichotomy of bisexuality with students.

It is not uncommon, however, to encounter more advanced students who view the entire heteronormative schema as a typically modernist travesty of sexuality. …