Nope, Not a Trend: On the Modern Origins and Evolution of Bisexual Identity
Julia Shaw Considers the Skepticism, Panic, and Growing Accessibility of Being Bi
There have been suspicions that bisexuality is probably just a trend for almost fifty years. Newsweek has even declared this boldly twice. In 1974 it published an article titled “Bisexual Chic: Anyone Goes.” Two decades later, in 1995, it ran a cover story with the headline “Bisexuality. Not gay. Not straight. A new sexual identity emerges.” New again?
These two articles have been widely mocked in bisexual forums. This is particularly true of the 1995 cover, which includes bright white lettering atop a photo of a woman with short hair wearing an oversized black suit and with her arms crossed. She has a guarded expression on her face and is positioned in front of two men in casual gray T-shirts who stare with emotionless expressions into the camera. The photo is so weird, and so over-the-top nineties that it seems almost satirical.
The article itself proclaims things like “bisexuality is the hidden wild card of our erotic culture,” suggests there is “an independent bisexual movement,” and allows a fifteen-year-old to debunk the myth of the hypersexual bisexual while simultaneously reinforcing it with the bizarre quote, “A bisexual… doesn’t have any more sex than the captain of the football team.”
Given that a key benefit of being the captain of the (American) football team is having lots of sex, I guess this kid is trying to make it clear that he is promiscuous, but not sexually excessive. The article also in various ways conflates polyamory, promiscuity, and gender fluidity with bisexuality. And it taps into the idea that bisexuality is on the rise with the sentence “Many college students, particularly women, talk about a new sexual ‘fluidity’ on campus,” and quotes a bisexual person saying, “It’s not us-versus-them anymore. There’s just more and more of us.”
What I find astonishing is that this article could have been written today, with the exact same misconceptions, uneasy feeling of change, and echoes of optimism. Particularly, this idea that there are just more and more bisexual people is still popular today. But is it true? Before I try to answer that, I need to define what bisexuality is. To do that we are going to head back in time to see where the term came from, and three men with alliterative names who were fundamental in establishing bisexuality as an academic and popular concept: Krafft-Ebing, Kinsey, and Klein.
It may surprise you that the use of the term bisexual to refer to human sexuality is almost as old as the term heterosexual. In his book The Invention of Heterosexuality, gay history pioneer and activist Jonathan Ned Katz argues that “the idea of heterosexuality is a modern invention, dating to the late nineteenth century.” The first recorded use of the term was in an anonymous pamphlet in 1869, of which it was later established that Karl-Maria Kertbeny was the author.The first use of the word bisexual in English, in the sense of being sexually attracted to people of multiple genders, was probably in 1892.
Kertbeny lived a colorful life. He spent time in many major European cities, where he hung out with celebrities like George Sand and the Grimm brothers, hid from authorities by living in a botanic garden in Leipzig, was briefly a police spy, and was in and out of debtors’ prisons because of a series of failed attempts at being a journalist. In his letters, pamphlets, and books he wrote extensively about his view that sodomy laws violated human rights, and that such consensual sexual acts in private should not be subject to criminal law.
While writing, Kertbeny, who was probably gay himself, found the need to label and define the sexual norm so that he could explain how same-sex desires and sexual behaviors contrasted with it. This is why he came up with the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” This means that a gay rights activist coined the word heterosexual as a by-product of creating the word homosexual.
In the etymology of Kertbeny’s “heterosexual,” “hetero” comes from the Greek heteros which means another, while homos means same, and both are melded with the Latin word sexus. Not long after this, bi, or two, started to be used to refer to people who had both homosexual and heterosexual desires. A way that bisexual researchers often talk about this is that the bi in bisexual means two, but the two are not men and women, they are same and other.
Before being adopted to describe human sexuality, the term bisexual was typically used to refer to creatures and plants which are hermaphroditic, so have both male and female reproductive parts. Even today, in the worlds of botany, entomology, and zoology the term bisexual is often used in this way. Roses are an example of a popular bisexual plant.
The first use of the word bisexual in English, in the sense of being sexually attracted to people of multiple genders, was probably in 1892 when American neurologist Charles Gilbert Chaddock translated Psychopathia Sexualis, an influential book by the German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in which he detailed what he considered to be sexual disorders in male prisoners. The book was intended for clinical-forensic settings, and Krafft-Ebing wrote it in intentionally difficult language and with parts in Latin so that laypeople couldn’t read it. The book played an important and controversial role in the discussion among psychiatrists at the time who were trying to understand why people have homosexual desires.
Why didn’t these terms exist earlier? As sexuality historian Hanne Blank has argued, people in English-speaking countries didn’t really think about sexuality as an identity before this. They didn’t consider they should be “differentiated from one another by the kinds of love or sexual desire they experienced.” There were words to describe the kinds of sexual behavior people engaged in, but sex was mostly something that people did, not part of who they were.
Once sexuality became a hotly political part of identity, people wanted ways to define these new sexual labels. The problem quickly became that what one person meant when they used a label like bisexual was very different from what someone else meant, which is a problem that continues to pose a major obstacle for researchers today.
How many people do you think identify as bisexual today? Depending on who you ask, and how they spend their time, you will probably get very different answers. I need to regularly remind myself that fewer people are bi than I intuitively guess, because my social media feeds make it easy to forget that bisexuality is not the default. We all live in bubbles, and mine is an adorable bi bubble.
It is very difficult to get accurate or regular estimates of LGBT+ populations from most countries, especially from countries where homosexual behavior is criminalized. It’s even harder to get information specifically about bisexuality. Still, there are a few studies we can look at. In a summary of eleven studies conducted between 2004 and 2010, including samples from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Norway, between 0.5 percent and 3.1 percent of participants identified as bisexual. The summary found that among adults who identify as LGBT, bisexual people are the slight majority. It also found that far more people acknowledge at least some same-sex attraction, between 1.8 percent and 11 percent across the studies. This is one of few studies that gives us a sense of international comparison.
Other studies can give us some sense as to whether identifying as bi has increased over time. The Office for National Statistics in the UK estimated in 2017 that 2.3 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds identify as bisexual, while a national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US in 2016 placed the rate at 5.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men. Both of these surveys reported increases in the rates of people who identified as bisexual, and that in the youngest age groups more people identified as bisexual than gay or lesbian. The findings are also consistent with research which has found that more young women of color are identifying as bisexual today than in the past. However, these studies only capture people who identify as bisexual.
Studies have sought to address this shortcoming by asking people in the UK about their sexuality using the Kinsey Scale, and a series of follow-up questions. Using this scale is clever, because if we ask people directly if they are bisexual or homosexual, many say no either because they identify as heterosexual or because they identify outside of these labels (e.g., pansexual, fluid, or unlabeled).
According to the researchers of one study published by YouGov in 2015, “with each generation, people see their sexuality as less fixed in stone. The results for 18–24-year-olds are particularly striking, as 43 percent place themselves in the non-binary area between 1 and 5… classed as bisexual in varying degrees by Kinsey.” Note that “non-binary” here means not entirely homosexual or heterosexual, rather than people whose gender identity is nonbinary. This change toward more flexible conceptualizations of sexuality is exemplified by a follow-up study of people who identify as bisexual conducted by YouGov in 2019.
In a summary of the results the researcher writes: “When we asked 18 to 24 year olds to choose what best described their sexuality in 2015 just one in fifty (2 percent) said they were bisexual. Our latest data . . . shows that one in six (16 percent) now choose this option—an eight-fold increase.” She continues, “More people than ever identify as somewhere between the extremes of the sexuality spectrum.”
Replications of the 2015 YouGov survey were conducted in Germany, Israel, and the US. In all three, at least a third of young people identified as neither exclusively homosexual nor exclusively heterosexual, landing them somewhere on the bisexual spectrum. In all three, young people were far more likely than older people to fall on the bi spectrum and to explicitly identify as bisexual. And, in all three, some of the people who placed themselves on a sexual spectrum denied that such a spectrum exists.
This I find a particularly fascinating aspect of these studies. In a summary of the 2015 results the researchers wrote, “People of all generations now accept the idea that sexual orientation exists along a continuum rather than a binary choice,” because 60 percent of heterosexuals and 73 percent of homosexuals in their study supported the idea that sexuality is not binary. Although most of their 1,632 participants agreed that “sexuality is a scale—it is possible to be somewhere near the middle,” 12 percent of heterosexuals and 7 percent of homosexuals chose the “don’t know” option. There was also a third option: “There is no middle ground—you are either heterosexual or homosexual.” I know it shouldn’t shock me, but at least a fifth of people in both groups didn’t believe that bisexuality existed—28 percent of heterosexuals and 20 percent of homosexuals indicated that “there is no middle ground” for sexuality.
What’s even more amazing to me is that a substantial minority of these individuals were not entirely homosexual or heterosexual themselves: 11 percent of those who identified as a 3 on the Kinsey Scale, and 27 percent of those who identified as a 4 chose this third option. How do you put yourself in the middle of a sexuality scale, and simultaneously deny that people can be in the middle of a sexuality scale?
While I cannot tell you why these participants engaged in such dissonance, I can tell you who they were more likely to be. While 32 percent of those over 50 agreed with this statement, this fell to 22 percent of those aged 25 to 35, and 18 percent of those aged 18 to 24. It seems that younger generations are more likely to both identify as bi and to accept bisexuality as a thing.
Enjoyably, further supporting the idea that people are becoming more bi-supportive, the 2019 study found that “if the right person came along at the right time,” about 35 percent of those who identified as heterosexual indicated that they could be (i) attracted to a person of the same sex, (ii) have a sexual experience with them, and (iii) have a relationship with them. Many people today in the UK seem to be open to the idea that they could be attracted to people of multiple genders, which is a beautiful thing.
While it is unclear whether bisexual behavior is on the rise, more young people than ever are identifying as bisexual, and it seems that many people are open to falling in love with someone regardless of their gender. Bisexuality is not a fad, or “chic,” or “new”; rather this sexuality label appears to be more accessible and empowering today than it has been in the past.
Excerpted from the new book Bi: The Hidden Culture, Science, and History of Bisexuality by Julia Shaw, PhD, published by Abrams Press © 2022.