People can be very quick to dismiss the idea of bisexuality as a phase, as greedy, or in some way invalid. This biphobia results from a lot of (sometimes purposeful) misunderstanding of bisexuality. But what do bisexuals mean when they say that they’re bisexual? Amongst bisexual activists and scholars, bisexuality commonly means the sexual or romantic attraction to people of more than one sex or gender. Bisexuals might experience changes in their sexuality over time, and that the way in which people experience sexual and romantic feelings might change wildly from person to person and gender to gender.

But bisexuality didn’t always mean this. In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century psychoanalysts and biologists like Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and others used the word bisexual to refer to a particular conflation of gender and sexuality. The belief at the time was that anyone who was attracted to someone of the same sex had the brain of a different gender in the wrong body.


So, someone who we would consider a lesbian today was actually seen as a woman with a man’s brain, and would have been called an invert. Bisexuality was seen as an androgynous combination of sexuality and gender, and psychoanalysts like Freud believed that bisexuality was the base, immature, level of sexuality, which people would mature out of to become heterosexuals or homosexuals.

In the mid-twentieth century, sexuality studies saw a new school of thought where sexologists were more concerned with contextual sexual behavior of individuals, as opposed to dissecting the way in which their attractions developed. Alfred Kinsey is one of the most famous sexologists in this new tradition of scholarship. 1

Alfred_Charles_KinseyKinsey developed the Kinsey Scale, a system of measurement which suggested that the majority of people were not exclusively heterosexually-behaving, or exclusively homosexually-behaving, but rather somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Kinsey presented bisexuality more as a system of behavior, not necessarily linked to individual or social identities, but linked to acting on libido, circumstance, and attraction at particular points in time.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, lesbians and gay men began to visibly and subversively fight for their basic civil rights within the United States. Bisexuality became more of a social identity, with individuals choosing to claim their identities more and more. However, due to internal pressures within the LGBTQ+ groups, bisexuals were often thought of as traitors due to the perception that they benefited from heterosexual privileges that lesbians and gay men could not access.

Consequently, bisexual voices were silenced, either by pressure from the LGBTQ+ community, or due to bisexuals ‘passing’ as heterosexual, lesbian, or gay, depending on their social contexts. Within the LGBTQ+ community, bisexuality was seen as a neither-here-nor-there identity, possibly even traitorous given the association with heterosexuality and normative culture. As a result, bisexuality was met with suspicion, leading to bisexuals hiding their sexualities and thus finding little community and validation.

At present, bisexuality is slightly more socially accepted. No longer seen as linked to gender, bisexuality is considered to be a sexual orientation in the same way that being gay, lesbian, or heterosexual is seen as a social identity. Although bisexuals still experience biphobia, bi-invisibility, and monosexism, there is a growing bisexual community that supports and validates one another.

Bisexuality is also increasingly being brought into the conversation within LGBTQ+ organisations and equality campaigns. The representation, acceptance, and validation of bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation, all serves to benefit bisexual inclusion and bisexual mental health. However, the remnants of previous schools of thought are still seen, woven into responses to bisexuality. Common narratives around bisexuality include;

The need to accept bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation is critical to improving bisexual mental and physical wellbeing, which currently is significantly worse than lesbian and gay mental and physical wellbeing. Perhaps the next great understanding of bisexuality can incorporate a more lackadaisical approach; it doesn’t matter how you define yourself if it makes you happy and well. You are valid, and your feelings should not need to be quantified to someone else to be justified.

Rosie Nelson is an ESRC funded Sociology PhD student at the University of Bristol. Rosie adopts a critical queer theoretical lens to interrogate the construction and maintenance of a bisexual identity amongst British bisexuals. Rosie’s particular research interests revolve around the way bisexuals interact with gender, gender expression, social location, coming out, and institutional representation. You can find Rosie on Twitter @roropanolo.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

For more on the history of bisexuality, please see:

Angelides, S., 2001. A History of Bisexuality, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Eisner, S., 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Berkeley: Seal Press.
Garber, M., 1997. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, London: Penguin Books.
Harrad, K., 2016. Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain, Portland: Thorntree Press.
Klein, F., 1993. The Bisexual Option, New York: The Harrington Park Press.

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Header Image: Bisexual Pride Flag [via Wikicommons]
Image: Female Bisexuality Symbol [via Martin Strachoň / Wikimedia Commons]
Image: Alfred Charles Kinsey [Via Wikicommons]


  1. Kinsey’s sexuality studies considered the sexual behavior of American men and women.
Tags : AndrogynyBiphobiaBisexualityGender IdentityKinseyKinsey ScaleLGBT historyMonosexismqueer historySexual Identity
Rosie Nelson

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