Bi by Julia Shaw review – the past and present of a maligned minority | science and nature books

AAccording to periodic reports in the media, bisexuality has been a brand-new fad since at least the 1890s. It was all the rage in 1974, for example, when the US magazine Newsweek discovered “Bisexual Chic: Anyone Goes”. A generation later, in 1995, the same magazine published a cover story declaring it “A new sexual identity”. In 2021, the Daily Telegraph parodied itself with a letter from an “Anonymous Dad” complaining about his bisexual daughter. “My daughter doesn’t like girls and boys, she likes boys”, he fumed. “But she says she is attracted to both to jump on another woke bandwagon, because for snowflake Gen Z, it’s trendy.” Like flares, student protest and hating your children’s taste in music, it seems bisexuality is always back in fashion. Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw’s book is an impassioned attempt to bring decades of serious academic research out of the shadows, to show that being bisexual is nothing new, it’s here to stay and is simultaneously less and more provocative than you think.

As Shaw explains, the first use of the word in English was probably in 1892, in a translation of German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis. “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.” There is a rich seam of nonfiction that translates impenetrable academia about interesting subjects into language that curious lay readers can understand, including this book with its juxtaposition of academic language and cute social media speak. Here, “penile plethysmography” rubs shoulders with “[my] adorable bi bubble” and a church minister “so sparkly gay that he is a bit of a local legend”.

The book begins with bold intentions, guaranteed to enrage Anonymous Dads everywhere. “Your sexuality is political, whether you want it to be or not,” writes Shaw. And: “We also need to call heterosexuality into question.” Aside from being proudly, solidly and delightedly bisexual herself, Shaw has a PhD in psychology, and to prepare for writing the book she “started a bisexual research group with regular meetings, spearheaded an international bisexuality research conference which had 485 attenders and 70 researchers presenting their work, and … completed a master’s degree in queer history”.

The result is a tour of the science, culture and history of bisexuality that ranges from the vehemently political to the charmingly weird. Shaw celebrates bisexual bonobos, debunks myths about gay giraffes and contends that “starfish should be the mascots for queerness [because they] engage in homosexual and heterosexual behaviour, they can reproduce asexually, and … some species can switch their sex”. She examines studies of prisoners that show that “even in a hyper-heteronormative setting, sexual behavior can be flexible. As with pigeons, or finches, or tortoises … the sex ratio of a human population can cause changes in sexual behaviour.” And she suggests that people should all think less rigidly about the categories and labels we assign ourselves. “I find it fascinating,” she writes, “how people like the ‘completely straight’ former inmate I quoted earlier compartmentalise these [homosexual] experiences rather than using them to consider and perhaps question their self-identification as heterosexual.”

However, identifying openly as bisexual is not always an easy choice, as a review of LGBT past and present reminds us. Shaw talks of the “double discrimination” bisexual people can face, treated with suspicion by straight and gay communities alike. One study showed that “simply disclosing bisexuality can lead to a myriad of negative job-relevant outcomes”, including “a 15 per cent salary penalty for the openly bisexual applicants”; another that “bisexual people are significantly less likely to obtain refugee status than other sexual minority groups”. Bisexual women risk being hypersexualised; men have been blamed as vectors for HIV transmission. It seems little wonder that “bisexual individuals have a comparatively higher risk for mental health problems,” and suggests that Shaw’s campaign for better “bi-visibility” is especially pressing. Only when we see, acknowledge and name a category of people can we properly begin to protect their human rights.

That said, categories and naming sometimes lead to confusion in this book. As an academic, Shaw is well aware of the importance of defining terms. She spends a chapter meticulously outlining what she means by the word “bisexual”, how the word has been used historically and how others currently define it. She is also very clear about the dangers of “mislabelling” historical figures. And yet the terms “LGBTIQ”, “LGBT+” and “queer” are used almost interchangeably, and frequently, with no definition of what they mean to the author or to those thus labeled. In one sentence, Shaw describes the “immediate sense of respect” she feels for gay men who lived through the 1980s, and in the next refers to those men as “queer” – a word that is not without controversy, particularly among that group. Elsewhere she refers to the wife of the sexuality researcher Havelock Ellis as “queer” – a term that would have meant little to Edith Lees in the 19th century.

What Shaw does offer, usefully, is a brief description of “queer theory”, an academic discipline in which this book is rooted. She writes: “The main thing that queer theory does is to help us queer things, to estrange them, and to look at issues like power and social dynamics that underlie our assumptions about the world.” For Shaw, bisexuality seems to create an interesting space in which arbitrary boundaries are blurred, norms are challenged and new ways of thinking are embraced and explored. “Identifying as bisexual forces a chain reaction of questioning assumptions about sex and relationships,” she writes. “When you are already forcing apart antiquated and harmful sexual binaries, why stop there?” In this way, the book opens up conversations that might just lead to more visibility, understanding and empathy for all people, however they define themselves. If those conversations could become the latest big thing, we’d all benefit.

Bi: The Hidden Culture, History and Science of Bisexuality by Julia Shaw is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com, Delivery charges may apply.

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