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 very new fashion since at least the 1890s. It was all the rage in 1974, for example, when the American magazine Newsweek discovered “Bisexual Chic: Everyone Goes”. A generation later, in 1995, the same magazine ran 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’s drawn to both to jump on another woke bandwagon, because for Gen Z snowflakes, it’s all the rage.” Like flares, student protest, and hating your kids’ musical tastes, it seems like bisexuality is always back in fashion. Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw’s book is a passionate 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 it’s both less and less provocative than you think.

As Shaw explains, the first use of the word in English probably dates back to 1892, in a translation of German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book, Psychopathia Sexualis. “The book was intended for forensic circles, and Krafft-Ebing wrote it in intentionally difficult language and with parts in Latin so that laymen could not read it.” There’s a rich vein of nonfiction that translates inscrutable academics on interesting topics into language curious lay readers can understand, including this book with its juxtaposition of academic language and pretty social media. Here, the “penile plethysmography” rubs shoulders with the “[my] lovely bubble bi” and a minister of the church” so glittering gay that he’s a bit of a local legend”.

The book begins with bold intentions, guaranteed to enrage anonymous dads everywhere. “Your sexuality is political, whether you like it or not,” Shaw writes. And: “We must also question heterosexuality. In addition to being proudly, solidly, and delightfully bisexual herself, Shaw has a doctorate in psychology and, in preparation for writing the book, she “started a bisexual research group with regular meetings, led an international bisexuality research conference that brought together 485 participants and 70 scholars 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 strident politics to charming weirdness. Shaw celebrates bisexual bonobos, debunks gay giraffe myths, and argues that “starfish should be the mascots of homosexuality.” [because they] engage in homosexual and heterosexual behavior, they can reproduce asexually, and…some species can change sex.” She reviews prisoner studies that show that “even in a hyper-heteronormative setting, sexual behavior can be flexible. As with pigeons, finches or turtles… the sex ratio of a human population can lead to changes in sexual behavior. And she suggests people should all think less rigidly about the categories and labels we give ourselves. “I find it fascinating,” she writes, “how people like the ‘completely straight’ ex-con I quoted earlier compartmentalize these [homosexual] experiences rather than using them to consider and perhaps challenge their self-identification as heterosexual.

However, openly identifying as bisexual is not always an easy choice, as an examination of the LGBT past and present reminds us. Shaw talks about the “double discrimination” that bisexual people can face, treated with suspicion by straight and gay communities. One study found that “simply disclosing bisexuality can lead to a myriad of negative job-related outcomes,” including “a 15% salary penalty for openly bisexual applicants”; another that “bisexual people are significantly less likely to obtain refugee status than other sexual minority groups”. Bisexual women are at risk of being over-sexualized; men have been accused of being vectors of HIV transmission. It doesn’t seem surprising that “bisexual people have a comparatively higher risk of mental health problems,” and suggests that Shaw’s campaign for better “bi-visibility” is particularly pressing. It is only when we see, recognize and name a class of people that we can truly begin to protect their human rights.

That said, the categories and denominations are sometimes confusing in this book. As an academic, Shaw is well aware of the importance of defining terms. She spends a chapter meticulously describing 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 “mislabeling” historical figures. And yet, the terms “LGBTIQ”, “LGBT+” and “queer” are used almost interchangeably, and frequently, without any definition of what they mean to the author or to those labeled as such. In one sentence, Shaw describes the “immediate sense of respect” she feels for gay men who lived in the 1980s, and in the next calls these men “queer” – a word that is not without controversy. , especially within this group. Elsewhere, she calls the wife of sexuality researcher Havelock Ellis “queer” – a term that would have meant little to Edith Lees in the 19th century.

What Shaw offers, helpfully, 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 get away from things, away from things, and examine issues like power and the 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. “Identification as bisexual forces a chain reaction of challenging assumptions about sex and relationships,” she writes. “When you’re already forcing apart outdated and harmful sex binaries, why stop there?” In this way, the book opens up conversations that could simply lead to more visibility, understanding, and empathy for all people, however defined. If these conversations could become the last big thing, we would 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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