Bisexuality in human sexual behaviour refers to the aesthetic, romantic, and sexual desire for people of two genders and/or for people of two sexes. For some writers, the term is parallel to homosexuality and heterosexuality, while for others the term expresses a blend of the two.
Although observed in a variety of forms in most societies throughout recorded history, bisexuality has only been the subject of serious study since the second half of the 20th century, and some disagreement remains about its prevalence and nature.
Bisexual orientation can fall anywhere between the two extremes of homosexuality and heterosexuality; a bisexual person is not necessarily attracted equally to both genders, and many tend to prefer one or the other. Moreoever, a bisexual person may be attracted to both genders but not both sexes, or vice versa. Another view of bisexuality is that homosexuality and heterosexuality are two monosexual orientations, whereas bisexuality encompasses them both. However, some argue that bisexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation in its own right.
Individuals attracted to both males and females, like people of any other orientation, may live a variety of sexual lifestyles. These include: lifelong monogamy, serial monogamy, polyamory, polyfidelity, casual sexual activity with individual partners, casual group sex, and celibacy. For those with more than one sexual partner, these may or may not all be of the same gender.
Some people who might be classified by others as bisexual on the basis of their sexual behavior self-identify as gay or lesbian — for example, a bisexual woman who considers herself a lesbian may do so on the basis that a lesbian might be defined as any woman who is attracted to women (even one who is also attracted to men), or a woman who is primarily attracted to other women. Some lesbian and gay people object, asserting that exclusivity is part of the definition.
Other bisexuals consider themselves distinct from homosexuals but part of the larger LGBT or queer community. Some people who engage in bisexual behavior may be supportive of lesbian and gay people, but still self-identify as straight, and still others consider any labels irrelevant to their situations.
Bisexuality in history
Historical and literary records from most literate societies indicate that male bisexuality was common and indeed expected. These relationships were generally age-structured (as in the practice of pederasty in the Mediterranean Basin of antiquity, or the practice of shudo in pre-modern Japan) or gender-structured (as in the Two-Spirit North American tradition or the Central Asian bacchá practices).
Male heterosexuality and homosexuality, while also documented, appear mostly as exceptions, unless we are examining cultures influenced by the Abrahamic religions, where heterosexuality was privileged, and bisexuality and homosexuality forcefully suppressed. In fact, most of the commonly cited examples of male “homosexuality” in previous cultures would more properly be categorized as bisexuality.
Determining the history of female bisexuality is more problematic, in that women in most of the studied societies were under the domination of the males, and on one hand had less self-determination and freedom of movement and expression, and on the other were not the ones writing or keeping the literary record.
In Ancient Greece it is believed that males generally went through a homosexual stage in adolescence, followed by a bisexual stage characterized by pederastic relationships in young adulthood, followed by a (mostly) heterosexual stage later in life, when they married and had children. Ancient Rome, Arab countries up to and including the present, China, and Japan, all exhibit patterns of analogous bisexual behavior. In Japan in particular, due to its practice of shudo and the extensive art and literature associated with it, the record of a primarily bisexual lifestyle is both detailed and quite recent, dating back as recently as the 19th century.
Perhaps the most famous example is Alexander the Great who had many wives, but also at least two male lovers, Hephaestion being his life-long friend. The same could be said of most Roman emperors, the Shōguns of Japan, many Chinese emperors, and others.
However, it should be noted that the terms heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, and the concept of “sexual orientation” itself are all modern sociological constructs, and may not be appropriate in historical contexts, in which behaviour might be considered homosexual, but people were not labeled using such terms.
Ancestral law in ancient Sparta mandated same-sex relationships with youths who were coming of age for all adult men, so long as the men eventually took wives and produced children. The Spartans thought that love and erotic relationships between experienced and novice soldiers would solidify combat loyalty and encourage heroic tactics as men vied to impress their lovers. Once the younger soldier reached maturity the relationship was supposed to become non-sexual, but it is not clear how strictly this was followed. There was some stigma attached to young men who continued their relationships with their mentors into adulthood.
Greek religious texts, reflecting cultural practices, incorporated bisexual themes. The subtexts varied, from the mystical to the didactic. See Mythology of same-sex love.
Middle Eastern cultures
Men’s attraction to beautiful youths is understood to be normal and universal in Islamic cultures. Some religious texts warn men to avoid falling for this temptation, held to be stronger than attraction to women. Other religious texts, not uncontroversially, teach that gazing upon the beauty of boys is a path to communing with god.
Poets and artists routinely celebrated their love of boys, consummated or not, from the medieval times until the early twentieth century. Among these were the famous poets Abu Nuwas, Hafez, and Omar Khayyam, and painters such as the Persian Reza Abbasi.
The Qur’anic prohibition against liwat (anal intercourse with either males or females, held to be a major sin) was flouted by some and circumvented by others who indulged in such relationships but stopped short of intercourse. Men convicted of liwat, as well as their partners, could be and were upon occasion executed.
The Qur’an, however, requires that the transgression be witnessed by four men or eight women in order to convict the participants. Therefore, men are not given much trouble about these behaviors as it cannot be easily proved, so as long as they marry and raise families and fulfil other societal duties, they can easily “blend” in society.
Such practices are claimed to be less common than in the past and have become covert, as a result of exposure to Western Victorian morality starting in the eighteen hundreds. An open declaration of homosexual preference in the Western egalitarian style would be unacceptable. In this way, some of the bisexuality in the Arab world and Persian world is somewhat similar to the DL culture prevalent in some African-American and Latino communities.
Modern Western prevalence of bisexuality
Some modern surveys report about 2%-6% of modern western populations as bisexual, but there are still many methodological difficulties with regard to randomness and size of the sample population, and the accuracy of self-reports of such personal information. (The accuracy of these numbers is disputed.) Different studies also use different standards for bisexuality. Some studies ignore bisexual phenomena entirely, or separate it into same-sex and opposite-sex components. Reported results disagree over whether homosexuality is more common than bisexuality (with various definitions for each). Anecdotal reports from areas outside the west suggest much higher rates of bisexual expression.
Some studies, notably Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), have indicated that the majority of people appear to be at least somewhat bisexual. The studies report that most people have some attraction to either sex, although usually one sex is preferred. According to some (falsely attributed to Kinsey), only about 5-10% of the population can be considered to be fully heterosexual or homosexual. On the other hand, an even smaller minority has no distinct preference for one gender or the other.
Social status of bisexuality
Historically, bisexuality has largely been free of the social stigma associated with homosexuality, prevalent even where bisexuality was the norm. In Ancient Greece pederasty was not problematic as long as the men eventually married and had children. All over the world among upper-class men of good social standing (i.e., properly married) homosexual affairs were tolerated, and heterosexual marriage was often successfully used as a defense against accusations of homosexuality.
Some in the gay and lesbian communities accuse those who self-identify as bisexual of duplicity, believing they are really homosexuals who are attempting to hold onto the social approval through their heterosexual activity. They may be accused of “not doing their part” in gaining acceptance of “true” homosexuality.
Gay and lesbian people may also suspect that a self-described bisexual is merely a homosexual in the initial stage of questioning their presumed heterosexuality, and will eventually accept that they are gay; this is expressed by a glib saying in gay culture: “Bi now, gay later.” These situations can and do take place, but do not appear to be true of the majority of self-described bisexuals. Nonetheless, bisexuals do sometimes experience lesser acceptance from gay and lesbian people, because of their declared orientation.
Bisexuals are often associated with men who engage in same-sex activity while closeted and heterosexually married. The majority of such men – said to be living on the down-low – do not self-identify as bisexual.
Because many bisexual people do not feel that they fit into either the gay community or the heterosexual world, and because they have a tendency to be “invisible” in public (fitting in rather seamlessly into both homosexual and heterosexual society), some bisexual persons are committed to forming their own communities, culture, and political movements.
The bisexual pride flag
A common symbol of bisexual identity is a pair of overlapping pink and blue triangles (the pink triangle being a well-known symbol for the gay community), forming purple where they intersect. Another symbol is the bisexual pride flag, which has a deep pink stripe at the top for homosexuality, a blue one on the bottom for heterosexuality, and a purple one (blended from the pink and blue) in the middle to represent bisexuality.
The term bisexual was coined by botanists c. 1809. It originally applied to plants that had both male and female sex organs. It is not known when the term was first applied to the context of sexual orientation. Some bisexuals and sex researchers are dissatisfied with the term, and have developed a variety of alternative or supplementary terms to describe aspects and forms of bisexuality. Many are neologisms not widely recognized by the larger society.
- Pansexual, omnisexual, and pomosexual (postmodern sexuality) are substitute terms that rather than referring to both or “bi” gender attraction, refer to all or “omni” gender attraction, and are used mainly by those who wish to express acceptance of all gender possibilities including transgender and intersex people, not just two. Pansexuality sometimes includes an attraction for less mainstream sexual activities, such as BDSM. Some people who might otherwise identify as pansexual or omnisexual choose to self-identify as bisexual because the term bisexual is more widely known, and because they see it as an important term in identity politics.
- Bi-permissive describes someone who does not actively seek out sexual relations with a given gender, but is open to them. Such a person may self-identify as heterosexual or homosexual, and engage predominantly in sexual acts with individuals of the corresponding gender, and might be rated 1 or 5 on Kinsey’s scale. Near-synonyms include heteroflexible and homoflexible.
- Ambisexual indicates a primarily indiscriminate attraction to either sex. A person who self-identifies as ambisexual might be attracted with equal intensity on physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels to partner(s) regardless of sex or gender presentation, while upholding selectivity standards in other areas. Some might experience equally intense attractions that could be triggered by sex- or gender-specific traits in given the partner(s). A person with this orientation might fall in the 3 category on Kinsey’s scale, as would some who subscribe to the 2 or 4 rating (although some individuals in these latter categories consider themselves Bi-permissive).
- Bi-curious, has several distinct and sometimes contradictory meanings. It is commonly found in personal ads from those who identify as heterosexual but are interested in homosexual “experimentation”. Such people are commonly suspected – not necessarily correctly – of being homosexuals or bisexuals in denial of their homosexuality. It can also be used to describe someone as being passively-bi, bi-permissive or open to indirect bisexual contact.
- Trisexual (sometimes trysexual) is either an extension of, or a pun on bisexual. In its more serious usage, it indicates an interest in transgender persons in addition to cissexual men and women. This of course causes problems because of its inherent insistence that transsexuals are separate and different from men and women, which implies transphobia even where it may not be intended. In its more humorous usage, it refers to someone who will try any sexual experience.
- Biphobia describes a fear or condemnation of bisexuality, usually based in a belief that only heterosexuality and homosexuality are genuine orientations and appropriate lifestyles. Bisexual persons may also be the target of homophobia from those who consider only heterosexuality appropriate. The reverse can also apply in that bisexual persons may be targets of heterophobia or discrimination by some gays/homosexuals.
- Passively-bi, aka open-minded is a non-gender specific term that describes a straight or bi-curious person who is open to incidental or direct contact (typically in a Group sex scenario) from a MOTSS, usually without reciprocation.
- Actively-bi is a non-gender specific term that describes a bi-curious/bisexual person who initiates direct contact with a MOTSS.
Bisexuality in modern Western entertainment
Comparatively positive and notable portrayals of bisexuality can be found in mainstream movies such as: Goldfish Memory; The Rocky Horror Picture Show; and Henry and June. In popular music, many of the songs of The Smiths are commonly cited as classic examples. In notable graphic novels, Love & Rockets subtly portrays bisexuality. Krazy Kat is an early comic-strip character whose loves are not limited by gender.
Notable novels containing significant bisexual characters are: Sean David Wright’s Two For One–a novel about having choices; Anne Rice’s Cry To Heaven; Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer; Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and The Persian Boy; Colette’s Claudine novels; David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes and While England Sleeps; Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion; Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; Jane Rule’s Young in One Another’s Arms; and Sylvia Brownrigg’s The Metaphysical Touch. Non-fiction scholarship, such as Marjorie Garber’s Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995), Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (1990) and Louis Crompton’s Byron and Greek Love (1985), has uncovered previously hidden histories of bisexuality.
On the TV show Will & Grace, the character of Karen is described as “omnisexual” and although is married to a man, often kisses Grace and appears to have had many female lovers throughout her life. The blatantly ambisexual character Jack Harkness of Doctor Who and Torchwood is often described as “omnisexual” by his fans. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos portrayed a bisexual con artist in the film Femme Fatale.
There are also negative media portrayals, reflecting prejudices and stereotypes. For instance, the television show Friends sported a short song about the topic that expresses a common prejudice on the subject:
Sometimes men love women,
Sometimes men love men,
Then there are bisexuals
Though some people say they’re kidding themselves
And a Saturday Night Live joke ran thus:
“A bisexual is a person who reaches down the front of somebody’s pants and is satisfied with whatever they find.”
— Dana Carvey as the church lady, Saturday Night Live.
Prejudice is also expressed in the storylines of movies in which the bisexual characters conceal murderous neuroses (Basic Instinct, Black Widow, Blue Velvet, Cruising, Girl Interrupted).
Bisexuality in animals
Many non-human animal species also exhibit bisexual behavior. This is particularly common in hermaphroditic animals, but is also known in many other species such as the bonobo Chimpanzee. Bisexuality has been observed in over 500 species .
- Louis Crompton. Homosexuality and Civilization, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2003. ISBN 067401197X
- Garrett Jones. Coming Clean about Bisexuality, UK, 2000. Online book freely downloadable from author’s website.
- Michel Larivière. Homosexuels et bisexuels célèbres, Delétraz Editions, 1997. ISBN 2911110196
- Kenji Yoshino. “The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure“. Stanford Law Review, 52 (2), 2000.
- Kenneth J. Dover. Greek Homosexuality, New York; Vintage Books, 1978. ISBN 0394742249
- Thomas K. Hubbard. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome, U. of California Press, 2003.  ISBN 0520234308
- Herald Patzer. Die Griechische Knabenliebe [Greek Pederasty], Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1982. In: Sitzungsberichte der Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft an der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Vol. 19 No. 1.
- W. A. Percy III. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, University of Illinois Press, 1996. ISBN 0252022092
- Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, et al. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature, New York: New York University Press, 1997. ISBN 0814774687
- J. Wright & Everett Rowson. Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature. 1998.
- ‘Homosexuality‘ & other articles in the Encyclopædia Iranica
See also: Abu Nuwas, Hafez.
- Gary Leupp. Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995. ISBN 0520209001
- Tsuneo Watanabe & Jun’ichi Iwata. The Love of the Samurai. A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, London: GMP Publishers, 1987. ISBN 0854491155
- Bryant, Wayne M.. Bisexual Characters in Film: From Anais to Zee. Haworth Gay & Lesbian Studies, 1997. ISBN: 1560238941
- Bisexual Resource Centre (international)
- Bi Tribune Magazine (US)
- The Bi Foundation
- Bi Magazine (US)
- BiNet USA
- Bi Flag.
- soc.bi newsgroup FAQ – Bi newsgroup.
- BiTheWay.org – Bi community online resource (international)
- Bi.org – Serving the World Bisexual Community (international)
- BCN magazine. The long-running UK bi cultural/political magazine.
- Exploring Biphobia. (144 KB PDF). Report on the problems caused by stereotyping of bisexuals.
- Bi / Bi-curious Women’s Forum
- Bi Married Men’s Support Group
- Bi Men’s Support Group
- Bisexual Playground Bisexual Online Community
- Bi Cafe – International Bisexual forum
- The Androphile Project – Extensive resource of gay and bisexual history.
- New York Area Bisexual Network (US)
- Karen Walker – AfterEllen.com News, Reviews and Commentary on Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Entertainment and the Media.
- Coupling – AfterEllen.com News, Reviews and Commentary on Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Entertainment and the Media.