I was so thrilled to discover Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality by Julia Shaw last Nonfiction November. My shelves desperately needed some color, and I’d never heard of any other books specifically focusing on bisexuality.
After reading it, I’m wondering if my fellow bisexual readers would be better off without Shaw’s bi guide. She wrote it simply because it “didn’t exist,” so now the only new popular book dedicated to bisexuality is, in my opinion, not that great.
What is a bi book?
Shaw’s focus on intersectionality, her intentional inclusion of trans and nonbinary bi people, and her acknowledgment that bi spaces still have work to do in terms of racial diversity, were all spot-on. It’s just that I didn’t find myself liking her as a writer, her “Buzzfeed” tone, and her inadvertent but irritating ways of urging bisexual readers to do certain things in order to feel more bi or to benefit the greater bi cause. Then again, what else would a bi book be about if not bi erasure, bi style, bi human rights abuses, bi conventions, and threesomes? Maybe I’m not the kind of person who needs a book to tell me how to be bi. Maybe no one is.
There is an emphasis there on “inadvertent.” I don’t think Shaw would ever purposely encourage bi people to be anything but their authentic selves. But I believe that she put her own knowledge from her queer history PhD, and her extensive sources, through her own lens of what the ideal bisexual life means to her.
How to be bi in three easy steps
Shaw never says “You should attend Bi Pride,” “You should explore nonmonogamy,” or “You must date people of multiple genders,” but she makes it clear that your life as a bi person will be better if you do. Maybe hers is. But not mine. I’m happy as a clam in my monogamous lifelong straight-passing marriage. Bisexuality is not a central part of my identity. It’s why I’ve never mentioned it before, and why it probably won’t come up a lot again.
But according to Shaw, I should be wrapped in a bi flag, surrounded by lovers of all genders, shouting “I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m persecuted!” from on high.
In an attitude echoing Robin Elisabeth Cornwell’s Out Campaign for atheists in the 2000s, Shaw argues that it is essential for anyone who can safely come out as bi to do so in order to decrease stigma around bisexuality, fight bi erasure, and end the stigma of being bi. I understand that, but to be blunt, I don’t really feel like I personally owe the rest of the bi world an announcement of my sexuality. Unlike for Shaw, it’s not a very salient part of my identity. I don’t feel as though I have anything significant in common with other bi people, or that we really have anything to bond over.
I’m not “against labels.” I like having words to describe and better understand myself, like atheist, bisexual, woman, even enneagram type 5. But many people don’t like to be labeled or don’t like the label of bisexual. Shaw acknowledges this at the beginning of the book, writing, “I hope to unite the sexual family, no matter what term people feel most suits them, whether it’s bisexual, plurisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, fluid, unlabeled, or any related label.”
However, she doesn’t actually believe this. Speaking about bi representation in media, she writes, “It’s not until the eighty-ninth episode [of Orange is the New Black] that the word bisexual is used, despite the plethora of characters who seem very clearly to be bisexual. It’s not a dirty word and I wish people who work in the media would stop treating it as one. ” She also says that “films with bisexual characters almost never actually use the word bisexual, so their identity is left more open to interpretation. . . . ‘Just say bisexual!’ is something that my partner and I often yell at our TV in moments where characters yet again circumscribe the word.”
(Also, while we talk about bi media representation, I have to commend the writers of Heartstopper for having Nick come out as bi rather than gay to his mother after leaving his girlfriend for a boy at school. Ending a relationship and dating someone of a different gender does not necessarily invalidate someone’s attraction to the gender of that first partner.)
I don’t actually disagree with Shaw. I also believe that bisexuality needs to be normalized and that opening up about our identities is an obvious way to do that. Shaw acknowledges that, saying at the end of the chapter about coming out of the bi closet, “I don’t think all bi people need to hold up a sign for the whole world to see, but I want us to actively work towards a world where more people can… open up to their loved ones.” But you can tell that holding up her own bi sign (and bringing it up in job interviews, apparently) has brought meaning to her life, and she has a hard time imagining that the rest of us won’t all feel the same way.
So far, my qualms with the book have mostly centered around differences of opinion and disagreements between me and Shaw about what a happy bi life looks like. But in the last chapter, “Free Love,” Shaw tackles an important issue in bi stigma—the fact that we must all be polyamorous—and reinforces it rather than tearing it down.
It’s complicated terrain, to be sure. Two things are true: 1) polyamory is not wrong or bad, and 2) most bisexual people are not polyamorous. And even though it’s not inherently bad, obviously bi people don’t want people to assume we are polyamorous when we’re not. It’s great that Shaw argues against compulsory monogamy, but in a book about bisexuality, it does in some ways reinforce the stereotype that bi people can’t be, or at least don’t want to be, monogamous.
Badly defending nonmonogamy
Worse than that, Shaw does a subpar job of differentiating between consensual and nonconsensual nonmonogamy, and thus doesn’t solidly condemn nonconsensual nonmonogamy, which she does clarify is cheating. She acknowledges that cheating is wrong, but her criticism of monogamy feels more like a justification for cheating than a call for more open communication in people who want nonmonogamous relationships, saying,
No one accidentally cheats; it is always a choice. So why do so many people promise monogamy if that is not actually how they want to behave? And why do we fight about it so much? I think that for many people who engage in nonmonogamy it comes down to something that was summarized well by the late science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut: “I say that when couples fight, it isn’t about money or sex or power. What they’re really saying is, ‘You’re not enough people!'”
I think that this is a familiar feeling for many people, including myself. One person cannot possibly accommodate the multiplicity of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are me.Julia Shaw, Bi, pp. 156-157
It’s fine that she feels this way. I appreciate that she goes into the importance of ethical and consensual nonmonogamy, but I was angry that she doesn’t do this until after what I can only interpret as justifying cheating:
It’s clear that both cheating and lying about cheating are bad relationship strategies. This should make us stop and wonder why cheating is seen as such a dreadful act, yet is simultaneously so widely practiced. Besides the occasional threesome, what is the alternative?Julia Shaw, Bi, p. 167
All I hear is, “Everyone cheats. Can you blame them?” Not to mention that this is another example of Shaw’s unwillingness to accept that if she isn’t satisfied with monogamy, no one is.
Shaw claims that the fact that nonmonogamy is always shown as unhealthy reinforces forced monogamy. But in trying to destigmatize nonmonogamy, she’s… rationalizing cheating, the most unhealthy kind of nonmonogamy? Not only is she contributing to the stereotype that bi people are sexually insatiable, but she’s on a tangent that’s almost entirely left the topic of bisexuality. Since cheating is so common (and Shaw shares studies that demonstrate so), I’m left wondering how bisexual readers who have been unapologetically cheated on in the name of nonmonogamy will feel about this chapter.
As my first foray into the bi world, it’s hard for me not to be angry after finishing this book and writing about it. I was really excited to read my first book about bisexuality and get acquainted with this world that I’ve realized I’m part of. Perhaps I shouldn’t see Bi as the only book about bisexuality, but the first. There are stories yet to be told and so many unique bi perspectives to be shared, and I can’t wait to discover them.
2 thoughts on “The Right Way to Be Bisexual: A Review of Bi”
Thank you for your nuanced and very useful review – while I read diversely and outside my own lived experience I’m always really keen to see reviews of the books I read by people whose lived experience matches the book, if that makes sense (or matches the premise of the book, in this case). How dangerous to perpetuate myths of nonmonogamy and insatiability, very unhelpful at very least! I hope this is “the first” rather than “the only” book – it reminds me a bit of my experience with “Ace Voices” which claimed to cover asexuality / aromanticism (I’m not those things apart from being a tired, menopausal woman) but was so busy around intersexuality and queerness it forgot to include anything but one sentence on a hetero orientated asexual woman.
When it comes to destigmatizing bisexuality, I don’t know if anything does it better than this song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5e7844P77Is&ab_channel=racheldoesstuff
(The boss has gone from sadness at his divorce, to bewilderment at his attraction to a guy, then through a slow process of moving from hiding the relationship to acceptance, and finally calling a meeting at work to joyfully announce his new discovery to his employees.)