Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender – Review

Gender Agenda
Gender Agenda

Issue 2 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of


Women's Union

Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender

Clare Hemmings, Routledge, 2002

Reviewed by Naomi Wynter-Vincent

Where are all the Bisexuals? Three years ago I decided to write my
dissertation about bisexuality. Searching in the departmental libraries
catalogue of the UL, the term ‘bisexuality’ returned only a few hits, most
of them, alarmingly, in the criminology library. Criminology? Oh right, in
the ‘sexual deviance’ section. This wasn’t especially helpful, but it was
definitely illuminating. Though a number of bisexual anthologies have
appeared in the last few years, it remains the case that bisexuality
occupies an uneasy place within the critical feminist and queer canon. In
a political arena reliant on the politics of identity, cultural
specificity, and visibility (being ‘out and proud’), it is little wonder
that bisexuality, occupying a space somewhere between hetero- and
homo-sexuality, has been viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

Book cover
Clare Hemming’s, ‘Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and
Gender’, is a welcome contribution to the discussion by someone frustrated
by the failure of queer and feminist theorists to engage seriously with
the potentially powerful theoretical resource of bisexual
experience. Currently a lecturer in the Gender Institute of the LSE, she
brings together her work and experiences within the lesbian and gay
communities in San Francisco and Northampton, Massachusetts, documenting
the uneasy position that bisexuals have occupied within gay
spaces. Hemmings opens with a helpful review of the topic, starting from
the earliest mentions of bisexuality in the sexological texts from the
turn of the century, its ambiguous position within Freudian theory,
through to the Kinsey reports of the 1950s and its place within popular
texts of the 1960s and 1970s.

Bisexuality figures as ‘middle ground’ or ‘origin’ in a number of
important texts. Sexual researcher Kinsey proposed that sexuality should
be understood as a continuum moving from absolutely straight to absolutely
gay, with a majority of people falling somewhere inbetween and thus, by
implication, bisexual to a greater or lesser degree. Freud was considered
radical for suggesting an innate ‘bisexual disposition’ in babies, both in
terms of gender identity and sexual object-choice. Whilst the implication
of his theory recast both normative gender and heterosexual orientation as
fraught and fragile outcomes of sexual development which were by no means
inevitable, satisfactory or indeed, ‘natural’, he refused to see an adult
expression of bisexuality as anything more than the perverse combination
of authentic heterosexual impulses with ‘neurotic’, homosexual
desires. Equal attraction to both sexes (the precise middle of Kinsey’s
continuum) figured as a naturalised, if apparently desolate, ‘middle
ground’ (the popular idea that ‘we’re all bisexual, really’) from which
true and authentic sexual orientation might arise, seeming to foreclose
the validity of adult bisexual identity at precisely the moment where it
seemed most potent.

Hemmings goes on to explore the negative political and sexual
stereotypes of bisexuals, from the predictable accusation of
‘promiscuity’; the alleged incompatibility of bisexuality with a
monogamous lifestyle, to the idea of ‘fence-sitting’ and the apparent
‘indecision’ of bisexual women in particular as a failure of political
commitment within the strongly politicised lesbian communities of the
1970s. Her own tale as a young bisexual woman living in Northampton,
Massachusetts, is a fascinating account of how ‘lesbian and gay’ finally
became ‘lesbigay’. In her chapter, ‘Desire by any Other Name’, Hemmings
looks at the fierce debate within the lesbian community in Northampton
between 1989 and 1995, following the proposed inclusion of the word
‘Bisexual’ to the annual Gay and Lesbian Pride March. It led prominent
lesbians in the town to claim that the inclusion of bisexuals would dilute
their political message and fragment the integrity of lesbian identity, in
turn inflaming bisexual women who felt neither at home within the straight
or gay communities, and setting off a debate among those who wished to
police the boundaries of ‘true’ lesbianism. In a playful retort to the
infamous statement by Elisabeth Brook, that ‘Lesbians don’t fuck men’,
Greta Christina arguedthis apparent truism simply didn’t work:

‘That would include bi women who are monogamously involved with other
women. A woman who doesn’t fuck men? That would include celibate straight
women. A woman who would never get seriously involved with men? Rules out
lesbians who’ve been married in the past. A woman who never has sexual
thoughts about men? That excludes dykes who are into heavy and complex
gender play, who get off on gay men’s porn, or who are maybe just
curious. Do you have to be 100 percent directed at women and away from men
in thought, feeling, word and deed from birth to qualify as a ‘real’
lesbian? That would rule out all but about two women on the planet. I hope
they can find each other.’

Bringing together a wealth of fascinating personal narrative,
provocative images and cultural history, ‘Bisexual Spaces’ is a
well-written account of the history of the bisexual movement within the
lesbian and gay communities, and a thoughtful and constructive
contribution to queer theory. Recommended.

 


 

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