Bisexualities: historical perspectives

In the recent anthropological and historical literature, interesting perspectives have been developed on sexuality. Sex is not anymore considered a biological drive, but a cultural artifact. What is considered to be nature, can only be seen as such through the looking-glass of culture. This perspective had important consequences for defining sexuality in other cultures and historical periods. The research of Gilbert Herdt on male initiation in Papuan cultures, of various authors (Bernard Sergent, Michel Foucault and David Halperin among others) on Greek pederasty and of others (among them Randolf Trumbach) on early modern sodomy has especially changed our ideas on homosexuality, and thus sexuality in history. Homosexual behavior in these cultures and periods had a very different structure from the modern homosexuality as we know it. It had not much to do with concepts as identity, minority, or gender-deviance. So it is impossible to put the homosexual behavior of the Papuans or Greeks on a par with modern homosexuality. Several authors have been inclined to replace the homosexual for the bisexual label, but this is neither a good solution. With Greeks and Papuans, the kind of sexual behavior is restricted to certain age groups. So, homosexual behavior is the rule till adulthood, while heterosexual conduct (and marriage and propagation) are more or less the norm after reaching adulthood. And the sodomitical rake of early modern Europe was certainly married, but eloped his marriage-obligations with prostitutes as well as ganymedes. In none of these cases, the definition of their behavior as bisexual is satisfying, when the term bisexuality is used to mean that the two kinds of sexual preference are interchangeable throughout one's lifetime. This is certainly not the case. The problems loom still larger, when bisexuality refers not only to a double sexual object-choice, but also to the androgynous habitus of individuals, their subject-status. In this lecture, I will go into the problems of using this polymorphous label of bisexuality. I want to suggest a solution to overcome the terminological problems connected with bisexuality and give thereby some directions for future research in social and historical sciences.

The terminology

The term of bisexual was used in Dutch for the first time as far as I know in 1877 (whereas the concept of homosexual was introduced only 15 years later). Bisexual referred in this case to a hermaphrodite who started her sexual career as a heterosexual woman in Germany and who was ending his career as a heterosexual man in America. In this first case, it is not clear in which sense the adjective was used, but most likely it referred to passing through both sexes: to being a woman with her menses and later being a man with ejaculation, and nòt to having both sexual object-choices. It is still the time that the attribution of gender could be done on the basis of sexual object-choice: loving a man meant being a woman, and so the reverse. We can also recall the case of Herculine Barbin, published and commented upon by Ambroise Tardieu and later again by Foucault. Her desire for women was used as a proof she was a man.

Many authors used and still use the term bisexuality indeed for both phenomena: the double sexual object-choice as well as androgyny can be meant. Especially the Freudians confused the two phenomena consequently because they saw a relation between them. And indeed, in those times gender-roles and sexual identities were often mixed up, so in the founding work of sexology by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. He defined the real homosexual as a female mind in a male body, in his famous Latin formula: anima muliebris corpore virili inclusa. The professor of forensic medicine in Berlin J.L.Casper considered, before Ulrichs, pederasty already as a hermaphroditism of the mind. For bisexuality in the sense of a double object-choice, Ulrichs coined the word 'Uranodionäismus'. To make the confusion complete, Krafft-Ebing used the word psychosexual hermaphroditism to indicate the double sexual object-choice. This was according to him the first stage of inborn homosexuality whereas the fourth and last stage should be androgyny. The last stage of acquired homosexuality was 'metamorphosis sexualis paranoïca'. Before Ulrichs, the gender-status could be determined by the sexual object-choice, after him the homosexual object-choice was explained by a gender-deviant habitus. In this strange mixture, bisexuality got also its own, very peculiar place.

Problems only increased when again and again new sexological terms were coined which sometimes also interfered with the term bisexuality. To cite two of the most extra-ordinary, H.Rohleder coined 'trisexual' for persons who fell in love not only with individuals of both sexes, but also with themselves, so bisexuality plus narcism. And the Dutch clergyman H.J.Schouten spoke of homosexuals who married women as 'Vaginalmasturbanten', so a certain kind of bisexuals. The terminology has remained diffuse up till now. This term is therefor rather difficult to use for historical and anthropological research because of its imprecision and unclarity. Not the lack of a theory, not the marginalisation of the subject, but to the contrary the polymorphous theoretical interventions make the term bisexual unworkable for historical research. It is not a virginal, but too promiscuous a label. But is also rather impossible to clean up the terminology, as John Money proposed on the conference, because the production of terminologies is a social, and not a rational process, even in universitarian circles.

I will give two examples from historical research, Greek pederasty and 18th-century sodomy, to indicate the problems of referring to forms of sexual behavior as bisexuality.

Greek pederasty

Greek pederasty resembled to a certain degree Papuan initiation which Herdt discussed. Eros was a word mostly used for the love-relations between men and boys, and rarely for relations between men and women. The Dutch historian of Greek antiquity Van Limburg Brouwer stated already with horror in 1838: '... in a hundred cases where eros is mentioned, never even once is thought of a woman'. Love was a male affair with strong pedagogical implications. In the context of a male society where women had little to say, marriage or relations with prostitutes had a less prominent place in the cultural life of men. On the sexual bonds between men and boys were nevertheless placed severe limits. A boy should always have the passive role and he should not incite his lover to sexual acts: he should remain as chaste as possible. At the other hand, the lover had also to restrain himself. Apart from this male eros, love for women came in the second place. Love and sexuality had a clear hierarchy. The love for boys and that for women were two separate spheres, with the first more highly regarded as the second. Also, there was a life-cycle involved in both loves. Pederasty was more the sake of youth and young men, whereas the responsible older men had less to do with it and more with marriage. So, to use the label of bisexuality for this system of sexuality and gender, is to simplify it beyond scholarly standards. Of course, there were many variations in sexual styles and certainly there were men and women who we could label with a certain reserve bisexual, or homosexual, or queer, but to use the container-term of bisexuality for this system of boy-love and marriage is doing great dammage to its complexities and blindfolds us for the intricacies of Greek eros.

Marriage and sodomy

Sodomy in early modern Europe is vividly discussed. Following Randolph Trumbach, before 1700 the sodomite was a married man who had sex with prostitutes as well as with ganymedes. No one should doubt his gender-identity as a man. His male sexual ideal was an androgynous boy, as Philippe Ariès stated. After 1700, with the alleged sexual- and gender-revolution in the times of the Enlightenment and with the rise of sodomites' subcultures, the role of the sodomite became more exclusive and his identity was more on the female side. The mary-ann or queer was now himself more or less androgynous. The complaints of femininity in males concerned before 1700 men who indulged too much in affairs with women, whereas after 1700 the same complaints of femininity in males referred to sodomites, so lovers of men who preferred a passive sexual role. The sexual system of early modern Europe before 1700 more or less resembled the Arabic one about which Arno Schmitt spoke on the conference. It was a system of shame and honor in which homosexual behavior was not a scandal as long as the males took the active role, or as long as they could keep their passive habits a secret. They were often married next to their pederastic pleasures. But also after 1700, many sodomites were married. For a long time, sodomitical behavior and marriage-obligations were not opposed. Only slowly, the acceptance of a homosexual role became incompatible with the sexual plights of a marriage. This is an interesting point for future research: the gradual diminuation of the number of married sodomites and homosexuals. Again, we can label the sexual system of early-modern sodomy bisexuality, but if we do so, we completely negate the sexual and gender-revolution of 1700. The sodomite was before 1700 a staunch male who fell in love with a feminine youth, and after 1700 he was an effeminate fop who looked for manly young men. Before and after 1700 he was very often married. But notwithstanding the continuation of a bisexual object-choice, gender-identifations and ideals of beauty were inverted. The word bisexuality has too many meanings to use it for this transition: 'there are too many rings around Rosie'.

Proposals for further research

To overcome the problems inherent in the use of the concept of bisexuality, I would propose to skip it for historical and anthropological purposes, or to go into the different forms of bisexuality: there are many bisexualities. A third possibility is to research the historical and social formation of bisexualities and the terminology of bisexuality. For other research, the label bisexual poses too many problems: first of all, it is a very time-bound mixture of gender-bending and the double sexual object-choice, and moreover is refers to sexuality and identity which stay time-bound perspectives. Bisexuality is a hotch-potch of too many possibilities of sex and gender which we better not integrate. After the polymorphous possibilities of childhood, sexual desire gets only more specific. And it is this specifity of sexual desire which is negated in the concept of bisexuality. The Greeks did not fall in love arbitrarily with both genders, and neither the Papuans did so. We have even to question as to how far their behavior can be termed sexual desire. Even nowadays, people do not fall in love indiscriminately with both genders. To negate this specifity of sexual desire and erotic experience poses problems for scholarly research. It is extremely difficult for historians to say anything about the sexual life of their subjects, be it alone for the scarcity of material on this topic, even in famous examples as the duke of Orléans, brother to the Sun-King, or king William III of England, stadtholder of the Netherlands, or of Oscar Wilde. But to pass over immediately to the bisexual label is to deny the specifities and intricacies of erotic pursuits. The interesting point for historical research is exactly to unravel these specifities and intricacies of erotic experiences and sexual desires as well in the individal as in the social system.

Gert Hekma

    1. For example J.H.Gagnon & W.Simon, Sexual conduct. The social sources of human sexuality, Chicago 1973; M.Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 1. La volonté de savoir, Paris 1976.

    2. G.H.Herdt (ed), Ritualized homosexuality in Melanesia, Berkeley etc. 1984 is his most important contribution in this field, among many others.

    3. See note 15.

    4. R.Trumbach, 'Gender and the homosexual role in modern Western culture: the 18th and 19th centuries compared, in: D.Altman e.a., Homosexuality, which homosexuality, Amsterdam/London 1988, which is his most provocative essay in this regard. See also K.Gerard & G.Hekma (eds.), The pursuit of sodomy. Male homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, New York 1989 (also a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality 16:1/2).

    5. Research on the concept of sexuality itself has been more limited, see f.e. the articles of A.Béjin in the special issue of Communications 35 (Paris 1982): Sexualités occidentales which he edited with Philippe Ariès; A.I.Davidson, 'Sex and the emergence of sexuality', in: Critical Inquiry 14 (1987), pp. 16-48 and my article 'A history of sexuality: social and historical aspects of sexuality', in: J.Bremmer (ed), From Sappho to De Sade. Moments in the history of sexuality, London/New York 1989.

    6. De Lancet, N.S., Jg. 10 (1877), p. 294-295. The case was cited from an article by Dr. Lutaud in the Journal de médecine, de chirurgie et de pharmacologie of July, 1877. On the next page the neologism 'exhibitionist' by Lasègue was mentioned for the first time in Dutch.

    7. A. Tardieu, Question médico-légale de l'identité dans les rapports avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuelles, Paris 1874 and Herculine Barbin dite Alexina B., présenté par M. Foucault, Paris 1978.

    8. The 12 publications of Ulrichs on uranism appeared between 1864 and 1880 and were re-edited by M.Hirschfeld as Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Leipzig 1898, New York 1975). This formula he used for the first time in Memnon (1868, 1975, pp. 193-195).

    9. J.L.Casper, Handbuch der gerichtlichen Medicin, Bd. II, Berlin 1858.

    10. Ulrichs, o.c., Formatrix (1865, 1975) p. 59.

    11. R.von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der conträren Sexualempfindung, Stuttgart, 5. Auflage, 1890, pp. 79-96.

    12. in: Verhandlungen des I. Internationalen Kongresses für Sexualforschung, Bd. II, Berlin/Köln 1928, p. 158.

    13. In: 'Ueber falsche oder missverständliche Sprachgebräuche...', in: Sexual Probleme Jg. 8 (1912), p.861.

    14. P.van Limburg Brouwer, Histoire de la civilisation morale et réligieuse des Grecs, T. 2,2, Groningen 1838, p. 236.

    15. See f.e. K.J.Dover, Greek homosexuality, New York 1978; H.Patzer, Die Griechische Knabenliebe, Wiesbaden 1982; G.Koch-Harnack, Knabenliebe und Tiergeschenke. Ihre Bedeutung im päderastischen Erziehungssystem Athens, Berlin 1983; B.Sergent, L'homosexualité dans la mythologie grecque, Paris 1984; id., L'homosexualité initiatique dans l'Europe ancienne, Paris 1986; M.Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 2: L'usage des plaisirs, Paris 1984; C.Reinsberg, Ehe, Hetärentum und Knabenliebe im antiken Griechenland, München 1989; D.M.Halperin, One hundred years of homosexuality and other essays on Greek love, New York/London 1990; D.M.Halperin, J.J.Winkler, F.I.Zeitlin (eds.), Before sexuality. The construction of erotic experience in the ancient Greek world, Princeton 1990.

    16. P.Ariès, 'Réflexions sur l'histoire de l'homosexualité', in: Communications 35, special issue Sexualités occidentales, ed. by A.Béjin and P.Ariès, Paris 1982, pp. 56-67.

    17. G. De Martino & A.Schmitt, Kleine Schriften zu zwischenmännlicher Sexualität und Erotik in der muslimischen Gesellschaft, Berlin 1985.