from Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life

Vice VersaVice versa. From the Latin phrase meaning "with reversal of the regular order, conversely." "Vice" here comes from the same word as "vicinity," or place. Thus vice versa; places turned; contrariwise.

Why call a book about bisexuality Vice Versa? Doesn't the very phrase suggest only two possibilities? Male or female, gay or straight, monogamous or nonmonogamous, adolescent or mature, normal or perverse? What is the force of that "or," that sense of inevitable alternatives? Or is it this very structure of the "versa" that in itself constitutes a "vice"? And where is the place of bisexuality, which, despite or perhaps because of the "bi" in its name, presents itself in the popular imagination as a third choice? Gay, straight, or bi?

Reversal. Mutual exclusiveness. Vice. All these notions, implicit in the expression "vice versa," will be reexamined in the course of this study.

Vice versa. Quite to the contrary.

The world is flat. The sun revolves around the earth. Human beings are either heterosexual or homosexual.

Alexander the Great had both male and female lovers. So did Julius Caesar. So, it turns out, did Sappho. And Socrates. But, it will be contended, the Greeks and the Romans were different from us. They were pagans. They lived so many years ago, and their culture had very different values. Besides, we say, they must have had a preference. If a man and his boy lover went to war together, and they had a wife at home, wasn't he really responding to social and economic pressures to marry and beget children? Or was he, perhaps, responding to a different set of cultural prejudices in taking the boy as his lover -- as he had himself been taken and trained in his youth? Were they, these distant and familiar ancients, really straight or really gay?

James I of England, Shakespeare's king, was married and a father, yet he had famous, indeed notorious, liaisons with men. He called the Duke of Buckingham his "sweet child and wife." And what about Shakespeare himself? Married at eighteen, his wife already pregnant with his first child, he wrote eloquent love sonnets to a young man, the "master-mistress of his passion." Bisexuality (often in recent criticism labeled "homoeroticism," but clearly "hetero" as well) occurs as an important motive and plot device in several of his plays as well -- Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It, to cite the best-known instances, but also in more covert forms in Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Winter's Tale. In Othello in particular the vagaries of sexual jealousy are combined with bisexual desire.

As many scholars have pointed out, men often had sex with other men, and women with other women, without regarding themselves as what we would today call homosexuals. "Bisexuality" is an anachronistic term for early modern Europe, but that does not mean that instances of it are absent from the literary and cultural record. Quite the contrary.

Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, was publicly criticized by her husband's political enemies for engaging in lesbian relationships, which were depicted in a series of scurrilous (and fascinating) popular engravings. Likewise, in an eighteenth-century novel like John Cleland's Fanny Hill, Fanny has exciting and satisfying sexual relations with other women and well as with men, and the brothel-keeper narrator's desire to code those experiences as "initiation" or a preamble to "real" sex with men doesn't ring true; these pages are among the most erotically provocative of the novel, and it will not do merely to ascribe this fact to men's interest in girl-girl sex. Ask any woman who has read the book.

But these instances belong to a time before the invention of "the homosexual" as a kind of person, a type, a fate. Prior to the nineteenth century -- or, some will say, the eighteenth -- homosexuality in the Western world was a practice, not an identity. "The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality," writes Michel Foucault in a phrase that has become a familiar part of modern discussions of sexual identity. "The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species." [The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 43.]

Sometimes we go backward when we think we are going forward (and vice versa). The multiple specification of "perversions" and variations created not only legal strictures and medical treatments but also concomitant pleasures which were derived, in part, from breaking the rules.

Is bisexuality a "third kind" of sexual identity, between or beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality? Or is it something that puts in question the very concept of sexual identity in the first place? Why, instead of hetero-, homo-, auto-, pan-, and bisexuality, do we not simply say "sexuality"? And does bisexuality have something fundamental to teach us about the nature of human eroticism?

These are the questions this book sets out to explore. (Vice Versa 14-15)

Bisexuals in the 1990s are still sometimes said to be guilty of wanting "heterosexual privilege" (or of getting it whether they want it or not), but the Sexual Revolution is long gone. In place of the dissolution of borderlines, today's cultural politicians offer the strictures of Identity Politics. Borderlines are back: Ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities assert their visibility and, thus, their power. Although action groups like Queer Nation offer a kind of inclusiveness, a fellow-travellers' umbrella under which can cluster lesbian, gay, bi-, transgender, and other groups, subverting static concepts of gender and flaunting practices from sadomasochism to drag, there is still a sense of turf battle, and a certain flavor of moral martyrdom, in the sex wars of the nineties.

The appearance of "biphobia," a word coined on the model of homophobia, suggests that the opposition to bisexuality is a mode of social prejudice. Straight people may stereotype bisexuals as closeted men who deceive their wives with a series of randomly chosen male sex partners, spreading AIDS to an "innocent" heterosexual population, including unborn children. Some gays and lesbians also stereotype bisexuals as self-indulgent, undecided, "fence-sitters" who dally with the affections of same-sex partners, breaking their hearts when they move on to heterosexual relationships.

Despite these stereotypes and resentments, however, bisexuality -- and even the by now much-recycled concept of "bisexual chic" -- has moved steadily into the mainstream, fueled by music videos, talk shows, sitcoms, and advertising, as well as by sexual practice. (Vice Versa 20-21)

But what if we were to begin with the category "sexuality" (or "desire") rather than with a binary opposition between homosexual and heterosexual, or same-sex and opposite-sex partners? What if, in an attempt to understand this vision of the "third," we were to turn not to a two-dimensional model (the scale, the grid) but rather to a model that incorporated a third dimension, and that also made the question of two-versus-one, or inside/outside, essentially moot? What I propose is a model closer to the so-called Möaut;bius strip, a topological space that can be visualized by pasting together the ends of a rectangular strip after having first given one of the ends a half-twist. It thus has only one side, not two, and, if split down the middle, remains in one piece. Thus we have not a "third" but one space that incorporates the concepts of "two," "one," and "three" (two apparent "sides," illusionistically; one continuous surface, and a third dimension in space). That this is closer to a diagram of bisexuality -- that is to say, sexuality -- than any model of "the middle" (even, as one witty, and hostile, psychologist put it, the "Excluded Middle") -- will be an important part of my argument here. (Vice Versa 30)

Jealousy, the marriage model, the erotic triangle, the variations in sexual intensity from person to person (sex drive as opposed to sexual orientation or sexual aim), the erotic appeal of transgression, the role of cross-dressing as part of bisexual play, the changing roles of men and women over time, generational differences, the persistence of the fantasy of "falling in love," which is always at odds with steady-state relationships -- all of these topics come up whenever bisexuality is addressed. And all of them speak to the question of eroticism -- not to one small segment of the population but to most of it.

What sense does it make, after all, to call all of the activities and fantasies around same-and-other-sex relationships by a single name? (Vice Versa 31)

What is true for literature in general is even more true in the case of Shakespeare: that the evidence of art is appealed to as corroboration for human experience. Nowhere is this more common, or perhaps more necessary and valuable, than in decoding the mysteries of human sexuality. Late-twentieth-century readers of Shakespeare have thus often returned to history in order to claim its relevance to a newly transcendent Shakespeare, a Shakespeare who speaks to "our" concerns as pertinently as an earlier age of scholars presumed that he did for theirs. The Shakespeare of the late twentieth century grapples in his plays with questions of race, gender, and social status, and with economic history. And in both the plays and the sonnets he is increasingly seen to be aware of same-sex desire, whether or not that desire and its concomitants are thought to shed light on his own biography.

But the bisexual plot of the sonnets is still regarded as telling some other story, a story of hetero- or of homosexuality, or (washing one's hands of the whole thing) a story of "literary quality" rather than mere "curiosity about the biographical mystery" [Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1748]. The more rich and complex the discourses of sexuality become, the more the forest tends to be obscured by the trees. As Edgar Allan Poe suggested in "The Purloined Letter," the letters can be written so large on a map that the name of the continent is invisible; only the smaller print can be read. So, too, with bisexuality: It encompasses too much; it does not try to resolve contradictions but to accept them. It tells, we might say, too many stories, when what is so ardently desired is "the real story."

As we have seen, one modern critic wittily describes the first series of sonnets, to the young man, as "heterosexual," because they urge him to marry and have children. Another cleverly characterizes the dark lady sonnets as sodomitical because they describe nonprocreative erotic practices. A third claims that despite the "homosexual thematic" of the sonnets addressed to the young man, "the specific virtue of this ideal, homosexual desire is not to be erotic," while in the sonnets addressed to the dark lady, which evince "a desire for that which is not admired," the reader encounters "a heterosexual desire that is strikingly erotic" and concludes that "Shakespeare in his sonnets invents the poetics of heterosexuality" [Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 17-18.]

Amid all of these ingenious and enlightening critical maneuverings no one wants to comment on the obvious --that the sonnets describe a bisexual triangle. No one but Joseph Pequigney, whose chapter on "the bisexual soul" builds on some passages from Freud about divided gender, and who is principally interested in validating the relationship between the speaker and the young man. The venerable G. Wilson Knight had observed in the context of the sonnets that "Poetry is itself a bisexual awareness, or action," by which he meant an almost Jungian concordance of opposites. But even he was speaking of the speaker and the fair youth ("a completed unit... sees its soul-state reflected in a physical embodiment of its own unity") [The Mutual Flame: On Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Phoenix and the Turtle, (London: Methuen, 1955), pp.36-37], not of the triangular relationship of speaker, youth, and dark lady.

Why avoid the obvious? Because it is obvious? Or because a bisexual Shakespeare fits no one's erotic agenda? (Vice Versa 514-515)

Reading Between the Lines

"Between is properly used of two," wrote Samuel Johnson in his dictionary in 1755, "and among of more." Ever the realist, he added, "But perhaps this accuracy is not always preserved." Indeed it is not. The American dictionary-maker Noah Webster observed "that between is not restricted to two." The editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Sir James A. H. Murray, surveyed past practice from the vantage point of 1888 and reported, "In all senses between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two." He concluded, as William Safire notes, that "between is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely." Wordsmith Safire himself generally prefers between for two, and among for more than two, but says he would "feel more comfortable with 'the battle between Japan, Europe, and America' because it is a battle between Japan and Europe, between Europe and American, and between Japan and America" ["Betwixt Among and Between," "On Language," New York Times Magazine, September 12, 1993, pp. 28-30].

Is bisexuality a relationship between or among? As we have seen, those who confuse or conflate bisexuality with nonmonogamy, and nonmonogamy with group sex, tend to think of it as a tangle of bodies or body parts. This is not only because the fantasy of three-in-a-bed is exciting [...], but also because of the difficulty of visualizing or conceptualizing bisexuality except as triadic, triangular, kinetic, or peripatetic.'

According to some definitions, though obviously not those of self-identified bisexuals, a person who used to be straight and is now with a same-sex partner or partners is gay, and a person who used to be gay and is now with an opposite-sex partner or partners is straight. This "law of the excluded middle" excludes bisexuality, which, in some people's minds, must be concurrent or simultaneous in order to be real. "Sequential" bisexuality is just wishy-washy hetero- or homosexuality, and "situational" bisexuality (in same-sex schools, prisons, the armed services, or the locker room) is just fooling around or making do.

A three-dimensional diagram of bisexuality, or, as I have already suggested, a Möaut;bius strip, comes closer to drawing this undrawable line. The following description, in actuality that of a shoelace, will give a sense of the in-and-out-ness of the Möaut;bius path:

In its rewinding passing and repassing through the eyelet of the thing, from outside to inside, from inside to outside, on the external surface and under the internal surface (and vice versa when the surface is turned inside out...), it remains the "same" right through, between right and left, shows itself and disappears (fort/da) in its regular traversing of the eyelet, it makes the thing sure of its gathering, the underneath tied up on top, the inside bound on the outside, by a law of stricture.
Like the lace, bisexuality is neither the "inside" nor the "outside" but rather that which creates both.

If the Shoe Fits

This description of a shoelace, or a laced shoe, comes from a discussion of a painting by Van Gogh that has often been described as a "pair" of shoes. "What is a pair?" asks the author. "What is a pair in this case?" "Let us suppose for example two (laced) right shoes or two left shoes." "What would they [i.e., art critics] have done, try to imagine it, with two shoes for the same foot, or with a shoe even more solitary than these two here?" What if we consider "the hypothesis that they do not make a pair"? If not, what can we call them? The author suggests "an argument of the two-shoes, rather than of the pair, rather than of the couple (homo- or heterosexual). Bisexuality of the double in two shoes." The author of this engaging little discussion is philosopher Jacques Derrida, and his rumination on the shoes of Van Gogh returns insistently to the term "bisexual," meaning both "symbolically associated with both sexes," in this case by being "elongated solid or firm on one surface, hollow or concave on the other" and also "capable of being worn by a man or a woman," but most of all "paired" in an unexpected or nontraditional way. "A pair of shoes is more easily treated as a utility than a single shoe or two shoes which aren't a pair. The pair inhibits at least, if it does not prevent, the 'fetishizing' movement, it rivets things to use, to 'normal' use.... It is perhaps in order to exclude the question of a certain uselessness, or of a so-called perverse usage, that [previous commentators] denied themselves the slightest doubt as to the parity or pairedness of these two shoes." Which is the left and which is the right? It depends upon where you fix the point of definition. "The other (left?) shoe, on the right side of the picture (how should we orient ourselves to talk about them?) is more right/straight, narrow, strict, less open. In short, what one would in the past have called more masculine." But if we describe the shoes as one would in a theater, in terms of "stage right" and "stage left," then left is right and right is left.

"I find this pair, if I may say so, gauche. Through and through. Look at the details, the inside lateral surface; you'd think it was two left feet. Of different shoes. And the more I look at them, the more they look at me, the less they look like an old pair. More like an old couple."

The hypothesis that it is a pair makes possible not only "normalcy" but also narrative and identity. "Since it is a pair... there must be a subject." "If there is a pair then a contract is possible, you can look for the subject, hope is still permitted."* If it is a pair, a couple, a left-and-right, heterosexual rather than bisexual, the story can be written: They belong to a man of the city, or a woman of the fields. But if they are "two shoes," whom does the shoe fit?

What is a Pear?

"Three Pears," a painting by American artist Janet Rickus, presents just that: three pears on a cloth-covered table. One is a comice pear, golden yellow and conical; one an Anjou, stubbier, with a tight green skin; the third is a red pear, deep vermilion in color. There they stand, side by side, in a row, touching. The green one is in the middle, between the other two. The red pear leans jauntily to the right. They have a lot of personality, these pears. Do any of them make a pair?

Look closely at the painting and you will see that you can pair them up, if you want to. The Anjou and the red pear are stubbier in shape; the comice is the odd pear out. But the comice and the red pear, warm-hued, both lean to the right, wile the cool green pear in the middle stands upright. In attitude or comportment, then, the two outside pears are paired, the gold and the red. The one in the middle is the one outside. But couldn't we say, on third thought, that the comice and the Anjou are classically "pear-shaped," while the red pear, perhaps because it is posed at an angle (or in profile?) seems less conventionally curved and rounded? So perhaps it is the two on the left, the comice and the Anjou, that are the pair of pears.

Three pears. Or three pairs. If we were looking for an allegory of bisexuality we might take this image into account. Compare it to the cover design for a book of sociological and medical essays on bisexuality and AIDS in which, against a background of black, a white silhouette of a man in a business suit stands between a red silhouette of another man, identically dressed, and a red silhouette of a woman in a knee-length dress. The white silhouette holds the hands of the other two. His wrists are fully visible where theirs are hidden behind his. The picture tells its story. He is gendered, he is the man in the middle, and he is in control. He is "the bisexual."

The pears, the pairs of pears, tell a more complicated narrative. They will not stay paired. Like the "bisexual" shoes that are or are not a pair, whose story would be so much more explicable, so much more "useful," if they were a pair, a man's pair or a woman's pair, these pairs of pears are perverse. There are, for one thing, three of them, three pairs, a threesome not a pair. But the pear in the middle is only placed there, it would seem, by accident -- or by the paradoxical "accident" of a perfect design. (Vice Versa 525-528)

*The above quotes cited by Garber from Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington, and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 299, 259, 261, 265, 333, 265, 334, 269, 333, 278-279, 278, and 282, respectively.

(c) Marjorie Garber. Used with permission


Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University