Bi by Julia Shaw review – the past and present of a maligned minority

A tour of the science, culture and history of bisexuality that ranges from the vehemently political to the charmingly weird

According to periodic reports in the media, bisexuality has been a brand-new fad since at least the 1890s. It was all the rage in 1974, for example, when the US magazine Newsweek discovered “Bisexual Chic: Anyone Goes”. A generation later, in 1995, the same magazine published a cover story declaring it “A new sexual identity”. In 2021, the Daily Telegraph parodied itself with a letter from an “Anonymous Dad” complaining about his bisexual daughter. “My daughter doesn’t like girls and boys, she likes boys”, he fumed. “But she says she is attracted to both to jump on another woke bandwagon, because for snowflake Gen Z, it’s trendy.” Like flares, student protest and hating your children’s taste in music, it seems bisexuality is always back in fashion. Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw’s book is an impassioned attempt to bring decades of serious academic research out of the shadows, to show that being bisexual is nothing new, it’s here to stay and is simultaneously less and more provocative than you think.

As Shaw explains, the first use of the word in English was probably in 1892, in a translation of German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis. “The book was intended for clinical-forensic settings, and Krafft-Ebing wrote it in intentionally difficult language and with parts in Latin so that laypeople couldn’t read it.” There is a rich seam of nonfiction that translates impenetrable academese about interesting subjects into language that curious lay readers can understand, including this book with its juxtaposition of academic language and cute social media speak. Here, “penile plethysmography” rubs shoulders with “[my] adorable bi bubble” and a church minister “so sparkly gay that he is a bit of a local legend”.

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