Review: Bi, by Dr Julia Shaw

NB: the bi prefix in ‘bisexual’ relates to ‘same gender’ and ‘other gender’. It does not mean ‘men’ and ‘women’.

Product link: Bi: the hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality

Before this summer, I had never heard or Dr Julia Shaw, had never identified as bisexual and never would have. This book changed all of those things.

I found this book via a random episode of the Guardian’s science podcast:

I’m not a science nerd and as with many of the podcasts I subscribe to, I pick and choose which episodes to listen to. In the time since I came out as nonbinary, I had always used the label ‘pansexual’ – attraction to all genders – because as a nonbinary person, using bisexual (with the bi prefix relating to men and women) seemed unnecessarily exclusive. I used pansexual because I wanted to reflect the possibility of my being attracted to cis and nonbinary people. I think I picked this podcast on a whim to learn more about how bisexuality and pansexuality were different and confirm my thoughts.

Oh how wrong I was

Was I wrong? Oh, how.

Bi does not mean ‘men’ and ‘women’

If you’re already bored and about to stop reading, just finish this sentence and then you can go:

the bi prefix in ‘bisexual’ relates to ‘same gender’ and ‘other gender’;
not ‘men’ and ‘women’.

Okay. You can go do something else, do your chores, or even call your mum. If you’re going to stick around, we’ll dig more into this colossal misconception in a moment.

Cool doctor summer

After first encountering her on the Guardian podcast, I kept coming across her everywhere – on other podcasts, on blogs and news websites, RTed into my feed, etc. There’s a list down below of some of the other digital places in which I came across her, generally when she was discussing her book, ‘Bi’ (Shaw, J (2022), Bi: The hidden culture, history and science of bisexuality, Edinburgh: Canongate Books). 

I really don’t know why I hadn’t come across her before because apart from being queer (Dr Shaw is bisexual herself) she has a BBC true crime podcast (my favourite genre) focussing on criminal pschology (my favourite aspect of true crime podcasts). She is a criminal psychologist at UCL and professional expert witness; a member of Queer Politics at Princeton; and founder of the Bisexual Research Group (so, busy then). 

The more I listened and read, the more I reflected on why I was using ‘pansexual’, and that’s when I decided to take the plunge and buy the book.

The contents

The book itself (I’m assuming now that you’ve come here to learn about the book rather than listen to me make everything about me, which is a central feature of my reviews) is split into seven main sections plus a conclusion:

  1. The Bi Option – the history of the term bisexual, beginning with the work of Kinsey, Klein, and Kraft-Ebbing
  2. Our History – a history of bisexual people and the bisexual movement
  3. Nothing but Mammals – how bisexuality sits alongside concepts like the biological imperative and nature vs nurture; and bisexuality in the animal kingdom
  4. The Bisexual Closet – why bisexuals are the largest of the LGBTQ+ community and yet the least likely to be out
  5. Invisi-bi-lity – representations of bisexuality, and the paradox of how to look bisexual
  6. It’s Political – bisexuality, politics and the law, across the world and across time
  7. Free Love – nontraditional relationship structures, performative bisexuality, and why it’s always assumed that bisexuals want threesomes

As you might expect from a book written by an academic, there are over thirty pages of meticulous references – the Notes section is literally longer than some of the book’s chapters. You could easily consider the book a starting point for your own reading about bisexuality and the Notes section would be the perfect place to begin your quest.

The writing

The other book I have on the go at the moment is Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes (Barthes, R (2020), Camera Lucida, London: Penguin Vintage Classics ). Let me tell you, between Barthes and Dr Shaw, I know which one I prefer reading. While she does talk about heteronormative this and queering that, it’s in a personable and accessible style.

Because of the subject matter the book of necessity includes extensive sections on history, science, psychology, law and politics, but it is never boring, dry or academic. She writes like she talks, and if you’ve ever heard her talk then you know that that’s A Good Thing. She’s humorous, intelligent and engaging, but also engaged with the world (and if you’ve ever heard her podcast with Sofie Hagen, you’ll know she’s far from averse to the odd saucy expletive, but not in the book). She’s really not one of those academics living in their Oxford halls and assuming King Edward VIII is still the gaffer.

  • “In my last book, Making Evil, I wrote a section on LGBT+ rights and I came out as bi. I also wrote, “Homosexuality is genetic… people are born gay.” After the 2019 study this is no longer my interpretation of the evidence. I stand corrected. Next time Lady Gaga’s track comes on I will probably still belt it out but add, “I’m on the right track baby but I was 8-25 per cent born this waaaay.” (p.63)
  • “At that point I was amazed that a song about any kind of bi behaviour was getting airtime, and it definitely made me go out and buy cherry ChapStick. But I’m no longer the candy-coloured baby bi girl I used to be, I’m a queer curmudgeon and I’m going to ruin this tune for all of us.” (p.195)
The, ummm, talking

Because I have the attention span of a hyperactive squirrel and can only give 42% of my attention to any one thing (I’m playing Sniper Elite 5 and cooking a vegan soufflé even as I write ) I actually bought the audiobook before I bought the written thing. The audiobook is fabulous, because she narrates it herself, and her passion for the project (she did a Masters in Queer History so she could write this book) really shows through. A whole Masters degree.

It took me three days to finish this review because I couldn’t be arsed to go upstairs and get my Chromebook.

If you have listened to Bi People on BBC Sounds, and there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t because it’s great fun, then you should know it’s not quite the same pace and delivery. It’s proper good audiobook narration. I listened to it twice, then bought the hardback, then listened to the audiobook a third time. I have the hardback for reference.

Speaking of hearing Dr Shaw talk, here’s a bunch of places where you can find her:

Queer Lit

It would be appropriate here to give a shout out to Queer Lit in Manchester, and the person who sold me my hardback copy of “Bi” and spent 15 minutes talking through the wide selection of LGBTQ+ graphic novels they have because I fancied reading something like Stephen Appleby’s “Dragman” (Appleby, S (2020), Drag Man, United Kingdom: Jonathan Cape). 

There are two things that you need to know about “Dragman”:

1) It’s fucking hilarious.

2) Whatever you were expecting a graphic novel called “Dragman” written by a trans woman called Steven to be like, it isn’t, it’s so much better than that

Queer Lit are on Tib Street in Manchester, and I tell you what; I bet they would be happy to sell you a copy of both “Bi” and “Dragman”.

Plots and pans

So, I hear you ask, although I know that you know that I don’t like to be interrupted, especially when I am talking about my favourite subject, i.e. me, so I shall ask the question for you and then proceed directly to answer it forthwith, what’s so great about this book that you used to identify as pansexual and now go by bi (baby, baby, goodbye)?

I will tell you, although I will start by stressing this: this is an entirely personal choice.

I was using pansexual purely because I thought that bisexual was not inclusive of nonbinary people like myself. That was my colossal misconception. And now I understand that that is not what the word meant at inception and not how it was used historically. It’s also not how organisations like Stonewall and GLAAD use it today. With that misconception unmisconceived, there was no need for me to use pansexual; and moreover I felt that by continuing to use pansexual when my only objection to using bisexual had been removed, I was contributing to bi erasure. That’s just how I feel about it, I have no problem with anyone else using it. Labels are important and you need to go with your heart on this. But me, that’s how I felt. I wanted to identify as bisexual and not feel like I was contributing to bi erasure.

And this small, significant way, this book was life-changing.

The lowdown

Diversity and inclusionEvery effort is made to use inclusive language. There are very few studies about nonbinary people and therefore, the book can’t speak of them. But in terms of inclusive language and diverse representation, this book is fair and balanced. A.
SustainabilityThe book has an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Mix label. That’s the lowest grade of FSC label and means that the book has been made from a mix of responsibly farmed trees and trees from other sources; which as far as I can tell is like saying that a sausage roll is vegetarian because it contains some non-meat products and some other ingredients of unknown origin from unknown sources that are like other sausage rolls. It’s better than nothing but I note that Canongate says nothing about sustainability on the website. C-.
Vegan statusThere’s nothing on the website or in the book relating to the vegan status of their products. U.
RatingI love this book. I can truly describe it as life-changing and will be recommending it far and wide for years to come. A.

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