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literature

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Bisexual Literature  
 
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The Medieval and Early Modern Periods

And such complexity is not confined to the classical period alone. The "homosexuality" that John Boswell analyzes in his overview of the late classical and medieval ages, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), is as easily described as "bisexuality" since, as he aptly points out, references to sexual contact between men were often contextualized in descriptions of numerous other forms of erotic pleasure and social transgression.

Although same-sex erotic activity was often singled out as particularly disturbing to church and political power structures, nowhere is it binarily categorized as indicative of an identity that excluded attraction to members of the other sex. This also helps account for the polymorphous eroticism of the Renaissance: the glorification of both male and female beauty in the art of Michaelangelo and Raphael, as well as the explicit bisexual tensions in the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

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In Shakespeare's sonnets, especially in early ones such as numbers 20 and 42, the speaker seems caught in erotic triangles that are not reducible to simple designations of hetero- or homosexuality. Similarly, Marlowe celebrates the erotic beauty of both sexes in his poem "Hero and Leander," even as his Edward II in the play of the same name is married to and has fathered a child by a woman, but is shown to be in love with a man.

Lillian Faderman in Surpassing the Love of Men (1981) traces similar expressions of polymorphous sexuality by women during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The French novelist Madame de La Fayette, the lover of La Rochefoucauld, was also passionately attached to a women, Madame de Sévigné. Katherine Philips, a popular poet from England in the seventeenth century, wrote love poetry to women, but evidence suggests that she was also happily married and certainly came to her husband's defense in public.

In both cases it might be possible to identify a "preference" for such writers (La Fayette could be seen as primarily attracted to men and Philips to women), but bisexual readers and critics would question whether preference alone is enough to place a person within a narrowly defined sexual identity that was only theorized as such during the late nineteenth century.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

And it is in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that we find not only the continuing presence of bisexuality, but also a sharpening and growing social need for narrow definitions of sexual identity. These slow changes clearly relate to the burgeoning social contestation of gender and class roles that historians Thomas Laqueur and David Greenberg have traced.

Such conflict is also reflected in the life and works of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who stands as one of the preeminent figures in the history of bisexuality. His numerous affairs with both men and women, his tortured sense of isolation, and his portrayal of nonstandard forms of erotic attraction throughout his poetry make him seem the transgressor par excellence.

But Byron's polymorphous eroticism was not met with full social acceptance as it might have been during the classical era. In Byron and Greek Love (1985) Louis Crompton argues forcefully that Byron was self-aware in his bisexuality and acted often on his attraction to members of both sexes, but was finally punished and exiled because of deepening fears of social instability.

Such tensions concerning Byron's diverse and unpopular sexual desires produced uneven representations in his works; Don Juan (1819-1824) clearly recounts the hero's erotic adventures with women, but contains little , only a muted defense of classical writers of homoerotic verses. Childe Harold (1812-1818) too foregrounds heterosexual passions, even as it contains poignant but veiled references to the death of one of Byron's own loves, John Edlestone.

Byron actively mocks sexual conventions, though he also seems constrained by them in that he is explicit only in his portrayal of heterosexual desire, though that desire itself is often quite transgressive. Such a mixture of lustiness and restraint in Byron's works, as well as the chaos and pathos of his life, serve to illustrate both the changing contexts in which bisexuality was perceived and understood, and the difficulties shared by bisexuals and homosexuals during repressive eras.

But if bisexuality was muted in certain "high cultural" literary expressions from this era, it was still graphically portrayed in nineteenth-century pornography. In anonymous erotic novels such as The Adventures of a Schoolboy (1866) and My Secret Life (1888), and the stories published in the scandalous periodical The Pearl (1879-1880), bodies fuse socially and erotically with little attention paid to class or biological sex.

Victorian pornography is filled with vignettes in which men and women alternate sexual encounters with members of the same and other sex. Erotic threesomes and foursomes engage in relatively uninhibited perversity as identity seems primarily constructed around libertinism rather than a narrow definition of sexual object choice.

Although there is some indication in The Adventures of a Schoolboy that bisexuality is an inherently immature state, the opposite is true for My Secret Life where the narrator explores increasingly transgressive forms of erotic behavior as he grows older. Little stigma is attached to such activity beyond that of living and loving counterculturally, of being fully sexual, rather than homo- or heterosexual.

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