Charlotte Wolff’s Contribution to Bisexual History and to (Sexuality) Theory and Research: A Reappraisal for Queer Times
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Charlotte Wolff’s Contribution to Bisexual History and to (Sexuality) Theory and Research:
A Reappraisal for Queer Times

The concept of bisexuality has suffered from the same dilemma as that of reality. So much has been said and assumed about both, that the words symbolizing them have become more and more mechanically used, and therefore misused.

—Charlotte Wolff, lecture to the South Place Ethical Society, 29 November 1977

At the December 2006 Conference of the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society, bisexual activist and academic Ron Fox (who is currently compiling an archive of Bisexuality Resources in Amsterdam) reported that in the late seventies, as an enthusiastic graduate student who wanted to research bisexuality, he found very few resources. “There was Charlotte Wolff and little else,” he reflected, reiterating the importance he had ascribed elsewhere to her work.1 In fact, already in the midseventies there was a heightened interest in bisexuality both in the general press and in academia. Time and Newsweek published articles on so-called bisexual chic in May 1974. Margaret Mead, having long witnessed and described (as an anthropologist) “bisexual” behavior in non-Western cultures, lamented in Redbook magazine that Western culture imposed a “straight jacket” on bisexuality.2 At around the same time, sociologists Philip [End Page 141] Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz carried out a series of interview-based studies with people who identified as bisexual.3 In View from Another Closet, Janet Bode argued that reductive dichotomous thinking that could not or would not contemplate bisexuality was at the root of the erroneous identification of the poet Sappho with “lesbianism” (from Lesbos, the island where she lived).4 The convenient disregard of the love poems Sappho dedicated to men, Bode argued, had resulted in the elision of the poet’s bisexuality from accounts of her life and work. In 1976 Maggi Rubenstein and Harriet Leve founded the San Francisco Bisexual Center.5 During the same year, Fritz Klein was developing the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid and working on his book The Bisexual Option, eventually published in 1978, a few months after Bisexuality, Wolff’s theoretical and empirical investigation.6

Yet, pace Fox, there is no mention of Wolff’s contribution in Angelides’s A History of Bisexuality.7 Merl Storr, in her critical reader of writings on bisexuality from Freud to Kaloski, mentions Wolff only in passing, to deplore her ambiguous stance: she argues that Wolff at times seemed to conceptualize bisexuality as a mixture of “masculinity” and “femininity” rather than treating it as “a combination or co-existence of heterosexuality and homosexuality.”8 Clare Hemmings, for whom the contested territories of “masculinity” and “femininity” are central to shaping Bisexual Spaces (albeit with premises different from Wolff’s, and writing after the explosion of queer theory), acknowledges Wolff as a key figure in the mid- to late seventies’ resurgence of interest in bisexuality after the long post-Kinsey silence but does not otherwise engage with her work.9 Storr’s criticism of Wolff’s ambiguity seems justified in the light of Bisexuality’s juxtapositions, [End Page 142] contradictions, and rhetorical claims—a book declaredly rooted in phenomenology but arguably poised between the remnants of a psychoanalytic framework, phenomenology, and more traditional scientific discourse. Perhaps it is Bisexuality’s contradictions that make it difficult to contextualize within what seem to be the overarching narratives of current bi scholarship: can queer theory help to theorize bisexuality, or does it subtly operate elision under an ostensibly inclusive umbrella?10 Yet, years before any mention of “queer theory,” Wolff’s Bisexuality foreshadowed this very dilemma.11

Some recent histories and theories of bisexuality go considerably back history to discuss and deploy Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and Wilhelm Stekel as sine qua non in bisexual scholarship, whatever their “fortune” in present times, but no similar use is made of Wolff’s work.12 Yet it can be argued that it is through the book’s very tensions and contradictions as [End Page 143] well as through the debates surrounding its publication that it “speaks” to present-day social scientists and activists across three decades—about...