Transnational Research Associates

An Insightful Critique of Bisexuality

The Case of River Phoenix

Art Madsen, M.Ed.

Seven years ago, at the time of the unanticipated death of a young and talented movie star, River Phoenix, the delicate topic of bisexuality was thrust onto the international stage.    River had served as a teen idol for tens of millions of pubescent girls, as well as boys, and had achieved prominence in more than 20 world-acclaimed films, including “Stand by Me? “Mosquito Coast? and “My Own Private Idaho?

By featuring River as a paradigmatic model, a credibly valid portrait or case history of the bisexual psyche can be drawn.  Much of what will be presented herein is predicated upon the insightful, even quite moving, posthumous account of River’s brief life, penned by Tad Friend, writing under a pseudonym, in the March 1994 issue of Esquire Magazine. My thoughts concerning bisexuality have been augmented by further research including the works of Mary Renault, Krafft-Ebing and Masters and Johnson, among others, all of which I have analyzed critically and find essentially valid, although I do not share this morally controversial lifestyle in any way.  Toward the conclusion of this paper, I will briefly discuss how my thinking has been modified, through reasoning, before and after compilation of River’s case study.

River’s family background emphasized an all-encompassing love of humankind, of nature, of the sanctity of life itself.  “We’re all worth it, man, we’re all worth millions of planets and stars and galaxies and universes,?he is quoted as having said.  As his dynamic career developed, by virtue of a winsome, slightly poignant personality, River’s sexuality, rooted perhaps in having observed Children of God ritualistic practices as a very young child, broadened into an expansive embrace of mankind, literally and figuratively. As the themes in his films worked themselves more deeply into his impressionable mind, River adopted some of the tendencies of the characters he portrayed.   Mike Waters, the male prostitute in “My Own Private Idaho? the sensitive teenage son swinging virtually unclothed on jungle vines in “The Mosquito Coast? the intuitive and courageous youngster in “Stand by Me?with his arm around co-actor Wil Wheaton in a poignant moment, all combined with the soft and vegetarian overlay of his real family in Oregon to condemn River, quite unfairly, to a life of depression, ambivalence and introspection.  He needed to experiment with others, to feel intimately involved with his male friends, as with his female friends, deriving solace and comfort from the strength of a broad spectrum of relationships.

The insights which can be gained from River’s multi-faceted experience insofar as bisexuality is concerned are profound.  His genuine concern and affection for both sexes cannot, in retrospect, be called into question.  The actor transfixed his audience as effectively as he did his loved-ones, seducing them with an intensity of emotion and a sincerity of concern laudable by any standard of measure.  The bisexual, it can perhaps be inferred, is as close to being enamored of the world as he or she is to deriving satisfaction from the “glamour?of body contact.  While River moved toward the homosexual component of his bisexuality at the time of filming the production, “Dogfight? he seemed to embody the composite elements of the archetypal bisexual: a willingness to embrace all experiences and a yearning to be one with the universe.

His sexuality was an intense focus of energy and tenderness rarely found in a soul as inwardly tormented as his.  Like many bisexuals, River struggled with his identity ?confused due to his career, his public exposure, and his innately vulnerable nature.

Revealingly, he would spend hours strumming on his guitar, repeatedly voicing the refrain from “Hey Lo, Where Did Your Halo Go??lt;span style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Loss of innocence is a major theme in the make-up of some bisexuals who, through a return to boyhood, or girlhood, are re-experimenting with the “loss?phase.  The French have coined the single word, “déniaisement? to denote, more precisely than in English, this rite of passage.

There may be an intense sense of solitude in the bisexual who seeks to compensate, more intensely than others, for isolation, alienation and disenchantment.  While there may have been a number of cosmic or abstract characteristics to River Phoenix’s bisexuality, the percentage of bisexuals who are high-achievers, artistically gifted, self-empowering and yet introspectively profound is rather high, according to psychologists.  “The best of both worlds?has often been the catch-phrase used to summarize bilateral indulgence, so to speak. Perhaps, during his 23 years with us, River enjoyed at least a modicum of pleasure, in a world of perceived pain.

River’s orientation, shared by many in their teens and early twenties, tends to point clearly to the magnitude of the “new acceptance?of deviant behavior (classically defined) in many American and European circles.  In Paris, for example, all forms of behavior are acceptable in avant-garde circles.  Entire radio stations, some pirate, exist in support of homosexuality and bisexuality in the City of Lights.  Yet, back home, in the dichotomous USA, while bisexuality, like River’s, is emphatically ruled out by the Christian Right, the “beau monde?of the Eastern Establishment and the jet-set of Sunset Boulevard are clearly more tolerant.

In point of fact, given the foregoing overview, what can we know about bisexuality? Firstly, it is historically documented throughout the era of Empires now long dissolved.  Accounts of Alexander the Great’s love of Hesphestion, as well as of numerous women, and of David for Jonathan in Samuel, plus the wives of his soldiers, and of the Greek Mythological hero Theseus for both men and women are solidly confirmed.  Mary Renault, in The Persian Boy, paints elaborate scenes of ancient love-making practices in which bisexuality often assumes a prominent role; her other novels, historically based and well-researched, bear out the tenor of these same themes.

Secondly, it is a phenomenon growing in cosmopolitan locales, demonstrably more liberal than rural areas. Of course, this statement is open to debate and not all sources could be consulted for this brief analysis; but trends suggest that bisexuality is not as uncommon today in America as it was in the past.  

Thirdly, both men and women seem to derive from indulgence in bisexuality a certain security, warmth, and satisfaction from a psycho-dynamic perspective, as is recounted in many of Baudelaire’s poems in his work entitled Les Fleurs du Mal, or The Flowers of Evil.

Fourthly, it is acknowledged that as many marriages have been saved as have been destroyed through the ravages, or blessings, of bisexuality. Accounts in Masters & Johnson, Krafft-Ebing and in other authorities speak eloquently of the mixed results achieved with regard to the stability of marriages under bisexual conditions.  In fact, the entire notion of “swinging couples? a popular fad in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, is a reflection of the liberalization of American mores in recent decades, and while primarily a heterosexual variation, could and often did include some bisexual activity, a sign of transition in personal orientation, usually reflecting on the deterioration of a marriage relationship. 

And yet, lastly, it can be said that bisexuality is essentially a phenomenon little understood by the lay observer, who may well be a participant in such behavior in these days of increasing ambivalence.  River, by virtue of his sensitivity and vulnerability fell into this lifestyle and fit into a paradigm or model that had been previously forged for him by centuries of foreign tendencies and decades of increasingly common bisexual practices in the United States.  His upbringing in Oregon in a religious cult arguably devoted to this practice was also a source of early confusion about sexual values in young River’s mind.  His sky-rocketing movie career only added to his indulgence, and may have led, through a tragic series of events, to his premature death. 

In preparation of this report, and in examining similar case histories for other classes, my critical reasoning process and developmental thinking has led me to conclude that some individuals are predisposed to bisexuality by virtue of their personalities, influenced heavily (in the classic argument) by both environment and genetic factors. While I have been among the far more conservative individuals, in sexual and moral terms, in this country, my reasoning process has enabled me to understand how others may be inclined, without my actually condoning this activity, in ways that differ from mine. This represents a significant evolution in my critical thinking about the wide range of human sexual behavior.


Baudelaire, C.              Les Fleurs du Mal, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1947.

Friend, T.                     “River, with Love and Anger? Esquire, March 1994, 108-116.

Krafft-Ebing, R. von             Psychopathia Sexualis, F.A. Davis, Philadelphia, 1900.

Masters, W.                 Ethical Issues in Sex Therapy and Research, Little Brown, Boston, 1977.

Renault, M.                  The Persian Boy, Pantheon Books, New York City, 1972.