Analysis / Vorkosigan Saga

The infamous "Was Bisexual, Now Monogamous" line

In Barrayar, during a social event one of Aral's political enemies tells Cordelia about rumors that Aral was bisexual. Not realizing that in homophobic Barrayar, this man was trying to torpedo Aral and Cordelia's marriage, Cordelia glibly responds that Aral "was bisexual, now monogamous" - a deliberate display of Values Dissonance between Barrayar and Cordelia's home of Beta Colony, which has also earned at least a few notes around this wiki as having some Unfortunate Implications.

One forgets that Beta isn't a stand-in for the present-day United States (or even California) any more than Barrayar is properly a stand-in for present-day Russia. Each takes and exaggerates elements from these societies, but is not wholly informed by them. In short, it's also meant to be a deliberate Values Dissonance between Beta and Bujold's target market of present-day English-speaking Science Fiction fans.

It's less obvious because we get far fewer direct glimpses into Betan life, but what we do see shows that Betan society is heavily "psychologized," so to speak - they have an almost obsessive tendency to psychoanalyze and deconstruct their understanding of themselves and other people. As such, the Betan understanding of sexuality takes a distinctly different turn from how most modern Western societies understand it. To wit, for Betans, sexuality is not about an "orientation" but about practice - your sexuality is described by what you do. As such, it is something that can change through one's lifetime as one's own sexual practices change. If a Betan man was to go from exclusively having sex with other men to exclusively having sex with women, then he would have been "gay" for a time, and then "straight" (and would be "bisexual" only if such practices overlapped for a time, or in trying to sum up his whole life's sexual practices in one word). If one was to frame it in modern Western terms, then it would be said that many Betans have a fairly fluid sexual orientation that shifts across their lifetime. (Betans wouldn't say that because, again, they would say your practices were what's fluid, and that "orientation" is an artifact of a restrictive understanding of sexuality that relies on categorization and fitting people into boxes. Kinsey has nothing on Beta.)

Monogamy in Betan society thus itself becomes a form of sexuality because it describes someone engaging in an exclusive sexual relationship, which is not universal given Beta is something of a Free-Love Future. Monogamy is about deliberately choosing to practice a Single-Target Sexuality. As a result, in the Betan understanding Aral Vorkosigan would be said to have at one time practiced bisexuality (as he had a wife and also at least one male lover at the same time) and then began practicing monogamy when he took up with Cordelia.
  • Many fans reviewing Gentlemen Jole and the Red Queen expressed great upset that Aral was "cheating" on Cordelia with Oliver. The classic line was repeated by many who perceived Aral and Cordelia to be the Official Couple of the series. However, in-universe, Cordelia had no problem with Aral and Oliver's relationship, even though it began while she was traveling. She also notes that she and Aral had discussed the possibility of him taking a male lover at some point. This further ties into the Betan penchant for psychoanalyzing everything. Basically, Cordelia acknowledged that Aral was attracted to men, and that this was in fact his primary orientation. Betans distinguish between sex and love much more definitively than most real-life cultures, and certainly more than Barrayarans. Cordelia did not perceive Aral's need for male intimacy to be an indicator that he loved her any less. She does not equate monogamy with love. This is a reasonable perspective to hold, especially after years on Barrayar where many marriages are political rather than romantic. Even if such marriages maintain a Happy Marriage Charade for propriety's sake, that does not mean the couple is in love. Cordelia, Aral and Oliver became a de facto polyamorous marriage with the full consent of all three participants. Which may be the real distinction Cordelia originally made. Rather than being the spurned wife whose husband was cheating, Cordelia made allowances for Aral's sexuality as a factor in their marriage even before he took up with Oliver. She knew about it and dealt with it as a known quantity and their relationship. Honesty in earrings basically. The torpedo was therefore a dud, because a Barrayaran would likely interpret the insinuation as meaning that Aral was a Depraved Bisexual who would sleep with everything on two legs. Cordelia merely treated it as a factual statement regarding Aral's sexual orientation, but not of his character or merit as a husband.