Sexual Fluidity

Lisa Diamond, a psychologist at the University of Utah, deserves credit for bringing a controversial idea to the academic surface. Here's the Boston Globe Ideas section:

In this country, we tell a certain story about homosexuality: We believe that people who come out as gay almost always stick with that gay identity for the rest of their lives. Diamond's research reveals that - at least for some females - that story might be wrong.

She followed dozens of women for 10 years, as they graduated from college, worked their first jobs, fell in love, changed their minds, and tumbled into the arms of new partners. Most women's behavior had little to do with the "gay for life" story. Some switched their sexual identity many times. In fact, when asked to define themselves as "gay," "straight" or "bisexual," a number of women refused to take any label at all. Others invented their own labels; for instance, one interviewee called herself a "reluctant heterosexual."

About one-fourth of the women reported that their choice of sexual partners had nothing to do with gender. "Deep down," said one woman, "it's just a matter of who I meet and fall in love with, and it's not their body, it's something behind the eyes." These women often had no words for the way their hearts were wired.

As soon as Diamond began publishing in academic journals, she discovered just how controversial - and easy to distort - her findings might be. Christian-right groups have trumpeted her data as proof that homosexuality is optional. Her research has become fodder for therapists who claim to be able to "cure" gay men by turning them straight.

Obviously, it's a shame that the reaction of some homophobic idiots has managed to stigmatize legitimate and interesting scientific research. Last year, when I wrote that profile of Joan Roughgarden, I got several angry emails from people complaining about this passage:

At first glance, it's strange for most people to think of themselves as naturally bisexual. [Which is that Roughgarden argues.] Being gay or straight seems to be an intrinsic and implacable part of our identity. Roughgarden disagrees. "In our culture, we assume that there is a straight-gay binary, and that you are either one or the other. But if you look at vertebrates, that just isn't the case. You will almost never find animals or primates that are exclusively gay. Other human cultures show the same thing." Since Roughgarden believes that the hetero/homo distinction is a purely cultural creation, and not a fact of biology, she thinks it is only a matter of time before we return to the standard primate model. "I'm convinced that in 50 years, the gay-straight dichotomy will dissolve. I think it just takes too much social energy to preserve. All this campy, flamboyant behavior: It's just such hard work."

Diamond's work suggests that women, at least, are more "sexually fluid" than we normally assume. That seems perfectly logical to me. Given the fact that there is no single homosexuality switch, no distinctive network of genes or neural anatomy that makes somebody gay or straight, it seems much more likely that sexuality is a biological continuum. I wonder, though, if this "sexual fluidity" is really limited to women. My guess is that men are capable of being just as sexually fluid, but that our culture gets in the way. In general, I think we are much more accepting of bi-sexual women (as Howard Stern notes, everybody likes lesbians) than bi-sexual men, who are automatically parceled into the homosexual category.

But it wasn't always so. The 19th century, for example, was, at least for American men, a type of striking sexual freedom. Here's Walt Whitman:

"Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, tradition,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casualy met there who detained me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together -- all else has long been forgotten by me,
I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous."

I think there's little doubt that Whitman loved men, and yet he never thought of himself as homosexual. Even if such a label had existed back then, Whitman wouldn't have wanted it. He hated labels.


More like this

In my years as a graduate student (I'm a clinical psychologist) I focused on internalized homophobia in both my thesis and dissertation, so have followed the claims of fundamentalist groups regarding sexuality. Oddly enough, works such as Diamond's are typically cited to promote their interventions and political lobbying that almost exclusively targets gay males.

I'd like to add a point to this discussion, though. Despite claims of social constructionists, our culture heavily promotes and pressures universal heterosexuality and about 2% of men don't seem to have any heterosexual capacity. I think, like many human traits, there's some reason to suspect that sexuality is distributed on a normal curve. An untestable hypothesis, but a "normal distribution" theory accounts for the data of male sexuality in ways that a "universal bisexuality" hypothesis does not. In fact, when studies of sexual behavior and fantasy are compared, only about 2% of men meet the strictest definition of total homosexuality (exclusive same-sex attraction, fantasy, and sexual behavior). This increases as you factor in those that experimented with women in youth (4-6%), or gay-leaning bisexual identified men. Kinsey's report found that as many as 1/3 of men had experienced an exclusive same-sex relationship for some period of years, though in some studies of same-sex sexual fantasy, the numbers increase even higher. Perhaps in a society where our toothpaste and gum commercials were pushing same-sex relationships, only 2% of men would live as exclusive heterosexuals?

By Matthew Skinta (not verified) on 07 Jan 2008 #permalink

There has to be some social constructs that define sexual behavior. The ancient Greeks seem to an obvious example of bisexuality. I remember that during the Athens Olympics, stories of the behavior of their predecessors showed the modern Greeks were unwilling to accept this.

Another part of the social construct could me abusive male behavior.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 02 Jan 2008 #permalink

I think I always assumed that women were more sexually fluid because women are such public sex objects, particularly in Western culture. Add in some (culturally produced) male homophobia and it seemed natural that women exist on a larger spectrum of sexual orientation than men. Ie, I figured there were barriers to male sexuality and hadn't thought of there being a unique or different biological source to female sexuality.

Female relationships can also serve some utilitarian purposes - for example, child rearing is much better performed in a group. Would the same be said of men hunting in groups, etc?

I used to think my conception of human sexuality was factually correct. Later I learned that most of what I thought I knew was just untested assumptions, and those assumptions had a strong North American bias.

When we start looking at what natural sexual behaviors are out there -- and here 'natural' is whatever is deemed common by cultural consensus -- we'll realize our own thinking is wholly inadequate.

Check out the following, starting with Brazil and Papua New Guinea, and see how much of your sense of 'masculinity' survives the new information.

It's worth noting that denying biseuxality of any sort is a fairly common thing. There's been studies since forever that people will do things which are homosexual in nature, and heterosexual in nature, but still consider themselves either-or (Freud noted it, despite all his other crazy stuff, Kinsey's studies, etc.) Male and female. And there's the social pressure to not be bisexual. How often is female bisexuality 'just a phase', or male bisexuality 'this one (five) time(s) in college'? Well, at least someone is paying attention.


Being gay (and male) I am guilty as anyone of tagging bi-sexual men as gay. This is strictly based on anecdotal evidence. I observed time and time again those that put themselves under the 'bi' label end up exclusively with men. I don't know if its societal pressures or they were just 'figuring' things out.

As for women - i have no clue. I can't think of anything more torturous than sitting amongst a group of women talking about their relationships.

But at least someone is trying to figure it out.

Anti-gay bias may drive away the middle, so that people are somewhat forced to be either gay or straight. If women have greater sexual range it could be that female homosexual relationships (as opposed to "homosexuality") are more accepted.

Perhaps it's that in our culture people who are flamboyant and camp are immediately assumed to be homosexual, then feel they have to live up to this label, or believe they may actually be homosexual. Although society nowadays is much more accepting it's still a big decision to 'come out'. I can imagine, especially if you were stubborn, it would be incredibly hard to go back on this and date a woman/ have more sexual fluidity in this case. Women seem to be more OK with changing their minds every nano second :D... just a thought, i don't really know.

Great post, Jonah.

I think that one of the main reasons that sexual fluidity is considered more widespread among women is because homosexuality is much more stigmatized among men, thus men are encouraged to lie, or at least not tell the whole truth. In fact, among men, revelations of girl-on-girl liasons is the very stuff of the pornographic imagination, while sharing the news that you just sucked your buddy's cock doesn't go over well at frat parties.

This fluid sexuality can take many forms, not all of them overtly sexual. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised recently to note that at the emotional heart of the popular teen-flick "Superbad" -- glimmering underneath hilarious moments of pop culture veritè and crude synonyms for vagina -- is a love story between two misfit boys who become inseparable in highschool. In previous eras, this dynamic would have been buried in the story, preferably underneath the mashed nose of the "fag" who would act as the scapegoat for the homoeroticism in buddy movies. But in "Superbad," without giving away too much, the deep feeling between the two guys is smartly acknowledged, providing genuinely tearjearking moments near the end.

But in the frankly sexual arena, most of what happens between guys goes on sub rosa -- sometimes not even talked about by the guys themselves. At Oberlin in the late '70s (or I suppose I could put it, "in an infamously overheated cloud chamber of rogue sexual particles in the era before AIDS"), sexual experimentation on all sides was rampant. I had a girlfriend, though I was already out -- and she, in fact, is married to another woman now. Many of my straight male friends slept with either me or my other gay friends, or one another. For all the fervid action taking place, very few people seemed to freak out about it. I had at least three straight friends ask me to participate in their "experiments" (two of which I said yes to, and we all seemed to have a great and warm time.)

That time at Oberlin has always struck me as a temporary glimpse of what Could Be.

Very interesting, thanks for posting. The study lends credence to the "adaptive bisexuality" theory-- that humans form homosexual relationships early in life (for different reasons, probably mainly for alliance-formation back when making friends with different groups ensured your survival) and then switch to heterosexual relationships in order to reproduce. It's also known that women are often more in the center of the Kinsey scale than men (who tend to be more dichotomously gay or straight), so get from that what you will.

AFAIK, the whole concept of "sexual orientation" as such is relatively new -- I would guess that it only started to gain force (in Western culture) well into the expansion of Christianity, as they started in with that whole "social control" thing.

The ancient Greeks seem to have considered it a matter of individual, and often momentary, preference. Indeed I've heard of at least one discussion of whether love for men or women was a "higher" love, with no sense that the preference was a "category-maker". Even before that, you've got Gilgamesh and Enkidu, whose love contrasts sharply (by modern standards) with their respective backstories....

The modern phrase I've heard for the pre-Christian viewpoint (and behavior) is "polymorphous perversity", which can be summed up as "whatever feels good...".

By David Harmon (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

"The 19th century, for example, was, at least for American men, a type of striking sexual freedom... Whitman loved men, and yet he never thought of himself as homosexual. Even if such a label had existed back then, Whitman wouldn't have wanted it. He hated labels..."

It's easy to parrot a party line about the social construction of sexual identity which was very chic in certain academic circles about ten years ago.

But we're all so over that now. That theory is for all practical purposes dead.

The historical evidence does not ultimately support the notion that men's romantic friendships were conducted without a measure of fear. It was paradoxically the hysteria which attended mention of same-sex acts which made it unthinkable to suggest that passionate same-sex affairs could have a sexual component.

This is not the time or place to discuss the intricasies of Whitman's spiritual testimony on manly love, or to show you in sufficient detail why you would have trouble understanding the serious danger incurred for breaking the taboo on mentioning the love not to be named among Christians.

However, in 1860, California State Senator David Broderick--a handsome, muscular bachelor probably very well known to Whitman--was murdered during a duel after he objected to a homophobic insult flung at him by a calculating demagogue, former California Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry.

And a would-be poet from Whitman's hometown, Charles Kelsey, was tarred and feathered for attempted rape upon a young lady--a fate which later gossip conflated upon Walt Whitman, and is still repeated, without justification, by modern biographers. (Kelsey died, by the way.)

Whitman's genius and daring was in great part his ability to bend the taboo almost to the breaking point, stopping only a hairsbreath away from catastrophe. We need to respect him more than we do when he claimed, "My words are weapons full of danger, full of death."

And despite how many things have changed, let's just say I'm writing you from Matthew Shepherd's America, where one can still be crucified on a wooden fence for defying these taboos.

Finally, in regard to sexual fluidity, I've read that many researchers believe that sexual identity is significantly more fluid in women than in men.

One of the first questions that come to mind is, if the sexuality of the female in this case, has such an extreme distributions, out across the sexuality spectrum. Should it be accepted as just a normal femaleâs identity factor and left at that or should society ascertaine for the psychological well-being of society as a whole the femaleâs ability to make a full lifetime commitment to a marriage. Knowing family members most assuredly will be psychologically scared; when the day comes that there is a break up of the structure of the family. Families take a lot of work to build and keep strong and one of the most important aspects of that family is trust. You should go into a marriage with your eyes wide open

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chalk this up as another frivolous scientific study.

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