Monday, September 6, 2010

Fluid Sex

Cheryl and Ellen were good friends of my best friend. As a lesbian couple, they were in a monogamous relationship for many many years. So I was pretty shocked when my friend told me that they had broken up, and Ellen was now in a relationship with... a man. But... but... but... she's a lesbian, I thought. How could she be with a man?

I had no idea at the time, but that was my first exposure to a new way of looking at sexual orientation. Since then I have heard of several anecdotal cases of out lesbians, women who were clearly established and comfortable in their sexuality, who went on to date or marry a man.

The issue become much more personal to me when a good friend of mine, a lesbian, recently started dating a man. She herself was surprised to find herself with a man, because she's never been attracted to men, and although she's happy in her "straight" relationship, she knows that her orientation is still overwhelmingly homosexual. One relationship with one man is not enough to "turn" her straight. This has confused a lot of people. "How can she be happy with a man if she's gay?" "Why won't she call herself bisexual?" "Won't she ultimately crave women too much?" "Doesn't she think, 'Ewwww... penis!'?"

These are good questions, and the people who asked them are sincere supporters of gay rights who take sexual orientation very seriously.

A book that I've recently read helps to address this issue. It introduces a new way to think of sexual orientation, a way that challenges the old dichotomy between biological unchanging rigid determinism and environmental malleable lifestyle choice. (The book was so important to me that I actually waited til I was done with the whole thing to blog about it. No half-read review this time.)


Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond provides ample evidence that human sexuality, like so many other domains of scientific inquiry, is much more complicated than we thought. The old view of homosexuality-- that it's inborn and unchanging and it can't be "cured"-- has helped to give homosexuals much mainstream acceptance, but it's time for "more forward-thinking approaches to sexuality," as Diamond says. One that is more inclusive to the wide range of ways that people (particularly women) feel and express their sexuality.

Over the course of 10 years Diamond follows a hundred women, interviewing them every two years to track their sexual identity, orientation, and behavior (which are actually three distinct things.) At each interview she asks them to identify themselves as gay, straight, bisexual, or unlabeled.

What she found was that only about a third of the women keep the same identity label throughout the entire study. For the others, they tended to shift as circumstances changed-- from straight to lesbian, or lesbian to unlabeled, or bixexual to lesbian, or unlabeled to straight, and every possible combination. Some switched multiple times throughout the five interviews.

This "sexual fluidity" varies from individual to individual, but Diamond believes (and provides evidence) that women on the whole are much more "fluid" than men. Women are much likely to be attracted to "the person, not the gender." My personal anecdotal evidence bears this out: I know several cases of lesbians who ended up dating/marrying men, but I don't know of any personal cases of out gay men dating a woman. (I don't mean to imply that sexual fluidity only applies to lesbians. Many "straight" women find themselves in same-sex relationships, too.) Historically, most of the homosexual research done has focused on gay men, which would explain why the idea of fluidity has not been studied til now. Women's sexuality has been largely left out of the research.

One important idea that Diamond challenges is the assumption that if something is biological or inherent it cannot be changed, and if it is the result of environment or experience it can be. Both assumptions are wrong. Some biological traits can be changed, and some "learned" traits cannot. Rather than focus on whether homosexuality is natured or nurtured, she focuses on the varying degrees that one can be gay, straight, or bisexual, and how that can change as some women become attracted to "the person, not the gender." There is a lot of room between being 100% gay and 100% straight, and that percentage itself can change over time. As she quotes Kinsey, "The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats." (Which reminds me of the homoerotic scene from Spartacus where the skeevy old Roman patrician asks his bathing slave boy, "Do you prefer oysters or clams?")

As Diamond says, is altogether false to assume that if a woman's sexual orientation is an essential trait, then her sexual attractions must be fundamentally rigid. Sexual orientation can have an inborn basis and yet still permit variation in desire over time. The amount of variation a woman experiences is determined by two factors: (1) her specific degree of fluidity, which varies from woman to woman, and (2) her exposure to the types of environmental, situational, and interpersonal factors that might trigger her fluidity. (p. 161)

Don't get me wrong. I love categories. I am a librarian, after all. Diamond is not advocating that we disregard labels altogether, but she is saying that a gay or straight identity doesn't always lead to the same orientation or behavior. She tells the story of visiting a school to give a lecture on providing support for gay students. One teacher asked her at what age you can be sure that kids will no longer question their sexuality. Diamond's answer was, there is no such age. There's no time in a person's life when you can say, "Okay, you're safe-- you won't turn gay now." (Or vice-versa.)

The last chapter, on biological processes, posits a fascinating idea that there is a demonstrable difference between sexual attraction and romantic love. For example, prepubescent children feel romantic love without sexual attraction. It turns out the two forces come from different parts of the brain. The theory is that romantic love actually happens to be a residual form of parent-child bonding. So when you fall in love, you're using the same part of the brain that infants use to bond with their caregiver. In our evoluationary development, this parent-child bonding impulse turned out to be useful for bonding mating couples, as well. I happen to thing that is amazing, and it's yet another reason why I love evolution.


I can understand the confusion and consternation that many well-meaning supporters of gay rights have when they hear stories of perceived "flips" in sexual orientation. Most of the arguments in the gay rights movement have depended on the idea that homosexuality is inborn and unchangeable, not a lifestyle choice. For years and years anti-gay activists have maintained that "gay can be cured," and people who think they're gay are really just choosing an abhorrent and sinful lifestyle. So when a seemingly gay person takes up with someone of the "wrong" gender, it puts at risk the political gains made by gay rights advocates.

Diamond addresses these concerns in her book, and she doesn't take them lightly. She makes very clear that just because sexuality can shift (due to forces beyond our control) does not mean it can be manipulated or controlled. In the end, homophobes will always take whatever research is out there and try to twist it to their own agenda. We do homosexuals (and women in particular) no favors by sticking with obsolete ideas that, although well-intentioned, do just as much damage as good.

There is no longer any excuse for dismissing female sexual fluidity as an anomaly attributable to women's repression, disingenuousness, confusion, or immaturity. (p 234)

Plus, it's never a good idea to ignore the truth, even for a good cause.

If you want to expand your understanding of sexual orientation, I highly recommend you read the book yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a really interesting read! Eye-opening. ~Tanya