Sexual Fluidity: Why Women Are More Likely to Embrace Bisexuality - Make It Better

Women, we may not be as straight — or as gay — as we think we are. Mounting research indicates women are more likely to be turned on by both sexes than men are.

One of the most publicized studies, conducted by Meredith Chivers, measured the arousal of participants as they watched videos of heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples — and even a pair of bonobo chimpanzees — having sex. The results showed that men were primarily stimulated by the images that corresponded to their sexual orientation, but women were physically aroused by all the images.

No one’s saying that women want to have sex with monkeys, but the study illustrates that men and women have very different arousal systems. In her book “Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire,” author Lisa Diamond writes, “one of the fundamental defining features of female sexual orientation is its fluidity.” She defines sexual fluidity as a “situation-dependent flexibility in women’s sexual responsiveness.” Depending on the circumstances, a woman might feel attracted to either a man or a woman.

Five years ago, I wrote about how some women discovered their attraction to women later in life. Today’s younger women seem much more comfortable exploring the variable nature of their sexuality. Some women reject labels like straight, gay and even bisexual, finding them too limiting. For example, this summer, singer/actor Miley Cyrus came out as pansexual.

“Everything that’s legal, I’m down with,” said Cyrus. “Yo, I’m down with any adult — anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me. I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”

This isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon. Hannah, a Gender Studies major at Northwestern University, also identifies as pansexual. “I’ve always been a pansexual person. Gender truly does not inhibit the way I’m attracted to people,” she says. “Pansexuality lends itself to a lot of fluidity. It means gender is not a factor — they can be anything.” Including transgender men or women.

Natalie, who grew up on the North Shore and studies Women, Gender and Sexuality at a small liberal arts college on the East Coast, is attracted to both men and women and considers herself bisexual, but she feels like the term is pretty outdated. “Bisexual sounds very ’90s to me,” she says. “That’s why I’ve loved adopting it — it’s sort of ironic.”

Natalie uses the term to represent her overall sexuality but not necessarily her preference at any point in time. Some months she prefers women and some months, men. “Because I am very sexually fluid”, she says, “the term queer really works for me and I like the political undertones of being queer.”

Both Hannah and Natalie agree that on their campuses, women demonstrate more sexually fluidity than men, but they also think it’s more socially acceptable for them to do so.

“I know a lot of women who identify as straight who are still willing to engage in sexual fluidity. Their femaleness allows them to do that because of the way we’re already positioned as very sexualized and experimental. You don’t have two straight guy friends reveling in the fact that they made out last night,” says Hannah.

“I know a ton of straight women who watch gay (lesbian) porn,” Natalie says. “Women, because we’re so socially exploring, it’s okay to play around. Women have permission to explore that men don’t. Women aren’t labeled gay or questioning by watching gay porn, but men are.”

The idea that this is simply a girls-gone-wild, “gay until graduation” college phase might be true for some, but it can undermine those women who are sincere about their queer identities.

“Women are approached with things like — you’re too pretty to be gay, or, when are you going back to your boyfriend?” says Hannah. When men come out at the same age, they’re taken seriously.

But fluidity is not an orientation nor does it change one’s orientation. According to Diamond, it’s an added dimension. “Fluidity can be thought of as an additional component of a woman’s sexuality that operates in concert with sexual orientation to influence how her attractions, fantasies, behaviors and affections are experienced and expressed over the life course,” she writes.

Fluidity is getting a lot of attention, but it isn’t new. Pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and colleagues developed the Heterosexual–Homosexual Rating Scale in 1948. The Kinsey Institute found that “for many people, sexual behavior, thoughts and feelings towards the opposite sex were not always consistent across time.”

It’s a good thing that women’s sexuality is being viewed as distinct from men’s, but the fact that any person might experience variations in their attractions and desires over time isn’t really that shocking.

As Cindy Trawinski, a therapist at Lifeworks Psychotherapy Center in Skokie who works with people with diverse identities, says, “I feel that most people’s identities are evolving all the time, including sexuality. Everyone changes and unfolds over time — we grow, learn about ourselves, age, find allies and the support to become more at home in ourselves. In that sense, the idea that people have some fluidity is obvious.”

 

After photographing 2,000 people, iO Tillett Wright asked them to provide a percentage of how gay or straight they are. Most did not say 100 percent. Watch her TEDxWomen 2012 talk below.


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