I’m a huge fan of Slate Magazine (I read it almost daily). But recently they ran a piece that portrayed sexual fluidity in a way that was less than accurate, and perhaps ideologically biased. In the interest of scientific accuracy, I wanted to set the record straight.
What is sexual fluidity?
The Slate article contained a bold claim that, “there's absolutely no scientific evidence that female sexuality is fluid—at least not in any novel way.” This is incorrect—scientists have found a lot of evidence to support the claim that female sexuality is fluid.
But what exactly is sexual fluidity? It’s a fairly simple concept: people’s sexual responses are not set in stone, and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation they’re in. For example, if someone identifies as heterosexual but then finds themself in an environment with only people of the same gender, they might feel increased sexual/romantic attraction to those same-gender partners. Like any other social trait, sexual preferences, attitudes, behaviors, and identity can be flexible to some degree.1 Another related concept, erotic plasticity, is defined as change in people’s sexual expression (attitudes, preferences, behavior) due to socio-cultural factors and situational concerns.2 In other words, the basic idea is that someone’s sexual response can fluctuate depending on their surrounding environment.
Simply because change occurs does not mean that women’s (or men’s) sexuality is “strange,” or as Slate put it, “confusing, mysterious, or overly complicated.” Perhaps some people are upset because the term variability (a favorite amongst sex researchers) in the English language is a synonym for “erraticism” and “capriciousness,” which when used to describe women, can sound sexist. But a careful reading of the scientific literature reveals that there is no implication of women being more fitful or puzzling than men when discussing sexuality.
Sexual fluidity is not the same as bisexuality.
Another claim in the Slate piece is what appears to be endorsement of the idea that sexual fluidity is merely just bisexuality. This claim is false. Everyone has a sexual orientation (e.g., straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and others), but the degree to which a person is sexually fluid is a separate variable that operates alongside sexual orientation. Some people are highly fluid, while others are less fluid.
Sexual fluidity can occur in people who are definitively heterosexual or homosexual but simply experience change in their sexual response. For example, you may experience a preference for a more feminine type of person, but then discover someone who pushes your buttons in a new and exciting way. You may still prefer partners of the same gender as before, but with more masculine features.
Or maybe you crave a different type of sex (gentle or rough). Consider a person who usually wants only missionary-position sex with one partner but then moves to a different environment where others around have multiple partners and engage in kinkier sex acts, and now wants to engage in those new behaviors. That person has also experienced sexual plasticity.
Yes it’s true, sexual fluidity can refer to changes in sexual preferences for others based on their gender. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. Bisexuality is the romantic/sexual attraction to other people who identify as either male or female (“bi” = two genders). If you ask people who identify as straight, but then have sex with someone else of the same gender, this experience does not necessarily make them “bisexual,” but it does make them sexually fluid. Research by Lisa Diamond contains examples of women who identify as predominantly heterosexual in their lives but arrive to a point where they find themselves falling deeply/passionately in love with one particular woman but still identify as straight. Again, this does NOT mean these women are bisexual, but rather that they have a romantic infatuation/experience with an individual person who happens to be of the same gender. Longitudinal research also shows that people sometimes change their sexual orientation identity (from gay/lesbian to bisexual, from bisexual to straight, etc.).3 This is a very important point, because it means that we can’t lump everything together and call it “bisexuality.” It would be counterproductive to label all of these different behaviors “bisexual,” because it would impede scientific research on the true origins and varieties of sexual orientation, as well as sexual outcomes and expressions.
In addition, romantic/emotional bonding is fundamentally different from sexual desire (love and sex are governed by different parts of the brain and different hormones in the body). In the words of Lisa Diamond, “one can ‘fall in love’ without experiencing sexual desire.” 4 The processes of affectional bonding (or romantic love) are not oriented specifically toward other-gender or same-gender partners. This is one of the big challenges to studying sexual orientation in general—it’s not as simple as saying, “you can love boys or girls or both.” The Slate article makes it seem as if some people happen to be bisexual, which then influences their attraction to both male and female gendered partners, and that psychologists have mislabeled it “fluidity” simply because women are more likely to be bisexual than men. But in fact the truth is that people who identify as straight can wind up experiencing a romantic infatuation (love) for someone of the same gender, and as a result, produce sexual desires that were not present before.4 This is sexual fluidity.
Both men and women can be sexually fluid, but women are more sexually fluid than men.
If you look at the data, a picture starts to emerge that women as a group tend to be more sexually fluid than men.1,2 Here are just a few examples: Lesbian identifying women are significantly more likely to have heterosexual sex (with men) compared to gay men having heterosexual sex (with women). Heterosexual women are significantly more likely to have consensual sex with female partners in prison compared to heterosexual men in prison. Another example is the effect of education, which is linked to increased sexual activity for women more so than for men (highly educated women are more likely to be sexually active than less educated women, but education level does not make much of a difference for men). Religion has similar effects, linked to significantly lower masturbation rates for women (but not men). Basically, men’s sexual response tends to be more constant regardless of their environment or situation.
But certainly these are statistical associations that are entirely relative, and the results say nothing about all women or all men. There are many women who show no signs of sexual fluidity at all; likewise, there are some men who are very sexually fluid! Lisa Diamond’s latest work (read more here) addresses male sexual fluidity. Consider another study from 2006 that asked men to report their sexual experiences over the past 12 months.5 Results showed that among men who had sex with men, a higher percentage identified as “straight” compared to “gay,” and almost none identified as bisexual. This may be another example of male sexual fluidity.
Why is the idea of sexual fluidity controversial?
Since when is human sexuality supposed to be simple and straight-forward? If psychologists claimed that people’s levels of introversion or neuroticism (two of the “Big Five” personality traits) fluctuate over time, that would perhaps seem intuitively obvious and uncontroversial (of course people can be shy in childhood and grow up to be more outgoing). But because we’re talking about sexual variables, some may assume they are (or should be) completely stable over time. I’m speculating here, but perhaps political liberals want to believe that sexuality is stable across the lifespan, thus giving credence to the idea that since people cannot change or control their sexual preferences (they are simply “born that way”), it would be a rallying cry for equitable treatment (equal rights) based on gender and sexual orientation. It’s worth mentioning that this research on sexual fluidity has also been abused and misused by anti-gay activists in favor of “conversion therapy” (see more here), but this a complete misrepresentation of the scientific research. While I whole-heartedly agree that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, should be treated equally under the law (or otherwise), the idea that people’s sexuality does not fluctuate across their lives is scientifically inaccurate. Dismissing all of the supporting research does not do anyone any favors. I’m not sure why some people may believe that the theory of sexual fluidity is sexist, or at all insidious. But if folks are upset at the notion of sexual fluidity, then we should have a constructive, sex-positive conversation about specifically how it is damaging (if it is at all) and then how to fix it.
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1Diamond, L. M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126(3), 347-374. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.126.3.347
3Diamond, L. M. (2003). Was it a phase? Young women's relinquishment of lesbian/bisexual identities over a 5-year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 352-364. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.522
4Diamond, L. M. (2003). What does sexual orientation orient? A biobehavioral model distinguishing romantic love and sexual desire. Psychological Review, 110(1), 173-192. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.110.1.173
5Pathela, P. P., Hajat, A. A., Schillinger, J. J., Blank, S. S., Sell, R. R., & Mostashari, F. F. (2006). Discordance between sexual behavior and self-reported sexual identity: a population-based survey of New York City men. Annals of Internal Medicine, 145(6), 416-425.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.