As definitions of sexuality change and expand, women’s orientations are becoming less rigid than men’s. Why?
The way we think about sexuality is changing. Where there was once a single, well-known rainbow pride flag, today, a wide array of colourful flags fly to showcase the diversity of orientations. People seem increasingly open to discussing their sexuality, and more unconventional, even formerly “invisible”, identities have become part of an increasingly mainstream discourse. With the open dialogue, sexual identities are becoming less rigid and more fluid.
But new data show that this shift is more prevalent in one group: in many countries, women are embracing sexual fluidity now at much higher rates than they have in the past, and more significantly than men are overall.
So, what accounts for this discrepancy? Experts believe there are many factors that feed into this progression, especially changes in social climate that have let women break out of conventional gender roles and identities. With these new insights, however, the question remains: what does this mean for sexual fluidity in the future for all genders?
A notable shift
Sean Massey and his colleagues at the Binghamton Human Sexualities Research Lab in New York have been studying sexual behaviours for about a decade. In each of their studies, they asked participants to report their sexual orientation and gender. They’d never before looked at how that data changed over time – until Massey and colleagues recently realised they were sitting on a treasure trove of information about sexual attraction.
“We thought, gosh, we’ve collected this data for 10 years,” says Massey, an ssociate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Binghamton University. “Why don’t we go back and look and see if there’s been any trends?”
They found that between 2011 and 2019, college-age women had increasingly moved away from exclusive heterosexuality. In 2019, 65% of women reported only being attracted to men, a notable decrease from 77% in 2011. The number of women exclusively having sex with men also dropped between those years. Meanwhile, men’s attraction and sexual behaviour stayed mostly static in the same time frame: about 85% reported sexual attraction to women only, and close to 90% reported engaging in sex exclusively with women.
Other surveys from around the world, including in the UK and the Netherlands, present similar findings. Across the board, more women have been reporting more same-sex attraction, year-over-year, than their male counterparts.
Power and freedom
“All of this is too complicated to pin on one thing,” says Elizabeth Morgan, associate professor of psychology at Springfield College in Massachusetts, US. But gender roles – and how they both have and have not changed – may be a significant factor.
Massey and his colleagues largely chalk up the notable change to cultural shifts, like the progress of feminism and the women’s movement, which both changed the socio-political landscape significantly over the past several decades. However, these changes affected men and women differently.
“Progress has really been made around the female gender role and less around the male gender role,” says Massey. Though he doesn’t discount the LGBTQ+ movement’s effect on people identifying as sexually fluid today, Massy believes feminism and the women’s movement play a role in why more women identify this way than men – especially as no equivalent men’s movement has enabled men to break out of historical, gender-based restrictions in the same way.
“Fifty years ago, you couldn’t have a life if you didn’t marry a man and settle down because he needed to provide for you,” adds Morgan. In that sense, eschewing exclusive heterosexuality could be seen as part of women breaking out of traditional gender roles.
Meanwhile, as women have been able to find more freedom, men’s gender roles have stayed relatively static as they continue to hold power in society. “[Men] need to uphold a very masculine gender role to maintain that power, and part of masculinity is heterosexuality,” says Morgan. Expressing same-sex interest could reduce that power. As Massey puts it, masculinity is a “fragile concept”. It can be “violated” by same-sex attraction.
Sex coach and educator Violet Turning, 24, also points out the “fetishisation” of two women having sex or making out, specifically under the male gaze. It’s made same-sexual attraction between women more socially acceptable, albeit for the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, people seem to find notions of two men having sex far less palatable. A 2019 study that looked at attitudes toward gay men and women in 23 countries found, across the board, that “gay men are disliked more than lesbian women”.
An open dialogue
Venues for women to talk about their sexuality openly have also increased over time.
When Lisa Diamond, a psychology and gender studies professor at The University of Utah, US, began studying sexual fluidity in the early 1990s, her research focused on men. Many study participants, she says, came from gay support groups, with mostly male members, so men were “easier for researchers to find”.
But Diamond wanted to look at women’s sexuality. She began a study in which she checked in with 100 women about their sexual orientations and behaviours every two years over a decade. Her book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, was published in 2008. It discusses how for some women, love and attraction are fluid and can change over time. This was at odds with the previous line of thought that depicted sexual orientation as rigid – a view those studies Diamond had found looking at men only espoused.
Around the time her book was published, US celebrities who’d previously dated men, like Cynthia Nixon and Maria Bello, went public about experiencing same-sex attraction. Oprah Winfrey then asked Diamond to come on her show to talk about female sexual fluidity. The concept and practice had officially entered the mainstream dialogue.
Additionally, Turning notes that language has evolved to recognise women as sexually non-binary. For example, Turning says her lesbian partner had a “Gay Straight Alliance” at her high school, around 2007. That phrasing encouraged a binary – members were either gay or straight, with no real options for those who might have identified somewhere in between – and no word that specifically embodied female sexuality, the ‘L’ left conspicuously out of the GSA acronym.
“Now, it’s like everybody has the option to identify as queer, because it’s so acceptable,” says Turning, who says that speech and terminology have evolved to include people of all genders – women included.
What’s the future of sexual fluidity?
Sexual fluidity may be on its way to entering more masculine spaces. On TikTok, it’s become popular for young, straight men to play as gay in their videos. Their mostly female followers enjoy it, according to a New York Times article about the trend. Regardless of whether or not these creators are truly comfortable playing as queer or doing it for clicks, this trend still suggests shifting attitudes toward masculinity, which may pave the way for more men to embrace sexual fluidity in the future.
Sexually fluid women may also help pave the way. More women openly discussing their fluid orientations means more people discussing alternatives to rigid sexuality in general.
“Our culture puts a lot of shame around sexuality,” says Diamond. “Anything that makes it easier, and more socially acceptable for people to reflect on their desires in a non-judgmental, non-shaming way,” she adds, has the potential to open up their sexual possibilities – or at least let them consider the idea of doing so.
“We need to start liberating men from compulsory heterosexuality [and] traditional masculinity,” adds Massey. “And that may have a different result, or maybe have a similar result [to women] in terms of allowing more diversity in sexuality.”
The article is written by By Jessica Klein and was first published by BBC on 15 June 2021.