Understanding females' sexual fluidity
February 9th, 2012
09:02 AM ET

Understanding females' sexual fluidity

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

Actress Cynthia Nixon made headlines recently when she said during an interview that she “chooses” to be a lesbian.

“I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better,” she said. “For me, it is a choice.”

As you might expect, her comments – published in a New York Times Magazine profile - set off a firestorm of controversy, with gay activists and others worrying that Nixon’s words would give credence to those who claim that being gay is a conscious decision, not a genetic certainty.

(She later clarified that she identifies most closely as a bisexual, which, she says, is a “fact,” not a choice.)

But, divisive wording aside, there may be something to Nixon’s remarks. The actress, who was once in a long-term relationship with a man and who is now engaged to a woman, appears to be an example of what scientists are now terming “sexual fluidity.” In other words, she may be attracted to a specific person rather than a particular gender.

It’s a phenomenon that Lisa Diamond, a University of Utah psychology professor, has studied extensively. In her 2008 book, “Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire,” she writes that women’s sexuality appears to be much more fluid than men’s, and that this fluidity tends to involve three main characteristics:

- Non-exclusivity in attractions: can find either gender sexually attractive
- Changes in attractions: can suddenly find a man or woman sexually attractive after having been in a long-term relationship with the other
- Attraction to the person, not the gender

Research seems to support the idea that some women are able to move between relationships with both genders without blinking an eye - and that labels matter little. In a 2008 study, Diamond followed 70 lesbian, bisexual, and “unlabeled” women over the course of 10 years.

During that decade, two-thirds of the women changed their initial identity labels, and one-third of these changed labels at least twice. And although conventional wisdom suggests that more women would transition out of the bisexual and unlabeled groups and into the more “standard” groups of heterosexuality or homosexuality, this was not the case.

As Diamond writes, “More women adopted bisexual/unlabeled identities than relinquished these identities; few bisexual/unlabeled women ended up identifying as lesbian or heterosexual. Overall, the most commonly adopted identity was ‘unlabeled.’”

So is sexual fluidity unique to women? Possibly, says sexuality educator Emily Nagoski, author of the "Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms."

“Making space for fluidity as a legitimate part of sexual orientation would help women, but it surely couldn’t hurt men. Men have some fluidity too, just not as much,” she writes. “It’s different for girls, this sexual orientation thing.”

She points to a variety of studies that help bolster this idea: For instance, research in men has found genetic differences that may be associated with homosexuality, but similar inheritability of sexual orientation has not yet been identified in women.

Plus, Nagoski adds, “Women’s experience of sexual orientation is more discontinuous and variable than men’s, which more typically emerges early and stays the same over different situations.” So, while most men tend to identify themselves as straight, gay, or bisexual relatively early in life, many women may have relationships with both men and women without choosing a specific sexual orientation.

Women may also be more receptive than men to a variety of sexual cues. For their recent book, “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed a billion web searches, a million websites, a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, millions of personal ads and tens of thousands of digitized romance novels in order to better understand the sexual differences between men and women. They concluded that a single cue triggers arousal in the male brain, but that women’s brains require multiple cues to become aroused.

Similarly, research from the University of Toronto found that while men who identified themselves as heterosexual or homosexual became sexually aroused by straight or gay pornography, respectively, women were much more complicated: Regardless of their identified orientation, straight, gay, and bisexual women became physically aroused by a whole range of sexual imagery, including male–male, male–female, and female–female pornography. They were even turned on by images of mating monkeys, although they didn’t admit it.

Of course, we shouldn’t interpret these findings as proof that all heterosexual women are sexually attracted to other women, or to monkeys for that matter.

But they do suggest that women may be more capable of finding people and things attractive, no matter what orientation they claim. Perhaps that’s why an estimated 95% of straight men who fantasize about or partake in threesomes are only interested in being with two women, while more heterosexual women are open to adding another woman or man to the mix.

In the end, Cynthia Nixon’s comments and the conversation they’ve started may reveal less about the actress’s romantic leanings than our own preconceived notions about sexual orientation.

Maybe the lesson here is that love and lust are about people, not about labels - and I think that can only be a good thing.

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soundoff (264 Responses)
  1. Julie

    Well, I identify as lesbian and have since I first started being attracted to other people. I have always been gay. So please do not generalize that all women are bi or "fluid", generalizing is never good, just like your article suggests. I have no intention of being sexual with a man. I am very happy with my sex toys and not worrying about pregnancy, taking hormones, having operations and getting HIV. I feel blessed to be gay.

    February 12, 2012 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Shan

      I don't think what turns people on is so practical. You know what I mean? When someone gets you hot, there's no thought of surgery, or birth control, or HIV. That's part of the reason unplanned pregnancies happen!

      February 12, 2012 at 21:47 | Report abuse |
    • Dennis

      Julie: I would love to help you overcome this disorder.

      February 12, 2012 at 22:15 | Report abuse |
    • Jaded

      Julie, I'm not "fluid" either. I'm hetero through and through. I've had every opportunity to have sex with women (played rugby in college!) but never had any interest. My 15 year old daughter identifies as a lesbian w/ no interest in guys. We both think it's funny that being bi seems to be quite the fad in high school now for girls. Even with the bi fad, she's still given a hard time for being a lesbian. I wish the haters would just leave people alone to love whoever they want to love. Who cares. None of my business who someone else sleeps with as long as it's not my husband or my daughters. I hope my daughter reaches the same happiness that you have found. At least I don't have to worry about her getting pregnant. 🙂

      February 12, 2012 at 23:14 | Report abuse |
    • "TM" TAG MEL


      February 14, 2012 at 02:18 | Report abuse |
    • brit

      This sounds like something a straight person would say to a lesbian, just reversed.

      December 18, 2013 at 01:48 | Report abuse |
  2. musicdorian

    Thanks for the aritcle. You're helping to bolster my argument that there is no such thing as being gay (until science proves, conclusively, otherwise.) It is a choice and a behavior.

    February 12, 2012 at 20:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kman02

      Santorum much...do you?

      February 12, 2012 at 21:09 | Report abuse |
    • Athena

      You would probably also insist: god(s) exist; there is no global warming; the universe is less than 6,000 years old; and any other number of stupid things. As for being a total rectum, were you born that way or did you just choose to become one? When it comes to reinforcing beliefs, without thought processes in your case, you believe whatever you choose to believe and are not about to let things like facts come in the way. The article does not imply that women's alleged sexual fluidity is a matter of conscious choice, it would seem to imply that it is innate. Next time you want to make a post, ask your mother for help; you're not nearly and adult yet.

      February 12, 2012 at 22:07 | Report abuse |
    • Kajal

      Did you notice that the artcile also says that being gay is natural? Ah...I see. You only notice what suits your argument. Well, in that case, you didn't need any information. Your mind is already made up, and shut and closed.
      It is sad to see people like you take information that is explorative and try to twist it. But then, what's new?

      February 26, 2012 at 23:42 | Report abuse |
  3. "TM" TAG MEL

    Tip Invite now

    February 14, 2012 at 02:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jjque

    Why is the national agenda all about sex and breeding (the pic says it all)?

    February 14, 2012 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. jjque

    Why are white women so excited about becoming extinct?

    February 14, 2012 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jorge

      Maybe that's not such a bad thing, seeing as they're so high-maintenance and quirky.

      February 24, 2012 at 07:29 | Report abuse |
    • Kajal

      Why is that a problem to you?

      February 26, 2012 at 23:43 | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      Can't see why they would be worried... just because someone is lesbian, or bi and choosing to live a lesbian lifestyle, does not mean they can't have children.

      February 29, 2012 at 06:53 | Report abuse |
  6. Joe Sixpack

    Lots of widely published men's magazines have done extensive research on this over the past couple of decades and have proven that all women are bi.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MD

      What are the arguments and research supporting this?

      February 27, 2012 at 13:24 | Report abuse |
  7. Lola Glass

    In my humble opinion, women are more often sexually 'fluid' than men because we (women and men included) have been exposed to extreme sexualization of women in the media – and neither sex has been exposed to the same level of sexualisation of men. We have been nurtured to find women sexy, especially through advertising. Yes, men are sexualized and objectified too but there are stark differences in the extent to which this happens and subtle ways in which this happens. (When women are sexualized they are often portrayed as vulnerable, when men are sexualized, they are often portrayed as powerful, etc.)

    February 20, 2012 at 08:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kajal

      Its an interesting thought, Lola, but in my experience, this fluidity is not something that has only been noticable since TV or radio came about. It has been true earlier – even in ancient cultures. You can possibly argue that women have always been sexualized more (since the dawn of human race), but then...it isn't a matter of sexualization in media anymore, but the outlook of the species

      February 26, 2012 at 23:45 | Report abuse |
  8. Elizabeth

    I've been bi my whole life, since I discovered set in my early teens. I've had partners of both genders, currently I live a monogamous hetero lifestyle with my husband of 10 yrs. He knows who I am and should I decide I need a female partner for a time, or for forever more...we will adjust our living situation and make room for a third in our home and hearts. There are all kinds of ways to live, folks. What matters is that we live honoring honesty, respect and trust.

    February 29, 2012 at 06:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. 0likin0it

    Hi, I'm bisexual, and I think I understand this article. It's saying that throughout the course of women's lifespan, our definition/view of who we are will most likely change multiple times. Well no crap Sherlock, it's like that for most humans, men included.

    May 29, 2013 at 01:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. SoullessTechnocrat

    The only thing to do with a gangreous fluid is to pour it out. There should not be men or women. There should not be life or energy. There should only be Nothingness and Silence. The so called fluidity of females is simply duplicity. There is no truth, only Lies. There is no love, only Silence.

    September 17, 2014 at 08:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. HowVeryTrue

    Gee Wiz, No surprise to me at all.

    December 8, 2015 at 10:29 | Report abuse | Reply
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