Jul 262010

Several of the comments about the post on sexual fluidity in women wondered about sexual fluidity in men.

This is another one of those posts where I bang on endlessly about how women are different, more complex, etc etc, and I know it’s a fairly unpopular point of view to have, among the liberal, lefty, progressive, feminist types I tend to hang out with. I know people are thinking, “If our culture were more equitable, it would be more the same for men and women.”

Well. No. I mean maybe some, but ultimately no. Women are different, from their gametes to their orgasms, they’re different. If we can be intellectually honest about those differences – including being honest about how little we understand about from whence the differences emerge – we can begin to study them.

That’s what remarkable about Diamond’s book after all – she’s studying a group of people who are deliberately excluded from most science on sexuality! Bisexual, queer, and unlabeled women don’t fit into a nice tidy category, so they aren’t included in studies of sexuality. Too much variability. But we need to understand them in order to understand human sexuality – and we’ll never understand them if we don’t acknowledge that they’re a legitimate, important part of the human sexual landscape, rather than statistical noise on the edges of sexual variation.

Well. Anyway. One of the differences between men and women (allowing for the time being the categories to stand, even though they’re really not the whole story) is sexual orientation. This is a subject Diamond canvasses quite thoroughly in her book, so for details I’ll refer you to her chapter 1. But, just briefly, because people asked:

  • The genetic factors associated with sexual orientation have been found in men and NOT in women
  • Heritability of sexual orientation (as measured by twin studies) has been found to be greater in men than in women.
  • There’s some interesting (though not conclusive) evidence around birth order and sexual orientation in men, but none in women.
  • There’s even less conclusive research about the relationship between gender atypicality in childhood and sexual orientation, but even that is more typical of males than females
  • Women’s identification as lesbian or bisexual reflects ideological, cultural, and social roles than men’s, while men’s identification as gay is more about the sexual component
  • Women’s experience of sexual orientation are more discontinuous and variable than men’s, which more typically emerges early and stays the same over different situations.
  • This last one is very important, from my point of view. The whole concept of LUG is grounded in the idea that the only REAL sexual orientation is one that is continuous and relatively unvarying. In other words, REAL sexual orientation is like MEN’S sexual orientation. Relatively simple. Relatively linear.

    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.

    So why do I honk on so incessantly about this “different for girls” thing? Because it’s true and, even more, recognizing the ways it’s true creates room for more and better science, policy, products, messages, and health outcomes.

    It’s different. It’s okay that it’s different. But yeah. It’s different for girls, this sexual orientation thing.

emily nagoski

  9 Responses to “fluidity: different for girls”

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  1. You seem to have forgotten that men can be bisexual.

  2. I assume that Lisa addresses this in her book but I don’t know so I’ll ask. Given that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, are these findings that hold for men and not women actual findings that things do not hold for women or just studies that were done on men and not on women, so there is no evidence (yet)?
    I’m still mulling over the LUG controversy and I still don’t like it, because it is decidedly anti-fluid. Some women who “LUG” will turn out to be gay, some will turn out to be bisexual, and some will really return to being straight after graduation. Assuming that they were straight at the outset.
    Most relationships fail, especially those in college, so the concern over LUGs seems misplaced because regardless of the fluidity of women most relationships most college lesbians (and everyone else) have will fail. I understand women that are really, truly gay being pissed off that LUGs can exist w/o facing homophobia and rejecting their straight privilege, but women’s colleges provide that safe space.

    • “Bare these findings that hold for men and not women actual findings that things do not hold for women or just studies that were done on men and not on women, so there is no evidence (yet)?”

      What a spectacularly clear question. The answer is Both – and often the reason studies aren’t done in women is because researchers want to find something significant and they expect not to be able to in women.

      I agree with you about the LUG issue. A friend of mine was surprised that his own college-age, sex-positive daughter was more sympathetic with the lesbians who “got hurt” than with the fluid woman in question. The tribalism of membership/outsider dynamics seems to have a lot of power over our cultural judgments of individuals’ sexuality.

  3. Throwing in a Lisa Diamond quote on this topic:

    Question: Do men trend towards sexual fluidity?

    Lisa Diamond: That’s a great question. And for a long time there was no research, you know, that really asked the sort of questions that would speak to that. But the research has gotten better. There are more large-scale representative studies of adolescents and adults in America and in other countries that ask a broader range of questions about attractions and behavior and identity. And all of those studies consistently show that there is more diversity and variability in the sexual minority population that we used to think. And that in the same way that you find far more women reporting that they’re attracted to women than who report that they identify as lesbian or bisexual.

    The same is true of men. In every study that’s been done you find far more individuals reporting that they’re somewhat attracted to the same sex, you know, but not exclusively, and maybe not even in a 50/50, you know, bisexual range, than who identify as gay or lesbian. That shows that there’s this sort of wiggle room. There’s this space for variability that some people will define as gay, some people will define as bisexual, some people won’t even define it, you know, at all. But that experience definitely applies to men as well as women. And there have been some studies, short-term longitudinal studies of men, that have found that men are just as likely as women to change their identity label, you know, over, say, 18-month to two-year spans of time. So I think right now probably it’s safe to say that there is that capacity for fluidity in both men and women. It does appear to be a stronger capacity for women.


  4. Hi, interesting blog post. Its true that women are sexually fluid in a higher degree than men, but thats not the case in all situations. You also mention that no scientific data has been linked to female sexuality.Thats not true, here are some.

    A study from “Karolinska institutet” in Sweden on male and female homosexuality.


    A study on female twins and homosexuality.


    A study on grey matter in Homosexual women`s brain.


    • Huh? How could I have said that “no scientific data has been linked to female sexuality,” when this entire post is about a BOOK written about a 10-year long scientific study of women’s sexuality? I’m confused.

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