Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

I'm Not Gay, Straight or Bi

Maybe the categories aren't important.

The pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey wasn't in search of categories. When he asked his subjects about their desires, activity, and fantasies, he placed them along a continuum from same-sex to other-sex attraction. On the Kinsey scale, most people were somewhere in the middle. Then came the gay civil rights movement, dominated by gay men and their reports of a powerful biological drive aimed entirely at men. "I'm gay, I don't have choice!" so how can I be subject to moral condemnation?

Many women do have a choice. And their choices change, over their lifetimes. In a huge international study based on online responses to a BBC special on sexuality, women who considered themselves heterosexual were 27 times more likely than straight men to express attraction to their own sex. The lustiest women were most likely to act on desires for both sexes. "There may be some degree of latent same-sex attraction in most women," says study author Richard Lippa, a psychologist at California State University in Fullerton. "In women with high sex drives this latent attraction is energized."

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I once met a woman--call her Dina--who told me about the most passionate sex of her life. Her lover, a woman, left her to marry a man. She couldn't understand it: wasn't her lover a lesbian? When they were together, she expressed no attraction for men. 

Psychologist Lisa Diamond has a fascinating theory that would explain this story. In her view, attraction, romance and identity are separate psychological functions. This woman's lover was capable of attraction and love for both genders, at different points in her life, but ultimately wanted a heterosexual identity. Is this a betrayal of her true self? Or a choice?

Take Amy, a 42 year old librarian, who fell in love with one woman after another in her twenties and thirties. "Then I found religion," she says, "and I started thinking about having a family and the kind of life I wanted for my children." She chose to marry a man who shared her spiritual beliefs. When I asked Amy if she still felt any attraction to women, she cut off the conversation. Meena, a London doctor, fled her native Mumbai after a painful breakup with a woman who left her for a man. They had been living together for four years. "The sex was great," she says. "We were happy. She left me because in India I couldn't give her what she wanted, a marriage and family."

A woman might also choose a lesbian identity.  Jessica, for example, had only heterosexual relationships before she decided in her mid-twenties to "do the lesbian thing," she says. When she met a lesbian visiting her rural area for a weekend conference, they decided on the spot to live together. Jessica bought a house and her new lover moved in. They held a large marriage ceremony and built a tight-knit lesbian circle around a weekly spiritual group. But the relationship went awry and Jessica sought out sexual affairs with local men. When she fell for a man in her thirties, she was less afraid of losing her companion than her beloved community.

At 49, she has a happy committed and monogamous relationship with a woman, and she pushes aside the occasional fantasy about a man. "I don't think I'd find a man who I was that emotionally drawn to," she says.

Carol, a 59-year old minister, married in her twenties in order to have children. Her husband asked for a divorce. Carol fell head over heels with the first woman she slept with, Jane, an older woman who also had a long marriage in her past. Like Jessica, Carol has fantasies about sex with men, yet she's still blissful about her partner ten years later. If she were ever alone again, she says she'd probably stay alone. "I can imagine having sex with a man," she says, "but who wants to live with one?"

Opening up to your potential for loving both men and women is frightening, of course. Some women fear it means that no one person will do. In truth, women who change their sexual preference over time are not especially troubled, commitment-shy, or less monogamous, says Diamond. A married woman drawn to another woman can still choose to be faithful to her husband.

Another common misunderstanding is to associate men with intercourse and women with oral sex. Anya thought she could never be satisfied with a woman because she liked penetration: "Then I went to a woman's sex shop and talked to the sales person. She told me that lots of women couples came in looking for dildos."

Women who want to be with men sometimes worry they're "really lesbian" if they're attracted to women and don't like intercourse. "Orientation has nothing to do with specific sex acts," Diamond says. 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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