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Sexual Orientation

Sexual Orientation: Is It Unchangeable?

Are we all really "born this way?"

Well.....hmmm....ummm...perhaps, or maybe not.

There is good reason to believe that for many women, feelings of sexual attraction are less fixed and more flexible than originally thought. Sex researchers have examined the factors related to women and men's sexual arousal and have found that women of all sexual orientations were more likely than heterosexual and gay men to become sexually stimulated in response to erotic images of both women and men, in heterosexual and homosexual coitus. In comparison, men became sexually aroused only by depictions that that corresponded with their sexual orientations. Furthermore, Lisa Diamond, a researcher from the University of Utah followed a sample of one hundred lesbians over a period of ten years to determine whether there were any changes in their sexual feelings over time. She found that women who identified as lesbians could find themselves periodically attracted to and sexually active with men, then women, then men again. Some women could be having relationships with members of both sexes at the same time. In fact, only one third of the women who initially identified as lesbians at the start of the research project reported exclusive sexual attractions and behavior toward women over the course of the study. So this research could explain how Anne Heche, after being in a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres, could then go on to to marry a man. Or that we are ready to believe that the sexy Samantha character in Sex in the City could take a break from men and engage in a complicated steamy affair with a lesbian played by Sonia Braga (OK, who wouldn't?)

So, what does this all mean? Is sexual orientation fluid and/or changeable? Or are some gay and lesbian people really closeted bisexuals? A long time ago, Kinsey told us that bisexuality is much more prevalent than we think. However, we live in a society in which many people (including self-identifying gays and lesbians) don't quite believe in bisexuality. Maybe Anne Heche and some of the respondents in my study are being pressured to "pick one sex, dammit, and stick with it!" Is that what's happening?

Does it really matter?

If we truly believe that it is acceptable to have sexual and romantic relationships with the same sex, then it shouldn't matter whether or not sexual orientation is changeable. If it is really OK, we should be as accepting of a person who has a relationship with a man and then a woman as we would of someone who usually eats vanilla ice cream and then decides to start eating pistachio. So what? Sex between two consenting adults, like eating ice cream, should be about pleasure, personal preferences, or expressions of love and affection, not about social rules and definitions. However, in order to support the people in our lives who are struggling with their sexual orientations, we must reluctantly leave Utopia and remember that we live in a world that puts limits on people's sexual inclinations and punishes those who don't follow the rules. People of all sexual orientations (even those who don't claim one) need to find ways to live in a world that stigmatizes same-sex attractions and relationships, and those of us called upon to support and assist these people need to understand this if we are to be helpful.