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Is Female Sexuality Flexible?

You may be attracted to both men and women and not consider yourself "bi"

Kinsey, the famous sex researcher, argued that people aren't "straight" or "gay" but fall along a continuum. Recent science now supports that argument, especially for women.

Kinsey's extensive interviews found changes in sexual desires over time—rather than a whole lot of people who were conscious of a continuous attraction to both genders. You don't have to consider yourself "bi" as a permanent identity to find yourself sometimes attracted to a man, sometimes to a woman. You also may choose not to have sex, and identify as "asexual." This can be a choice, rather than a sign of a problem.

The psychologist Robert Epstein, a former editor of Psychology Today, also says that most people fall somewhere in the middle of that continuum, and “experience some degree of same-sex attraction at some point in their lives.” Epstein, who has collected online survey responses from around the world, says that women report more same-sex attraction than men do and more flexibility in expressing their desires.

Cal State Fullerton psychologist Richard Lippa didn’t just ask survey questions: He had men and women who consider themselves heterosexual rate their attraction to pictures of models in swimsuits. He also unobtrusively tracked the time they spent looking at the photos. Separately, he asked other participants to rank the models according to how attractive they were by societal standards. As predicted, the men were keener on the female models and spent more time looking at them. The women, on the other hand, said they were attracted to both male and female models, and they spent more time looking at the most attractive models, whether they were male or female.

In other research, Lippa looked at how libido matched up with bisexual activity when he analyzed results from online surveys created by a team of psychologists for the BBC One television series Secrets of the Sexes. The results there seemed to show that lustier women are more bi. “There may be some degree of latent same-sex attraction in most women,” Lippa says. “In women with high sex drives, this latent attraction can be energized.”

University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond reports that women may feel drawn to women for years, then switch to men—or vice versa. And sometimes they come to feel that their response has nothing to do with gender, she reports. As one woman she studied put it, “Deep down, it’s just a matter of who I meet—and fall in love with.”

Diamond has been following 100 women who described themselves as lesbian, bisexual, or “unlabeled” since 1995, when they were in their 20s, interviewing them every two or three years. At each point, she says, 25 to 32 percent of the group changed their sexual identity, and the switchers were not the same people. The most popular change was to “unlabeled,” which Diamond says supports her fluidity thesis. Nearly 80 percent of the sample had changed their sexual identity at least once by 2009, up from the two-thirds she reported when she published her book, "Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire." “Six years after the book, the data holds up,” she told me.

Studies that try to measure response independent of awareness—through eye tracking, brain scans, and genital arousal—find that the female “sexual response is nonspecific,” psychologist Meredith Chivers reported in her 2010 review of the research since 2005. Straight women, for example, will respond as much to a picture of a woman masturbating as to a picture of a man. In Chivers’s own research, from the University of Toronto, she and her colleagues found that women of all sexual orientations could be aroused by a range of images, including male-male, male-female, and female-female pornography. They were even turned on by the sight of monkeys mating, although they wouldn’t admit it.

No, I'm not saying women are actually interested in sex with monkeys, and it doesn’t mean that they’ll sleep with other women. “We don’t know the links between desire and behavior,” she told me. “There are a lot of leaps in between.” Women’s sexual responses are complex, and they themselves don’t always know what they like. Understanding your sexuality requires self-awareness and getting past biases.

Sometimes people make choices that seem odd to observers. Diamond has a fascinating theory that would explain these stories. In her view, attraction, romance, and identity are separate psychological functions.

So you might be capable of attraction to both women and men, but only fall in love with men and choose a heterosexual identity. You might be in love and coupled off with a man and leave and switch to a lesbian identity. Or the other way around.

I know of a woman—call her Carol—who married in her 20s in order to have children. When her husband asked for a divorce, Carol fell head over heels for the first woman she slept with, a 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 10 years later. If she were ever alone again, she says she’d probably stay alone.

These stories fit with the complexity of the emerging biochemical data on love and desire. In this new understanding, romance—the butterflies, the obsession, the euphoria—is linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Lust is associated with testosterone, or Testy, and then there’s Oxy, or oxytocin, which makes us bond and feel like family. These neurotransmitters may work together for a while, then change and not necessarily on the same schedule.

Life is flux. Our society teaches us to dream of true love and passion forever with one person. So, may I repeat: Life is flux. Biology and human emotion change. Be gentle with yourself when you experience changes and conflicts.

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