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Maybe Gay, Maybe Lesbian, Maybe Not Totally

Sexual categories fail to capture the complexity of lives.

Key points

  • A fifth point may exist on the sexual/romantic spectrum: mostly lesbian/gay.
  • These individuals are distinct from those who identify as exclusive lesbian/gay or bisexual.
  • Combining points along the spectrum obscures potential differences across sexual orientations.

Although people often think everyone is either straight, bisexual, or gay/lesbian, it’s not true. Life is seldom a matter of fitting into professionally created sexual categories, especially when one’s own life is a demonstration of fluidity or nonexclusive sexual and romantic attractions, fantasies, dates, sex, and love. In earlier posts, I argued for a fourth point along the Kinsey sexual continuum—mostly straight. Now, I’d like to add a fifth on the other end of the spectrum—mostly gay/lesbian. Granted, I don’t have overwhelming scientific research to support this view, but what exists is very compelling.

When mostly gays/lesbians, who have considerable homoerotism, are confronted with choices researchers give to describe their sexuality, they explicitly reject the category “exclusively attracted to the same sex.” They could have responded with “lesbian” or “gay” and they would have been mostly right, but they did not select either one. Their friends might say, “You’re really gay/lesbian but you’re just afraid to say so.” But are these individuals merely holding onto vestiges of heterosexuality for personal or cultural reasons? That is, are they hoping that the right woman or man will come along who will convince them, their parents, their friends, their religion, or whatever is important to them that there is still a chance they can lead a “normal” life?

They are in a quandary and, not knowing how to respond, they might skip the question, mark “don’t know” or “something else,” or just say “gay” even though it’s not true. I reviewed several national studies and found the proportion of the population that reports being mostly lesbian/gay is around 1% to 2%, with more women selecting mostly lesbian than lesbian and more men selecting gay than mostly gay. I don’t know why this is true; perhaps it’s because women are more honest or are permitted greater latitude in appraising their sexuality.

Given these conditions, it’s not surprising that the stability of a mostly lesbian/gay identity over time is relatively low. When they move, they don’t always switch to exclusive lesbian/gay (less than half) but identify with a variety of sexual orientations, including exclusive straight. We don’t know why they might travel to the other extreme of the continuum but perhaps it is the case that the “right” woman or man did come along and now they identify as totally straight. Given the power of normative heterosexuality in our culture, some bisexual individuals also follow this pattern.

What is unique to mostly lesbians/gays also characterizes mostly straights: neither varies from their exclusive cousins in their attractions to their preferred sex but in their attractions to their “non-preferred” sex. For example, mostly lesbians and exclusive lesbians are similar in their attractions to women but differ in that mostly lesbians are more attracted to men than are lesbians. These findings were demonstrated among men with both physiological and self-report measures. In the first, when mostly gay men were shown male-centered pornography, their penis became aroused and their pupils dilated, similar to gay men; but to female-centered pornography, their penis and pupils were more aroused than was true for gay men when they viewed women masturbating. In their self-reports, when compared to exclusive gay men, mostly gay men reported having more sexual fantasies about women, a greater number of lifetime female sex partners, more infatuations with women, and more gazing time at female porn actors.

This research, along with the narratives of young adults, raises questions regarding the wisdom of combining points along the sexual spectrum that can “obscure potential differences” across sexual orientation groups. Yet, traditional sex categories have become so culturally entrenched in contemporary popular and scientific research that they have become “master narratives.” For example, the 2020 Gallup Poll asked, “Which of the following do you consider yourself to be?” Options included straight, lesbian/gay, or bisexual (also transgender). Revealingly, nearly 8% did not answer the sexual orientation question, which was larger than either the lesbian/gay or bisexual category. Whether these socially-constructed master narratives do justice to an individual’s sexual and romantic life is debatable, but unlikely for many.

Another option is to allow individuals to describe their own identity in an open-ended response questionnaire box. When they are encouraged to do so, youths and young adults create a variety of nontraditional terms such as “pansexual,” “asexual,” “queer,” “no label,” “panromantic,” “fluid,” “no label,” and many more—over 50 in another study. Another is to eschew labels altogether and provide 0%-to-100% scales separately for females and males and ask them such questions, “How attracted (infatuated, had sex with, fantasized about) are you to each sex?” These techniques serve to de-emphasize sexual identity labels with a continuum of multiple overlapping sexualities. Intermediate cases are critical in many areas of life, including sexuality and romance, and crucial to developing a more complete understanding of individuals. Given their life stories and relevant research, we must provide individuals with opportunities that encourage them to reflect on the complexity of their life.

References

Savin-Williams, R.C. (2021). Bi: Bisexual, pansexual, fluid, and nonbinary youth. New York: New York University Press

Semon, T.L., Hsu, K.J., Rosenthal, A.M., & Bailey, J.M. (2017). Bisexual phenomena among gay-identified men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 237-245. doi:10.1007/s10508-016-0849-5

Gallup: 2020, https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-es…

Savin-Williams, R.C., Cash, B.M., McCormack, M., & Rieger, G. (2017). Gay, mostly gay, or bisexual leaning gay? An exploratory study distinguishing gay sexual orientations among young men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 265-272. doi:10.1007/s10508-016-0848-6

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