Sexuality Is Much More Fluid Than You Think
Research on orientation shows it is much more complex than imagined.
Posted May 04, 2016
How fluid is sexuality? This is a question I often hear both from clients and from my peers. In my upcoming book, I argue that much of sexuality is either inborn, or influenced by innate factors. However, that doesn't mean sexual expression is fixed or static. After all, as we all have heard, much of human behavior comes down to a mix of "nature" vs "nurture." Rather, even the fluidity itself I believe is influenced by as many genetic as social factors. Let me explain further.
There is a situation I like to use as illustration-- you can have ten different people in a room engaging in the same exact behavior, but for ten different reasons. Where we often go awry is making judgments or conclusions based solely on external markers, in this case behaviors. But, as I've written about before, when it comes to sexuality, it's all about intent. And we have no idea what that intent really is comprised of without having a greater understanding of the inner workings of that particular individual's mind.
Let's take same-sex behavior as an example. Psychiatrist Fritz Klein created what is called the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, which divides orientation into seven distinct categories-- Attraction, Behavior, Fantasies, Emotional Preference, Social Preference, Lifestyle, and Self-Identification. Those are a lot of categories! In other words, according to Klein, someone, let's say in this case a man, may have a sexual attraction to a man, but only feel an emotional preference for women. Or that man may find a deep emotional connection with other men, but not find any desire for sexual interaction. Or alternatively, enjoy sexual contact with men, but only fantasize about women. These are all possible scenarios, and I've encountered all of them in my practice.
Further complicating matters, as I mentioned above, different individuals can have the same behavior, but even those reasons can be wildly different. Some experience it as a piece of the larger component, which is their orientation. Others may simply feel like they have a sexual attraction to male genitalia, but identify as purely heterosexual-- the penis then is experienced as more of a fetishistic object. Impossible? Not so fast. One of the most popular forms of porn for heterosexual men is "T-porn," or porn featuring pre-op trans women. These are individuals who have had some procedures to transition from male to female, but have left the penis intact. Why is this popular? Well, there are many theories, but I suggest that at least one of them is that there are many hetero men that fetishize the penis, and are aroused by the idea of it being connected to a person with the external trappings of a woman. It's quite possible that, for some men who engage in sex with other men (MSM), the appeal of the encounter feels more like a fetish than an orientation.
At any rate, what I'm trying to establish is that sexuality is not an area that typically falls into neat boxes. And though I do believe there is a genetic component (and the research does bear me out here), I've also often seen in my practice a number of individuals that have seemingly displayed a significant amount of fluidity in their sexuality, having changed their interests and behaviors throughout the years. How do we explain that?
I look at it two ways. On one hand, we have a nascent field of research (called "epigenetics") that suggests that our genes get switched off and on during the course of our lifetimes, depending on both internal and external factors, as well as for reasons that we simply just don't understand at this point in time. It is quite conceivable that some of the sexual fluidity we see is a result of these kinds of epigenetic gene switches. Indeed research shows that, in the case of identical twins (who have exact genetic makeups), it is often the case that one twin may be gay while the other isn't, and researchers speculate this is due to epigenetic factors.
In addition, I think for some folks, sexual fluidity is merely a matter of uncovering. In other words, they may not have realized they were interested in some aspect of sexuality until they tried it and realized that they enjoyed it. I have found that folks for example may discover a kinky side as adults that they never knew existed before, simply because they were never exposed to it and didn't even have the awareness that these certain things were even possible.
What I do want to underscore, however, is despite the certain prevalence of sexual fluidity, I have not seen any concrete evidence that sexuality can be reversed or changed with some specific techniques or therapeutic applications. Yes, as I've mentioned, sexuality can be uncovered (or discovered, whichever you prefer), but it's not going to be hammered into some neat category that is dictated by society or a mental health professional. For further clarification, if someone wishes to discover some new aspect of their sexuality, that is certainly something that can be accomplished through a conscious self-directed plan. But once that sexual interest has been established, it can change for one reason or another, but it's not going to be done by willing it away, praying it away, or going to some authority figure that promises to annihilate it. Such attempts create more harm and destruction than good.
In the end, the best advice I can give regarding sexual fluidity is the same one I've been writing about all along: self compassion, open mindedness, curiosity, and radical self-acceptance. Enjoy the ride, wherever it leads you, and never spend a day shaming yourself for who you are.