“My boyfriend wanted to know if it turns me on to see pictures of hot guys, and I told him ‘no.’ I didn’t tell him that what really turns me on are pictures of hot chicks!”
“I went to see La La Land with my boyfriend. When it was over, we were both talking about how much we liked watching Emma Stone. Do you think any women actually watched Ryan Gosling?”
“If I like to look at other women does it mean I’m gay? Or bi?”
With bisexuality such an open topic these days, it is perhaps not surprising how often this last question comes up in therapy. Sexual identity and sexual partner choice, at least in some places around the world, are far more fluid than ever before. Relatively well-developed and varied portraits of sexuality appear in popular shows ranging from Transparent, Orange Is the New Black, and The 100 to Grey’s Anatomy.
The women in Sex and the City briefly consider the possibility of their own attraction for one another in one episode, and sexual tension between BFFs Rebecca and Paula makes a notable appearance in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend , but even so, the idea that straight women can be aroused by other women but not interested in having sex with them gets little attention. Yet it seems that the issue of sexual arousal by other women among straight women is far more common than you might have suspected.
In fact, a study published this past August in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that 72% of the straight women participants were aroused by other women. Using eye-tracking devices and measuring physiological indicators of sexual response, researchers at the University of Essex in the UK found that straight women were sexually aroused by videos of both attractive men and attractive women, even though they reported that they were only interested in sexual relationships with men. Lesbian participants, on the other hand, were aroused mainly by other women.
Yet despite how common the phenomenon appears to be, few women seem completely comfortable with the idea of being sexually aroused by other women while wanting to have sex only with men. Even the famous kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards highlighted the confusion, rather than the acceptance, of such feelings. Madonna, who says that she is bisexual, told one interviewer that she has had a lot of crushes on women but has only been in love with men. Christina Aguilera, on the other hand, has said that she is straight but finds women “hornier to look at” than men.
So what does it mean if you are a woman who likes men but finds other women sexually arousing?
Freud believed it was simply that men and women are all basically bisexual, and there are those who believe this today as well. But that doesn’t explain why lesbians in the study did not find men attractive, while straight women were aroused by both men and women.
Dr. Suzanna Rose, a researcher specializing in the psychology of women’s relationships, offers another explanation. Research has shown that in women’s brains sexual desire and lust are frequently connected to safety. And we often feel safest with our friends. So, she says, even when we have no interest in becoming sexual with a close woman friend, we might have some sexual stirrings when we are around her.
Feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow offers yet another potential piece of the puzzle when she reminds us that for both men and women, many of our earliest physical experiences are with women – mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other female caregivers who change, feed, and bathe us, and who soothe and comfort us with their touch and voice. So not only emotional safety but also physical stimulation is associated in our deepest memories with a woman’s body.
But the puzzle isn’t complete yet. In her book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England , author Sharon Marcus adds another piece to this complicated picture. Although generally we think of Victorians as sexually uptight, Marcus says that their sexual activities were pretty steamy. She offers a well-researched argument that Victorian women were openly aroused by one another but were neither bisexual nor lesbians. What aroused both men and women, she suggests, is the image of “femininity.” It seems to me that this is true today, as well, although modern views of femininity are probably very different from Victorian.
But connected to the arousal by "femininity" is the idea of identification. Many women look at other women and feel a bond that is both physical and emotional. “It’s like I was imagining what it’s like to be in her body,” said the young woman who liked watching Emma Stone in La La Land . “I didn’t want to have sex with her. I wanted to be her.”
In the course of gathering information for a book I am writing about women’s friendships, I have been exploring this phenomenon recently with women all over the world. Although my highly informal and totally unscientific survey seems to support the findings of the University of Essex study that a surprising number of straight women find other women’s bodies sexually stimulating, I think the jury is still out as to why this may be. The one thing that seems to be pretty clear, though, is the answer to the question at the beginning of this post: being sexually aroused by other women does not necessarily have anything to do with who you want as a sexual partner.
Suzanna Rose 2000 Heterosexism and the Study of Women’s Romantic and Friend Relationships Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 56, No. 2, 2000, pp. 315–328
Rieger, G., Savin-Williams, R. C., Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2016). Sexual arousal and masculinity-femininity of women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111, 265-283. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000077
Nancy Chodorow, 2011, Individualizing Gender and Sexuality: Theory and Practice