Whether you identify as straight, gay or bi, there’s a good chance that you’re also a bit sexually fluid — according to science. This doesn’t mean your sexual orientation is a false construct, but it does mean that there’s more to your sexuality than meets the eye.
When a close, straight friend of mine fell in love with another (gay) friend of ours when we were in our 20s, it was hard to wrap my brain around the relationship at first. I dearly loved and supported both of my friends, but I was confused about how a person I’d always known to be straight could suddenly be attracted to a woman. She explained that she’d fallen for our friend’s soul — a whole person — not a body. When this happened, the rest of the “rules” of her sexuality fell away. This was long before millennial celebs like Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus came out and made it clear that there’s no shame in openly discussing both bisexuality and sexual fluidity (which are two different things — I’ll explain in a bit).
And it’s not just the under-30 set busy redefining love and relationships: There are many examples of straight-identifying, older female celebs falling for women after a lifetime of dating and/or marrying men. From Anne Heche, Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres to Cynthia Nixon’s midlife partnership with a woman, Gillian Anderson’s openness about her relationships with women, and Maria Bello’s famous New York Times Modern Love essay and her anti-label movement — Gen X-ers are also in the mix.
So what is sexual fluidity, anyway?
No matter how “fixed” you might believe your own sexual orientation to be, Lisa Diamond, Ph.D., the author of Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, suggests that most women are sexually fluid to some extent — even if it’s unexplored. Diamond defines sexual fluidity simply as “situation-dependent flexibility in women’s sexual responsiveness.”
Is this something you can measure using something like the Kinsey scale? Not really.
Diamond says, “Where you fall on the Kinsey scale represents your general pattern of sexual attraction — your orientation. Sexual fluidity represents the degree to which that pattern is susceptible to periodic (and possibly temporary) change due to contextual factors, such as a specific relationship. In other words, your orientation represents your general pattern of attraction, and your fluidity represents your capacity for change. Not all individuals are highly fluid — some are more fluid than others. So you can have all possible combinations — stable lesbians and fluid lesbians, stable heterosexuals and fluid heterosexuals.”
It’s important to acknowledge that even as we accept the science of sexual fluidity and the evidence of it in our lives, our friends’ lives and the lives of celebrities, that queer-policing homophobes will use this to suggest that gay people can or should be changed. That’s not the case — the existence of sexual fluidity in no way indicates that some external force, like abusive, dangerous “reparative therapy” can change anyone’s sexual orientation.
Busting the myths about sexual fluidity
There are pernicious myths about sexual fluidity, and the one that troubles Diamond the most is that it indicates some kind of confusion or experimentation, or that people who are fluid are in denial about their “real” sexuality. She says, “Variability in sexual attractions over the life course is a normative phenomenon, and we now have excellent longitudinal data showing that variability is actually more common than perfect stability. We didn’t know this before because we rarely asked the same people about their same-sex and other-sex sexual attractions over repeated intervals of time. But we have more data of this sort now, and they show a lot more variability than many scientists and laypeople used to think.”
People also tend to think that sexual fluidity is just bisexuality with a cooler, newer name. Not true.
Diamond clears this up: “A bisexual orientation is an orientation that involves sexual attractions to both sexes. Individuals with bisexual orientations experience this pattern consistently over time. When a “fluid” heterosexual or a fluid gay person experiences periodic bisexual attractions, that doesn’t suddenly transform them into a bisexual, because their underlying pattern hasn’t changed. In contrast, individuals with bisexual orientations always experience bisexual attractions, regardless of context.”
So how do you determine how sexually fluid you are now, or might be in the future? Simply by living, and being aware and unashamed of what you feel — both in body and mind. Here’s where it gets a bit tricky, however. Because lesbian sex is fetishized by heterosexual men and is so prevalent in porn, for many women, experimenting with same-sex partnerships is just another way of performing for the male gaze — or for your male partner’s immediate gratification. Engaging with your own authentic sexual fluidity will require turning off that performative mechanism and just feeling what you feel.
Diamond adds, “I think that just being aware of one’s attractions and being self-accepting is the best approach. There is a lot of emerging research on ‘mindfulness’ and sexuality, and this is highly relevant — mindfulness simply refers to the practice of calmly drawing your own attention to your bodily states, in a non-judgmental way. Given that our society teaches all of us to have a lot of shame about sexuality, and especially same-sex sexuality, it’s likely that many people would immediately suppress any sexual feelings or attractions that made them feel guilty or shameful or just strange. But a mindfulness approach would say ‘just be aware of that, in the moment, allow yourself to feel and notice the feeling, and then let it develop or dissipate on its own.’”
And as we women open ourselves up to the full range of our sexual selves, it should be noted that men, too, are far more sexually fluid than we once thought. As shame continues to fall away and more of us are willing to engage with the myriad of complexities of our sexual selves, who knows what we’ll learn about ourselves.