I read a hugely disturbing article [paywalled] in The Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago on ‘late-blooming’ lesbians. There’s a very similar article from the Sunday Telegraph that’s freely available here. Here’s a brief summary of the Times’s reporting of studies into women’s fluid sexuality:
Researchers have found that many women switch their preferences once they pass the age of 30 because of a biological “fluidity” in their sexual orientation that is much more common than in men.
The phenomenon, whose discovery has taken researchers by surprise, suggests lesbianism could be more widespread than previously thought. While many women could be future lesbians without knowing it, others may already have switched but be concealing their sexuality to keep their families together…
Most textbooks assume that, as with men, women’s sexual preferences are partly genetic and become fixed in the teens and early twenties, with relatively few changing sexuality later in life…
a series of studies have shown that in reality women’s sexual orientation may become more fluid as they grow older, with many developing lesbian or bisexual tendencies after the age of 30…
Researchers believe the phenomenon of fluid sexuality is far more common in women than men. “Women have a uniquely female potential for periodic shifts in sexuality over time,” said Christan Moran, a researcher at Southern Connecticut State University…
for many women, love and desire are not heterosexual or homosexual but fluid concepts, changing as women grow older, changing their social groups and relationships.
I’m certain a lot of people will view these findings not as evidence of women ‘developing lesbian tendencies’ in later life but of women who have always been lesbians finally feeling comfortable enough to express their desires publically.
What struck me most about the article though (and by extension the studies) was the way it repeatedly set up women’s fluidity in opposition to men’s stablility. It continually referred to how women’s sexuality is fluid in a way men’s isn’t. It almost felt like it was saying “yes some women will become lesbians in later life, but wives don’t worry, it won’t happen to your husband and don’t worry men either, it definitely won’t happen to you.”
As the article acknowledges, it is simply inconceivable that genetic makeup is the sole reason why some women express a variety of sexualities throughout their lives. Similarly, non-genetic factors play a huge role in some women’s repression of same-sex desires. As one of the researchers Christan Moran points out in the Sunday Telegraph’s article:
many women who develop lesbian feelings in later life refuse to “come out” for fear of society’s reaction…
To leave a heterosexual marriage in favour of lesbian identity is to abdicate enormous and undeniable privilege.
This is a perfectly acceptable position which could be drawn out to build a theory of how women come to express their sexuality or sexualities. One possible theory stemming from this could see women as having a genetic makeup which offers a certain range of sexual identities and a myriad of environmental conditions allow them to be aware of or feel comfortable expressing various positions within that range. This would take into account the environmental as well as the genetic in the forming of sexuality and presumes neither a predetermined outcome nor a sexuality completely free of genetic influence. The problem is that it’s apparently unthinkable to these researchers that this theory, or anything similar, could be applied to men.
Moran and others take it for granted that it’s men’s genes which are responsible for their apparently stable sexuality. If though we are to accept that women’s sexuality is unstable, it must be problematic to see men as necessarily of a single, stable and essential sexuality. It’s strange and hypocritical to hold the position that genes don’t determine everything in the case of women’s sexuality and simultaneously to assume that genes are the only factor in men’s sexuality.
Surely it would be significantly more productive to research the non-genetic reasons why many more women than men are expressing a variety of sexualities in their lifetime rather than assuming that genetics is solely responsible for men’s sexual preferences. Moran suggests that fear of society’s reaction and of losing the privilege of heterosexual marriage leads some women to hide their ‘late-blooming’ lesbianism. I’d suggest that similar reasons are significantly more responsible for the apparent stability of men’s sexuality than a pre-determined and pre-determining genetic makeup.
It would seem likely that wider societal tolerance of non-heterosexual sexualities is at least partly responsible for increasing numbers of women recognising potential non-heterosexual positions within their fluid sexuality. Yet, as the researchers state, some women continue to feel uncomfortable expressing such positions. My gut feeling is that the path to more men and women recognising and freely expressing a variety of positions in their fluid sexuality will start in earnest when heterosexual privilege is undone and when society becomes tolerant and understanding of individuals with multiple sexualities. This is, of course, a great challenge but we’re unlikely to make much progress with it when major newspapers uncritically report research on sexuality which relies on genetic determinism to reach its conclusions.
Update – 23.7.2010
A Facebook friend of mine pointed me towards this article from yesterday’s Guardian on the same topic. Much of it is very similar to the other articles but it does also talk about men’s sexual fluidity. It quickly switches back however to viewing men as necessarily being a certain way without considering how or why men came to be that way.
Sexual fluidity occurs in both men and women but it has been suggested that women are potentially more open and malleable in this regard. Richard Lippa, professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, has carried out a variety of studies that have led him to the conclusion that, “while most men tend to have what I call a preferred sex and a non-preferred sex . . . with women there are more shades of grey, and so I tend to talk about them having a more preferred sex, and a less preferred sex. I have definitely heard some women say, ‘It was the person I fell in love with, it wasn’t the person’s gender,’ and I think that that is much more of a female experience than a male experience…
”I’ve never had a straight man say to me, at age 45, I just met this really neat guy and I fell in love with him and I don’t like men in general, but God, this guy’s so great that I’m going to be in a relationship with him for the next 15 years.”
The same problem persists in the Guardian’s article. Despite acknowledging the existence of some men with fluid sexuality, it is still assumed that because straight men don’t usually develop same-sex desires, stable sexuality is something essential to men. The likely effect of societal pressures on the construction of men’s apparently stable sexuality continues to be ignored.