I Kissed a Girl
Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire
Lisa M. Diamond
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008, 333 pp., $27.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Ellyn Ruthstrom
In a culture most comfortable analyzing important issues using binary concepts—Democrat/Republican, pro/con, right/wrong—the straight/gay binary of sexual orientation is particularly well-defended. Admitting to any element of ambiguity or changeability in this most intimate part of our identities strikes fear into the hearts of many. Certainly the biphobia—prejudice against bisexuals—that is exhibited by both the straight and gay communities is a manifestation of that fear. If we understood ambiguity better, would we be able to accept that a fluid sexual orientation is as valid as any other? Would there be less distrust and apprehension of those whose sexuality doesn’t fit into a heads-or-tails reality?
In Sexual Fluidity, Lisa Diamond argues that heterosexuals find the idea of a consistent sexual orientation throughout life reassuring, because it means they’ll never become “one of them.” Lesbians and gay men, too, like the notion of sexual stability, if only because it implies that they can know for sure who is in the dating pool. The perceived threat of bisexuality—whether to one’s privilege or one’s social ease—is difficult to assuage. Diamond notes, “[It] is understandably alarming and unsettling to acknowledge that one of the most deeply personal aspects of selfhood—sexuality—is neither as known nor as knowable as we may have thought.” Her book takes a significant step toward revealing the richness of female sexual experience and, one hopes, toward easing the fear of sexual ambiguity.
In the ten-year study that is the centerpiece of the book, Diamond tracked the sexual identities of a group of almost one hundred women who were between the ages of sixteen and 23 at the start of her project. To be included in the study, the women had to have experienced same-sex attractions, but they did not have to identify as lesbian or bisexual. Throughout the book, Diamond provides vivid case studies illustrating the struggles of many participants to shoehorn their experiences into gay/straight boxes that couldn’t contain their complex sexual identities.
Diamond begins with celebrity examples of women’s same-sex attraction fluctuations to acclimate readers to her theme. Actor Anne Heche, the former girlfriend of comedian Ellen Degeneres, filmmaker Julie Cypher, the former girlfriend of rock-and-roller Melissa Etheridge, and TV star Cynthia Nixon of Sex in the City were all assumed to be heterosexual until their same-sex relationships garnered mainstream media attention. After very public break-ups with their girlfriends, Heche and Cypher are now in heterosexual relationships—totally confusing some fans—while Nixon continues to identify as a lesbian while playing her sexually busy straight character. Diamond also presents examples from the tight-knit lesbian community, such as the folksinger and activist Holly Near and the writer Jan Clausen, whom the mainstream is less likely to know about but who elicited outcries from their peers when they revealed that they were in relationships with men. Diamond asks of such women, “What’s going on? Are these women confused? Were they just going through a phase before, or are they in one now?”
This concept of “a phase” has often reinforced the idea that people have one static sexuality, and they should find it out and then stick to it. As an unspoken corollary, anyone who experiences same-sex attraction must be lesbian or gay, and if you return to heterosexual relationships after that, you’re either fearful or in denial. Diamond’s study validates what many bisexuals have said for a long time: their sexuality isn’t a phase; it’s a life. The media responded to Diamond’s study by proclaiming that bisexual women actually exist. It’s nice to get the scientific confirmation, but this is hardly new information to the activist bisexual community, which has been organizing and creating support networks around the world for more than 25 years.
Early in Anne Heche’s relationship with Ellen Degeneres, Heche was quoted as saying that she had fallen in love with Degeneres herself, not with her gender, and that she had never been attracted to other women. Many people scoffed, unable to believe in such a fluctuation of attraction. For Diamond, grappling with her subjects’ “person-based attractions” was a significant turning point. After noticing that many of them described such attractions, Diamond added a question to her study to capture the data. Half of the women in her sample reported having experienced person-based attractions at some point, including lesbians who said they’d been drawn to individual men. Diamond differentiates between bisexuality, which she defines as “a consistent pattern of erotic responses to both sexes,” and sexual fluidity, which she defines as “possessing a potential for nonexclusive attractions.” Different people have different degrees of fluidity affecting their core sexual orientation.
More than half of the women in Diamond’s study changed the way they identified sexually at some point during the study, and a significant percentage went through periods when they chose not to label themselves. The phenomenon of women identifying as “unlabeled” is becoming more common among members of the sexual minority community, especially those in their teens and twenties. Whereas in the past, sexual minorities united around a common term for strategic political purposes, the word “bisexual” has been problematized by research such as Diamond’s, which normalizes fluidity, as well as by a deeper understanding of sex and gender that makes either-or terms inadequate.
Diamond believes that men and women develop their sexual orientations quite differently. Though she criticizes studies that purport to prove that male bisexuality does not exist (while encouraging researchers to continue to examine the question), she sets out to show that sexual fluidity is a much larger component of female than of male sexuality. She notes that past research done on men was often generalized to include women’s experience (sound familiar?), and that when nonexclusive behavior came up in the data, it often disqualified the participants from the study. Thus, the variability that Diamond finds so intriguing was siphoned off many earlier studies. Rather than throwing out the women who seemed to be going through “phases,” Diamond zeros in on how their experiences can help us understand female same-sex attraction.
Because of women’s hormonal flows, arousal mechanisms, and brain structures in which desire and love reside in different areas, we have more fluidity built into our sexual orientations. It really is possible to meet the right person at the right time and—voilà—you’ve fallen for an individual who’s the “wrong” gender. Diamond notes women’s propensity for intense same-sex friendships and their wide range of emotional connections (harking back to Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum”). Her description of these friendships made me think of the characters of Meredith Gray and Cristina Yang on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Each refers to the other as her “person,” describing a bond that is at once family, best-friend-forever, snuggle buddy, and therapist. They say they’ll be there for each other no matter what, which includes sleeping together in the same bed on nights when they need the comfort of another warm body. Their relationship is not sexual, or at least not yet, but they openly honor the intensity of their relationship to others, and their social group accepts its special status.
If sexual fluidity is about potential, then environment and circumstance play a big role in the way same-sex attraction surfaces in women’s lives. In Jennifer Baumgardner’s 2007 book, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, she credits some of her own exploration of sexual and emotional relationships with women to her early professional life in the lesbian-positive milieu of Ms. magazine. Neither Baumgardner nor Diamond is saying that environment creates the potential for fluidity; rather their point is that if your sexual orientation has fluid potential, then your environment may influence how you act it out.
So, if fluidity can be affected by circumstance, does that mean that people have control over their attractions? This is a dangerous question in today’s political climate, in which the Right is always looking for ways to blame gay, lesbian, and bisexual people for our behavior. Many right-wing Christians advocate the use of so-called reparative therapy to change sexual orientation, even though the evidence shows that although it may alter behavior—although usually not for long—it does not change orientation or desire. Diamond herself is quick to refute the idea that people can choose their sexualities. “[F]luidity does not imply that individuals can mold either their sexuality or someone else’s into a pattern of their choosing. Variability does not equal choice any more than stability equals genetics.” In fact, the women in her study often spoke of the powerlessness they felt in the face of their attractions. They did not feel they were “choosing” to have those feelings.
Diamond’s study has the potential to lead to more acceptance of variety within sexual orientation. With young women leading the way, everyone will become less fearful of diverse sexual experiences. Sexual Fluidity can take us beyond the divisive language of “phases” and “denial” as we speak the truth of our lives to each other.
Ellyn Ruthstrom is the board president of the Bisexual Resource Center, former editor of the national bimonthly newsletter Bi Women, and a writer and editor in the Boston area.