womens sexuality sexual fluidity bisexuality
Research focused specifically on women's sexuality is relatively recent compared with research on men's sexuality. Only since roughly 2000 have researchers begun asking the questions "what is the nature of women's sexuality?" and "how is it different from what we know of men's sexuality?". One of the most significant results of these investigations was the 2008 book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa Diamond which brought attention to how women's sexuality can change over time.
Diamond's work was qualitative and longitudinal - it was based on interviews of 100 women that she tracked for more than ten years as they emerged from adolescence into adulthood. She found that the women, as a group, exhibited a capacity for flexible erotic response which is triggered by situational and interpersonal factors, and which varies across individuals - some people exhibit a greater degree of fluidity, others less so.
The above two sets of graphs from her paper "Female Bisexuality from Adolescence to Adulthood: Results from a 10-Year Longitudinal Study" illustrate the results of the study. She started with women who identified as being in three groups - lesbian, bisexual and unlabeled who all showed some degree of attraction towards women. Over time, at each interview interval she observed that a sizable percentage of the women would announce a switch from one type of identity to another - some even self-identified as heterosexual, a category that was absent from the women at the start of the survey. The graphs in Figure 2 are especially revealing of the change in the women - their attraction towards women has become less intense over the 10 years and a large percentage, over a third, are now having sex with men. The results are quite surprising because it had been believed that sexual orientation was basically biological in origin and highly resistant to change.
In subsequent studies Diamond has broadened her focus to include men and heterosexual women to see if and how their sexual attractions and behaviour change over time. She used existing social surveys with much larger data sets, including the National Survey of Family Growth (US) and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Aad Health, US) each of which features over 10,000 randomly chosen people. The data reveals that men also seem to exhibit some sexual fluidity but not to the same extent as that shown by women. What is really fascinating though is the data which shows the number of women who describe themselves as being attracted to "mostly the other sex".
In the above slide Lisa is pointing to the "mostly other sex" bar that has gone off the chart. The graph represents data from the 2008 Wave 4 Aad Health Survey and indicates that about 15% of young women who were surveyed are mostly attracted to men, but have some level of attraction to women. The data from the preceding 2002 Wave 3 Aad Health Survey showed that number to be about 10%, which indicates an explosive growth over a very short 6-year time span. The next set of data, the Wave 5 set, is not due till 2018 but I suspect that it will show further increases in the category.
The above slide shows the total amount of bisexual attraction for men and women over time; each bar in the graph represents the results from a major longitudinal study, and the black portion of the bars represents people who have indicated that their same sex attraction is exclusive, in other words exclusively gay or lesbian. The yellow portion indicates those that have any degree of non-exclusive same-sex attraction. One can easily see that same-sex attraction for men (the set of bars on the left) is stable over time, for both those that are exclusively gay or for those that are non-exclusive. The same is also the case for lesbians, but look at the yellow bars representing women who have non-exclusive attractions towards women; they are rising quickly over time. This is evidence that heterosexual women are also sexually fluid and that there is some kind of major change underway in our society.
Lisa Diamonds' work has been followed by another type of research in women's sexuality that generates quantitative data from a laboratory setting. One of the leading researchers in this field is Dr. Meredith Chivers, a sexologist currently at the SAGE (Sexuality and Gender) Laboratory at Queen's University in Kingston,Ontario. Chivers uses various means to measure her subjects bodily responses to the depiction of sexual activity, one of which is vaginal photoplethysmography (a hard word to say!). It involves inserting a small tube inside the vagina which accurately measures the increase in blood flow in the walls of the vagina during sexual arousal. Chivers also gives her subjects a keypad which they use to indicate how aroused they feel during the course of the experimental session. One of the goals of her initial research was to see if the two measures of arousal - the objective measure of blood flow and the subjective measure of the participants would match, or in other words exhibit sexual concordance.
Sexy, 90 second video segments are displayed to the women interspersed with neutral scenes of landscapes to return their state of arousal to a base level. Daniel Bergner, in his book, What Do Women Want? describes the content of the scenes:
"A slender woman with a soft, oval face and dark, curly hair sat on the lip of a large tub. Her skin was tan, her areolas dark. Another woman rose from the water, her soaked blond hair raked behind her ears. She pressed her face between the brunette’s thighs and whisked with her tongue."
"A woman with long black hair leaned forward on the arm of a lounge chair, her smooth buttocks elevated. Then she settled her light brown body onto the white upholstery. Her legs were long, her breasts full, high. She licked her fingertips and stroked her clitoris. She pulled her spread knees up. She handled one breast. Her hips began to grind and lift."
"A man drove himself into the ass of another man, who let out a grateful moan; a woman scissored her legs in a solitary session of nude calisthenics; a bespectacled, sculpted man lay on his back and masturbated; a man slipped a woman’s black thong over her thighs and began with his tongue; a woman straddled another woman who wore a strap-on."
The chart above shows the results for a study Chivers did in 2005 which is detailed in the paper "A Sex Difference in Features That Elicits Genital Response." This work provided evidence that women who prefer men, ie. heterosexual women, have a unique and non-specific genital response to all the types of depicted sexual activity. In other words, their genitals, as measured by blood flow, are turned on by anything sexual. The subjective response of heterosexual women though conforms more to their claimed orientation towards men although they do reveal arousal to non-preferred sexual stimuli (ie. to female-female sex) that is significantly greater than that for the other groups - gay men, straight men or lesbians. These results have been replicated by many other researchers since then using different types of sexual arousal measurement and different types of sexual stimuli (ie. audio narratives versus films).
In a recent 2015 paper, "Straight but Not Narrow; Within-Gender Variation in the Gender-Specificity of Women Sexual Response" Chivers was interested in finding the differences in sexual response between the two groups of women that have been traditionally lumped together into the category "heterosexual". She separated those women into two narrower groups, those that were exclusively androphilic and those who were predominantly androphilic with some attraction towards women. Chivers was surprised to find that the latter group of women showed significantly more arousal, both genital and subjective to same-sex stimuli.
The two graphs above show the results of a first study that used 90 second video clips as the sexual stimuli. A second study was done using audio narratives of sexual encounters instead of video and there was a difference in the subjective ratings of exclusively androphilic women who significantly preferred the narratives featuring men while predominantly androphilic women rated the male and female stimuli as equally arousing. The objective genital response for both groups showed the same non-specific pattern as in the first study.
Dr. Meredith Chivers (seated centre) and the staff of the Sexuality and Gender (SAGE) Laboratory, Queen's University
The scientific data seems to show that women's sexuality is comprised of two systems - a genital arousal system that is non-specific, at least in exclusively androphilic women and a subjective desire system that is influenced by multiple environmental and personal factors which can be influenced by the genital arousal system but can also suppress or diminish the signals from it.
The rising numbers of women who are "mostly heterosexual" could be explained by a combination of women's non-specific genital arousal with the acceptance and increasingly positive portrayal of women having sexual and romantic relations with other women in our cultural media. Once an attraction to other women is subjectively acknowledged, it would be relatively easy for a woman today to enjoy and strengthen it through fantasies with masturbation, perhaps including the consumption of easily-found internet lesbian porn. As the number of women who are attracted to other women increases, and their level of desire increases, more women will have sex with each other, which will be reflected by our cultural media, creating a positive feedback loop to further encourage women to feel attracted to other women.
We are living in a very exciting time for women, and if trends continue it will be easier for us to fulfill all our desires and to enjoy the full range of our sexual potential and capacity.
The Mirror of Venus - Edward Burne-Jones (1833 - 1898)
Daughters of the Mist - Evelyn de Morgan (1855 - 1919)
Bergner, Daniel. What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
Chivers, Meredith L. The Specificity of Women Sexual Response and Its Relationship with Sexual Orientations: A Review and Ten Hypotheses. Archives of Sexual Behavior, January 10, 2017
Chivers, Meredith L., Katrina N. Bouchard, and Amanda D. Timmers. Straight but Not Narrow; Within-Gender Variation in the Gender-Specificity of Women Sexual Response. Available online at: http://journals.plos...al.pone.0142575
Chivers, Meredith L., and J. Michael Bailey. A Sex Difference in Features That Elicit Genital Response. Biological Psychology 70, no. 2 (October 2005): 115 20.
Diamond, Lisa M. Female Bisexuality from Adolescence to Adulthood: Results from a 10-Year Longitudinal Study. Developmental Psychology 44, no. 1 (2008):
SAGE - Sexuality and Gender Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Queen's University
The Puzzle of Women's Sexual Orientation - Why Straight Sexuality Isn't so Straightforward in Women - a lecture by Meredith Chivers at the Who You Love Conference, 2012
Lisa Diamond. Just How Different are Female and Male Sexual Orientation? Cornell University, posted December 5, 2013.
Meredith Chivers Women's Sexuality Ban Righ Centre Talk, Queen's University, 2016
Meredith Chivers The Agenda with Steve Paikin, 2016
Lisa Diamond. Women's Same Sex Sexuality Over the Life Course, University of California Television, June 22, 2010