Are women the same as men?

Scientists are playing catch up when it comes to studying the sexual orientations of women. Why is that? Much of the research has focused on men. Scientists have assumed that they can just apply the findings about men’s sexual orientations to women, based on the idea that sexual attraction is a set characteristic that does not vary according to gender. The focus on men also reflects broader biases in science and society, whereby men have been the default research subjects in most medical and scientific studies.

It turns out that the characteristics of men’s and women’s sexual identities might not be the same after all. What recent studies are finding is that women’s sexual identities have some things in common with men—for instance, genes play a role in both cases—while other traits are seemingly different.

Studies have shown that men seem to cluster mainly at the opposite ends of the spectrum, as exclusively gay or exclusively straight, while more women identify somewhere in between these two poles. Also, most men tend to stay within a single category—straight, gay, or bisexual—throughout their lives. That’s not as true for women.

There is a greater tendency for women’s identities and/or attractions to shift over the course of a lifetime. This trait has caused researchers to theorize that women’s sexual orientations are more fluid than men’s, and studies are beginning to explore why that might be the case (Diamond, 2008).

What is sexual fluidity, exactly? Dr. Dylan Selterman (2014) offers the following definition, based on the pioneering research of psychologist Lisa Diamond, PhD:

“It’s a fairly simple concept: people’s sexual responses are not set in stone, and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation they’re in. For example, if someone identifies as heterosexual but then finds themself in an environment with only people of the same gender, they might feel increased sexual/romantic attraction to those same-gender partners. Like any other social trait, sexual preferences, attitudes, behaviors, and identity can be flexible to some degree.” (“What is sexual fluidity?” para. 2)

Research on sexual fluidity is still in the early stages. And experts caution that it’s important not to over-generalize about either gender. As Dr. Selterman explains, it would be wrong to assume that all women are sexually fluid—or that no men are:

“[T]he results say nothing about all women or all men. There are many women who show no signs of sexual fluidity at all; likewise, there are some men who are very sexually fluid” (Selterman, 2014, “Both men and women can be sexually fluid…”, para. 2).

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Curious to learn more about the similarities and differences between men’s and women’s sexual orientations and why the concept of sexual fluidity has sparked controversy in the research community?

Check out Dr. Selterman’s article.

Debunking myths about sexual fluidity

References:

Diamond, L.M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19359700902897075

Selterman, D. (2014). Debunking myths about sexual fluidity. Science of Relationships. Retrieved from http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2014/10/13/debunking-myths-about-sexual-fluidity.html

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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Check out the summary of Lisa Diamond's 2008 book on Sexual Fluidity.

Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire

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