by Troy Williams
The queer community has been obsessed with cultivating the idea that we all have fixed sexual identities. We’ve crafted terrific narratives and political platforms based on the notions that all gays are “born that way”. But what if sexuality is more complex? What if biology actually intersects with environment, time, culture and context? Could we possibly be more fluid than we’ve supposed?
Lisa Diamond is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. Her new book, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire challenges everything we thought we knew about fixed notions of sexuality. (The following Interview was originally broadcast on KRCL’s RadioActive, July 8, 2009)
listen to the entire interview here:
Troy Williams: when you started your research you came to the realization that everything you knew about female sexuality was wrong. What were the ideas that framed your original worldview?
Lisa Diamond: I started this project pretty naïve. I was well steeped in what the academic literature had to say. It was a packed story. It basically said that young children, at some point in pre-adolescence begin to become aware of same-sex attraction if they are gay. And the process of sexual identity development was just this progressive unfolding of that aspect of themselves. There were certain sequences of stages that were followed: questioning, awareness and then experimentation. And then you end this process by claiming your gay identity and you ride off into the sunset! A lot of the research that was published at the time (late 80’s early 90’s) was on young men. So, as a dutiful graduate student looking for an area of research that had not been done to death, I decided to study women. There had been some research to suggest women might be different. So I decided to study what is true about women if we follow them over time. Most of the research on sexual identity development was done on adult gay people. We said, “recollect back ten or fifteen years and tell us what you remember.” But what we now know about auto-biological narrative is that the impulse to tell a clear, linear story about how you got to be the way you are is very strong. They tend to tell a pretty limited story. So I decided not to take that approach and to follow women soon after they come out and to keep re-interviewing them over time.
TW: How long did you track these women?
LD: It’s been thirteen years. As long as the women are willing to keep participating, I’m going to keep following them.
TW: How old was the youngest?
LD: When I started they were all between 16 and 23. Now they’re getting older, having babies, getting married and unmarried. Continuing to follow them has been very gratifying. But what I quickly found was that the very linear narrative didn’t describe these women at all. It certainly described some, but it was really over-generalized. What I found when I checked in over time is that they would change their identity-labels. They would find themselves falling in love with people they didn’t expect; whether it was heterosexual women getting involved with women, or lesbian women getting involved with their male best friends, there was just a whole broad range of experiences that absolutely flew in the face of this pact, clean story of a progressing, unfolding identity. It forced me to go back to the drawing board and ask myself what exactly we thought this phenomenon of identity development really was — and then to ask ourselves deeper questions about the nature of female sexuality and what sexuality in general really is.
TW: The desire for a fixed identity is really important to people.
LD: The role of the fixed identity is also developmentally specific. A lot of individuals feel like it plays a very important role often in the beginning stages as they start to identify. It’s not that it’s a fiction, it’s just we have a distorted sense of what role it plays. Usually when we talk about sexual identity we’re talking to individuals who recently came out and for whom the primacy of that identity is so salient. What I found at ten-year follow up interviews with some of my respondents when I asked them about their sexual identity, some would say, “These days I’m sorta more focused on my IRA. I’m living with a women, I’m obviously a lesbian, but I just don’t think about it everyday.” Identity writ large is no longer always the most important thing.
TW: You talk a lot about sexual orientation, sexual identity and sexual behavior. Let’s break down the difference between the three.
LD: Most people assume they all go together in a nice neat package. We now actually have more good data on what folks out in the world are doing. And whether the folks who are having sex with the same sex are identifying as gay, and how they describe their attractions. One of the first large scale studies of this that was published in 1994 from a random representative sample of American adults. They were looking at Americans who said that they were attracted to the same sex, Americans who were having sex with the same sex, and Americans who were identifying as lesbian, gay and bisexual. What they found when they put those groups together was fascinating. The majority of those individuals report being attracted to the same-sex but they are neither having same-sex sexual contact, nor are they identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual. They are just going about their lives, having attractions and doing nothing about it at all. That’s the majority of individuals with any aspect of same-sex sexuality. Then you have a group of individuals who engage in same-sex behavior, but don’t identity as gay and don’t even say they are attracted to the same-sex. That’s what they report. That group is half the size. And the smallest group, are those who identify and are also having sex and claiming same-sex attractions. So the prototype in our mind of a gay person who identifies is actually the least representative type. And studies in other countries have found the same thing. It’s a small population. So if you broaden up your categories you realize that there are whole bunch of people who have one aspect of same-sex sexuality that is relevant to their lives, and other aspects that are not. We have no theory at all in the social sciences about what these divergences mean. We’ve been studying everything all wrong.
TW: My first same-sex experience was with a guy from Spain. I had no doubt he was straight, but we always made the comment, “well, he’s European…”
LD: Historically, cases like that have always emerged in the empirical and popular literature. The strategy researchers have taken is to say there are one of tw
o things going on: either he is gay and just in denial or he’s really straight and just completely confused. But either way, no one was interested in studying that person as an example of the phenomenon of sexuality and sexual orientation. When these folks showed up in research samples, they’d be deleted. No one was interested in explaining them. It was noise in the data.
TW: It’s not authentic.
LD: Yes, researchers would say it’s not important because it’s pretty unusual. But what we now know is that it’s not unusual, it’s not exceptional, it’s not noise in the data, it IS the data! And we have been throwing it away for many years. Which has not only has led us to develop stunted models of sexuality, but (as you mentioned because this person was from Spain) has impoverished our understanding about the way culture intersects with sexuality. Isn’t that an important question? How do we match up our sense of sexual being with the cultural models that are available to us from our community and society? If we throw away that data then we have no way of understanding that.
TW: We don’t really like the idea of environmental factors being a contributor to sexual orientation.
LS: We really don’t. We have a very stunted view of biology and environment. We talk about the environment as if it is so easily separated from what we conceive to be biological. It’s really the dumbing down of actual science. The idea that we can easily separate them out and say, “you were environmentally gay” and you are “biologically gay” is facile, non-scientific and irresponsible.
TW: Let’s talk about the “problem” of bi-sexuality. Straight people are suspicious of it. Gay people are suspicious of it. “Bi now, gay later.” Is this just a transitional phase or what is it?
LD: People often ask me what is the difference between sexual fluidity and bisexuality. The confusion about bisexuality is part of why it gets no legitimacy in the culture at large. The bisexual identified women that I have studied have very different experiences from one another. Two different women will tell very different stories. And it’s that diversity that makes it hard for people to get a handle on. Some bisexual women experience bisexuality as a stable capacity for attraction to both sexes. It is long-standing and early appearing as exclusive lesbianism. And then there were women who I studied who identified as bisexual but experienced their bisexuality as something that had more to do with a particular relationship they were in, rather than a stable trait. They say, “I thought I was heterosexual and then I fell in love with this woman. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know what will happen in the future.” That open-endedness is why bisexuality gets stigmatized. Because you have this mix of different experiences it’s hard for folks to get a handle on what exactly it is. That’s why I don’t use the term “bisexual” to refer to orientation at all. I talk a lot about “non-exclusive” attractions. The majority of women who experience any same-sex attractions at all, actually tend to experience attractions for both men and women. Not necessarily 50/50 and in fact the majority of folks lean toward one end or the other. But they’ll say, “I’m mainly attracted to women, but if the right guy came along that would be okay.” This is an idea that many people find very threatening. It’s much more comfortable for the culture at large to imagine that everyone fits into a gay or straight box.
TW: If we as a culture were to move away from rigid ideas of fixed identities and fixed sexualities what possibilities open up?
LD: We really need to remember what a negative view our society has of sexuality. We have an unbelievable amount of anxiety about sexuality and especially about childhood sexuality. As a fun thought experiment I’ll ask someone with a young son and daughter, “what is your ideal vision about your child’s positive, wonderful sexuality?” And people just look at me and they realize they have no idea of what positive sexual development means. They have no idea how to look at their child or adolescent and say, “Wow, how do I make sure you have a wonderful, erotic life?” We don’t talk about it! We only talk about how to prevent bad things from happening. Fluidity and a broadened version of sexuality could get us to ask the questions, what is healthy sexuality? How can this potentially help someone accept their sexual desires? How can this help us adopt a more accepting and empowering view of sexuality writ large for all individuals at all ages? We need to get over this anxiety about sexuality. It would be an amazing thing if a thirteen year old went into health class was told, “you are at the beginning of an incredible journey. I’m going to give you some tools and strategies for figuring out what you want and how to get it. But you are in the beginning of an adventure and it’s going to be great!” That would be a really profound transformation.