Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who is struggling with how to label her sexuality.
I have always defined myself as a heterosexual woman. My general "fantasies" are about men. However, my first real kiss was with a girl. I’m now in my 30s and feel weird to be unsure of my sexual identity at this stage of my life, but the truth is I am going to love who I want to love. It could be a man who makes me feel like I am the only woman in the world or it could be an awesome woman. Day to day that changes, and in my head it has nothing to do with their anatomy and everything to do with their personality. My ultimate goal is that I find someone to love me for me and I will love them for them. I really don't care if you are a man or a woman if you make my day better and I do the same for you...isn't that all that matters? So what does that make me? If I need a label on my sexuality, what should it be? I’m just not sure if bisexual is the right term.
Thank you so much for sharing your story and for asking these questions! You are certainly not the first woman to have these feelings and to wonder how you fit in. Based upon what you’ve described, it sounds like you have what is known scientifically as a “fluid” sexuality, or an ability to adapt your sexual and romantic life to a specific person instead of a specific gender. This is not something that all women have, but it does occur with some frequency.
Dr. Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah has studied this topic extensively and has written an excellent book entitled Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire that I recommend you check out.1 In it, she details a study of 100 women she followed over a ten year time span. The participants had all reported some history of same-sex attraction, so the sample is not necessarily representative of the female population at large. However, what Diamond discovered was that a number of these women alternated between having male and female relationship partners and often changed their sexual identity to be consistent with their current desires and behaviors.
This research is part of a growing body of work suggesting that women are more likely to have a “flexible” sexuality, while men’s sexuality is more likely to be fixed on a specific target of interest. For more information on these ideas, check out some of my past articles on The Psychology of Human Sexuality (see here and here).
One point worth mentioning before we move on is that none of this research says that women “choose” their sexual orientation, which some people have mistakenly claimed. There is simply no evidence that people wake up each morning and consciously choose to wear a gay, straight, or bisexual hat. In fact, most research suggests that there is a biological basis for sexual orientation,2 which helps to explain why people don’t seem to have the ability to change their sexual orientation at will or through sham treatments like “reparative therapy.”
To answer your question about labels, this is my advice: be true to yourself and go with the label or identity that you are most comfortable with right now, whether that’s “sexually fluid,” “bisexual,” “trysexual” (i.e., willing to try anything), “unlabeled,” or something else. I know there’s a lot of arbitrary pressure in our society to fit neatly into a specific sexual category and I know some people believe that there’s only gay and straight with nothing in between, but the reality is that sexuality is incredibly complex and some people’s identities and labels may not be constant over the lifespan. It’s OK to be unsure and it’s OK if your pattern of attraction and identity changes later. You don’t have to make a lifelong commitment to a label. I hope this helps, and I wish you the best in finding the partner who brings you the happiness you deserve.
1Diamond, L. (2008). Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2Dawood, K., Bailey, J. M., & Martin, N. G. (2009). Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation. In Y. Kim (Ed.), Handbook of Behavioral Genetics (pp. 269– 280). New York, NY: Springer.
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