Women Aren’t The Only Ones Who Are Sexually Fluid—Men Have A Pretty “Flexible” Sexuality Too

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Over the last decade, the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a “flexible” erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan. Until recently, it has been argued that this fluidity is a characteristic that seems largely unique to women, with men being said to have a much more “fixed” sexuality; however, recent research challenges this conventional wisdom and suggests that men may be almost as sexually fluid as women.

As some evidence of this, let me tell you a little about a talk I recently attended given by Dr. Lisa Diamond entitled “I Was Wrong! Men’s Sexuality is Pretty Darn Fluid Too” (this talk was part of the 2014 SPSP Sexuality Pre-Conference). Diamond conducted the original groundbreaking research on the concept of sexual fluidity in women and, until recently, was one of many who believed that this was something that pretty much only applies to women (although she has never argued that fluidity is characteristic of all women—rather it is just something that a number of women seem to experience).

In this talk, Diamond presented the results of a study of 159 women and 179 men in Salt Lake City, Utah who were equally divided among those who identify as gay/lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual. What she found was that a substantial number of participants appeared to be sexually fluid and, further, that there did not appear to be any major differences between men and women in this regard.

Before we get into those results, I think it is first important to note that in most sex studies, participants are only given the option of selecting one sexual identity label. What we see in those studies is that men are more likely than women to select gay, whereas women are more likely than men to select bisexual—and these findings are often then used as further evidence of men’s “fixed” sexuality and women’s “flexible” sexuality. In Diamond’s new study, however, participants could choose more than one identity label if they desired, and this yielded some interesting findings. Of those women who identified as lesbians, 35% selected at least one other identity as well (e.g., bisexual, queer, unlabeled). Among the men who identified as gay, 36% selected at least one other identity too. What this tells us is that forcing people to choose a single identity label overlooks a lot of important variability, which may incorrectly lead us to believe that men’s sexuality is more “fixed” than it really is.

That said, if we move on to the sexual attraction results, less than half of self-identified gay men and lesbians in this study said that they were only attracted to people of the same-sex during the last year—thus, most reported at least some degree of attraction to people of the other sex. Moreover, 42% of lesbians said that they had masturbated to a male fantasy recently, while 31% of gay men said they had masturbated to a female fantasy recently. Perhaps even more fascinating is the finding that 9% of self-identified lesbians and 12% of self-identified gay men reported actually having sex with someone of the other sex during the last year.

So was this variability in sexual attraction and behavior unique to gays and lesbians? Nope. Self-identified heterosexuals exhibited it too! Believe it or not, 50% of heterosexual women and 25% of heterosexual men reported having at least some recent same-sex attraction. Likewise, 35% of heterosexual women and 24% of heterosexual men reported masturbating to a same-sex fantasy in the last year. And not just that, but 2% of heterosexual women and 9% of heterosexual men reported actually having same-sex contact in the last year.

One other finding worth noting is that, among those who had previously “come out,” 84% of women and 78% of men reported that they had changed their sexual identity label at least once. Thus, when people adopt a sexual identity label, it does not necessarily remain constant over time.

These findings are consistent with a growing body of research telling us that people’s patterns of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity are not perfectly consistent. In addition, they challenge the notion that male sexuality is inherently “fixed." Of course, it is important to note that, even in Diamond's new study, men were more likely than women to fall at one of the extreme ends and be either exclusively gay or exclusively heterosexual; however, these results tell us that there appears to be far more “flexibility” and diversity in men’s erotic responses than previously thought and, when it comes to sexual fluidity, men and women may not be so different after all.

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