Fifteen years ago, Jane (as we’ll call her) considered herself a lesbian and had since an early age. Then, out of the blue, she fell in love with a man.
Her story begs the question: is Jane gay, straight or lying? According to new research on the science of sexuality, she’s none of the above.
So Much For the Straight and Narrow
For the past fifteen years, Lisa Diamond, Ph.D. a psychologist at the University of Utah, has been following a group of women (including Jane) who are attracted to other women. Her data shows, for the first time, how sexuality develops over a lifetime.At each follow-up (six so far), Diamond asked each woman to label herself as lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual or unlabeled and share details about her love life. Her findings startled even her. Over time, each woman’s chosen labels changed repeatedly, with one noteworthy trend: The older they got, the more likely they were to choose “unlabeled.” In other words, the older they got, the more they felt their sexuality didn’t fit into tidy boxes.
“We have this idea that sexuality gets clearer and more defined as time goes on,” says Diamond. “We consider that a sign of maturity to figure out who you are. I’ve seen it’s really the opposite.” For her subjects, maturity brought less clarity and definition, not more.
Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the majority of the men and women who report feeling some same-sex attraction consider themselves heterosexual.
Elizabeth Morgan, professor of psychology at Boise State University, studies same-sex attractions among heterosexuals and finds that straight women often feel more than a friendly affection for other women.
In a study of 484 college students in California who identify as heterosexual, 45 percent of the women in the study had kissed a woman, 50 percent fantasized about women and a full 60 percent reported at least some sexual attraction to women. Broader population data suggests that upwards of 20 percent of women are attracted to other women.
That may have something to do with the way women are socialized. From chatting on the phone for hours to snuggling during chick flicks, women’s friendships are often barely distinguishable from romantic relationships. “Women are encouraged to be emotionally close to each other,” says Morgan. “That provides an opportunity for intimacy and romantic feelings to develop.”
When otherwise heterosexual women fall for another woman, emotional connection is usually at the core. Diamond points out that many people, with the right person or the right circumstances, are willing to consider being with someone who falls outside their usual pattern (think: the 2001 hit comedy “Kissing Jessica Stein”).