Big Think Interview with Lisa Diamond

Question: What has the study taught you about sexual identity in women?

Lisa Diamond: I think it's a moving target. I think one of the major findings is that there is no single definition of identity. Probably the most surprising finding of the study was how often women changed the way that they thought about their sexual identity over time. When I began the study, the conventional wisdom in the field was that the main development path for a sexual minority individual is to figure out what their identity is, to embrace it, to accept it, eventually to disclose it to others, and to just sort of integrate it into your sense of self. And that once you complete that process you're pretty much done. What I found instead was that between two waves of data collection, so I collected data about every two years. And every wave I would find that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the sample had changed their identity label, from lesbian to bisexual, from bisexual to lesbian, from lesbian to unlabeled. Some folks switched to heterosexual, and then they switched back to bisexual or unlabeled.

So I found an unbelievably common experience of variability and transition that certainly ran directly counter to a lot of the conventional wisdom in the field at the time. And even I was unsure of whether it was, you know, absolute. Every time I would collect data I would think, surely things will settle down at this point. But they have continued to show that sort of variability. Even 10 years out, the proportion of women changing identity labels between waves of data collection still is between 20 and 30 percent. And at this point, 13 years into the study, about 70 percent of the sample has changed their identity label at least once since that first interview. So that we used to think that change was really freaky and that stability was the norm. And now we know that we had it upside down. Stability is actually pretty uncommon, and transition and change are actually the norm.

Question: Why has this instability become the norm?

Lisa Diamond: I think there are a couple of things that account for it. I've found that on the individual level the only thing that consistently predicted a woman's likelihood of changing her identity was the degree to which her attractions were actually more in a bisexual range than in an exclusively sort of same-sex range, which makes a lot of sense, right? If you're attracted to both women and men, that creates just more possibilities for your relationships and for how you're going to see yourself. And certainly there were women who would describe themselves as being, for example, you know, 75 percent attracted to women. And some of them would say, well, that makes me a bisexual, because I'm still somewhat attracted to men. And other women would say, well, I'm mainly attracted to women, so I'll call myself lesbian. So women with similar patterns of attraction could actually find that different labels would comfortably fit the way that they saw their identity, but because of that wiggle room, that interpretive wiggle room, that created a lot of space for change and transition over time.

Some of the women that I interviewed would perhaps identify as lesbian if they were involved in a long-term relationship with a woman, but if that relationship ended, and because they were still 25 percent attracted to men, then would identify as bisexual. So that the simple existence of nonexclusive attractions I think created a context in which change was possible and was actually adaptive to the degree that it allowed women to find an identity label that fit her particular circumstance at a period of time.

The only group of women who showed extreme stability in their identity labels over time were the women who basically described themselves as being 100 percent attracted to women from the very beginning. They showed almost no identity change. So it was very clearly connected to this understanding of your own capacity for different types of attractions and behaviors over time. I think coupled with that, there is more visibility and awareness, I think, of the fact that sexuality is a complicated phenomenon, that it's not just black and white. Certainly even the label bisexual is more common now than it was, you know, 15 years ago, when I first started reading this research literature.

And even now if I do programming at gay and lesbian youth groups or other sort of community centers, there's far more kids who don't want to identify as anything at all, who just want to experience sexuality. So we do have more cultural permission now, I think, for the notion that you can sort of know that you're not heterosexual, but not necessarily feel that you have to put yourself into a particular box. And that was certainly a sense that I got from a lot of my participants, that you know, it took so long to escape from the heterosexual box; why would I want to put myself into another restrictive box? Why can't I just experience my sexuality as it unfolds, get involved with who I want to get involved with, and not be worried about some sort of standard of behavior that I'm supposed to conform to?

Question: Do men trend towards sexual fluidity?

Lisa Diamond: That's a great question. And for a long time there was no research, you know, that really asked the sort of questions that would speak to that. But the research has gotten better. There are more large-scale representative studies of adolescents and adults in America and in other countries that ask a broader range of questions about attractions and behavior and identity. And all of those studies consistently show that there is more diversity and variability in the sexual minority population that we used to think. And that in the same way that you find far more women reporting that they're attracted to women than who report that they identify as lesbian or bisexual.

The same is true of men. In every study that's been done you find far more individuals reporting that they're somewhat attracted to the same sex, you know, but not exclusively, and maybe not even in a 50/50, you know, bisexual range, than who identify as gay or lesbian. That shows that there's this sort of wiggle room. There's this space for variability that some people will define as gay, some people will define as bisexual, some people won't even define it, you know, at all. But that experience definitely applies to men as well as women. And there have been some studies, short-term longitudinal studies of men, that have found that men are just as likely as women to change their identity label, you know, over, say, 18-month to two-year spans of time. So I think right now probably it's safe to say that there is that capacity for fluidity in both men and women. It does appear to be a stronger capacity for women.

Question: Is bisexuality a phase?

Lisa Diamond: Well, it's interesting, because the vast majority of the identity transitions that I observed in my study were transitions to bisexual and unlabeled identities rather than toward lesbian identities. In other words, if there was one big trend, it was toward labels that permitted attractions to both sexes. And the longer a woman had been out and living her life, the more likely she was to acknowledge attractions to both sexes. So that directly contradicts the notion that bisexuality is a phase, because if it was a phase you would find women gradually moving either into a lesbian identity or to a heterosexual identity. And in fact we find the opposite. Eighty percent of the identity transitions that I've observed in the 13 years of the study have been transitions to either bisexual or unlabeled identities, from lesbian or heterosexual identities.

So clearly there's more of a sense of movement toward non-exclusivity than away from it. And again, it also fits the cross-cultural data that we've collected. In every large-scale representative study that's been done, the single largest group of non-heterosexual individuals are individuals who describe themselves as mainly heterosexual, but not completely. So that bisexual range of the scale is in fact the most heavily populated sort of section of the Kinsey scale. For years we assumed that the vast majority of non-heterosexual individuals were exclusively gay and lesbian individuals, and those other categories were really, really small. We had it as wrong as you could have it. The exclusive categories are actually the smallest categories, and those bisexual ranges are actually the largest ranges.

Question: What do women want?

Lisa Diamond: I think women want self-determination. One thing that I've really found in following these women over time is what they want, what makes women happy, is the freedom and the safety and security to define themselves in whatever way that they see fit, not according to the standard from mainstream heterosexual society; but also not necessarily according to the standard of their local, say, lesbian or gay community. And I do think we're sort of reaching a level of societal maturity that we're closer to that sort autonomy and that goal. A lot of the women that I've talked to have managed to really create the sort of lives that they've wanted for themselves, even in relatively conservative environments. Some of the women in my sample are living in the Deep South; some of them are living in the middle of Midwest corn-fed America. And yet almost all of them have managed to create a life for themselves that they're pretty happy with.

Recorded on November 4, 2009


A conversation with the Professor of Psychology in Gender Studies at the University of Utah.

Car culture and suburbs grow right-wing populism, claims study

New research links urban planning and political polarization.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Canadian researchers find that excessive reliance on cars changes political views.
  • Decades of car-centric urban planning normalized unsustainable lifestyles.
  • People who prefer personal comfort elect politicians who represent such views.
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller on ​the multiple dimensions of space and human sexuality

Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.

Flickr / 13winds
Think Again Podcasts
  • Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
  • What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
  • Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Keep reading Show less