Why Lesbians Switch Sexual Identities

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.

Recorded on November 4, 2009

Lisa Diamond has undertaken a 13-year longitudinal study of gay women. The surprising trend? The overwhelming amount of fluidity and transition.

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