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What’s your sexual identity: straight, gay, bi, or something else? Next question: Were you born that way? You have probably heard that the answer is yes. But what if that message doesn’t fit with your experience? What if your sexual identity has changed?
Increasingly, young adults are embracing the concept of sexual fluidity and acknowledging that their patterns of attraction can shift. Labels—e.g., straight, lesbian, or asexual (lacking sexual desire)—do not tell the whole story. “A predominantly heterosexual woman might, at some point in time, become attracted to a woman, just as a predominantly lesbian woman might at some point become attracted to a man,” writes Dr. Lisa Diamond, a leading researcher in sexual identity, in Sexual Fluidity (Harvard University Press, 2009). Sexual fluidity appears to be more common for women than men, for reasons that may be both biological and cultural, according to Dr. Diamond. Nevertheless, men’s sexuality is also looking more fluid than previously believed, writes Dr. Jane Ward in Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015).
You get that it’s complicated
Many students recognize sexual fluidity as normal. In a recent survey for Student Health 101, 71 percent of students said, “My sexual identity feels clear and fixed and I don’t see it changing.” The rest—29 percent—have experienced some form of sexual fluidity.
- In our survey, 14 percent have experimented outside of their “usual” sexual orientation. Six percent said that their sexual identity “depends on the situation.”
- Three out of four students in our survey believe that sexual identity can change over a lifetime.
- One in four students in our survey agree that human sexuality has varied across different places and times; this implies that you recognize the role of cultural influences.
- In a 2015 survey by YouGov, 49 percent of British young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 consider themselves something other than exclusively heterosexual. The full survey findings suggest young adults are more flexible in their sexual identity than are older adults.
How does sexual identity shift?
“Our identities are complex and expansive and can change over the course of our lifetime,” says Dr. Kristopher Wells, Faculty Director of the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services, University of Alberta. Sexuality can be fluid in three main ways, says Dr. Diamond, Assistant Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Utah.
- A person may become interested in people outside of their usual sexual orientation (e.g., a man who identifies as straight might be attracted to another man).
- A person may find that their sexual orientation itself seems to shift over time (e.g., a woman who identifies as a lesbian might become attracted to men, or to people of other genders).
- A person may consider gender and sexual identity irrelevant and avoid labels altogether: They may be attracted to “the person, not the gender,” says Dr. Diamond. (Those who like labels may refer to this orientation as pansexual.)
“Things were much simpler when I was just bisexual”
Andi, 27, a musician in the US, used to identify as bisexual. “As far back as I can remember, I have had crushes and sexual feelings for men and women and people in between.” However, until fairly recently, they dated only men (“they” is Andi’s preferred pronoun). After breaking off their engagement with a man, Andi found they had little interest in dating other men and started identifying as gay or queer.
The shift has been confusing. “Things were much simpler when I was just bisexual. I felt like I understood myself better and was better able to trust my feelings,” they say. The LGBT communities at school were not helpful, but Andi found support and understanding among like-minded LGBTQ people on Facebook and Tumblr. “I ended up having a solid community. Having people to talk to about my changing sexuality, who could validate my feelings and be nonjudgmental, was very helpful.”
“I’ve seen too many people think, ‘No no no no, I am definitely [insert sexual label],’ and try to force themselves to fit rather than embracing their feelings,” says Andi. “My hope is that others who experience this are given the chance to just let it happen and see where it takes them.”
“I’m straight but I would have left my fiancée for him”
Steve, 35, was 19 when he met Craig. They worked together, shared hobbies, and saw each other almost daily. “He was one of those incredibly rare friends that you could talk about literally anything with,” says Steve. When Steve discovered that his then-fiancée was cheating on him, he turned to Craig for support.
One day, after an argument with his fiancée, “I saw Craig and we just started laughing for no reason at all, and then I was seized by an almost overwhelming urge to grab his hand, pull him close, and kiss him,” Steve says. He didn’t—he was so surprised by the impulse that he didn’t know what to do. At the time, Steve was still uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex attraction and did not know how to understand these feelings.
Years later, he says, “I realized that I had actually been very much romantically and sexually attracted to him. If I could have accepted that part of myself at the time, I would definitely have left my fiancée for him in a heartbeat.” Steve has never had any feelings like that for men since, and he still identifies as heterosexual.
Why does sexual identity shift?
Sexual identity, orientation, and behaviour are influenced by a mix of biological and social factors, researchers say. Although people cannot choose to change their sexuality, sometimes life events change it for them. For example:
- Platonic love with a close friend may transform into romantic love or sexual attraction.
- Moving to a new environment—e.g., a more diverse or accepting community—may enable people to see and experience themselves and others differently.
“They assume when I’ve healed I’ll be straight again”
Misha, a third-year undergraduate at Stanford University, California, used to identify as straight and asexual. (Asexuality is on a continuum, similarly to other orientations. For example, it can range from some sexual desire to no sexual desire. The definition and use of the term varies.) After an abusive relationship in which Misha’s asexuality was used against them, their interests shifted and they began to identify as bisexual. (“They” is Misha’s preferred pronoun.)
Misha has found community with other asexual LGBTQ people and has started identifying as agender. Their identity shift remains difficult to talk about. “When I do [discuss it], I hear the same things I heard from straight people: that I’m actually straight and just not recovered enough to live up to myself,” Misha says. Those people seem to assume that recovering from trauma will enable Misha to revert to a straight identity.
Sexuality activists have often resisted the idea that non-heterosexual identities are the result of traumatic experiences involving someone of the opposite sex. Some people may dismiss those identities as invalid, temporary, or pathological. But identities shaped in part by trauma are as valid as those that aren’t.
In addition, sexual fluidity may mean that your patterns of attraction change more than once. “You can change your labels frequently, and no matter what led to the change, you aren’t faking,” Misha says. “It’s okay to want to go back or not.”
Some shifts in sexual identity take place when the person discovers a different part of their sexual orientation, which may be wider than they previously thought. See: What’s the difference between sexual identity, orientation, behaviour, and capacity?
What’s the difference between sexual identity, orientation, behavior, and capacity?
We can think about human sexuality as having four dimensions: identities, orientations, behaviours, and capacities.
Our sexual identity is who we feel we are, the definition that we feel fits us best. It’s something we consider definitional; if other people don’t know this about us, we feel they don’t know us well. We can identify as gay, for instance, even if our orientation (who we are attracted to) is more bisexual or pansexual (not limited by biological sex or gender).
Our sexual orientation is about who we are attracted to. We may have a straight sexual orientation for most of our young lives, and then mid-life we may realize that we are more bi- or pansexual in how we experience attraction. Orientation is often more stable than how we identify ourselves.
Our sexual behaviours are simply what we do. A lesbian can have a fling with a man, for instance. She identifies as lesbian, and her primary orientation is gay, but she’s decided to experiment and have another type of experience. She’s still gay, but some of her behaviours are not.
Capacity is a term I often use when talking about people in polyamorous or open relationships, though it can be used in other ways as well. Someone can have the capacity to love multiple people at once; she might identify as polyamorous, even if she is not currently in any relationships. (Polyamory can also be seen as an identity or an orientation.) Many people seem to develop the capacity to be polyamorous, and then never lose that even if they go back to monogamy.
By Dr. Rosalyn Dischiavo, EdD, MA, CSE, CSEC, Sexologist, Professor, Author, and former therapist. Dr. Dischiavo founded the Institute for Sexuality Education & Enlightenment in Connecticut, an AASECT-approved professional training program for sex educators, counsellors, and therapists.
The difference between change and choice
The “born this way” narrative has helped to advance gay and lesbian civil rights. However, that narrative can also lead to a misunderstanding of sexual fluidity because it implies that sexuality cannot change. It is not true that fluidity is equivalent to choice, writes Dr. Diamond in Sexual Fluidity: “These assumptions are illogical, unscientific, and plain wrong. Individuals undergo plenty of drastic psychological changes that they did not choose and over which they have little control.”
“Sexual and gender fluidity challenge the concept that our identities are rigid or fixed,” says Dr. Wells. “That’s why I like the word queer, because it seeks to challenge what is considered ‘normal’ and opens up spaces to see sexuality as situational and relational.” Once we acknowledge our ability to change, we may not relate to labels. Some individuals choose to define themselves in less rigid ways, says Dr. Wells.
Think your sexuality may be fluid?
“Recognize that everyone’s experience of their own sexuality is different, and that’s OK,” says Laura Haave, Director of the Gender & Sexuality Center at Carleton College, Minnesota.
Explore the language of sexuality: “Sexual orientation is different than a sexual identity label,” says Dr. Heather Armstrong, Research Associate with the Human Sexuality Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa. Don’t feel pressure to pinpoint your sexual orientation or allow others to label you—try on what feels right and leave what doesn’t behind.
What if your sexual identity is not recognized on campus?
Students experiencing sexual fluidity may have unique needs when it comes to student health services. “There are several potential obstacles people who identify with a fluid sexuality can run into when seeking health care. For one, it is not uncommon for service providers to make assumptions about an individual’s sexual health needs based on the gender of a current partner,” says Dr. Corey Flanders, a postdoctoral research fellow with Re: searching for LGBTQ Health, a collaboration of research focusing on LGBTQ healthcare access and health experiences, at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Ontario.
In subtle ways, campus services can accidentally make these students feel overwhelmed. “For instance, if someone comes in discussing sexual practices with cis[gender] men, it may be assumed that the individual only has sex with cis[gender] men,” says Dr. Flanders. (Cisgender refers to an individual who identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth.) This can lead to a gap in health services that the student is left to fill. Students “often have to seek out information targeted specifically to heterosexual people and/or gay/lesbian people and piece together information that can address all of their needs,” says Dr. Flanders.
“Gender neutral language can leave space for people to talk about their sexual health needs without being constrained to certain assumptions,” says Dr. Flanders. “For example, if a provider is interested in the recent sexual history of an individual, asking, ‘Can you tell me about what sexual behaviours you have engaged in with recent partners?’ as opposed to, ‘Do you currently have a boyfriend/girlfriend?’ may enable an individual to answer more accurately.”
How to find community and support
- Campus LGBTQ groups Although not all sexually fluid students feel welcome in their schools’ LGBTQ groups, growing awareness of sexual fluidity among young people means that more of these groups are becoming inclusive of those who are fluid. Interested in starting a chapter dedicated to sexual fluidity? Seek guidance from those in other groups. “If there’s a pride organization on campus, a sexually fluid student may be able to speak with someone there in order to start a group for sexually fluid people,” says Dr. Heather Armstrong, Research Associate with the Human Sexuality Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, Ontario.
- Community groups There may be groups in your town or city that support sexually fluid individuals. For example, Supporting Our Youth (SOY) in Toronto welcomes all non-binary youth and has a group for those who identify as sexually fluid.
- Online communities Platforms like Tumblr have active communities of LGBTQ young people, many of whom are accepting of sexual fluidity. Many online groups include anyone who is interested in people of the same gender, regardless of labels or orientation. For example, Actual Lesbians, a Reddit group, welcomes all non-straight women, including those who are “bicurious,” and provides a space to get advice and find support.
- Setting boundaries If someone is asking intrusive questions or insisting that you should identify differently than you do, it is your right to set boundaries. Tell them that you’re uncomfortable discussing this or that you need them to accept your self-identification.
- Screen therapists and health care providers If you are concerned that a therapist or doctor will not be understanding and supportive of your identity, ask them up front about their views on sexual fluidity and whether or not they are familiar with the relevant research. If your doctor or therapist believes that sexual orientation is rigid and that choosing (and sticking with) a label is a necessary part of healthy development, it may be a good idea to find a different provider. Contact your local LGBTQ centre for a list of supportive providers.
“Contact your local LGBTQ Resource Center to find out if they have a list of providers. Usually if a provider is LGBTQ-friendly, they will also be open and inclusive of those who identify as sexually fluid,” says Tara Schuster, coordinator of health promotion at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
How you can support sexually fluid peers
- Affirm people who change their labels If a person who used to identify with a particular label now uses another one, believe them, and use their preferred label. It doesn’t mean they’re confused or that they were wrong about their identity before. Sometimes identities shift.
- Include people who do not use labels Questionnaires and intake forms often force people to identify themselves as gay, straight, lesbian, or bisexual. This can exclude those who choose not to use labels. No term can be perfect and inclusive of everyone, but varying the language you use can help you reach people who may have felt excluded before.
- If you have a role in collecting this sort of information, allow participants to fill in their own label or select “none.”
- If you have a role in planning campus events or creating relevant resources, try using terms like “women who date women” or “people who have sex with men.”
- Avoid telling others how to identify Sexually fluid people who explore “outside” their sexual identity label often face others telling them that they are “actually gay,” “actually bi,” and so on. This can feel very invalidating. Sexual fluidity means that, for many people, occasionally stepping outside the boundaries of their usual patterns of attraction is healthy and normal. Let people tell you how they identify, and let others know how you identify too.