Note: This post was originally written as my audition post back in early November. I’ve changed the wording slightly in a couple of place to reflect the passage of time, but have otherwise left the text unedited.
Back in October, lisala at That Gay Blog posted on the recent media (and scholarly) attention devoted to “late-blooming lesbians,” or women who appear to be straight for many years before entering their first same-sex relationship in their thirties, forties, or later. In the post, she discusses the longitudinal research being conducted (separately) by Lisa Diamond and Christan Moran on women who experience shifts in their sexual orientation, identity, and behavior over time. I responded to the post briefly in comments, on tumblr and at my own personal blog … but I find I have yet more thoughts and imagine you Harpies might be interested in hearing them (and perhaps contributing some thoughts of your own in comments!)
In this post I want to reflect on one particular aspect of our culture’s understanding of sexuality – one that is intimately related to the phenomenon of “late-blooming” same-sex desire* and the way we, as a culture, seem to find it befuddling.
I identify as someone whose sexual orientation is extremely person-centered, “fluid” in the sense that my desire is less dependent on the gender expression of the person with whom I want to be intimate than it is by the quality of our relationship and the context in which we encounter each other. I don’t have a fixed, gender-based orientation except as it relates to particular individuals.
As a teenager and throughout my early twenties, I felt tremendous pressure to know and be able to articulate the nature of my sexual desires. I was surrounded by metaphors for sexual arousal and romantic attraction that told me that — post-puberty — it should be fairly clear to me which way I swung, and what it meant to be attracted to someone as “just a friend,” Platonically, and attracted to someone as a potential sexual partner. And I felt like somehow I was broken because I didn’t know, because I couldn’t tell. There seemed to be a level of awareness among most people my age – a kinetic energy that went zing! and told them that person A was hot and person B was not — that I just wasn’t tuned into.
Me? If I thought long enough about it, and considered the right set of circumstances, I could work myself into feeling sexually-interested – or, conversely, sexually dis-interested – in most people. If I was really that in control of the on/off switch as all that, I figured, I must be doing it wrong. So I retreated in confusion and just waited it out until I got clearer signals about who, and what, I was attracted to.
And once I found someone whom I liked – and who liked me back – everything else sort of fell into place around that relationship. In other words, my sexual identity is my relational identity. I am a sexual being who, because of my committed, same-sex relationship, is pretty comfortable identifying as “lesbian,” although I use “bisexual,” “fluid,” and “queer” with equal frequency. But it took me a long, long time to get to this point. For many years, I was afraid that my tentative identifications of sexual desire (particularly same-sex desire) would be interpreted as invalid, as “experimental,” as not-lesbian-enough.
(I didn’t, given heteronormativity, worry incessantly that my similarly tentative desires for men would cause people to question the authenticity of my straight attractions. I never imagined people would challenge me to prove my hetero credentials in the same way I fretted about skepticism concerning my lesbian desires.)
The thing is – as a culture, we’re suspicious of people whose sexual attractions and identities appear to change over time, crossing gender boundaries or causing them to adopt new language to speak about themselves. There is pressure to interpret the past in light of the present — and with a strong heteronormative bent — so that women who have been in same-sex relationships but are currently partnered with men often experience the loss of lesbian fellowship and find that their families and friends are eager to understand their previous partnerships as a “phase” or “experimentation” that they have since “gotten over.”
Women who shift from straight relationships to same-sex relationships, conversely, are often expected to interpret that shift as a “coming out” experience in which they discover, acknowledge, or embrace an aspect of their sexual identity (or a more authentic identity) that has previously been kept a hidden, shameful and secret. This has, indeed, often been the case, historically, and continues to be today as people wrestle with internalized homophobia and social contexts in which being openly non-straight is hazardous to one’s health.
I don’t mean to imply that either of these scenarios if they actually happen in women’s lives, are wrong. Some women do test the strength of their same-sex attractions and decide they really truly aren’t “into” female-bodied, female-identified persons in a sexual way. And some women clearly find the “coming out” metaphor a powerful one for describing their own experience. I don’t think either of these experiences is invalid.
The problem is not with what actually happens in women’s lives. Rather, the problem lies in how those experiences get explained through the lens of our understanding about how human sexuality works: i.e., that who we are attracted to (particularly the gender of the people whom we desire) is not only fixed but knowable. And that it fits within the context of the gender binary: one is either attracted to “men” to “women” or to both women and men. And from the time you are aware of your sexual yearnings, you know which category you now and forever fit into.
That seems like an awfully limiting understanding of human relationships, sexual intimacy, and the complex layers that make up a person’s identity. And it demands a high level of self-knowledge and unwavering certainty from people about an aspect of life that is deeply intertwined with culture and interpersonal ties.
I’d be interested to know what the personal experience of Harpyness readers has been when it comes to knowing their sexual orientation: Do you remember when you first identified feelings of sexual attraction? How did you identify them? Have those feelings stayed consistent? Have they shifted over time? Has the language you’ve used to describe your sexual orientation shifted? How so? Did you feel pressure to choose a sexual orientation or identity before you were ready?
You can read lots more about sexual fluidity, person-centered attractions, and how our culture has defined women’s sexual identity and development in Lisa Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
*I talk about women throughout this post because of my personal experience and because the researchers mentioned here are exclusively studying women. This is not to imply that men do not also experience fluidity in their sexual attractions, although I think the cultural context (narratives of American masculinity and gay male culture) in which they do so is markedly different from the one in which women explore their attractions and identities.