The NEW sexuality: Living (and loving) without labels

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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, 13 percent have experimented outside of their “usual” sexual orientation. Six percent said that their sexual identity “depends on the situation.”
  • Two in three students in our survey believe that sexual identity can change over a lifetime.
  • Seven out of ten 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.
  • Nationally, 31 percent of Americans under 30 consider themselves something other than exclusively heterosexual, according to a 2015 survey by YouGov. The full survey findings suggest young adults are more flexible in their sexual identity than are older adults.

How does sexual identity shift?

Sexuality can be fluid in three main ways, says Dr. Diamond, an 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 Texas, 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 college 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 behavior 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, behavior, and capacity?

+ What is asexuality? 

What’s the difference between sexual identity, orientation, behavior, and capacity?

We can think about human sexuality as having four dimensions: identities, orientations, behaviors, and capacities.

Sexual identity
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).

Sexual orientation
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.

Sexual behavior
Our sexual behaviors 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 behaviors are not.

Sexual capacity
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, counselors, and therapists.

Undermining the cause?

Historically, some LGBTQ groups and communities have struggled with the notion of sexual fluidity. For a long time, “born this way” was the only accepted narrative about gay and lesbian sexuality, says Laura Haave, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton College, Minnesota. “Politically, it was necessary to say, ‘This is something that can’t be changed’ and because it’s not fluid, gay and lesbian people deserve civil rights.” When she was younger, Haave says, “it was almost like you didn’t want to talk about fluidity because that undermined your cause.”

But 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.”

Think your sexuality may be fluid?

“Recognize that everyone’s experience of their own sexuality is different, and that’s OK,” says Haave.

Explore the language of sexuality: “Try on new labels, identities, or philosophies that seem to fit you, and know that it’s OK to embrace these or reject them whenever you feel like it,” says Haave. “If you don’t find any labels, identities, or philosophies that seem to fit you, it’s OK not to have any of these and just be yourself.”

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. “It can be difficult for students to seek health care because they may be concerned about being judged or having to explain themselves to a health care provider,” says Joleen Nevers, sexuality educator and health education coordinator at the University of Connecticut.

In subtle ways, campus services can accidentally make these students feel unwelcome. For example, if you are asked to fill out a form in which your sexual identity isn’t listed as an option, you may get the implicit message that you’re not welcome or recognized, potentially contributing to stress-related issues. “We’ve got to recognize that we need to stop patting ourselves on the back for including gay, lesbian, bisexual, or other,” says Laura Haave, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton College, Minnesota.

Providers should use “reflective language that the student provides to us,” says Nevers. For example, if a male student refers to himself as an MSM (a man who has sex with men), providers should refer to him that way, and not as “gay” or “bi.” If a person who identifies as nonbinary (not male or female) nevertheless uses the label “lesbian,” providers should echo that.

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. Try it. If you feel unsupported or unwelcome, it is always OK to leave.
  • 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 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.

+ Reddit group for women

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 orientation 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.