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Sexual orientation is much more complex than straight, gay or bisexual

Research tracking the sexual attractions of men and women over many years has found that many people experience fluidity in their sexual attractions.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

When asked about sexual orientation, most people typically identify the categories: straight, gay and bisexual. We tend to place people into the straight category if they are in relationships with opposite-sex individuals, in the gay category if they are in relationships with same-sex individuals and into the bi- category if they pair with members of either sex. However, sexual orientation is much more complex than simply who one is in a relationship with. In fact, sexual orientation, the different expressions of it, what determines it, how it is defined and how it may change over one's lifetime, is a puzzle. This summer, approximately 60 international researchers met in Lethbridge, Alta., to share the latest findings at the Puzzle of Sexual Orientation Conference. I learned a few new things that you might find interesting (and surprising!).

Research tracking the sexual attractions of men and women over many years has found that many people experience fluidity in their sexual attractions. Sexual-orientation researcher Dr. Lisa Diamond has followed women's sexual preferences over a number of decades and she has found that sexual preferences, attitudes, behaviours and identity are malleable to some degree, depending on their immediate situation or environment. For example, an individual who identifies as a lesbian at one point in time may identify as bisexual at some time in the future. Although researchers are now studying the factors and contexts that lead to this fluidity, it is clear that (at least for women) attraction to a particular individual, regardless of gender, may be more important for predicting whom one chooses to be in a relationship with, than that person's gender. So, if a woman is attracted to and wants to be in a relationship with a particular woman, she may be more likely to identify as a lesbian at that point of time than if she were attracted to (and in a relationship) with a man.

There also seems to be consensus on the finding that, at least for most women, a genital response to a certain person or sexual image will not tell you about that person's sexual orientation. Sex scientists measure sexual response in a laboratory to gain insights into patterns of sexual arousal. For readers watching the third season of Showtime's Masters of Sex, they will have a better sense of what I am referring to, since the TV series depicts sex researchers Masters and Johnson measuring how the body responds during sexual activity. For women, their body's sexual response can be measured with a vaginal photoplethysmograph (a tampon-like probe that women insert before watching erotic films). Women who are sexually attracted to men show the same arousal response whether they are watching an opposite-sex or a same-sex couple engaging in sex. Dr. Meredith Chivers of Queen's University is studying this phenomenon in women of different sexual orientations and her research concludes that, for women, the presence of a physical response does not tell you anything about her sexual attraction or her sexual orientation. Rather, women's ability to lubricate to sexual triggers seems to be an evolutionarily evolved automatic response.

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What does this mean for you?

  • Are you bisexual if your sexual preferences change? Likely not. Bisexuality is sexual and romantic attraction to men and women. If a heterosexual person finds herself deeply attracted to a same-sex person, this does not mean that she is now bisexual; rather, it means that her sexual attractions are fluid.
  • It is possible to fall in love with someone who is of a different gender than the individuals one typically is sexually attracted to. We now know that romantic/emotional attraction is a process separate from sexual desire and sexual attraction. Thus, it is entirely normal if a person finds himself sexually attracted to people of one gender, but only falls in love with people of the same gender. Again, this is evidence of sexual fluidity.
  • If my preferences change throughout my lifetime, does this mean that I am suppressing my sexual orientation or that I have some other psychological traumas that have to be dealt with before I can “settle” on one particular sex of attraction? No. There is no evidence that trauma or depression or anxiety or any psychological disturbance contribute to changes in sexual attraction over one’s lifetime.
  • For women, the presence of a genital sexual response (e.g., vaginal lubrication) does not mean that the woman is aroused in her mind to what she is viewing. Because this genital response is likely automatic for women, to find out who she is really attracted to, ask her.
  • If a woman becomes physically sexually aroused in a situation of non-consensual sex, doesn’t this mean that she wanted the sex? Absolutely not! Because of the phenomenon described earlier, it can be entirely normal for a woman’s genitals to respond sexually during rape. This is undeniably not the same as her giving consent or stating that she is sexually aroused.

Dr. Lori Brotto is an associate professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia and a registered psychologist. You can find her at and follow her on Twitter @DrLoriBrotto.

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