What Do We Really Mean When We Say Women Are Sexually “Fluid”?

Beware the waves of female sexuality!

Fisher Photostudio / Shutterstock.com

Women. They’re so darned complicated! Pretty near ineffable, particularly when it comes to sex and romance, right? Unlike men, who are born with their erections pointing infallibly in the direction of whatever or whoever they find desirable, women gradually come to understand what gets their engines running as they gain romantic and sexual experience. This is so strange and different from the way men work that there’s a term for it—fluidity—that marks it as distinct from the uncomplicated on/off switch that is male sexuality. After all, no man has ever found himself surprised by an attraction to someone who wasn’t generally his type, has he? Certainly not—we all know men are bold line drawings and women are fuzzy, pastel-shaded blobs of changeability and uncertainty.

Setting sarcasm aside, it’s inarguable that women and men differ in some ways. Men have tabs and women have slots. I get it. They’re different. But just how different are they, and what sorts of differences are these? The way in which we view the differences between men and women matters hugely, because if females experience and interact with the world in ways that diverge wildly from how males do then it makes sense to say that females should be treated differently from men, and that their role in society ought to be a different one.

That’s why the language of difference that’s often used by researchers and journalists when they speak of female sexuality as fluid is so insidious. If female sexuality is fluid, then lesbians, unlike gay men, aren’t ever really “born this way,” are we? No, we’re just temporarily experiencing an attraction to other women, which is likely to change if we wait long enough. Another implication: If female sexuality is uniquely fluid, then perhaps it makes sense for straight men to watch their female partners for this tendency toward changeability, maybe even police it for the sake of the family unit.

Luckily, there’s absolutely no scientific evidence that female sexuality is fluid—at least not in any novel way. There is some evidence that women experience arousal in response to a wider range of visual stimuli than men do. There’s also a great deal of evidence that females can go from having female partners to male ones, or vice versa. But nowhere in the literature is any firm line drawn between this vague concept of “fluidity” and the other word we use for people who experience attraction to people of both genders: bisexuality. Why don’t we just call it that?

Bisexuality has always been the red-headed stepchild of the LGBT movement. I vividly remember, as a young woman, reading impassioned statements from gays who spoke of wanting desperately to be straight, and begging heterosexuals to understand that they would never, ever have chosen to be gay. As our movement has matured, we’ve mostly moved away from these sorts of pleas, and from their implicit concession that heterosexuality is the natural and desirable default state of human beings, and homosexuality an unfortunate perversion. But nervousness continues at the possibility that some people might have the option to simply ignore their same sex attractions, and that this might undermine the project of LGBT equality. As a result, gay men and lesbians haven’t always been the best allies to our bisexual sisters and brothers.

Perhaps that’s partly why, today, bisexuals still tend to be viewed, falsely, as promiscuous, untrustworthy, and uninterested in monogamy. In such a climate, the desire for a new way of talking about bisexuals without using the word bisexual is understandable. But although many people with “fluid” sexualities shun the label of bisexual, bisexuals themselves have never once sought to distance themselves from descriptions of sexuality as fluid. To the contrary: Men and women who identify as bisexual often experience a primary attraction to one gender with rarer instances of attraction to the other, or experience their attractions as shifting over time rather than staying stable—which is to say, their sexuality is fluid.

All that’s left, after we filter out the sexist idea that women’s sexuality is so completely different from men’s as to be unrecognizable, is the strong possibility that women are a bit more likely to be bisexual than men are. If this is so, then the negative stereotypes about bisexuals are negative stereotypes about women, and attacks on the legitimacy of bi identities are attacks on the legitimacy of female identities. It’s therefore in the interest of all women to combat biphobia and work for bi acceptance. It’s in the interest of lesbians, who are often bombarded with unwanted advances from men who may believe that the fluidity of female sexuality entitles them to sex with us. It’s in the interest of straight women, whose male partners may use the same logic to attempt to impose unwanted threesomes on them. And, of course, it’s in the interest of bi women, who have no more choice about who they love than anyone else does, even if those loves may come from any gender.

What isn’t in our interest is to make women’s sexuality seem confusing, mysterious, or overly complicated. The differences between men and women are subtle and eminently bridgeable ones. Anyone who’s ever had a close friend of the opposite sex should know that already (and anyone who hasn’t ought to try it sometime). If women are a bit more likely to be bisexual than men are, then it behooves women to be at the vanguard of bisexual acceptance, whatever our individual orientations may be. What won’t help is to make ourselves seem stranger than we really are, whether it’s through misguided attempts to reject all labels (as if having words that clearly describe things is somehow limiting or impossible), or in an effort to avoid the stigma associated with bisexuality.