Monday, April 14, 2008

Malleable Female Sexual Attraction

The Washington Post had a more interesting than usual book review section this week, I thought. The theme Sunday was "women's worlds," and they reviewed books about issues having to do with sex and gender, especially focused on women.

One book that was reviewed has some relevance to issues we deal with here. Sexual Fluidity - Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa Diamond reports on research that has been discussed on this blog previously. She has spent years following a group of women whose self-reported sexual orientation is changeable. Sometimes they're lesbians, sometimes they're straight, it seems that what attracts them to someone is something about the person, not necessarily the form of their plumbing. I saw her give a talk at an APA conference a couple of years ago and talked with her afterwards, it is a fascinating subject and a complicated one.

I will juxtapose this with the news that the Montgomery County Public Schools, at least some of the high schools, will be distributing literature this week put out by PFOX -- Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. We don't know what kind of documents they will be giving the children, but can assume it will be something similar to the student brochure posted on their web site. It urges students not to adopt a "gay identity" just because they are attracted to members of their own sex, it says there is "no evidence showing the origins of same-sex attractions are genetic," insists "there is no gay gene." There is a photo of happy, smiling teenagers.

I need to make it clear that Dr. Diamond's research does not support PFOX's message of change. She's at the University of Utah and she told me that she gets office visits from Mormon men asking her for advice, saying they "just can't be" gay, but she has nothing to tell them. She has identified some women whose sexual orientation is not fixed, but there is no indication, for one thing, that any men are like that, and for another thing, that you can learn to change or loosen up your sexual orientation. These women are just like that, that's all.

I think this research is informative and relevant to the issues we discuss here. I quote from The Post book review because, well, because it's shorter than the book itself.
The title of the first chapter in Diamond's Sexual Fluidity-- "Will the Real Lesbians Please Stand Up?" -- is likely to intrigue even the most jaded sexpert. In the kick-off to her study of the malleability of female erotic longing, Diamond, an associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, writes:

"In 1997, the actress Anne Heche began a widely publicized romantic relationship with the openly lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres after having had no prior same-sex attractions. . . . The relationship with DeGeneres ended after two years, and Heche went on to marry a man. The actress Cynthia Nixon of the HBO series Sex and the City developed a serious relationship with a woman in 2004 after ending a fifteen-year relationship with a man. Julie Cypher left a heterosexual marriage for the musician Melissa Etheridge in 1988. After twelve years together, the pair separated and Cypher -- like Heche -- has returned to heterosexual relationships. In other cases, longtime lesbians have unexpectedly initiated relationships with men, sometimes after decades of exclusively same-sex ties. . . . What's going on? Are these women confused? Were they just going through a phase before, or are they in one now?"

Setting out to prove the theory that, for some women, love is truly blind where gender is concerned, Diamond presents her evidence in a fascinating, anecdotal fashion -- by tracking over the span of a decade the relationships of nearly 100 women who at one point or another had experienced "same-sex attractions." The women move from men to women and back again (or vice-versa), their sexual identity as changeable as their desires. Additionally, she delves into the brain science behind lust, love and infatuation, revealing that what draws women toward a particular partner is as much a function of biology as it is anything else. To her credit, Diamond avoids scripting her arguments in obtuse academese. With her compassionate, understated approach, she has stepped up the business of gender research. Carnal Confusion: As sexy as our culture is, we still don't understand sex

[Note that this review covers two books, the title may be more relevant for the other one.]

Dr. Diamond is talking about some women whose natural inclination is not rooted in the anatomical sex of a romantic partner. They don't select whether to be straight or lesbian and then search for someone who fits the template, they find themselves attracted to someone and, for these women, it turns out not to be important whether that person is a man or a woman. Maybe it is a sense of humor they like, or a handsome face, maybe a certain attitude about things, where it doesn't matter what sex you are. This is an interesting phenomenon in its own right, I don't know if she discusses the proportion of women who feel that way -- people may have private feelings that they don't acknowledge publicly, and there is certainly social pressure, norms of behavior that discourage this sort of ambiguity, so this might be a little hard to count.

PFOX, on the other hand, simply starts with the notion that it's bad to be gay. If you're gay you should stop. Where Diamond's subjects switch in both directions, PFOX is only interested in one, they are not at all interested in telling straight people that they can change and become homosexual! It is funny, though, and there have been some pretty good parodies on the Internet about that. No, PFOX promotes the lie that gay people can choose to be straight. It presupposes a negative view of homosexuality and tries, through clever sloganeering and pamphleteering, to convince gay people, especially young gay people, that they can learn to be straight. Then, you know, people will stop teasing them at school and stuff. Except that PFOX's other big message is that "ex-gays" are victimized more than anyone -- they say on their web site:
However, there are those who refuse to respect that decision. Consequently, formerly gay persons are reviled simply because they dare to exist!

Nobody has ever actually heard of that happening, it is something they like to claim when somebody sensible points out the fact that they are bigots and liars. In reality, if somebody stopped being gay nobody would really care, unless they went around telling other gay people they should do it, too. PFOX is, indeed, reviled, but a person who used to be gay and isn't now would just be another straight person.

It seems to me like a bad idea to let other people tell you who to like, who to love, who to get romantically involved with. Nature will move you, and I can't see why it would matter what anybody else thinks. Marriage has, through the history of mankind, been a matter of economics and reproduction, but our modern civilized society allows us the luxury of marrying for love -- and it's nobody's business who you love.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

Is there a difference, do you think, between fluid sexuality and bisexuality? Perhaps I'm not as familiar with gender theory and queer theory as I should be, but I don't see fluidity as being distinct from bisexuality. Or maybe it's just that the monikers - "homosexuality," "heterosexuality," and "male" or "female" with respect to gender (GASP!) - don't accurately characterize gender and sexual attraction in the first place.


April 14, 2008 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kinsey's research back in the 40s and 50s documented that many women's sexual orientation is fluid, certainly more so than men's; that is, women are more likely than men to fall away from the extreme's of a scale ranging from completely gay to completely straight.

My personal experience in talking to people in the LGBT community echoes those findings.

In talking to the wife of Steve Hunt, and former anti-lgbt FCPS school board member, she reported knowing many people who had changed their sexual orientation from gay to straight, but she also confirmed that all of those she knew were women.

It's interesting to me that PFOX encourages youth not to "adopt a gay identity." I find in working with youth who identify as sexual minorities, many of them reject the terms "gay," "lesbian" and "bisexual", and instead describe themselves as "different", "sexual minority", "queer", "genderqueer" or "pansexual (meaning attracted to people of various gender expressions, a word that in particular drives me nuts). I have found that in planning conferences and communicating with youth, that my restriction to LGBT definitely makes me the gay establishment.


April 14, 2008 11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our nemesis has been named. It is “homochromosexuality.” (

I’m sure some of you will get a chuckle out of it.



April 15, 2008 9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting: the website listed by Cynthia is blocked by my employer.

April 15, 2008 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cynthia's site worked for me (at work). Quite funny!! ;-)

April 15, 2008 2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MCPS is a different sort of school system than FCPS. 6th-graders here can't access the PFLAG or HRC sites.

April 15, 2008 7:30 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Robert, I am guessing that you plan to look into this a little bit. Will you please let us know what you find out, either here on the blog or through email?


April 15, 2008 7:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That is crazy! This [equality] will soon come to FCPS; people who think critically will hopefully become part of a great majority.

There were lots of teachers (both gay and straight), parents (both gay and straight) and students (both gay and straight)who were VERY upset about the school flyers from PFOX today. They know that one can not simply go though therapy to become straight; they know that Montgomery County is not a place for anti-equality and they will not let these hate-based groups use MoCo as a breeding ground.

They are voicing this to the BOE and administrators at schools, as well as senators, delegates, and CC members. They are appalled that these hate-mongering "Christian Right" groups (that are not really Christian at all, by any means)are trying to use lies and hate to support their theocratic agenda.

These are the same people (PFOX/CRC/CRG) who think "Thou shall not kill" should be pasted on school walls with the other Commandments, yet they still believe in the death penalty. That is not "pro-life" if you ask me.

"An eye for an eye" is not something that God saw as fair, equal or just by any means.


April 15, 2008 7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea- not anon
I saw today that among other things, FCPS will not allow scuba diving on school sponsored trips. I understand not allowing scuba diving on a trip to King's Dominion but my daughter, through an MCPS sponsored activity, got her scuba certification. Is it fear for the student's asafety or is it the fear of being sued if your kid acts up on the scuba trip?

April 15, 2008 9:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I looked into it.

FCPS hires a company to search the web and select websites according to certain categories (Violence, Hate, Sex, Chat, etc.). One of those categories is Sexuality, which includes the websites of all the major lgbt-positive organizations. These sites are accessible at all of the high schools in FCPS, but at middle and elementary schools, it is up to the technology expert at the school whether or not to permit access to these sites. Some of them have blocked these sites at elementary schools, which usually include 6th-graders. We can petition to have them unblocked as a group on a school-by-school basis, but have not asked to make this a county-wide policy change. It is an administrative set-up that leaves these decisions up to regular employees at a local level, rather than having the decision made on a policy level or by middle or upper-level management.

Book purchase decisions are made the same way, by librarians rather than by supervisors. I found as a special education teacher that decisions about placement and services were (at least ostensibly) left up to me, rather than my supervisors. It surprises me that there is not more guidance from above on these issues, but perhaps it shields the administration from lawsuits.

Personally, I don't think it is that important for 1st-graders to have access to civil rights sites such as HRC's or SLDN's, but 5th and 6th-graders definitely need such access.

BTW, I believe most elementary school also block the PFOX site. All schools block sites such as that of Westboro Baptist Church. I don't know about CRC/G/W's site at the elementary level, but their accessible at the secondary level.

My colleagues in Prince William have been working with their system on opening access to civil rights sites there; I'll check on the progress of that.

April 17, 2008 8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I suspect the scuba restriction comes from the lawyers. There was a terrible tragedy several years ago where two students drowned during a rafting trip. FCPS is very conscious of potential lawsuits, but I don't think that's the basis of the restrictions on websites at the elementary level.


April 17, 2008 8:44 AM  
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