Female Homosexuality and Bisexuality
Female homosexuality and bisexuality are broad terms that are used to refer to the phenomenon by which women experience sexual attractions and/or pursue sexual behavior with other women. Lesbianism denotes a pattern of exclusive same-sex attractions and behavior, whereas bisexuality refers to a pattern of mixed same-sex and other-sex attractions and behavior.
Sexual orientation is generally conceptualized as a stable, trait-like predisposition to experience sexual attractions for the same sex (homosexuality), the other sex (heterosexuality), or both sexes (bisexuality). In the past, the phenomenon of sexual orientation was thought to operate equivalently for men and women, such that female and male homosexuality and bisexuality had similar causes, developmental trajectories, and adult manifestations. Yet scholars no longer think this to be the case. This entry will review some of the most distinctive aspects of female homosexuality and bisexuality and will discuss some of the potential causes for differences between male and female sexual orientation.
Female homosexuality and bisexuality show different patterns of development and expression than male homosexuality and bisexuality. Perhaps most notably, women are more likely to show bisexual patterns of attraction and behavior than exclusively same-sex patterns of attraction and behavior. One recent review examined the prevalence of exclusive same-sex attractions versus bisexual patterns of attraction in 16 studies published between 2000 and 2016, each of which used a representative probability sample of adults, with sample sizes ranging from several thousand to several million participants (Diamond 2016). These studies consistently found that women were more likely to report bisexual attractions than exclusive same-sex attractions, whereas men were typically more likely to report exclusive same-sex attractions than bisexual attractions. The reasons for this difference between female and male expressions of same-sex and other-sex attractions are not definitively known. This difference might result from a basic sex difference in the phenomenon of sexual desire and arousal, such that women have a stronger fundamental capacity for bisexual sexual desire and arousal than do men. A series of studies examining sex differences in genital responses to sexual stimuli has found support for this view (Chivers et al. 2004, 2007). Specifically, self-identified lesbians and self-identified heterosexuals show similar levels of genital arousal to their preferred sexual stimuli (same sex for lesbians and other sex for heterosexuals) and their non-preferred sexual stimuli (other sex for lesbians and same sex for lesbians). Yet gay-identified and heterosexual-identified men show substantially stronger genital arousal to their preferred sexual stimuli than to their non-preferred sexual stimuli. In essence, these findings suggest that even women who generally experience their sexual attractions as exclusively same sex or exclusively other sex possess a capacity for bisexual genital arousal and that this capacity is greater among women than men. Importantly, genital arousal does not always correspond to the subjective psychological experience of sexual desire, and women generally show less correspondence between patterns of genital and psychological arousal than do men (Suschinsky et al. 2009). Hence, women who are capable of becoming genitally aroused to their “non-preferred” gender would not necessarily describe themselves as possessing bisexual attractions or seeking sexual partners of both genders. An additional complication in interpreting women’s patterns of same-sex and other-sex arousal and desire is the fact that women tend to show more “category-specific” forms of genital arousal (such that lesbian-identified women become specifically aroused to same-sex stimuli and heterosexually identified women become specifically aroused to other-sex stimuli) when they are shown static photos of male or female genitalia, as opposed to videos depicting individuals engaged in sexual activity (Spape et al. 2014). Such findings underscore the difficulty in operationalizing and measuring sexual orientation (Bailey 2009; Chivers and Bailey 2007; Rieger et al. 2005; Savin-Williams 2006). Specifically, is it best conceived as a pattern of sexual arousal (to what specific types of stimuli), a pattern of sexual attraction (to what types of partners and how consistently), or a pattern of sexual behavior (how frequently and under what circumstances)? How should researchers interpret cases in which these patterns conflict with one another? Scholars have not reached consensus on these questions, which makes it particularly difficult to interpret gender differences in such phenomena. For example, if women are more likely to report bisexual patterns of attraction than do men, does this reflect a gender difference in the nature of sexual orientation, a gender difference in social opportunities to express bisexual versus exclusive patterns of same-sex attraction, or a gender difference in the social costs associated with same-sex sexuality? It is likely that all of these factors play some role.
Another distinctive characteristic of female homosexuality and bisexuality concerns the capacity for change over time in sexual attractions and behavior. Although sexual orientation is typically conceptualized as a stable trait, numerous longitudinal studies have found that the specific distribution of an individual’s attractions may shift over time, between exclusive homo-/heterosexuality and bisexuality and vice versa (but rarely between exclusive homosexuality and exclusive heterosexuality). Some studies find that these changes are more common in women than in men, although other studies find similar rates of change in both genders (reviewed in Diamond and Rosky 2016). It is important to note that these changes occur on their own and should not be confused with effortful changes that are sought in the context of “reparative therapy,” which typically seeks to eliminate same-sex attractions altogether and which has found to be ineffective and psychologically harmful (APA Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation 2009).
The large-scale longitudinal studies which have documented changes in sexual attractions (usually over the time span of 2–10 years) do not provide any meaningful information about the underlying reasons for these changes. Some interview-based studies of women suggest that entering or exiting certain intimate relationships can facilitate changes in women’s attractions (Diamond 2008), and some scholars have suggested that female sexuality might be intrinsically more “plastic” than men’s (Baumeister 2000). Another possibility is that the phenomenon of sexual “plasticity” or “fluidity” is simply a by-product of women’s propensity for bisexuality. Changes over time between periods of exclusive homo- or heterosexuality and bisexuality are arguably more likely to occur for bisexual individuals, who may sometimes find themselves in environments that foster one “side” of their attractions more than the other (Weinberg et al. 1994). Hence, sexual “fluidity” or “plasticity” may be viewed as a specific form of bisexuality.
In addition to considering the existence of a basic sex difference in the expression of female versus male sexual orientation, it is important to consider the role of social and environmental factors. Extensive research has shown that around the world, women’s sexual behavior and expression has been subject to more social, cultural, familial, and political control than male sexuality (Baumeister and Twenge 2002; Fine 1988). In particular, women have been more seriously penalized than men for deviating from culturally traditional roles as wives and mothers (Faderman 1981; Rich 1980). As a result, women with same-sex attractions may show more variability than men in same-sex attractions and behaviors over the life course, sometimes expressing and sometimes suppressing same-sex desires depending on the characteristics of their local environments (such as opportunities for same-sex relationships and stigmatization of same-sex sexuality) which may bear on their social and economic livelihood. These factors have also historically operated for men, but arguably with less intensity, given men’s greater social power, especially in domains of family and sexuality.
If social and environmental factors have the power to change women’s and men’s expressions of homosexuality and bisexuality at different points of time and in different social contexts, then one might expect that large-scale historical shifts in the social acceptance of same-sex sexuality should correspond to large-scale historical shifts in the population prevalence of homosexuality and bisexuality. In fact, this appears to be the case and more so for women than for men. Gartrell and colleagues (2012) compared rates of same-sex contact as reported by 17-year-olds in the 2002 and 2011 administrations of the National Survey of Family Growth and found that although the percentage of 17-year-old boys reporting same-sex contact was lower in 2011 (1.4 %) than in 2002 (6.6 %), the percentage of girls reporting same-sex contact was twice as high in 2011 (10 %) as in 2002 (5 %). Twenge and colleagues (2016) examined reports of same-sex behavior across multiple consecutive administrations of the US General Social Survey from 1973 to 2014. They found that the percentage of US adults reporting that they engaged in post-adolescent same-sex sexual contact doubled between 1990 and 2010 (from 4.5 % to 8.2 % among men and from 3.6 % to 8.7 % among women), and these changes were partially – but not exclusively – accounted for by concurrent increases in the social acceptance of same-sex sexuality (Twenge et al. 2015).
Similar findings have emerged from studies conducted in other countries. Mercer and colleagues (2013) examined the prevalence of same-sex attractions in British men and women in three separate administrations of a national probability study. At each administration, over 15,000 men and women were surveyed. Among men, rates of self-reported same-sex attractions were relatively stable across the 30-year period, ranging around 7 % of the population. Yet among women, rates of same-sex attractions increased from 3.7 % in 1990 to 9.7 % in 1999 and 16 % in 2010). Data collected from the Netherlands shows a similar pattern: Kuyper and colleagues (2009) found that the number of Danish men reporting same-sex attractions from 1989 to 2005 increased from 6 % to 13 % and the number of Danish women reporting same-sex attractions over this period increased even more, from 3 % to 18 %.
The fact that historical changes in the prevalence of same-sex sexuality appear larger among women than among men is consistent with the notion that women’s sexuality is more fluid and situation dependent than men’s sexuality.
Of all of the presumptions about sexual orientation which researchers have come to question and revise over the years, one of the most important is the presumption that female and male sexual orientation are parallel phenomena, with the same origins and manifestations. Although much work remains to be done in understanding the extent and cause of differences between male and female expressions of same-sex sexuality, scientists now have at their disposal an increasingly reliable body of data charting such differences (reviewed in Diamond 2016). At the present time, the most reliable gender differences concern the prevalence of bisexual versus exclusive patterns of attraction and the propensity for change over time in sexual attractions. Our task now is to determine the bases and reliability of these differences and to understand their implications for models of female and male sexual orientation as well as human sexuality more generally.
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