Who’d want to be a man?

Adam Phillips

  • Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire by Lisa Diamond
    Harvard, 333 pp, £18.95, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 674 02624 7

The scientific study of sexuality – unsurprisingly, perhaps, a flourishing academic field – aims to help us sort out what we might want from what we can have. Given how widespread sexual curiosity tends to be, it’s always interesting to see what science can get up to when it researches sex; what calling this particular area of research ‘scientific’ adds to, or takes away from, this common pursuit. At its most minimal the so-called science of sex makes us wonder what sex would be if it wasn’t embarrassing, and if there was no more to expose than the facts of life.

Questionnaires, analysis of statistical data and the measurement and description of physiological responses are the stuff of this kind of scientific research. And even though, as Lisa Diamond says, ‘there are no “safe” scientific findings,’ the research usually wants to provide us with facts we can’t argue with but just have to face. What makes the findings unsafe (like sex) is that no one can ever know what their consequences will be, or what they will be used for. Scientific method can be just another rhetoric of prejudice and punishment, bigotry without hysteria used to whip up the hysterical bigotry that is always lurking. It isn’t surprising that we want science to inform the prejudices we prefer: what is surprising is that we could ever believe in prejudice-free inquiry. We may call the science we like good science, but scientific methods and scientific findings can’t easily disentangle themselves from the various uses to which they may be put – think of the harm scientific research has done to homosexuality. No scientific proof has ever been in a position to decide what would be made of it. Sex and science, inclined to take each other too seriously, to want too much from each other, expose each other’s limitations.

What Diamond proffers as her ‘goal’ in this book is to present her findings about the nature and development of contemporary female sexuality ‘as accurately and completely as possible, making explicit the conclusions that they do and do not support’. If she is straightforward about some very unstraightforward things – ‘female sexuality in all its diverse and fluid manifestations’ – it’s because she manages to tell us what she has found without needing to know where that leaves us. She wants the traditional liberations of science – ‘the wellbeing of all women will be improved through a more accurate, comprehensive understanding of female sexuality’ – without assuming that the evidence will tell us what to do. She never pretends that science speaks on our behalf.

Sexual Fluidity is an account of a research project that changed direction: Diamond found something she hadn’t been looking for. All she had originally set out to study was ‘variability in women’s sexual pathways’, but it was soon clear that ‘variability’ didn’t do justice to what she was hearing from the women she interviewed, and that previous research in these areas had been flawed in ways that limited the scope of the stories women had to tell about their experiences. None of the previous research, for example, included more than one follow-up assessment interview, and the follow-up took place after a relatively short interval. Earlier studies had ‘focused only on adults who had self-identified as gay/lesbian/bisexual back in the 1970s and 1980s’, whereas she wanted to find out about women who were coming out now, women who had ‘grown up with much greater exposure to ideas about same-sex sexuality than had previous generations’. They would, she thought, be less likely to experience variations in their sexual development as resulting from repression or ignorance, and they would be less impressed by the available sexual categories. And last but not least, previous studies, of which Kinsey’s is the most famous, ‘relied primarily on numerical measures of sexuality’, whereas Diamond wanted to conduct ‘in-depth interviews, during which women could be prompted, with the assurance of confidentiality, to reflect on and reveal such deeply personal information’. As a result the book has many riveting accounts by women of their own experiences of sexual attraction and distraction. Diamond never makes her interviewees sound less interesting than her conclusions about them.

With no research funding Diamond travelled round America finding women to interview (although she tries a little too hard to keep herself out of her narrative, the romance of this research for Diamond is one of the book’s most compelling aspects). She buys a second-hand car and, with a ‘strategy of face-to-face recruitment across as wide a variety of settings as possible’, she takes road trips at weekends to cities and rural towns near her graduate school in one of the Eastern states, visiting lesbian/gay/ bisexual community events, youth groups, students taking courses on gender and sexuality – more or less anyone who might be interested – to find people keen to participate. Science on the open road. She insists that the women she found ‘cannot be considered fully representative of young sexual-minority women’ – it’s hard to know what ‘fully representative’ could mean in this context – but they were all willing to speak candidly. Of the 89 participants, 43 per cent identified themselves as lesbian, 30 per cent as bisexual, and 27 per cent ‘did not claim a sexual-minority identity’; 85 per cent were white, 5 per cent African American, 9 per cent Latina and 1 per cent Asian American. Each woman was interviewed every two years over a ten-year period, beginning in 1995; the interviews lasted between an hour and an hour and a half, and covered a wide range of issues, ‘including the process by which women first questioned their sexuality; early memories of sexual feelings and behaviours; current and prior patterns of attractions, friendships and romantic relationships; the women’s interpretation of their current identity; and expectations for the future’. They were asked whether they felt they had any choice about their sexuality or believed they were born with a specific orientation, and whether they felt they had been influenced by ‘environmental factors’. At each interview the participants were asked how many men and women they had had ‘sexual contact’ with since the last interview (the definition of sexual contact as ‘any sexually motivated intimate contact more substantive than kissing’, though, seems unduly restricted). All this with a view to addressing what Diamond refers to as the primary question: ‘the degree of continuity and stability in female same-sex sexuality over time’. And what she found, as her title tells us, is that female sexuality, at least for these women, was surprisingly fluid.

Diamond believes that we have had ‘an overly rigid model of same-sex sexuality’, and of female sexuality in general. This model – which, as she puts it, governs ‘textbooks and the popular media alike’ – assumes that women’s sexual orientation develops early in life and is more or less fixed throughout. What her research revealed was that women’s sexual orientation ‘can emerge in mid to late adulthood’ and that their ‘sexual feelings’ change ‘either abruptly or gradually over time’. And far from women’s basic sexual orientation ‘governing’ their sexual and emotional feelings, ‘romantic passion, emotional intimacy and sexual desire’ can all too easily feel at odds with each other. The advantage of not pathologising people’s behaviour is that you don’t have to know what they should be doing. Because Diamond is not a standard-bearer and doesn’t have too many handy norms available to apply to the women she has interviewed, she can see that the women are talking not so much about discontinuities in their experience but about the way they have been hampered by the available ideas about continuity. ‘To acknowledge that sexuality is fluid,’ she writes, ‘means to acknowledge that no matter how certain you feel about your sexuality at the moment, you might have an experience tomorrow or ten years from now that will place you squarely in sexual-minority territory. This, of course, is not exactly welcome information.’ ‘Squarely’ seems right here; Diamond doesn’t have a shock and awe view of sexuality, nor does she pretend, as so much contemporary writing about sexuality is liable to do, that there are revelations – i.e. astoundingly liberating facts and formulations – in the offing. Sexual orientation, for women, her research suggests, is not chosen, doesn’t feel like a decision, and is fairly stable over time; but depending on circumstances, and who one happens to meet, this can suddenly and unexpectedly change. And it would surely be more realistic, less anxiety-provoking to be brought up to believe that we are all gay and/or straight unless or until we meet someone who makes us feel otherwise. That we have had a parent of each sex but are educated to believe that in effect we only really desired one of them seems an unpromising way to proceed.

As a scientist Diamond thinks we need an ‘altogether new type of model’ of sexuality, though it is not entirely clear why a model is better than a picture, or indeed a series of pictures; a ‘model’, as opposed to a narrative, of sexual fluidity might seem like a contradiction in terms. The model she proposes would be able to explain ‘systematically’ both ‘stability and variability in sexuality’, because it

places equal emphasis on intrinsic orientations and the capacity for fluidity; emphasises the ongoing interactions between women and the diverse contexts within which sexuality is expressed; makes sense of the complex links between love and desire; takes seriously the capacity for novel forms of sexual and emotional experience that emerge unexpectedly over the life course; and makes no assumptions about authentic sexual types or normal developmental pathways.

This is bracingly manifesto-like, and Diamond is at her best on the few occasions when she moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, when she uses her research as a pretext for telling us how she thinks we should live. In other words, when she uses her scientific research as an invitation to have an argument. Given her overall precision it is noticeable when the terms get fuzzy or, as they do here, provocatively bland. What does ‘taking seriously’ the capacity for these novel forms of emotional and sexual experience involve? Does it include calling the police if, say, the novelty is unacceptable? Isn’t the idea that one could be making no assumptions about authentic or normal sexuality a huge and improbable assumption? Wouldn’t it be better to say that we need to go on finding out what our assumptions are and whether we agree with them? Nothing is more likely than sexuality to remind us, if we needed reminding, that we can’t live without the category of the unacceptable, even if this category is subject to revision.

When it comes to sexuality we always want a progress myth, so Diamond is as careful as she can be to rein in the radical implications of her research: ‘Let me be clear: fluidity does not, in fact, imply that sexual orientation can be intentionally changed.’ But we don’t have to fear the converse either: ‘Sexual fluidity does not imply that the long-term course of a woman’s sexuality is random, unpredictable and scientifically unexplainable.’ Sexual fluidity is not, in other words, an ideology, something you can believe in and try out; it’s just something that, as a description, seems to fit. Acknowledging that this is the way it is, Diamond believes, will allow women to feel themselves less coerced by the available norms and categories of sexual behaviour, one of the norms presumably being the mysteriousness of female sexuality. ‘Be mysterious’ is the demand that is conventionally made of women: Diamond clearly doesn’t want sexual fluidity to be another, scientifically legitimated version of the feminine mystique; women’s sexuality as random, unpredictable and scientifically unexplainable (i.e. unintelligible) is the old story, implying as it has always done that women are outside nature, while in some strange way being closer to nature than men are. When Diamond suggests that women’s sexuality is predictable, she may mean that what we can predict about it is that it is unpredictable in a different way, because ‘female sexual desires are, in fact, sensitive to situation and context’ where men’s desires aren’t.

Even if a woman’s fundamental sexual orientation is what Diamond calls an ‘essential trait’, that orientation, in and of itself, says nothing definitive about her sexual desires: ‘Sexual orientation can have an inborn basis and yet still permit variation in desire over time.’ And in Diamond’s view the ‘amount of variation’ is determined by two factors: the woman’s ‘specific degree of fluidity’ – some women are more fluid than others, for reasons Diamond doesn’t go into – and the kind of exposure she has to ‘the types of environmental, situational and interpersonal factors that might trigger her fluidity’. Many of the women report that they are attracted to specific people irrespective of gender, and that the context in which they meet people can matter as much as the people they meet. Other researchers whom Diamond quotes have also concluded that there is a fundamental difference between the sexes when it comes to sexual arousal; men’s arousal is more ‘category-specific’ than women’s. ‘Men tend to respond physiologically,’ Diamond writes, ‘to categories of individuals – males versus females. Women, however, do not appear to be sensitive to these categories. Although they may subjectively prefer one sex over the other, their bodies respond to both.’ What seems to be mysterious about female sexuality is that it is not the same as male sexuality; it is less narrow in its intentions and more flexible in its attentions.

Four of Diamond’s findings stand out for her as ‘particularly important’, partly because they contradict ‘existing models of sexuality’. Over the ten-year period of her study most of the women continually changed their sexual identity, and this did not diminish over time. So the development of sexual identity is not ‘a straightforward process with a clear outcome’. In what she calls the ‘traditional models of sexual identity formation’, women are assumed to have ‘increased certainty and stability in sexual identity’ after coming out; the women she interviewed, on the contrary, were ‘increasingly willing to acknowledge the potential for future change in their attractions and relationships’, and most of them gave up on ‘identity labels’ because none of the available labels – gay, straight, bisexual – did justice to the complexity of their experiences, or indeed to their sense of future possibilities. And, relatedly, Diamond found that ‘non-exclusive attractions are the norm rather than the exception’, that the majority of self-identified lesbians and bisexuals in her group were increasingly able to acknowledge the possibility of attraction to and relationship with both sexes. Diamond’s final and perhaps most revealing discovery was that ‘early experiences do not predict later ones.’ Women whose same-sex sexuality emerges early in their lives have traditionally been considered more ‘essentially gay’ than those for whom sexual orientation has emerged later in life or was prompted by what Diamond calls ‘situational factors’. For Diamond this is no longer a viable distinction. In her study early developmental indicators and milestones ‘predicted nothing about women’s eventual development, nor did the types of factors that initially caused women to question their sexuality’. If this is a more complex picture of sexual development than most people might wish for, it makes, or remakes, sexual development a romance of the unexpected.

Sexual fluidity means anything could happen, at any time in one’s life. It also means, as is clearly already happening, that child-rearing is going to have to change. And it may mean that children are going to know a lot more about their parent’s sexuality than they have traditionally wanted to. In the light of these ‘findings’, trust, reliability and dependence – the idealised mainstays of ‘traditional family life’ – will have to be radically redescribed if they’re to have any plausibility. Most of the women interviewed are clear that even though they have no choice about who they desire, they do have some choice about the desires they act on. It is Diamond’s hope that sexual fluidity acknowledged – and ‘acknowledgment’ is a key word in her book – may be enough. Descriptions of sexuality all too easily turn into prescriptions for sexuality, but it does seem possible that seeing sexual fluidity in the way Diamond describes it might stop at least some people from being terrorised by the apparent vagaries of their sexuality.

Diamond says many interesting things in passing of the ‘research shows us’ kind about men; and all of them follow from one basic ‘finding’: that the idea of women’s sexual fluidity suggests ‘not that women possess no generalised sexual predispositions but that these predispositions will prove less of a constraint on their desires and behaviours than is the case for men’. Male desire emerges here as something of a confinement compared with women’s more diverse forms of attention and involvement. Genetic influences, though not ‘completely deterministic’ when it comes to sexual behaviour, ‘operate more strongly in men than in women’, so it is possible that ‘purely environmental pathways’ – i.e. circumstances – are more formative for women’s sexuality than for men’s. If neuroendocrine influences affect sexual orientation, Diamond tells us, this is probably true only for some people, and is ‘more likely’ to be true for men than for women.

It is apparently a consistent finding in studies on homosexuality that homosexual men are more likely than heterosexual men to have older brothers – Diamond calls this ‘a surprisingly robust phenomenon’ – whereas there are no birth-order effects for lesbian or bisexual women. The past twenty-five years of research shows that more gay men than gay women recall ‘gender-atypicality, feelings of “differentness” and early same-sex attractions’ in childhood while women show ‘greater variability’ than men in the age at which they become conscious of same-sex attractions. And above all men are more consistent in their sexual interests; women ‘report more changes in sexual attractions and behaviours over time and in different situations’ than men, and ‘are also more likely than men to report sexual behaviours or attractions that are inconsistent with their identity’.

As Diamond points out, the norm for our assumptions about same-sex attractions – that they ‘always emerge early, produce consistent patterns of attraction and behaviour, and stay the same over time and in different situations’ – come from what we know, or think we know, about male homosexuals; and it is this more than anything else, Diamond believes, that has made it so difficult to find good (accurate and useful) descriptions of female sexuality. Women are more likely than men to have ‘bisexual identities, attractions and behaviours’, are less exclusively preoccupied by the ‘sexual component’ in relationships (more ‘organised’ by love, admiration, companionship), and more ‘situation-dependent’ than men. Diamond is not at all disparaging of men, but after reading her book it is hard to see the attractions of being a man. Research shows us that men are more relentlessly themselves than women. And more determinedly themselves. Men are the predictable sex, so perhaps it’s not surprising that men have traditionally been so interested in predictability.

Diamond has written a fascinating book that stays a little too determinedly within its own genre; in her understandable wish to ‘guard against the misuse of scientific findings’, she keeps her language temperate in the scientific way – nothing is said that isn’t justified by the evidence, the adverbs are cautious, the adjectives sober – and all the quasi-technical jargon of ‘models’ and ‘triggers’ and ‘person-based attraction’ can jar. (It’s easy to feel on occasion that Diamond and her fellow researchers could have saved themselves a lot of time and money by reading a few good novels.) And yet what she has done is use the prestige of science to make a case for something essential about many contemporary women’s experience, and to formulate it in a way that can be discussed by anyone to whom these things might matter. And anything that matters to one sex is going to matter to both.