Late-Blooming Lesbians

Last July a number of Web sites and periodicals published articles about research regarding female sexuality that was going to be presented at the August 2010 meeting of the American Psychological Association in a session called "Sexual Fluidity and Late-Blooming Lesbian." Two projects in particular were featured at the meeting. Lisa Diamond, a professor at Utah University, followed a group of 79 women for fifteen years. All of the women at the beginning of the study had reported some level of same-sex attraction. Over the course of the study, every two years, 20 to 30 percent of the women changed the way they described themselves and their orientation, choosing bisexual, straight, or lesbian as their current orientation. Seventy percent of the women have changed the way they identify since the start of the study. Diamond notes often "women who may have always thought that other women were beautiful and attractive would, at some point later in life, actually fall in love with a woman, and that experience vaulted those attractions from something minor to something hugely significant." Professor Diamond adds that "it wasn't that they'd been repressing their true selves before; it was that without the context of an actual relationship, the little glimmers of occasional fantasies or feelings just weren't that significant."

Particularly significant are the changes brought with age. Women in their thirties and forties often find that with age, priorities and needs shift, particularly for women who have raised children and no longer have day to day responsibilities for child-rearing. Diamond says. "I think a lot of women, late in life, when they're no longer worried about raising the kids, and when they're looking back on their marriage and how satisfying it is, find an opportunity to take a second look at what they want and feel like." You can read more about Diamond's research here.

Another participant at the American Psychological Association's session is Christan Moran, a researcher at Souther Connecticut State University. Moran interviewed more than 200 women over 30 who were married to men but found themselves attracted to women. Among Moran's conclusions were that women who identified as heterosexual could "experience a first same-sex attraction well into adulthood."

Moran's 2008 M.A. thesis was on "Mid-Life Sexuality Transitions In Women - A Queer Qualitative Study." Moran wondered how many women who came out in middle age or after marriage were wrongly dismissed as having been in the closet or having repressed their feelings. Her study, largely conducted via survey, examined the lives of thirty-three women who described themselves experiencing same-sex attraction and who were over the age of thirty but married to men. Moran located participants via Web sites and online communities for heterosexually married women who self-identified as lesbian. Moran discovered was evidence that suggests that many of the participants may have made what she describes as "a full transition to a singular lesbian identity . . . in other words chang[ing] their sexual orientation." While I applaud Moran's efforts, they are problematic in a number of ways; first, I am troubled by her research methodology, second, the size of her sample is exceedingly small, and thirdly, Moran's own status as a woman who identifies closely with the survey participants as a heterosexually married woman who self-identified as a lesbian late in life, makes her research questionable by those who have a heteronormative and homophobic agenda.

The July announcement of the session released a flurry of press speculation, and articles about "late-blooming lesbian celebrities." People like Cynthia Nixon, Portia de Rossi, Carol Leifer, the comedian who was partially responsible for Elaine on Seinfeld. Leifer has spoken candidly about her previously exclusively male relationships, until she fell very much in love with another woman at the age of 40. Leifer notes "My feelings for men were very real and powerful, but I fell in love with my partner. It's been the best relationship of my life."

Women realizing late in life that they are romantically and sexually drawn to to other women is increasingly common as women who have independent incomes realize that while they were glad to have had children, and they value their relationship with their husband and the father of their children, their marriages were not really working. While this is hardly a new phenomenon (one only has to think of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hicoc or Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West, never mind all the "Boston marriages" of ages past to realize women have always had fluid sexuality), it is becoming increasingly common and publicly acceptable. But recent research on women and sexual fluidity, and the ways in which sexual orientation shifts on the spectrum validates the anecdotal and historical experiences of women.

Comments

Anonymous's picture

Anonymous

It seems weird that someone who had been with men her whole life and probably bi-curious would automatically shift her label to lesbian instead of bi-sexual. There seems to be an enormous amount of pressure within the lesbian community use the lesbian label. Also, it seems odd to me that a majority of the lesbians primarily only associate with lesbians.

I agree that women's sexuality is fluid, and suspect that more men have a fluid sexuality than they are willing to admit to, as well, but I don't think an attraction to women necessitates the "L" word.

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It seems weird that someone who had been with men her whole life and probably bi-curious would automatically shift her label to lesbian instead of bi-sexual.

It seems "weird?" How quant. Look—a lot of women who are "late bloomers," that is in their forties or even older—married the first person they had sex with. An awful lot of previously identified as heterosexual women were in marriages for years, and raised children, and realized that while they like their husband, the relationship was more about the kids than the two of them. And there are an awful lot of married women who have been married for years—and been sexually dissastisfied the entire time. Many women didn't realize that there was an alternative to marriage, and kids. It's exceedingly common for people to be married without any sexual attraction for their partner; they wanted kids, for instance. To be bisexual means you are attracted to both sexes. If you are not attracted sexually to both sexes, you are not bisexual. Bisexual doesn't mean "has had sex with both men and women." I note in passing that "bicurious" doesn't usually mean "questioning my personal sexual orientation," it usually means I identify primarily as straight, am currently married to a man, but want a little sex on the side. Don't believe me? Look at the Craigslist ads for w4w; the vast majority of them want a "discrete" relationship that's private—or they want a threesome, with their man either functioning as voyeur or as an active partner. You'll also note that "bicurious" is almost never used of men; it doesn't mean what you think it means.

There seems to be an enormous amount of pressure within the lesbian community use the lesbian label. Also, it seems odd to me that a majority of the lesbians primarily only associate with lesbians.

The "lesbian community" is not a monolithic entity; there are many lesbian communities. If women want to be part of that community, it seems reasonable to assume that the women identify as a lesbian—and I'm perfectly willing to define lesbian for you; a woman who is primarily attracted sexually and emotionally to other women. There's a reason people talk about spectrums and scales regarding sexuality. Moreover the "community" is not responsible for the ways in which women self-identify. I am not at all clear about what you mean by "a majority of the lesbians primarily only associate with lesbians." Which lesbians? By associate, do you mean socialize with, or work, with? Well, no most lesbians are not separatists, and are quite vested in the larger world.

I agree that women's sexuality is fluid, and suspect that more men have a fluid sexuality than they are willing to admit to, as well, but I don't think an attraction to women necessitates the "L" word.

You will doubtless have noted that Diamond's research included women who self-identified as bisexual; Moran's thesis specifically dealt with women who self-identified as lesbian. Again, there's a reason we talk about scales, and fluidity.

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Anonymous's picture

Anonymous

I've always said that when my husband dies, I would like to try to get a wife rather than re-marry a man. Women are much better spouses and domestic partners than men are. I'd like to be taken care of as well as I have taken care of my husband. And also, I don't have to worry about sexual demands as most women are in relationships for the bond and companionship than anything else. Can you imagine? It'd be like being married to your best grilfriend! I would always have a shopping partner who will enjoy it as much as me and someone who will know to always use a coaster with their drink. I don't know, I could see this becoming a big thing for women of my generation once their husbands die off. It seems like a natural progression. And no, I'm not a troll.

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I've always said that when my husband dies, I would like to try to get a wife rather than re-marry a man. Women are much better spouses and domestic partners than men are. I'd like to be taken care of as well as I have taken care of my husband. And also, I don't have to worry about sexual demands as most women are in relationships for the bond and companionship than anything else.

You're talking about an employee, not a spouse. Lesbians are lesbians because, in part, we like other women sexually. A lot.

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annajcook's picture

annajcook

Speaking as someone who, at age twenty-eight, found my latent same-sex desires come to the fore when I met the right woman, Diamond's work on sexual fluidity really helped me find the language to talk about my desires without resorting to the "bicurious" or "lesbian until graduation" models that permeate popular culture. It took me a long time to feel like I could voice my attraction to my (now) partner without the "evidence" of life-long, 100% certain lesbian desire and/or previous same-sex relationships to point to to "prove" I wasn't just experimenting at her expense.

Diamond's work really challenges us to resist the expectation that one's sexual desires will stay perfectly consistent and unchanging through life, unaffected by the context in which we express them -- and the sexual relationships we form. It also demands that we take women's subjective experience of their sexuality seriously -- even when it does not fit our preconcieved notions about how "authentic" sexual orientation and identity operates. For both of these things, I deeply admire her and have a not-so-little fangirl crush on her :)

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Hi Anna

It's super to see women's sexuality looked at at all, but I think it's important as well as reassuring to discover that "late blooming" isn't even a little bit odd. If you sit down and talk with lesbian and bisexual women who have been out for twenty years or more, you soon discover that until fairly recently—as in the last ten years—it was more common to realize that we were "other" than heterosexual in our thirties and forties—and even later.

"Late-blooming" is not uncommon for men either; I know a fair number of men who very much identify as gay/queer/same-sex attracted who were married to women in their past.

It's also valuable to note that women are realizing that they are deeply, passionately and romantically attracted to other women, and, as you say, it's just as much about meeting the "right" person for queer women, as it is for our heterosexual sisters.

I'm in favor of reminding people that our relationships are not just about sex; it's about emotional and romantic attractions and connections, which affect sexual responses for all people, how ever we identify.

I'm not sure how to deal with the prejudices frequently confronting late-blooming lesbians; there are some unfortunate side effects from the intense media attention to "experimentation." But in my experience the difference between mostly-straight-experimenting-tourists and women who love women is the emotional element; people rarely "experiment" with love.

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annajcook's picture

annajcook

Hi Lisala, 

Thanks for the reply. As an historian, I'm well aware that what Diamond is describing is nothing new -- the lesbian-identified women I conducted oral history research with in undergrad, who mostly initiated same-sex relationships in the 1960s and 70s, were often doing so in their 30s and 40s. Some after having been married, having children, etc. Not all, obviously. And some were very clear that their hetero relationships were in-the-closet relationships (that is, they "always knew" they were gay -- even if they didn't act on it).  But some were surprised by the event of falling in love with a woman and entering a serious relationship.

What I value about Diamond's research, and the attention it is receiving, is that it is challenging a wider audience to reconsider the way we as a culture conceptualize sexual identity and orientation as static and consistent -- and any deviation from expected patterns is treated as self-deception or intentionally deceitful behavior.  

Researchers conducting studies on brain organization theory, for example, treat participants in their studies who are "inconsistent" in their identities (including those who identify as consistently bi!) as noise in the data, and their information is tossed out. Our culture, for whatever reason, seems most comfortable when operating with a sex and gender binary (male/female and straight/gay) ... anything in the muddy middle is treated as an anomaly.

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