Sexual fluidity refers to ways that sexual orientation evolves over the lifespan. Some individuals have a considerable degree of sexual fluidity, while other individuals experience their sexual orientation as primarily stable throughout their lifespan. Understanding sexual fluidity is important to decrease stigma toward individuals that may experience shifts in their sexual orientation labels or the types of relationships that they have across time. Moreover, in order to understand the concept of sexual fluidity, it is important to understand the historical roots of the construct and its applicability today.
Prior to the gay rights movement and still, to some extent, there is a considerable bias toward the belief that individuals are inherently heterosexual. When the gay rights movement began and researchers in the social sciences started to study individuals that identify as gay and lesbian, researchers began to paint a picture of sexual orientation as a relatively dichotomous construct. Generally, researchers estimated that the vast majority of the population is heterosexual and there is a small minority of individuals that are gay or lesbian. The idea that some individuals were bisexual or fall along the sexual orientation spectrum was relatively controversial.
Partly due to changes in research sampling (sexuality researchers progressed from studying very small samples of gay cisgender men to sampling entire populations with thousands of respondents), modern sexuality researchers contend that not only do bisexual individuals exist, but there are more individuals who endorse attraction to male and female individuals compared to exclusive same-gender attraction. Furthermore, Lisa Diamond, a sexuality researcher at the University of Utah, has done considerable work to demonstrate through longitudinal studies that a considerable portion of individuals (25% to 75%, depending on the study) report shifts in their sexual attraction over their lifespan. There were also significant discrepancies found in attraction, behavior, and identity across studies (e.g., heterosexual-identified individuals engaging in same-gender sexual behavior and gay-identified individuals engaging in other-gender behavior), with cisgender women being more likely than cisgender men to demonstrate a discrepancy between sexual orientation and behavior.
To be clear, these studies are not demonstrating volitional changes in attraction, whereby someone is intentionally trying to change their attractions (a topic that is out of the scope of this blog post), instead this research only demonstrates that sexuality is a spectrum with some degree of malleability over time. Thus, as Lisa Diamond notes, sexual fluidity is likely determined by both individual factors (e.g., genetics, hormones) governing sexual fluidity and environmental factors (e.g., repeated availability of a particular gender, such as men in prison) across the lifespan, neither of which are fully within individuals control. The result has been that some individuals who previously identified as heterosexual are engaging in same-gender relationships, and some individuals who previously identified as queer are engaging in heterosexual relationships.
This process can be challenging and confusing given the original dichotomous view of sexual orientation that prevailed. Thus, therapists that are effective with individuals across a spectrum of sexual orientations respect individual’s journeys of self-discovery and remain open-minded to helping people through adaptations over time. Sexual orientation is complex, yet through studies with larger samples and shifting societal attitudes, we are gradually seeing a more inclusive way of studying sexual orientation that will more accurately reflect reality as it is. From this realistic standpoint, all of us are better equipped to serve individuals who are struggling to reduce their suffering as they learn how to develop healthy, satisfying relationships.
About the Author
Samuel Eshleman Latimer (he/his), Psy.D., is a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow that specializes in effective conflict management and dialectical behavior therapy. Samuel also works to help individuals, couples, and families decrease interpersonal difficulties and manage challenges associated with borderline personality disorder. Samuel believes that people do not need to choose between learning effective techniques that are based on science and developing warm, genuine relationships, as both of these styles complement each other. Click Here to learn more about Samuel’s experience and therapeutic style.
Diamond, L. M. (2009). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Harvard University Press.
Diamond, L.M. (2016). Sexual fluidity in male and females. Current Sexual Health Reports,8, 249–256. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11930-016-0092-z
Diamond, L. M. (2021) The new genetic evidence on same-gender sexuality: Implications for sexual fluidity and multiple forms of sexual diversity, The Journal of Sex Research, 58(7). 818-837. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2021.1879721