Can a heterosexual woman unexpectedly fall in love with another woman? Can a gay man eroticize about a heterosexual woman?
with Lisa Diamond
Can a heterosexual woman unexpectedly fall in love with another woman? Can a gay man eroticize about a heterosexual woman? It is in our human capacity to respond to our sexuality even though society is not quite accepting of sexual fluidity. What exactly is sexual fluidity? According to Lisa Diamond, professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at the University of Utah, sexual fluidity is the capacity for flexible erotic responses. For the past 25 years, Dr. Diamond has studied the development and expression of gender and sexuality. She is best known for her research on sexual fluidity, and wrote a book entitled “Sexual Fluidity,” which received the Distinguished Book Award from the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Study of LGBTQ issues.
In this Smart Sex, Smart Love podcast, Dr. Diamond talks about arousal and desire, and emotions and love, which are some of the components of eroticism, but the true mystery of sexual fluidity – why it happens, who experiences it and why – remains a mystery in many ways. In this podcast, Dr. Diamond discusses the extensive research she has conducted on sexual fluidity, and she shares her findings. Is there a gender difference? Are women more sexuality fluid than men? Aren’t we “born that way” and we cannot change? Through the years, we have learned to see ourselves through such a small lens, Dr. Diamond reports. Let’s take a wider look and see what we can learn!
JOE KORT 0:05
Welcome to Smart sex smart love, we’re talking about sex goes beyond the taboo and talking about love goes beyond the honeymoon. Today we’re talking about sexual fluidity. My guest today is Lisa diamond Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. For more than 25 years, she has studied the development and expression of gender and sexuality across the life course. Currently, Her work focuses on the bio behavioral mechanisms through which social stigma, social stress, and social safety, shape, the health and well being of sexually diverse and gender diverse individuals at different stages of development. Dr. Diamond is best known for her research on sexual fluidity. Her book, entitled sexual fluidity, received the distinguished Book Award from the American Psychological Association Society for the Study of LGBTQ issues. She has published more than 130 articles and book chapters, and has been invited to present her research to approximately 140 national and international universities and conferences. Welcome, Dr. Diamond. It’s a pleasure to be here. Oh, it’s such a pleasure to be here. First of all, I just want to tell you, I’ve been following you since the beginning. And you’re ageless, you look exactly the same. First time I saw you to know that you are too kind I turned 50 this year. So that is, you know, I will I will take that compliment because the aging process has happened to all of us. And it’s happening to me. Yeah, well, you look great. And I’m I just I just turned 59. So I refuse to turn 60. I’ll be like Jack Benny, who never turned 40. Remember? And that sounds like an excellent plan. So I’m so glad to have you on here. I refer to your work all the time. And I just like people to hear you just find if you could your definition of sexual fluidity. So I define sexual fluidity as a capacity for erotic responsiveness to potentially unexpected types of people unexpected types of stimuli. When I first started studying sexual fluidity, I was thinking about it primarily as a way to understand the fact that some of the heterosexually identified women that I was interviewing and studying, found themselves at certain stages of life, unexpected, unexpectedly falling in love and becoming attracted to other women. And they were like, No, I’m not sure that I’m gay. But I’m having like this affair, and I don’t know what that means. It doesn’t mean I’m bisexual does it mean I’m confused. And at the same time, I was talking to some lesbian identified women in my study who were like, you know, I think I’m a total lesbian, but like, I started sleeping with like my best male friend, and I don’t know what that’s about. And I realized that, you know, the categories that we normally use to divide up the world of sexuality, gay, straight, bisexual, you know, they’re, they’re useful sort of shortcuts for dividing up the world into meaningful chunks. But they do not, by any stretch of the imagination, kind of fully describe our human capacity to respond physically and emotionally in these really complex ways. And sexuality is not a type. It’s an in many ways, a very similar to the way we now think about race. We used to think about race as just the way humans come there. They’re white people, and they’re black people. And then a lot of the genetic studies showed that that was really a fiction, we are seeing one thing on the surface skin color, and then we infer all this other stuff that may or may not go along. And it’s shown that just our appearance of the world being categorical, sometimes just doesn’t line up with the way the world is. And I think the same is absolutely true with regard to sexuality. We can see broad differences between folks who mainly have sex with the same gender or mainly don’t, but those sort of differences are the tip of the iceberg. And in fact, our capacity for eroticism is a lot broader than most people realize. I was gonna ask you this, I’ve always wanted to ask you this. Do you feel like the fluidity is not so much only about sexual orientation, but erotic orientation that?
Lisa Diamond 4:33
Absolutely, which is why I use the term erotic and when I struggled a lot with this early on, because I think research on sexual orientation has kind of a muddied relationship with the notion of like, Where does love and sensuality and eroticism come in? And those are it’s funny, those are questions that I always get from my undergraduate students like what’s the difference between like a
arousal and desire and between eroticism and love. And I always tell them, you know, I’ve been in this field for a long time, and we don’t know, like, we have not really delve very deeply into some of those nuances. And, and I think that those nuances or whatever the action is, because sexual desire is not just arousal. It’s not just physiological arousal. It’s a much more complex experience. And given what we know about the brain and the complexity of the human brain that shouldn’t surprise us at all, that it’s so complex. And, and I want to bring in that complexity to sexual fluidity, while also acknowledging that I’m not really sure that I don’t think any of us really fully knows all of the components of eroticism there is, you know, some psycho, if we study sexuality too much want the mystery? Go out of it. And I’m like, Don’t worry, there’s plenty of mystery. The mystery is gonna go away anytime soon, we have not figured this out.
JOE KORT 6:08
Right. And then when you first started to do sexual fluidity, you primarily studied women and men think so much about being in men, what changed your mind about it, man and men
Unknown Speaker 6:17
than the men themselves. Like, you know, if you’re a scientist, you’d listen to the data. And, and I initially, the reason I had focused on women was not because I thought that, you know, women would be more fluid, I didn’t even know that I was looking for a sexual fluid. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I, at the time that I started my research in the early 1990s, there just wasn’t nearly as much work on women as men. And so my main motivation at the time, is just get some data on women put women back into the picture. And so then, when I started to really think more deeply about sexual fluidity, and started to present my findings, there would always be men at various conferences would come up and say, you know, I, I agree with what you’re saying, I just think it’s actually broader than you think. I think it I don’t think it’s specific to women. And I would always say, you know, help me out cutting out people customer data. And so I started to collect more data on men. And sure enough, they’re completely sexually fluid too. I think it’s still an active empirical question as to whether there is a gender difference in fluidity whether women are more or less. And but in order to answer that question, you have to decide what you think gender is, and are we talking about sex assigned at birth, are we talking about gender identity, because we definitely raise women and men, and in western industrialized cultures, to think of their sexuality as being less of a driving force than men are socialized to believe. And if that is the consistent message that women receive, then they’re going to be more open to the idea of change, because they’ve just received a different message about what their sexuality is all about. Men get this message that your sexuality is that thing inside of you that needs to be expressed, and it’s going to come out. So we have these really strong cultural views of differences between men and women. And I think it’s, it’s almost impossible to to partial that out. And to Sybil, if we can transfer culture, our men and women really different in their suspect, well, there’s no such thing as controlling for culture, because we start our our genotype start interacting with the environment from you know, even before we get out of the womb, so there is no controlling for culture. So I think that with regard to their capacity for a sort of more expansive eroticism, I think men and women have far more in common than they have that that differentiates between them. I
JOE KORT 8:57
agree. I love that. How do you feel I’ve watched you, you know, I watch your videos. And I watch when you get pushback, because I get a ton of pushback when I talk about sexual fluidity in so many ways. And you are so elegant, and so professional. And I watch you and I miss that like you, I’ll never be like that, like I try, but it just doesn’t look good on me. It looks good on you. How do you respond when people push back in all the different ways?
Unknown Speaker 9:22
I this is a sort of like unending, you know, struggle in my life. Because on one hand, and I think I treat the pushback differently depending on where it’s coming from. You know, I’m a scientist at the end of the day, and I am absolutely willing to admit all the things that we still don’t know. So if someone’s like, Well, what about this? And what about this and like, I don’t know, like, I’ll be completely honest. And I also think it’s really important for scientists to be transparent. You know, when I started studying men and realizing how fluid they are, I gave a talk that said I was wrong. Men are totally certain Slowly fluids to. And I think that’s an important part of the scientific process. So I’d like to begin with some degree of just basic humility, like, I don’t have all the answers, yes. They, when people push back from a sense of their own personal experience like this doesn’t fit what I know about myself, I take that as just another critical piece of data. I mean, I believe that as psychologists, we are trying to understand something about the human condition and human experience. And that means that humans phenomenology, how you feel about yourself matters. I don’t think it’s trivial when someone says, But I swear, I can remember feeling this way from age six, I believe you, I just think that that is not necessarily representative of everything. Like, I am not trying to invalidate anyone who’s like, but I really believe that I was born this way. I’m like, I’m totally with you. I’m just saying that the whole category of born that way, is a broader, it’s like born what way, like maybe you’re born fluid, like we we, we have had a very limited set of conceptual tools to think about differences between people’s sexuality. And we’ve gotten used to the terms that usually anti gay people have given us, right, you chose this or you didn’t, you’re sick, or you’re not sick. And, and I think that we have learned to see ourselves through that lens. And so someone who’s like, but I really, really feel that I knew this from age six, I am not challenging that. I’m just challenging the way in which we use those reports to understand the entire spectrum of human sexuality, that that’s not the only authentic way to be a queer person. It is one of the many wonderful ways to be a queer person. And so when it comes when people push back on the basis of personal narrative, I try to bring them in, I try to say, you know, you are in this picture, we’re all in this picture, we’re, we’re striving for a sense of an understanding of sexuality that can actually capture all that diversity, because that diversity is incredible. That diversity has been turned against us by the other side, they’re like, Well, if you didn’t come out until you were 20, then you must not really be gay, that has been used as a bludgeon against so many people. And that is what is, you know, just, that’s the sort of stuff that I just can’t I just can’t cope with.
JOE KORT 12:33
And then you hit some backlash, because people said, Well, if you’re sexually fluid and your sexual orientation can change, they said, then then then you then you can change. I remember you had to respond to that.
Unknown Speaker 12:43
Yeah, you know, that comes up, like, you know, kind of every, every year like the cicadas, you know, it’s like that comes out of the woodwork. And it’s been happening from the very, very beginning. And it will probably happen, you know, till the end of time. And, you know, one of the things that I try to explain, and I use the weather as an example, the weather changes all the time. And we do not do anything to change it, like love changes, and we don’t have any control. effortful change is what conversion therapy is all all about. If you squeeze tight enough, you can make it rain, you can’t, you can’t do that. So rain may come, the clouds may park, but you didn’t have anything to do with it. And that I you know, there’s, you know, just done plain and simple the evidence on the harm that is caused by people trying to change their desires. I mean, that’s one of the clearest areas of psychology, you can kind of get to, it’s bad, you know, it’s like, it’s bad to do that to people. And there’s just absolutely no justification for kind of misrepresenting an understanding of fluidity to suggest that then we can take fluidity and kind of twist it and, and control it to control people. And I think that that’s, that’s just unethical.
JOE KORT 14:15
Tell me if I have this accurate or not, because people will say is sexual fluidity, its own orientation. And I don’t understand it that way from you. Do you see it that
Unknown Speaker 14:23
way? I don’t see it that way. And yet, I sympathize with the question. And I sort of think of it as a trait that kind of runs parallel to orientation that there are you know, some lesbians I know who are kind of fluid and there are some lesbians I know who are like you know, I’m just don’t think I’m very fluid. So that there and there are fluid heterosexuals when they’re not so fluid heterosexual. So I think it’s sort of like, like everyone has their general predisposition. And then everyone has their own kind of capacity for flexibility and that makes may be high or low, and it may change over the life course. You know, one of the big stabilizing forces for most people, sexualities, the relationship that they’re in, if you enter a committed relationship, and you’re only having sex with one person, often your sexuality starts to revolve around that person. And that’s, that’s not unnatural, you are just all of your inputs and behavior are focused on one person. And that is not necessarily changing your sexuality. That is how your sexuality is expressing itself at that stage in your life. And then if that relationship ends, you might be like, Oh, wow, what else do I want? And then you may become more aware of your capacity for something else. And so at different stages of life, your own capacity for change may be more or less relevant. And I don’t, I think some people are like, Oh, am I not? Am I not investigating my own sexuality enough? I’m like, investigate it to whatever degree you want. I don’t think there’s any, like moral fervor to dig up every capacity for every desire you might have. If someone is, you know, I’ve had some respondents in my status are like, well, I know, I’m sort of bisexual and orientation. I know, I’m attracted to both but but you know, I settle down with this one person, am I am I limiting myself? And I’m like, Well, to some degree, anyone who is in a monogamous relationship is limiting themselves. And that’s a limitation you choose. Whether that’s good or bad is your is just totally up to you. Right? We can do as humans, we can do anything we want. I don’t think there’s any requirement that we dig up every possible corner of our sexuality, although, you know, given how society socializes us to not think broadly about our sexuality, I personally think it’s a I wish every kid in America grew up thinking, Wow, I wonder what are all the ways that I will be sexually fulfilled in my life? That’d be great. Yeah. But I think people who are like, Oh, but I’ve settled down, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with focusing your sexuality on the types of partners you want to focus it on. This is a part of our own kind of human birthright as humans to do what the heck we want with our own desires.
JOE KORT 17:17
And so since you’re brought up by sexuality, how is sexual fluidity different? Or is it the same?
Unknown Speaker 17:23
Yeah, this is like the $6 million question. And I don’t know if I’ll ever answer it. I think to some degree, I mean, certainly, the manifestations are the same, you know, if you’re trying to figure out who has the capacity for flexibility in their sexuality, and who doesn’t, the easiest way to see it, is to see people who say, or, you know, I’m attracted to both or who engage in behavior with more than one gender. However, when I talk to people about how they experience their desires, I there’s so many kind of diverse ways in which bisexual attractions and behavior are described. And some people will say, I just have always known that I was attracted to both women and men. And now even more than that, you know, non binary or trans, like, I’ve just known that forever. And then other people were like, wow, I just, I, I’ve never even thought about it. And then this opportunity came up. And like, I was like, Oh, okay. And so sometimes it seems to be something that was sort of a, an ongoing way that people experienced their sexuality for many years. And in other cases, it seemed to come kind of out of the blue. And someone would say, Oh, well, if it comes out of the blue, it just means that you were repressed, you know, that maybe you did feel it from an early age. We just didn’t know it. That’s certainly possible. I just feel like I don’t know. And I feel like there’s something different about individuals who have a predominant pattern for many years, and then have an opportunity to shift that seems different from bisexuality to, because, you know, and, and so yeah, there’s there’s overlap between the categories. None of these categories are perfect. But I do think that it’s a little too reductive reductionistic, to say that, Oh, bisexuality and fluidity are the same thing. They might show up in the same way, but I’m not sure that they kind of are experienced in the same way.
JOE KORT 19:18
Because couldn’t even bisexuals be fluid? Right? Exactly. Right.
Unknown Speaker 19:22
I mean, some of the women that I studied, sort of were were always bisexual, but lean toward one end of the gender spectrum, and then something changed and they leaned in a slightly different place. And so, you know, again, I sort of think about fluidity not as any point on the scale, but just the kind of the liability of your of your patterns. So people have a pattern and sometimes that pattern is super strong, and sometimes that pattern is not so strong. And it’s it’s the capacity, the wiggle room fluidity is like the wiggle room around your pattern. Yeah,
JOE KORT 19:56
I remember you saying that. I love that, that it’s a great quote from you. And I’m so glad that I found your work because I worked. I worked with primarily men, even though I’m gay, I’m gay therapist I’ve written for LGBT, I’ve trained, I predominantly see straight people, I predominantly see straight men. And over the years because of trauma because of childhood, whatever, there has been a capacity to be sexual with another gender. And when your work came out, it was like this makes so much sense. But I just noticed that there’s pushback when men do it differently than when women do it. Do you must notice that too?
Unknown Speaker 20:29
Absolutely. And I think if, if anyone doubts that women and men are kind of socialized truly differently about sexuality, there’s no greater example than that are ideas that men’s sexuality is more rigid? It’s so entrenched that we just, you know, you can’t even see it, like TV shows, or all these TV shows that now, you know, they’ll be like some female character who has like one affair with a woman dressed as I go, Am I gay? And then often, they’ll be like, No, I think I’m straight. But, but you know, I still enjoyed it. And I’m really open minded, and like, that was underwhelming. It was great. And like, I’m just a liberal, open minded heterosexual person, and no one kind of cares. In any TV show, if a guy ends up having sex with a guy he is get. And if he doesn’t say he’s gay, everyone just says like, he doesn’t think he’s gay, but he’s gay. We assume that any expression of bisexual behavior in men is either they’re like a messed up, you know, demented, traumatized, straight person, or they are a closeted, repressed gay person. We don’t make those same assumptions about women. We view sexual, same gender behavior, and women were like, well, maybe she’s maybe she’s just experimenting. It’s that lesbian until graduation thing. Yeah. So we give, we give men these messages that say, if you have any sort of sexual arousal, and response to other men, that boom, done, it’s like the one drop rule. It’s like, you’re just totally gay. We deny the existence of bisexuality, we deny the existence of fluidity. And I think those messages trickled down into men’s own kind of sense of shame, and, and confusion. And that was one of the reasons that I felt it was so important to say out loud, hey, I do think men are fluid because I saw that men were really suffering from the kind of whacked rigid notions of sexuality that society is put on them. They were in many ways they were suffering from those a lot more than women were.
JOE KORT 22:40
Yeah, I always say we stigmatize the men, and we fetishize the women, and
Unknown Speaker 22:44
oh, my God. Yeah. Right, that is so true. So true.
JOE KORT 22:49
What else we’re getting close to the end, what else would you want people to know about your work?
Unknown Speaker 22:54
A lot of the work that I’ve been doing lately has been on health and on stigma. And that’s an area that I didn’t use to do that much work on. But you know, over the years, there’s been much better data coming out showing that individuals who are anywhere along the spectrum of sexual or gender diversity, kind of queer, trans non binary, everything under the umbrella have been suffering a greater burden of depression, anxiety, and physical health problems, greater risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, all of these things. And a growing body of research is really showing that there are identify illogical, identifiable biological pathways that lead from experiences of social rejection and exclusion and shame directly in our brain to the functioning of our immune system. That the way society treats sexual and gender diversity is toxic, it’s toxic to our health, and that we need to take and in the past, this has been thought about in terms of quote unquote, minority stress that going through life as a queer or trans or non binary person exposes you to stress and that’s certainly true. But my work is starting to suggest that it’s not the presence of stress, but the absence of consistent feelings of safety and protection and connection. That is what is deleterious. That’s not enough to remove discrimination, we need to amplify messages of safety and inclusion and protection, especially for adolescents. And that can potentially have a direct biological effect on their risks for depression and a whole bunch of other health conditions that will show up 30 years down the line. You’re so smart.
JOE KORT 24:47
I just love listening to you. I’m telling you right now I know that I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but I just do think you just know what you’re talking about. It smartly said Where can people find you? So if they want to learn more, now,
Unknown Speaker 24:59
my Mother has informed me that if you Google me and put the word Utah there that you’ll find me right away. Thank you, mom for monitoring my social media presence. That’s what moms are for. So and my email is right there on my University of Utah webpage. And I love getting comments and questions from people. And so, you know, bring it on.
JOE KORT 25:24
Yeah, you’re very approachable. And I really appreciate you being on the show. Thank you so much, Dr. Diamond. And if those of you that like this, please, you can hear more at Smart sex smart, love calm. And you can also follow me on Twitter tick tock, Instagram and Facebook at Dr. Joe court, Dr. J. O E, k o r t, and I have a website jekrt.com. Thanks for listening. And hope you enjoyed today’s session as much as I did, and we’ll see you next time.