Women’s Sexual Identities Are More Fluid Than Men’s

September 24, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Two girls forming a heart with their arms.
Photo credit: Ben_Kerckx/

A new sociology study finds that women’s sexuality is more flexible than men’s, reporting higher indications of attraction to both men and women.

Romantic opportunities appear to influence the sexual choices of women, but not men, according to a new study at the University of Notre Dame. Women are more likely to report bisexuality, while men are more likely to report being either “100 percent heterosexual” or “100 percent homosexual.”

Elizabeth Aura McClintock, assistant professor of sociology, says the study “indicates that women’s sexuality may be more flexible and adaptive than men’s.” The study analyzed three waves of research from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). The research tracked 5,018 women and 4,191 men as they progressed from adolescence to adulthood. On average, the participants were 16-years-old in the first wave, 22 in the third, and 28 in the fourth.

SEE ALSO: Growing Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians is Genuine, Sociologists Say

The women in the study were almost three times more likely than men to experience a change in their sexual orientation during the study, specifically from the third wave to the fourth. The best explanation McClintock gave for this change was that women with less favorable heterosexual options might have more of an inclination to experiment with same-sex partners.

Interestingly, women in the study who had higher levels of education and were rated as more attractive (by the Add Health interviewers) had higher probabilities of identifying as 100 percent heterosexual. McClintock speculates that physically attractive, educated women may be less likely to explore relationships with other females because they’ve already had romantic opportunity with male partners.

But McClintock assured Live Science that she wasn’t claiming that women become lesbians because they aren’t attractive enough to get men. The issue has much more to do with the pressure of “hetero-normativity,” she says. Women who are rated as less attractive may feel less pressure from the “straight norms” and strains of society to marry a man and start a family, thus enabling them to more freely explore their same-sex attractions.

On the contrary, men with higher levels of education were associated with a lower likelihood of identifying as “100 percent heterosexual” in the final two waves of the study. Physical attractiveness also didn’t seem to play into any sort of association with sexual identity. Further, men who became fathers by the third wave of the study were more likely to identity as “100 percent heterosexual” in Wave IV.

"Men are less often attracted to both sexes," McClintock said. "Men's sexuality is, in this sense, less flexible. If a man is only attracted to one sex, romantic opportunity would little alter his sexual identity.”

This study in no way aims to hierarchize same-sex unions versus heterosexual unions; rather, it suggests that sexual identity is a social construct. The different gender roles implemented by society inarguably play into a man or woman’s inclination to explore same-sex sexuality. Women who pair up with other women are often less stigmatized than men who link up with other men, and the study offers evidence of such societal pressures. The bottom line is that men may feel more constrained by the “straight norm,” while women’s sexualities are more adaptive throughout their lifetimes.

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