is sexual orientation fixed?

The concept of sexual fluidity was popularised by Lisa M. Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. In her 2008 book, she makes the radical argument that female sexuality is context-dependent, not rigidly homosexual or heterosexual, but shifting over life stages and social environments. 

What is sexual fluidity? 

Sexual fluidity is one or more changes in sexuality or sexual identity (sometimes known as sexual orientation identity).  There is no consensus on the exact cause of developing a sexual orientation, but genetic, hormonal, social and cultural influences have been examined.

The concept of sexual fluidity has been around for a long time, but was popularized in 2008 by Professor Lisa M. Diamond. In her book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and DesireDiamond wrote that many women report variability in their sexual orientation identity. Her research is based on her study of 100 non-heterosexual women over a period of 10 years. For some of these women, the word bisexual did not truly express the versatile nature of their sexuality. Sometimes, gender becomes irrelevant: “I fall in love with the person, not the gender,” say some respondents.

Women are more likely to experience shifts in sexual orientation:

Diamond wrote that “whereas sexual orientation in men appears to operate as a stable erotic ‘compass’ reliably channeling sexual arousal and motivation toward one gender or the other, sexual orientation in women does not appear to function in this fashion”. 

In a seminal review of the sexual orientation literature, stimulated by the findings that the 1970s sexual revolution affected female sexuality more so than male sexuality, research by Baumeister et al. indicated that sociocultural factors affect female sexuality far more than male sexuality; it also found that personal change in sexuality is more common for females compared to males.

Fixed vs. Fluid: 

There is significant debate over whether sexuality is stable throughout life or is fluid and malleable. Essentialism, in the context of sexual fluidity, is the belief that sexual orientation and sexual desire are fundamentally biological and therefore do not change throughout life. By contrast, social constructivism suggests that sexual desire is a product of cultural and psychosocial processes, and that differences in socialisation can explain differences in sexual desire and stability of sexual orientation.

The social constructivist view challenges the views of many within the LGBT community, who believe that sexual orientation is fixed and immutable.

Does this mean that people ‘choose’ to be gay? 

Diamond is clear that sexual orientation is not chosen, but that identity can shift non-voluntarily for some women. The sexually fluid women she studied did not “experience those changes as willful”.

The results of a study by Savin-Williams, Joyner, and Rieger (2012) show that most people report having stable sexual orientations. However, while stability may be more common than change, changes in sexual orientation identity do occur. The vast majority of research indicates that female sexuality is more fluid than male sexuality. This could be attributed to females’ higher erotic plasticity or to sociocultural factors that socialize women to be more open to change.

Professor Lisa M. Diamond serves on the editorial boards of Developmental Psychology, Archives of Sexual Behavior, and various other journals. She was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award by the APA Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns in 2011; the Distinguished Book Award by the International Association of Relationship Research (IARR) in 2010; and the Distinguished Book Award for her book Sexual Fluidity by the American Psychological Association, Division 44 in 2009. 

Sources: Lisa M. Diamond, Sexual Fluidity, Harvard University Press

Featured Image: Association for Contextual Behavioural Science 


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