Sexual Fluidity: What We Know and What We Don't

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday January 9, 2021

Sexuality is such a broad concept that, for many people, the idea of putting a label on oneself is a limiting imposition that also caters to rigid constructions of sexual orientation. Labels such as "gay," "lesbian," and "bisexual" allow communities of people to connect with others whose experiences are reflected by one another. But sometimes, such labels cannot fully represent sexual experience.

A new feature in Shape explores sexual fluidity, a term more frequently used these days to illustrate the sweeping experience of sexual attraction and expression. Among some of the more high-profile proponents of sexual fluidity are actress Sarah Paulson (of the "American Horror Story" series), Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, and Black model and singer/songwriter Adonis Bosso.

READ: Adonis Bosso on Tokenism in Modeling, Coming Out as Sexually Fluid

According to Chris Donaghue, Ph.D. and author of "Rebel Love: Break the Rules, Destroy Toxic Habits, and Have the Best Sex of Your Life," sexual fluidity "allows for constant change and development, which is how all sexualities exist. Sexuality is about far more than just gender choice; it also involves shapes, sizes, behaviors, kinks, and scenarios."

Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of "Tell Me What You Want," explains that "sexual fluidity refers to a general capacity for fluctuation in sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over the lifespan." More specifically, that attraction to one gender isn't necessarily fixed and that sexually fluid people acknowledge that a shift in their attractions is entirely possible.

It is also important to note, as Katy DeJong, a sexuality educator, points out, "What we know is that sexuality exists on a spectrum. Some people experience very fixed states of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity, and some experience their attractions and desires as more fluid in nature."

More importantly, DeJong says, "Changes and fluctuations in sexual attraction don't mean that these changes are things you choose."

For instance, a new study examines sexual attraction in women who identify as heterosexual and report having erotic flexibility — various degrees of same-sex attraction. The study — which included 29 participants whose brain waves were studied while watching erotic and neutral video content — ultimately found, as Janna Dickenson, an assistant teaching professor at UC San Diego, says, women's "sexual orientation, not erotic flexibility, guides how women process sexual stimuli." The researchers found that, as Dickenson states, "predominantly heterosexual women cannot volitionally become more responsive to stimuli depicting women," and consequently, that sexual orientation cannot be changed.

Another study surveyed 76 women, age 19-37, on identity, sexual attraction and arousal, and fantasies and experiences; participants also listened to stories, some sexual in nature — some same-sex, and some opposite-sex — and reported degrees of arousal. The study determined that the concept of sexual fluidity to be more nuanced and complex than researchers had previously considered. They presented four different types of sexual fluidity:

Situational Fluidity — sexual arousal increases in different contexts;

Attraction vs. Behavior — reporting attraction to one gender but more actively pursuing sexual experiences with another gender;

Temporal Instability — how sexual attraction can change or fluctuate over a given period of time;

Responsiveness to Less-Preferred Gender (AKA Bisexuality) — or, generally speaking, bisexuality; erotic and sexual arousal without a clear preference for a partner's gender.

DeJong notes that uncertainty and curiosity about one's sexuality are perfectly natural. "If someone finds that their desires and attractions are shifting with age and life experience, it may be an indicator of sexual fluidity, but not always," she states.

Additionally, the notion of "sexual fluidity" isn't the same as being "gender-fluid" or "non-binary." Sexual fluidity specifically refers to sexuality — who you are sexually attracted to — whereas the latter two terms refer to which gender(s) one may personally identify with.

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.