What the new study on sexuality really says about lesbians, bisexual and queer women

You might have noticed several stories over the last two days that have to do with Dr. Elizabeth Aurora McClintock‘s presentation “The Social Context of Sexual Identity,” which she presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association this week in Chicago. Headlines range from “Educated and attractive women ‘more likely to say they are 100% heterosexual’, claims study” to “Women, are you gay for the stay?” with select stats being pulled to support their headlines. But the study, which used data from Add Health to come to conclusions about young men and women from between the ages of 16-28 is much more about the way young women partner and identify themselves based on societal norms and standards.

“What I was really interested in was that sexual identity is a social construct,” Dr. McClintock said. “We always attach to people these sort of arbitrary social labels. And given that, even if it that desire is completely biological, there’s some kind of construct in which we translate our attraction and our sexual identity. I was also interested in how heteronormative pressures are going to push people down that heterosexual path, particularly if that path is also the path of least resistance. Those relationships are more easily available.”

Essentially, if you live in a small town, you may not find as many women to date as men, or maybe there’s so much homophobia, you know you won’t find acceptance. These kinds of things may sway who you partner with, despite your same-sex attraction.


We spoke with Dr. McClintock about her findings and what women will find most helpful.

“Sexual identity is not something that people naturally and inevitably possess, and the categories used to classify sexual identity are equally socially constructed.”

Whatever you label yourself as (lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, sexually fluid, etc.), you weren’t born with an assignment. While sexuality is biological, the sexual identity you have is made up of external factors, and that’s why it can change over time.

“What does it mean to be a bisexual woman, right?” Dr. McClintock says. “Does a bisexual woman have to self-identify as bisexual or does she have to be attracted to both men and women? “

But say you don’t want a label. Even the refusal of one is affected by things outside of yourself.

“The thing is, though, once we’ve created these social constructs—and race is another really good example—they’re kind of arbitrary, but because we all believe in them and we all adopt them, and even saying you’re unlabeled—that’s an identity,” Dr. McClintock says. “It’s acknowledging that sexuality regime, even if you resist it. It’s hard to get away from it.”


“Because women report attraction to both genders at higher rates than do men, social context and romantic opportunity (e.g., the chance of a satisfactory heterosexual marriage) would have a larger effect on women’s than men’s sexual identity. “

Dr. McClintock found that over six years of interviews, the women were three times more likely to “alter their sexual identity.” And the most common shift in sexuality is moving toward bisexuality, no matter if they were 100 percent homosexual or 100 percent heterosexual before. 

“They were given five categories and any movement toward bisexual I coded more bisexual, and that’s a lot more common—it’s about twice as common to becoming more exclusive with women,” Dr. McClintock said.

It seems this could be biological, that women are more likely to be attracted to more genders, she said. But there also could be a social component. It’s difficult to measure total societal impact, but Dr. McClintock studied certain factors such as the subject’s mother’s education, childbearing and physical attractiveness to see how they affected a person’s sexual identity. This is what spawned that “lesbians are ugly” headline above, but it’s just true. (Duh.)

Given the social pressure toward heterosexuality, this may draw [people] toward heterosexuality. In other words, beauty might be an asset in attracting partners of the same or other gender, but it is other-gender partners who are the assumed and socially-approved choice. Thus, physically attractive individuals will report higher rates of heterosexuality.

Dr. McClintock explained that the women were rated on physical attractiveness by the interviewers, who tend to be “middle age white women.” So if the interviewers equate attractiveness with “a traditional presentation of femininity,” that, Dr. McClintock says, “might penalize” some queer women who look less conventionally attractive. 

“So, it’s also possible this particular group of raters rated people who don’t conform to heteronormative genders standards less favorably,” she says. “So it’s not clear the way that causal error necessarily goes there.”

So what makes those more traditionally attractive (read: feminine) women more likely to be heterosexual? Dr. McClintock hypothesizes they have more opportunity with both genders, but also more societal pressure to be straight.


“I think in a way it highlights the fact that some of the women who end up as 100 percent heterosexual have not explored their potential, because there’s a lot of these women who fall in that expected path even though they’re attracted to women,” she said. “And so I think in a way the takeaway is that a lot of women that are saying they’re 100 percent heterosexual actually maybe should have tried a slightly broader range of partners. Maybe they had the potential and were repressed by heteronormativity. That’s more of the takeaway that I would see as opposed to same-sex relationships are second best or lesbians aren’t hot. That’s just nonsense. You can see how women’s sexuality is being oppressed by heteronormative expectation.”

On the flip side, however, there are some women who at some point during the study identified as 100 percent homosexual and said they have slept with men. But, as Dr. McClintock notes, “There’s a difference between I’ve had sex with a guy vs. you were actually attracted to and wanted to have sex with him. I’m not necessarily saying rape, but [things like] societal pressures.”

Still, there are women who identify as lesbians that have attractions to men, and bisexual women who may have attractions to both genders but not necessarily act on them. Dr. McClintock says there is no one way to define these labels; it has to be self-identification and forcing them onto others is not productive.

“Bisexual means whatever that person says it is. If that person say’s they’re bisexual, than what I’m interested in is why they’ve chosen that label as bisexual,” Dr. McClintock said. “I try not to look at the definition of these identities. I do look to whether they’re consistent to what we consistently define as attraction and behaviors. If you’re 100 percent heterosexual, are you also attracted to women? Have you ever had any experience with women? It’s actually quite frequent to be attracted to women and identify as 100 percent heterosexual.”

There are other factors that might weigh into a woman’s being more fluid, such as her mother’s education.

Young adult children of highly-educated mothers will report higher rates of same-sex desire and higher rates of sexual minority identity (that is, anything other than 100 percent heterosexual).

“I do look at mother’s education and there’s a really big proxy for that because more educated people tend to be more tolerant,” Dr. McClintock said, “And both men and women with more educated mothers were more likely to identify as non-heterosexual. So if you grow up in a more accepting family atmosphere, they end up feeling a little more fervent in their identifications later.”

And while this could lead to headlines like “Moms Who Go to School Breed Lesbian Daughters,” Dr. McClintock hopes the focus is on the societal factors that contribute to women acknowledging their wants and attractions.

“I would hope that first of all, people try not to pick the most offensive interpretations of it,” she said. “What I’m interested in really is the social construction of social identity and heteronormative pressure can influence your sexual identity. I can’t measure it but we know it’s a huge factor in society.”

Which begs the questions, what about the lesbians who lament the dating of “straight women”? Or the fear lesbians have surrounding bisexual women they think will ultimately “end up with a man”?

“If she’s someone who’s attracted to both men and women, then yeah, she very well could end up with a man and she may identify as 100 percent straight, in which case, if that’s her self-identification, is she necessarily a bisexual woman who ended up with a straight guy? It’s not necessarily that simple,” Dr. McClintock said. “Given the same attractions and desires, women in different contexts may end up following different paths both in terms of who they partner with and in terms of the identity they attach to themselves.”


What this new study illustrates best is that women should not feel stuck in the identities they choose for themselves at 16, 28, or beyond, for that matter. (In part of her research, Dr. McClintock says her samples of middle-age women indicate that they change their sexual identity more than men do: “So women seem to have a certain amount of fluidity or change, however you want to describe it, throughout their whole life course.”) Hopefully this new information will help women to stop forcing labels or identities onto other women and learn to realize the fluidity that exists, innately, based on things both biological and societal. And since society is making a shifting toward becoming more queer-positive, this can only be a good thing for women who have felt the pressure to be 100 percent heterosexual if that’s not how they truly feel inside.