Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Some Women Change Sexual Identity in Mid-life?

A heterosexual woman might make a full transition to a singular lesbian identity . . . In other words, they might actually change their sexual orientation
Christian Moran, Southern Connecticut University

A comprehensive study of female sexuality presented to the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in 2010 has pointed out on a surprising growth in the numbers of so-called “late-blooming lesbians” - women who have switched their sexuality once they've passed the age of 30.

Late-blooming lesbians have attracted increasing attention over the last years, partly due to the clutch of glamorous, high-profile women who have come out after heterosexual relationships. Cynthia Nixon, for instance, who plays Miranda in Sex and the City, was in a heterosexual relationship for 15 years, and had two children, before falling for her current partner, Christine Marinoni, in 2004. 

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The findings raise fascinating questions over the long-held belief that sexual preferences may be partly genetic and are fixed early in life. They also suggest that female sexuality may be more “fluid” than men's, accounting for the fact that some women sustain long and often fulfilling marriages before developing lesbian or bisexual tendencies in early middle age - often leaving behind them a devastated husband and utterly bewildered children.

While the phenomenon of married women falling in love with other women is nothing new, in the past it was generally only bohemian, upper class women who dared to be overt about their lesbian tendencies - women like the married writer Virginia Woolf, who was 40 when she began a long love affair with Vita Sackville-West, who was also middle-aged and married.

But the new research suggests that this could be changing. And while some have previously concealed their sexuality to keep their families together, many women have no prior inclination to change their sexual preference until their mid-life revelations. 

The consequences can be traumatic.

As the new research reveals, mothers understandably agonize about the reaction of their children if their sexuality begins to waver. Christian Moran, who conducted the studies at the Southern Connecticut State University, found that many women initially go through what is effectively psychological trauma as they try to reconcile their loyalties to their families with their attraction to other women.

While for many women “coming out” is a liberating and ultimately fulfilling experience, for others there can be irrevocable damage to their family relationships.

Dr Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, has been following a group of 79 women for 15 years, tracking the shifts in their sexual identity. The women she chose at the start of the study had all experienced some same-sex attraction – although in some cases only fleetingly – and every two years or so she has recorded how they describe themselves: straight, lesbian, bisexual, or another category of their own choosing. In every two-year wave, 20-30% of this sample have actually changed their identity label, and over the course of the study, about 70% have changed how they described themselves at their initial interview. What's interesting, says Diamond, is that transitions in sexual identity aren't "confined to adolescence. People appear equally likely to undergo these sorts of transitions in middle adulthood and late adulthood." And while, in some cases, women arrive at a lesbian identity they've been repressing, "that doesn't account for all of the variables . . . In my study, what I often found was that women who may have always thought that other women were beautiful and attractive would, at some point later in life, actually fall in love with a woman, and that experience vaulted those attractions from something minor to something hugely significant. It wasn't that they'd been repressing their true selves before; it was that without the context of an actual relationship, the little glimmers of occasional fantasies or feelings just weren't that significant."

Diamond has a hunch that the possibility of moving across sexual boundaries increases as people age. "What we know about adult development," she says, "suggests that people become more expansive in a number of ways as they get older . . . I think a lot of women, late in life, when they're no longer worried about raising the kids, and when they're looking back on their marriage and how satisfying it is, find an opportunity to take a second look at what they want and feel like." This doesn't mean that women are choosing whether to be gay or straight, she clarifies. "Every one of the women I studied who underwent a transition experienced it as being out of her control. It was not a conscious choice . . . I think the culture tends to lump together change and choice, as if they're the same phenomenon, but they're not. Puberty involves a heck of a lot of change, but you don't choose it. There are life-course transitions that are beyond our control."

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So why are women like these changing their sexual orientation after relatively long and conventional marriages, and sometimes with painful consequences?

There are, according to Dr. Ceri Parsons of Staffordshire University, a multitude of causes, both psychological and social. “Women today are finding it easier to be in same-sex relationships for many reasons: society is taking a more liberal position. Generally people are more aware of lesbianism - so while it appears that there is an upsurge in lesbian relationships when actually it might simply be the case that they are just more visible,” she suggests.

More provocatively, Parsons also agrees with the conclusions of the recent study, that women's sexual identity is capable of change and flux. “Historically psychologists have tried to pigeonhole people as homosexual or heterosexual but these categories are highly inadequate,” she says.

She believes female sexuality can be far more fluid than that. “I've heard women say: "At this point I was heterosexual and now I identify myself as a lesbian." Sexual preferences aren't always set in stone.”

Some psychologists suggest that women are drawn to one another because of an emotional empathy; a shared capacity to talk about their feelings. “Women tend to have more close friendships with other women than men do with other men,” says Professor Marilyn Davidson, a psychologist at Manchester Business School. “They may feel they get more emotional and physical support from a relationship with another woman than they have had from their husbands; or it may be simply that they have chosen to have a relationship with another woman because they've fallen in love.”

Other researchers propose that women are far more likely to have experienced sexual assault than men are, and often at a young age. And the perpetrators of sexual assault are generally men. That can trigger an subconscious mistrust and discomfort with the very gender that girls are raised to think they should be attracted to, as well as conflicted feelings about the act of sex itself. When sexual difficulties occur, they have an all-too-ready explanation: They think it’s their history, when in fact it may be geography. If the body touching theirs had a different topography, perhaps they would respond differently.

Trying to answer the question of why it comes to women later in life, after long heterosexual experience, both overly positive and not, researchers found that for women, desire does not generally precede but instead follows sexual behavior. Women often don’t feel much desire until sexual activity begins, and many may never feel it in the abstract. Like the old saying that “when you don't know what to write, you should just start writing,” for women it seems to be true that if you aren’t in the mood for sex, the best remedy is to just start having it. Desire tends to proceed from action for women, rather than from mere thought or visual stimuli as it does for men. For both genders, desire and arousal may be so closely linked as to be nearly inseparable, but, unlike men, most women need actual physical stimulation to register either. As other research has shown, even when their genitals say they’re aroused, women often will report feeling no desire at all. That may explain why women can't even imagine wanting sex with a woman until they actually try it, or at least are in the presence of a woman who really turns the key in their lock.

The social stigma attached to lesbianism is also evaporating, claims Davidson. “It is more socially acceptable among middle-class women. Women such as TV presenter Mary Portas, who left her husband to live with a woman, are acting as important role models, so other women are saying: "It’s okay for me to follow my feelings," whereas in the past they may have suppressed or hidden them.”

All of which may remain hard to accept for many heterosexual women - especially among the older generation.

Ultimately, no research in the world can prove conclusively why some women have lesbian encounters in later life while millions of others go through a lifetime without the slightest attraction to another woman.

But for those who do discover latent tendencies in middle age, the turmoil, it can cause to their families, is often every bit as hard for them to confront as their own hidden desires.

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Role of Hormones?

It is well-known fact that menopause is the time when the production of hormones, chiefly estrogen and progesterone, dramatically decreases, bringing an end to the menstrual cycle and fertility. So, can the hormonal misbalance contribute to the transition from heterosexual to homosexual in female? While some researchers corroborate that is theoretically possible, we could not locate any references to the scientific studies, which would be address this theoretical suggestion. However, most serious researchers reject this hypothesis, claiming that sexual orientation cannot be substantially affected by activational effects of hormonal changes in adulthood.

Testing your Sexual Orientation

Researchers wanting to measure sexual orientation today have four basic choices of measurement tools. These are dichotomous measures, the Kinsey Scale, the Klein Scale, or the Shively and DeCecco Scale. Unfortunately, none of these is completely satisfactory.

Kinsey Scale

The Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, sometimes referred to as the “Kinsey Scale,” was developed by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin in 1948, in order to account for research findings that showed people did not fit into neat and exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories.

Interviewing people about their sexual histories, the Kinsey team found that, for many people, sexual behavior, thoughts and feelings towards the same or opposite sex was not always consistent across time. Though the majority of men and women reported being exclusively heterosexual, and a percentage reported exclusively homosexual behavior and attractions, many individuals disclosed behaviors or thoughts somewhere in between.

There is no “test” per se for self-identification. The scale is purely a method of self-evaluation based on your individual experience, and the rating you choose may change over time.

The scale ranges from 0, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with their same sex, to 6, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively homosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with those of the opposite sex, and 1-5 for those who would identify themselves with varying levels of desire or sexual activity with either sex.

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0- Exclusively heterosexual with no homosexual
1- Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
2- Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
3- Equally heterosexual and homosexual
4- Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
5- Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
6- Exclusively homosexual

The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid

The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid (or KSOG) is a system for describing a person's sexual proclivities in a way more detailed and informative than previous methods. It was introduced by Dr. Fritz Klein (1932-2006) in his book The Bisexual Option.

The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid is shown in the table below. For each person, it sets out the seven component variables of sexual orientation, listed as A through G down the left side. The three columns indicate three different points at which sexual orientation is assessed: the person's past, their present, and their ideal. The person then receives a rating from 1 to 7 for each of the 21 resulting combinations, one rating for each empty box in the chart below. The meanings of the ratings are indicated just below the grid itself.

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Definitions helpful in using the Klein scale:

Past: Your life up to 12 months ago.
Present: The most recent 12 months
Ideal: What do you think you would eventually like?

The Variables:

  • Sexual Attraction: To whom are you sexually attracted?
  • Sexual Behavior: With whom have you actually had sex?
  • Sexual Fantasies: Whom are your sexual fantasies about? (They may occur during masturbation, daydreaming, as part of real life, or purely in your imagination.)
  • Emotional Preference: Emotions influence, if not define, the actual physical act of love. Do you love and like only members of the same sex, only members of the other sex, or members of both sexes?
  • Social Preference: Social preference is closely allied with but often different from emotional preference. With members of which sex do you socialize?
  • Lifestyle Preference: What is the sexual identity of the people with whom you socialize?
  • Sexual Identity: How do you think of yourself?
  • Political Identity: Some people describe their relationship to the rest of society differently than their personal sexual identity. For instance, a woman may have a heterosexual sexual identity, but a lesbian political identity. How do you think of yourself politically?

Note that the Klein Grid takes into consideration the fact that many people change their orientation over time. Where a person is today is not necessarily where she or he was in the past -- or, for that matter, where he or she will be or would like to be in the future. The concept of sexual orientation as an ongoing dynamic process is necessary if we are to understand a person's orientation properly in its entirety.

Please note that although it is entirely possible for an individual to utilize the Klein Grid for the purposes of better determining self identification through a process of self assessment, if you are in the process of coming out as bisexual, the best option is to seek the guidance of a professional therapist.


For many, the challenging period in woman’s life, characterized by midlife crisis and menopausal transition, became really unbearable. Here you see sad results – nervous breakdowns, depressions, broken families. Sometimes, it is quite tempting to let it go and change your life upside-down. For some, it is indeed a helpful solution, for other, it is another nightmare. If there is no peace in your mind and body, replacing home, lifestyle, even your sexual identity, might not help.

I also challenge the popular statement - "experiencing a change of sexual orientation." I would rather say that sexual orientation remains more or less fixed in majority of cases. Rather, many women experience sexual fluidity--a deviation away from their own in-born orientation. There is a big difference between "changing sexual orientation" and "experiencing sexual fluidity".

So, in practice, this natural sexual fluidity, which is especially active during the crisis times, should not substantially impact the women, who never had any homosexual predisposition in their life. There is no switch in your brain, which can change you from hetero- to homo- overnight. However, for those, who were always bisexual, that might move the balance to the other side of the fence.  Bisexual women have had a lifetime of sexual attraction to both men and women. Maybe they tried to repress it for years and focus on the male which case, that's just repression of the inborn bisexual orientation.

Think twice, before overwhelmed by the sexual fluidity and being frustrated with your lifelong partner, you decide to dispose in a trash can your previous life, your lifetime desires for men, and announce to your friends and family "Hello, I'm a lesbian now." May be, that is not what you want? May be, that is not what you need? Do you really think that finding a female partner, which will fit you, is easier than finding a male partner? Well, may be, THIS change will do you good. But, before making final decision, consult your therapist, and try to find, what you really want.

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