More women than ever are having same-sex experiences — or at least more women than ever are reporting it.
This week, a long-term British survey found a fourfold increase over the past two decades in women reporting at least one sapphic fling. Self-reported same-sex behavior among men, however, has remained somewhat constant. Now “the proportion of women reporting sexual experience with same-sex partners … exceeds that of men, at least at younger ages,” says the survey. Neither this increase nor the gender difference can be explained by a change in sexual self-identity, according to the study.
This isn’t just a British thing, either. Indiana University sex researcher Debby Herbenick tells me that her U.S. research has yielded similar results: 8 percent of men and 15 percent of women report same-sex sexual behavior in their lifetime. Unfortunately, we Americans don’t have reliable historical data to show how this has changed over time. So, returning to the U.K. finding, which was published in The Lancet: Why the gender difference, and why the increase?
One possible explanation for the gender disparity is that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s. Meredith Chivers, a sex researcher at Queen’s University, says, “Women have a greater capacity for gender-fluid sexual expression than men do. This might relate to women’s capacity to become sexually aroused by a broader range of sexual stimuli, including images of women.” Chivers performed now-infamous research finding that women’s genital response to pornography did not depend on the genders of the performers involved, while men’s did. (Women also became genitally aroused while watching bonobo sex — because we’re freaky like that.) When it came to images of intercourse, women’s physical arousal response was pansexual.
It could be, though, that “those patterns of arousal might not be the source, but rather reflect how women have been socialized in terms of their sexuality,” says Chivers. That brings us to the possibility that there is a cultural effect at play with the U.K. findings — which could also, at least partially, explain the fourfold increase. The gender difference is most dramatic among the youngest (those 16 to 34). In fact, gender differences disappear when you look at those above the age of 45; and looking across all ages, the difference shrinks. “This is a cohort effect and suggests something cultural or societal is afoot in terms of women’s behavior changing,” says Chivers.
It isn’t hard to imagine what that something might be. Cue: flashes of Madonna kissing Britney. Girl-on-girl behavior is fetishized in our culture to a degree that boy-on-boy is not, and women are given much more leeway to explore sexually or have a fluid identity than are men. (How often is a kiss between two heterosexual men allowed to be just be a kiss?) That is perhaps evident in another aspect of the study’s findings: More men than women identify as gay, and more women than men identify as bisexual. Chivers summarizes it like so: “Men’s sexual behaviors remain more polarized and stable.”
Note that the majority of women’s same-sex encounters do not involve genital contact. Roughly 18 percent reported getting sexual with a woman without going downtown, compared to the 8 percent that did venture there. But it’s hard to arrive at any conclusions about this without knowing more about the nature of these non-genital same-sex behaviors: Was it a make-out in front of hooting men at a bar or an intimate rendezvous under the sheets? How many of these women were acting on an attraction to women? How many were acting on an attraction to a particular person who happened to be a woman? How many were ceding to peer pressure? How many were performing for men? How many were simply experimenting for experimenting’s sake? We don’t know.
Sex research reveals us to ourselves ever so gradually. This study is one more piece to the puzzle, but who knows just where it goes.