How Sexually Fluid Are Women Really?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I’ve long had my doubts on the question. What I doubt, to be clear, isn’t that some women are bisexual. Just that all women are, which is essentially what one is saying if one declares female sexuality fluid. I doubt this in part for personal-thus-anecdotal reasons (I’m female, and my orientation hasn’t budged since it first encountered photos of a then-young Keanu Reeves close to 20 years ago), but also because there are other explanations, not related to wiring, that could account for the appearance of fluidity one witnesses.

What it comes down to is, it remains much more controversial for men than women to have same-sex relationships or encounters. But at the same time, it’s much more taboo for women than men to be without a partner of the opposite sex.

This sounds contradictory, I realize, but let me explain: There’s a stigma, for women, on being boyfriend-less, husband-less. But the stigma isn’t based on fears that the woman might be a lesbian, but rather, that she might be unable to get a man. Being found desirable by men continues to be important to women’s power in the world in a way that’s independent of how attractive that woman may or not find these – or indeed any – men. There are also financial advantages to pairing off with someone of the gender that tends to earn more.

How does any of this relate to women’s alleged sexual fluidity? Men are under greater pressure than women to seem not-gay, so there’s less same-sex fooling around among the merely curious, or it’s less openly discussed, making male sexuality seem less fluid than might be the case. But men are under less pressure than women to pair off (and what pressure there is starts so much later in life), so there may be fewer gay men than lesbians in opposite-sex relationships.

I came up with this grand (and thus far mostly unsubstantiated) theory while listening to a recent Savage Lovecast. (Update: listen to the relevant clip below, sent to us by the tech-savvy at-risk youth:


A 25-year-old woman called the show (starts at 8:13) to say that she’s a serial monogamist who’s only ever dated men. But! She can’t stop thinking about women. She’s openly bisexual, has known this since she was 14, which her current boyfriend knows, but he doesn’t want an open relationship. And so on, but what jumped out at me was the part where she mentioned that “90% of the time” when she’s having sex with her boyfriend, she’s fantasizing about women. 90%!

Imagine, if you will, ladies, if you learned that your boyfriend or husband fantasized about men 90% of the time he was with you. You’d probably come to the conclusion that your guy was gay. Not because male bisexuality doesn’t exist, but because of how close 90% is to 100%.

Presumably Dan Savage would make this same assumption if the genders were reversed. He doesn’t. This is ostensibly because the caller identifies as bisexual, but may also have just a bit to do with the fact that she’s a woman, and women, so fluid! Savage, in his response, likens her persistent desire to be with women to kinks and fetishes people try to repress over the years (he mentions foot fetishes), and it’s like, gah, this woman is a lesbian! That’s not a kink, it’s a sexual orientation! This isn’t about monogamy being constraining (as much as Savage tried to fit it into that box), but about being with someone of the wrong gender posing certain fairly obvious obstacles to happiness. What this woman needs to do isn’t – as Savage advises – renegotiate her heterosexual relationship to allow for some women on the side. She needs to lose the boyfriend and get herself a girlfriend.

Why, then, is a lesbian dating dude after dude after dude? What comes through in her call isn’t the slightest glimmer of desire for her boyfriend (“I love him a lot” and “I really care about him” – sweet, but sort of tepid for “25” and “boyfriend”) or indeed any of the other men on the planet. She’s afraid of not being in a relationship with a man: “The thought of losing that someone I have thought about spending the rest of my life with is devastating.” She’s afraid of giving up the possibility of Husband. Which is… a totally legitimate fear in our society, but hardly evidence that she’s straight or bi.

If Savage’s alarm bells don’t go off at this call, perhaps it’s because he has been socialized to believe that female heterosexuality is this softer, more reactive version of its male counterpart. That it’s basically about wanting stability, a husband, a man who’ll find you attractive. No one expects women – even heterosexual women – to lust after men. (Many of us do. But we’re socialized to be discreet about it.) So it doesn’t immediately read as “lesbian” when a woman expresses intense interest in other women, but sounds sort of lukewarm about men.

Update: Phoebe responds to some criticism of her piece here.