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by Lisa M. Diamond
Harvard University Press, 2009
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., on Mar 2nd 2010

Sexual Fluidity

'First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Johnny with a baby carriage.' This nursery rhyme expresses succinctly the norm of love and sex in Western Culture. Note first that sexuality itself is only referred to obliquely as the unspoken means of reproduction, the third part of a series that begins with love and is followed by marriage. Note as well that the norm proffered is clearly prescriptive rather than descriptive.  Sexual desire need not occur only I combination with love, nor does romantic love necessarily result in marriage. Finally, note that the norm is clearly heterosexual. Persons with minority sexual desires exist outside of this norm as perversions of the telos of sex.

In the context of this last point in particular, gay and lesbian rights activists have fought hard to establish that one's sexual orientation is not perverse. Their arguments have typically been based on the claim that one's orientation is fixed and  not chosen. Hence, a lesbian can no more 'help' being lesbian than a heterosexual woman can 'help' being heterosexual. While this argument has some basis in fact, and makes sense on a political level since it offers a response to the political right who oppose gay rights by maintaining that "sexual orientation is akin to ethnicity -- a basic, stable trait that people are born with and over which they have no control" (246), it makes at least two fundamental errors. The first one occurs in thinking that "fixed = biological = deserving of acceptance and protection, whereas variable = chosen = fair game for stigma and discrimination" (246 -- Diamond's emphasis). Many things can be variable and change, which are not in any sense chosen. Think, for example, of the changes we go through at puberty. These are not chosen. The same example can be used to show as well that not everything that's biological is fixed and unchanging.

Second, the claim that sexuality is entirely biological and hence not susceptible to change via environmental factors is inconsistent with the empirical facts of the matter. Some people -- particularly women -- have a fluid sexuality. Diamond's fascinating, perceptive, and groundbreaking book offers an explanation of what this means, what evidence has been gathered to support it, and what implications the existence of sexual fluidity does and does not have.

Diamond describes sexual fluidity as a "situation-dependent flexibility in women's sexual responsiveness," which "makes it possible for some women to experience desires for either men or women under certain circumstances, regardless of their overall sexual orientation" (3). Although there can be some overlap between bisexuality and fluidity, they are not they same thing. Bisexuality is a "consistent pattern of erotic responses to both sexes, manifested in clear cut sexual attractions to men and women" whereas fluidity is a kind of "potential for non-exclusive attractions" (134 -- emphases added). Hence, e.g., Anne Heche's same-sex involvement  with Ellen DeGeneres within a lifetime of other-sex engagements is best thought of as the result of fluidity and not as bisexuality.

Having said this, Diamond is at pains to argue that the existence of sexual fluidity does not entail the non-existence of sexual orientation. Nor does fluidity mean that one's orientation can change, is the result of choice, or that it is purely the result of environmental influences. Rather, fluidity is best thought of as "an additional component of a women's sexuality that operates in concert with sexual orientation to influence how her attractions, fantasies, behaviors, and affections are experienced and expressed over the life course. Fluidity implies not that women's desires are endlessly variable but that some women are capable of a wider variety of erotic feelings and experiences than would be predicted on the basis of their self-described sexual orientation alone" (10 -- Diamond's emphasis). With respect to sexual orientation, Diamond says that she is "among the growing number of social sciences who view sexual feelings and experiences as simultaneously embedded in both physical-biological and sociocultural contexts that require integrated biosocial research strategies" (22). Amen to that: it is surely time to move on from the narrowly prescribed grounds of politics to consider the issue of sexuality at arms length. Unfortunately, this has already resulted in groups on the political right, such as Concerned Women for America and the National Association for Research and Therapy on Homosexuality, (purposely?) misinterpreting evidence from Diamond and others in their ongoing antigay battle (246-249).

 In arguing for this broadened approach, Diamond employs a distinction between two types of sexual desire: "proceptivity" and "receptivity" (or "arousability"). "Proceptivity, or lust, can emerge spontaneously across a wide variety of environments and so can be thought of as situation independent. A straightforward example of proceptive desire would be a general feeling of "horniness" that might emerge for no particular reason…. Arousability is quite different. It represents a person's capacity to become interested in sex as a result of encountering certain situations or stimuli … even if the individual did not initially feel sexually motivated. The defining characteristic of arousability is that it is triggered by external cues or situations. As such, it can be thought of as situation dependent (204-205). Simplistically put, proceptivity is biologically based whereas arousability is the product of environmental influences. But even here we must note, Diamond argues, that the relationship between the two is complex and constitutes a dynamic system where there can be a great deal of overlap. Women, Diamond argues, tend to be more variable than men in their proceptive sexual desires because of the varying levels of hormones during their menstrual cycle. And they are more variable as well in terms of their arousability, and often maintain that they become aroused by the person rather than the gender.

In addition to discussing a wealth of literature on her subject, Diamond has engaged in a 10-year study of a number of young women in their late teens and twenties who she interviewed every two years. The results of this investigation form the heart of Sexual Fluidity and offer an incredible and fascinating insight into the lives and thoughts of these amazingly bright, engaging, perceptive and articulate people. Without that study and without the voices of these women, Sexual Fluidity would have been a good book: with them, it is a great one. Buy the book, read it and savor the experience.

 

© 2010 Robert Scott Stewart

 

Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Cape Breton University, Canada, Scott_stewart@cbu.ca