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What Does It Mean to Be Sexually Fluid?

It seems like more people—a slew of celebs, some of your friends—are no longer strictly hetero or strictly not.

Sex has never been simple. But lately, we’ve been flooded with examples of just how nuanced it can be. A text I received from my friend Chiara framed the shift: ‘It kinda now seems like everyone is gay...or at least a little.’

The high-profile examples? Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne publicly admitted they were in love with their girlfriends (now exes); Parks and Rec star Aubrey Plaza, Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress Stephanie Beatriz, and It Girl Bella Thorne all came out as bisexual; best-selling authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Glennon Doyle Melton (who had previously been married to men) announced they were dating women. 

Look around and you may realise that a growing number of your pals—who once had serious BFs—are now in relationships with women, too. And although it seems to happen less frequently, some men—like Younger actor Nico Tortorella—have admitted to dating guys and girls.

Such sexual fluidity—being attracted to whomever, regardless of gender—is rising in popularity, partly because those outspoken celebs have increased the acceptability of an ever-widening sexuality spectrum, says US-based Jane Ward, PhD, an associate professor
of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside. What might have shocked us a few years ago no longer does. These days, when I hear of a woman who has changed sexual preferences, I think, ‘Well...she’s just like me’.

 

Switching sides

For most of my life, I considered myself straight. I crushed on boys in school, loved Channing Tatum, and flirted with men at bars. I always assumed my dating life would limp along until I found the right guy. Now and again, though, I’d wonder if my interest in women went beyond the average straight girl’s.

By 28, I was ready to find out. I created a lesbian dating profile and started swiping. Within a span of three weeks, I met the woman who’s now my girlfriend, and came out as ‘gay, I think’. The idea that I was gay all along doesn’t quite line up with the genuine flutters I’d get when I liked a boy. Yet I wouldn’t call myself bisexual, either.

That grey area is where the concept of sexual fluidity stems from. Attractions can swing back and forth—sometimes once or twice in a lifetime, other times more frequently. Women are more likely to vacillate than men, research suggests. Evolutionarily speaking, this may have helped them raise kids or reduce tension with other females in polygynous (multiple wives, one husband) relationships, although some experts argue it could more likely be due to social and cultural factors.

Whatever the genesis, fluidity is common: in a study that spanned from 1995 to 2005, more than two-thirds of female participants changed their sexual identity at least once, switching among bisexual, unlabelled, lesbian, and heterosexual.

 

Exploring urges

This is not to say that inside every woman is a lesbian-in-waiting, but simply that female sexuality is complicated. Tahira*, 23, a writer, says that when she first found herself attracted to women, she was surprised—and skeptical: ‘Being gay never even crossed my mind, so I thought it was a bit absurd,’ she admitted.

Aastha*, 32, an entrepreneur, wondered if her first same-sex relationship was ‘a sexual-orientation thing or a matter of how much easier I find it to be myself when I’m around women’.

Confusing, sure, but this is also exactly why sexual fluidity can be so freeing.
It offers the chance to explore, learn about yourself, and break away from gender expectations. ‘Dating a woman has made me aware of a masculine energy I have and can play into, which is fun,’ says Eram*, 33, a reporter. And then there’s the sex. For some fluid women, a burgeoning attraction is cut off at the prospect of actually getting physical. But for those turned on by the thought, diving into intimacy has its rewards. Of her first time with a woman, Chandni*, 32, a designer, says, ‘I was worried it was going to be terrible and awkward. It wasn’t. Skills transfer.’

 

Lasting attractions

For those of us who grew up with images of hetero-only relationships, today’s fluidity didn’t always seem like a valid option. However, attitudes are evolving. A recent report found that about 10 percent of US women ages 18 to 24 identify as something other than straight, and 23 percent of women in the same age-group are not attracted strictly to just one sex. The more we talk about our own sexual fluidity, the more common and relatable it becomes. As Sara*, 26, a techie, says, ‘I came to terms with my sexuality by seeing people who were open about the complexities of their own’.”        

 

Identity Glossary

Some people don’t want to be defined by a sexuality or gender label, while others appreciate the validation of a name. Either way, you should know the most common terms. The Trevor Project, an American suicide-prevention non profit for LGBTQ+ youth, shares these definitions. Keep in mind, though, that each person identifies with these differently, says Ashby Dodge, the group’s Clinical Director.

 

Gay
Anyone who is attracted to their same sex or gender. Some women prefer to use the term ‘lesbian’.

 

Bisexual
Someone who is attracted to both men and women, or to more than one gender identity.

 

Cisgender
A person who identifies with the sex assigned  at birth (example: you were born a ‘female’ and still identify that way).

 

Genderqueer
A word that describes someone whose gender identity is not just ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’.

 

Queer
A broad term inclusive of anyone who is not straight and/or cisgender. Now mostly used in a positive way.

 

Non-binary
Anyone who doesn’t identify with the binary system (aka the two opposing sexes: male and female).

 

*some names have been changed