“Late Blooming Lesbians”

Fascinating piece in today’s Telegraph on how some people change their sexual and emotional preferences later in life.

While “late-blooming lesbians” are not uncommon in history – the married writer Virginia Woolf had an affair with the poet Vita Sackville-West – the phenomenon of mature women switching sexualities is now attracting academic scrutiny.

One study even indicates that as many as two-thirds of women who feel lesbian attractions may have changed their sexual orientation over time.

The findings appear to pose a challenge to the scientific consensus that a person’s sexuality is determined more by their genes than environment.

Christan Moran, a researcher at Southern Connecticut State University in the US, said that many women who develop lesbian feelings in later life refuse to “come out” for fear of society’s reaction.

Women in long-term heterosexual relationships, especially those with children, face even greater problems reconciling themselves to their new identities, she said.

Following interviews with more than 200 married lesbians, Moran concluded that there is “great potential for heterosexual women to experience a first same-sex attraction well into adulthood.”

She added that late-blooming sexuality was often wrongly dismissed as repressed lesbians finally coming to terms with their true feelings.

Most research ignored “the possibility that a heterosexual woman might make a full transition to a singular lesbian identity … in other words change their sexual orientation.”

Describing the emotional torment suffered by many late-blooming lesbians, Moran added: “To leave a heterosexual marriage in favour of lesbian identity is to abdicate enormous and undeniable privilege.”

High-profile examples of women leaving their husbands to pursue same-sex relationships include Portia de Rossi, the Ally McBeal actress who married the US comedian Ellen DeGeneres in 2008, nine years after divorcing a man.

Further evidence for the idea that female sexual orientation is less concrete than men’s comes from Lisa Diamond, professor of psychology and gender studies at Utah University.

She tracked nearly 100 women who felt some degree of attraction to the same sex; most described themselves as either lesbian or bisexual, while others declined to be labelled.

Over the course of a decade two-thirds of the women changed their sexual orientations, with some bisexuals deciding to redefine themselves as lesbians, while women who previously classified themselves as lesbians switched to heterosexuality.

The research is contained in Prof Diamond’s recent book Sexual Fluidity.

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9 Comments on ““Late Blooming Lesbians”

  1. I foresee that some may try to draw three illegitimate conclusions from these data:

    (1) That if SOME or even MANY women’s sexual orientation is fluid, then either ALL or at any rate MOST women’s must be.

    (2) That sexual orientation can be altered at will.

    (3) That what applies to women’s sexuality must apply equally to men’s.

    Irrespective of the validity of the data, none of the above conclusions follow from them.

    NARTH wrongly cited Lisa Diamond’s research in support of conclusion (2) above. Before the publication of her book, she had already told the Boston Globe:

    ‘I want to make it clear that just because some women [Note the word ‘some’] exhibit fluid sexual attraction, it doesn’t mean that sexual orientation is a “lifestyle choice.”’

    Later, in response to NARTH’s misrepresentation of her research she said:

    ‘The women … are quite clear about the fact that they don’t experience those changes as wilful, and if anything they sometimes actively resist them, so the notion that they’re chosen simply because of their variability simply isn’t consistent with what I find. If NARTH had actually read the study more carefully they would find that that isn’t supported by my data at all.’

    • Thanks William, and thanks in particular for pointing out how NARTH has misunderstood what this report does and doesn't show.

      However, in the interests of being controversial, let me respond to your three points with some of my own.

      (1) If SOME or even MANY women's sexual orientation is fluid, then it is incorrect for some women to suggest that their sexual orientation cannot ever change.

      (2) It may not be always possible for sexual orientation to simply change at will, but neither is it categorically impossible that it cannot

      :-)

      • Yes, Peter, I agree that it is incorrect for some women to suggest that their sexual orientation cannot ever change, and this applies as much to heterosexual as to lesbian women. The unexpected can happen, and the unusual doesn’t always happen to someone else.

        I agree also we cannot categorically rule out the possibility for sexual orientation to change at will.

        We cannot justifiably lay down universal negatives to which we demand that the facts of experience conform; we have simply to observe and generalise as we can. In general people’s sexual orientation does not change, even if and however much they want it to, and this is even more the case with men than with women. If some claim that it can be and sometimes has been changed at will, then the burden of providing the necessary evidence for this rests on them. Such evidence as we have at present is poor: if I may be controversial in my turn, I’d say that it isn’t even as good as the evidence for “spirit” healing.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Some of the more recent neuroscience indicates that the development of an individual's human brain is intrinsically associated with both the innate (genetic/nature) and the environmental (interaction/nurture), so that the nature/nurture debate on any particular complex issue, such as sexuality, is practically indeterminate, at least with current science.

    So what's the score? All of the above, I guess. So, some top-of-the-head thoughts:

    If there's an innate and developed bias against homosexuality, then it probably won't occur.

    If there's an innate and developed state that leads to homosexual feelings, but a culturally induced cognitive phobia against it, then conflict might occur; in which case if the activity does go ahead there might be significant guilt.

    If there's an innate and developed state that leads to homosexual feelings, and no personal homophobia, but local strong cultural homophobia, the participation and the stress may depend on the strength on mind of the individual.

    If there are no barriers, then it may occur willingly and comfortably.

    So, in this specific case, late blooming lesbians could be any of the following:

    – Those with a strong genetic inclination but who have resisted it, knowingly or not.

    – Those who have a late genetic expression of homosexuality.

    – Those who are genuinely bi-sexual.

    – Those who are genetically heterosexual, but have no strong barriers, some curiosity, or other environmental drive.

    – etc.

    And, all this seems to fit the wide variety of personal reports we see in agony aunt pages and internet discussions. We seem to be sufficiently complex and varied, bit as individuals, and as members of our species, that within certain bounds we have an potential for sexual orientations that is indeterminate in commitment, strength, duration, time of onset, etc.; which means that for some it may be fluid, but for others it might not be so much so: this study suggests there can be a genetic case

    I can see why someone with a strong religious conviction and homosexual tendencies might wish to change voluntarily, and that choice should be theirs. Where do you stand on the coercion by religious groups for the change to hetrosexuality?

    • Interesting thoughts.

      I'm on the record as opposing those who want to impose a "one size fits all" developmental model of homosexuality. The truth, as you point out, is probably far more complicated.

      Could you rephrase your last question so I know exactly what you're asking? I think a typo might have crept in.

      • Hi Peter,

        No typo, just an unclear question.

        I've not had chance to read your blog thoroughly yet, so I'm not clear on your position on the extent to which you see homosexuality as something that needs to be fixed, and the extent to which within a religious community it would be deemed acceptable to persuade (or coerce) those with a homosexual tendency to become more heterosexual. I was basically asking your opinion (or links to existing posts).

        • Well persuade and coerce are two different things entirely? We accept don't we that in public life we can seek to persuade others to do what we think they ought to. We also accept that sometimes we need to coerce people to do something that they don't want to.

          I don't think that changing from gay to straight is the issue. If you have the time watch the "Post-gay?" video, the link for which is on the right-hand side of the site under "Key Posts on Sexuality".

          I think there's a place for the Christian community to encourage a holy lifestyle that seeks to die to self. I think a Christian community at times need to exercise discipline in order to make it clear to people that there are limits to acceptable behaviour. Not sure though where "coercion" comes into that.

  3. Hi Peter,

    I think it takes a lot of courage to live an authentic life, whatever that looks like. I am a professional writer and wrote a novel called Seeking Sara Summers about a woman who falls in love with her best female friend. From the feedback I get from readers, a lot of women and men–both gay and straight–can relate.

    Susan Gabriel

    author of Seeking Sara Summers

    (a novel about falling in love with your best friend)

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