Lisa Diamond – Male Sexuality More Fluid Than We Thought

Fascinating research from the University of Utah academic. Karen Booth has more.

Is homosexuality unchangeable? Are gays and lesbians exclusively attracted to their own genders? Does a person who experiences same-sex attraction always proceed developmentally to the acceptance of a homosexual orientation or the adoption of an LGB or “queer” identity?

These are the kinds of questions that have intrigued sex researcher Dr. Lisa Diamond, who teaches psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah. A self-identified lesbian and vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, she is considered by many in her field to be one of the nation’s foremost experts on female homosexuality. Her research since the mid-90s has primarily focused on the “fluidity” of women’s sexual behavior, attractions (orientation) and identity labeling; and when she published her findings in 2009 the shock waves were felt almost immediately throughout the LGBT community.

For example, the online introduction to one of her interviews on a local radio station put it this way: “The queer community has been obsessed with cultivating the idea that we all have fixed sexual identities. We’ve crafted terrific narratives and political platforms based on the notions that all gays are ‘born that way’. But what if sexuality is more complex? What if biology actually intersects with environment, time, culture and context? Could we possibly be more fluid than we’ve supposed?”

Now, her more recent discoveries about male and adolescent sexuality ― described in detail in this 45 minute video of a lecture she presented at Cornell University ― are poised to make a similar impact. Diamond is a very engaging speaker, and I encourage readers to watch the complete video. Otherwise, here are some of the highlights along with my commentary in italics. I also noted some of the minute markers in case anyone wants to fact check.

In an overview of her previous research, Diamond acknowledges that early studies of homosexuality focused mainly on the “coming out” models of young men, with the developmental sequence moving from an awareness of same-sex attraction at 9 or 10 years old, to a gradual sexual experimentation with other males, to a recognition and acknowledgement of a homosexual orientation, to an ultimate adoption and announcement of gay self-identity. This stereotypical model, with its subsequent conflation of attraction, orientation and identity, has become the accepted “conventional wisdom” of much of the culture and Church. Christian psychologist Dr. Mark Yarhouse dubs it “the gay script.”Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 1.48.30 PM

Though her findings on women contradicted these patterns in many respects, Diamond still believed they were common for men. But she also acknowledged that it’s been almost impossible to accurately access male homosexuality because the samples have been small, non-random and self-selected, and the right kinds of questions haven’t been asked. (6:10) The same problem has plagued almost all sex researchers ever since the hopelessly flawed Kinsey studies in the late 40s and early 50s. And all of the studies are based on memory and self-report that may not be entirely accurate. (For more information on the Kinsey reports, see Chapter One of my book Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.)

So in her most recent research, Diamond has shifted her focus from women to men and adolescents in an attempt to confirm or disprove what she calls the three pillars of sexual fluidity ― non-exclusivity; inconsistency between identity, attraction and behavior; and, variability over time. (8:35) In doing so, she rigorously examined and plotted the findings of a dozen of the more recent large population studies from 1992-2010, including one in New Zealand that followed a group of young people from their late teens to early thirties.

Regarding the first “pillar” ― non-exclusivity ― she discovered that the majority of men who had experienced same-sex attraction (SSA) of any kind were PRIMARILY attracted to the opposite sex; those who were exclusively attracted to other men accounted for approximately 2.5 percent of the general population sample. Less than 1 percent of the women were exclusively SSA, and both of these results were consistent across all the studies. (14:36)

These statistics are far more accurate than the commonly heard claim that 10 percent of men and women are gay, usually thought of as exclusively so. That figure is based on a faulty interpretation of the Kinsey research, which actually reported that approximately 10 percent of the male population had engaged in homosexual behavior at some time during their life. Even this outcome was inflated well beyond Diamond’s findings (5-7 percent) because Kinsey used a disproportionate number of incarcerated “sex offenders” and urban-dwelling homosexuals in his sample.

To assess the inconsistencies among sexual identity, attraction and behavior ― the second “pillar” ― Diamond did her own sampling of 300+ Salt Lake City residents who were almost equally divided between those who self-identified as homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. (20:48) The participants were asked questions about sexual attraction, romantic feelings (“falling in love”) and actual sexual partners. Stereotypically, one would expect to find neat divisions across the three identities. But this was not the case; for example, 42 percent of lesbian women and 40 percent of gay men reported some attraction to the opposite sex in the previous year, and 31 percent of gay men reported having had romantic feelings for women. (26:26) There was even more of what Diamond calls a “mish mash” between identity, attraction and behavior when the study participants had been 12-17 years old.

One of Diamond’s strengths, in my opinion, is that she makes a distinction between identity, attraction and behavior. As mentioned previously, so does Dr. Mark Yarhouse. So does the official teaching of The United Methodist Church.

To track variability over time ― the third “pillar” ― Diamond analyzed the four stages of the New Zealand “National Attitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,” which tracked “gain” or “loss” of SSA among a group of young people at ages 16-17, 18-19, 24-27 and 29-31 years old. (29:00) During their late teens, more boys and girls were losing SSA than gaining, which was reversed by their mid-twenties with more of them gaining, and which was then reversed once more by their early thirties with more of them again losing SSA. This tendency toward fluidity was also evident in the measurements of gain or loss of opposite sex attraction (OSA), especially in their early twenties and early thirties. However, in contrast to the females, male attraction did tend to become more “fixed” over time, though not to the degree that Diamond expected. It would be interesting to see the results extended as the group continues to age.

Diamond concludes (37:27) that: 1. fluidity in identity, attraction and behavior is NOT specific to women but a general feature of human sexuality, one which is also confirmed by historical and cross-cultural literature; 2. the various sexual categories currently in use (LGBTQI, etc.) are usefulheuristics (mental shortcuts, rules of thumb, educated guesses or stereotypes), but though “they have meaning in our culture, … we have to be careful in presuming that they represent natural phenomena” (38:55); and 3. it is “tricky” to use these categories for advocating rights based on the concept of immutability “now that we know it is not true … As a community, the queers have to stop saying: ‘Please help us, we were born this way and we can’t change’ as an argument for legal standing.” (43:15)

When one of the leading lesbian academics on the issue of sexual fluidity says this kind of stuff, why are we continuing to buy the line that people are simply born gay?

22 Comments on “Lisa Diamond – Male Sexuality More Fluid Than We Thought

  1. Peter Ould: “When one of the leading lesbian academics on the issue of sexual
    fluidity says this kind of stuff, why are we continuing to buy the line
    that people are simply born gay?”

    Me: Because to oppose it is politically incorrect and one usually pays a heavy price for demonstrating political incorrectness.

    • Peter Ould: Why are we continuing to buy the line that that people are simply born gay?

      Me: Who are “we”? There is no consensus on the question. There is no obvious reason, however, why some people should not be born with a predominantly straight or gay but nonetheless fluid sexuality, while others are born with a more fixed one.

      Wolf Paul: Because to oppose it is politically incorrect and one usually pays a heavy price for demonstrating political incorrectness.

      Me: There is no politically correct theory about why people are gay, just as there is no politically correct theory about why people are straight. No-one pays a heavy price for holding any theory about why people are gay or straight. However, people are likely to pay the fairly light price of being derided for dogmatically propounding theories that are downright silly.

      • “There is no consensus on the question. There is no obvious reason, however, why some people should not be born with a predominantly straight or gay but nonetheless fluid sexuality, while others are born with a more fixed one.”

        Can you not see how those two paragraphs alone are completely contradictory? In one you claim there is no consensus, in the second you imply you know that *some* people are born with fluid sexuality and *others* aren’t.

        And the scientific paper with this remarkable piece of researched evidence is where exactly?

        • No, Peter, there is no contradiction whatever. I am simply saying that, in the present state of our very incomplete knowledge, there is no a priori impossibility that people’s sexuality, be it fixed or fluid, is something that they are born with. I am NOT asserting that it definitely is so. I don’t actually know. And despite anything that anyone may be inclined to think or to guess, no-one else knows either. As I said, there is no consensus on the question.

                • That either a fixed or a fluid sexual orientation is in some way already programmed in people at birth remains, in the present state of our knowledge, a theoretical possibility. Whether it actually is so – that is quite another question, to which we don’t yet know the answer. But the possibility is not one that has so far been definitively ruled out by a posteriori evidence.

                  • The ‘born that way’ hypothesis was never ‘that either a fixed or a fluid sexual orientation is in some way already programmed in people at birth’. The original ‘born that way’ hypothesis (that the ‘fluidity’ evidence contradicts) is the positive assertion that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic that would be either immoral or unamenable to change.

                    I didn’t say the evidence was conclusive. I merely stated that there was a posteriori evidence to the contrary (to the ‘born that way’ assertion).

                    • The precise meaning of “original” here is far from clear. I would question whether there has ever been just one single “born that way” hypothesis. There has certainly never existed any ex cathedra encyclical prescribing THE “orthodox” “born that way” hypothesis from which it is heretical to deviate.

                      But what does it matter, anyway? Whatever theories may have been propounded in the past, is anyone who is prepared today to consider any kind of “born that way” hypothesis bound by them? No, of course not, any more than evolutionary biologists in 2014 are bound to hold exactly the same theories about the mechanism of evolution as their predecessors of, say, 1930.

                      I would agree with the proposition that a homosexual orientation, like a heterosexual one, is morally neutral. That is not affected one way or the other by the “born that way” question. “EITHER morally neutral OR unamenable to change” strikes me as a very curious dichotomy; I don’t see how it’s even meaningful, so I won’t waste time trying to comment meaningfully on it. I will observe, however, that a trait does not have to be inborn to be unamenable to change.

                      It was very wise of you not to say that the evidence was conclusive. It isn’t.

                    • There doesn’t have to be a single ‘born that way’ hypothesis. Point me to a single study in which a genetic cause has been attributed to fluidity in sexual orientation…and published as a ‘born that way’ hypothesis.

                      ‘Born that way’ asserts a genetic cause that pre-determines sexual orientation and has been used as a scientific basis for explaining why homosexual acts should be treated as morally neutral and unamenable to change.

                    • “There doesn’t have to be a single ‘born that way’ hypothesis.”

                      No, of course there doesn’t. That is why there was no point in your writing about “THE original ‘born that way’ hypothesis”. But even if we grant, purely for the sake of argument, the possibility that there really was a “born that way” hypothesis that could be called the original one, and which did not allow for the possibility of sexual fluidity, that could do zero to invalidate any later hypothesis that did allow for it. Nor could it tell us anything about the likely correctness or incorrectness of any later hypothesis, one way or the other.

                      No, I can’t point you to a single study in which a genetic cause has been attributed to fluidity in sexual orientation. I don’t know of any scientific study dealing in any way with the question of possible genetic causes that takes fluidity of sexual orientation into account at all – except possibly in passing. But again, that doesn’t matter, except perhaps to indicate that any future studies should take it into consideration. Whatever, as I have already said, there is to date no empirical evidence that definitively rules out the possibility that either a fixed or a fluid sexual orientation is in some way already programmed in people at birth. Whether that actually is the case is, of course, a different question, to which we donlt yet know the answer.

                      Your second paragraph is a masterpiece of slipshod and incoherent thinking. To start with, “Born that way” does NOT have to assert a PURELY genetic cause – it can also include all sorts of epigenetic factors in the womb before birth. That apart, since acceptance of a “born that way” theory is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for treating homosexual acts (or heterosexual acts, for that matter) as morally neutral, anyone arguing along those lines is wrong. But the wrongness of their argument has absolutely no bearing on the correctness or incorrectness of such a theory. And I have not so far heard anyone maintaining that ANY theory of the causes of sexual orientation indicates that homosexual ACTS (or heterosexual ACTS) are “unamenable to change”, let alone explain why they supposedly are.

                    • Your earlier assertion in response to my comment: ‘only that there isn’t’ a posteriori evidence to the contrary) has been soundly refuted.

                      The rest of your responses merely circumvent your error with smokescreens of sophistry that fail to convince anyone. Perhaps, you can ‘like’ your next comment because the rest of us have lost interest in them.

                    • “Your earlier assertion in response to my comment: ‘only that there isn’t’ a posteriori evidence to the contrary) has been soundly refuted.”

                      Really? Where, how and by whom? Information will be gratefully received.

                      The rest of my post merely exposes your rambling, inconsequential and incoherent arguments and irrelevancies.

  2. Thanks Peter, this is interesting.

    One thing I’d like to see investigated a bit more is cultural / societal influences. I was chatting to a tutor at college a few weeks ago who is from Australia. She’s done some work with Liberty in the past (Aussie equivalent of the True Freedom Trust). As part of that she interviewed a lot of men who claimed their sexual orientation had changed – something which was much more common there than it is in the UK. Maybe if the expectation is that your orientation cannot change, it means it probably won’t – which is why research like this is helpful. I do feel like there is a strong message in UK media today which says “people are born one way or another and cannot change”, which should be rightly challenged.

  3. Genetic or epigenetic make-up has a bearing on pretty much everything in our lives. It would be odd if it had none on sexuality, whether it is fixed or to some extent malleable is up for grabs, but I’m not sure the answer to this is to be found in Scripture.

    • But the question is whether the effect of genetic / epigenetic content is SO over-powering it becomes an over-arching determinative factor in sexual identity. Lisa Diamond (one of THE experts in the field) says “no”.

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