Can Sexuality Change? What Sexual Fluidity Is and Is Not

Person holds glass ball, in which they are reflectedMany people see sexuality as key to their identity. But sexuality can change over time. These changes often cause shifts in identity, experiences, and relationships.

Sexuality: A Continuum of Experiences

Most people use sexuality to refer to the gender(s) to which they are attracted. However, sexuality means different things to different people. Not everyone experiences sexual feelings. Others have sexual feelings only in certain contexts. Someone who is asexual may have no sexual feelings. Meanwhile, someone who is demisexual may only have sexual feelings in a committed relationship. Even within these identities, there are numerous variations.

Sexuality can change over time. Some of the many reasons a person’s identity might change include:

  • Feeling less encumbered by social norms. Some people grow up in repressive families or feel stuck in marriages they did not want or no longer want. When they no longer have these restrictions, they may explore their sexuality. This can cause an identity shift.
  • Attraction to a new person. Some people connect strongly with a specific identity. They may then become attracted to a new person who calls that identity into question.
  • Political or ideological shifts. Some people change their sexuality for political reasons. Lesbian separatism is the refusal to participate in heterosexual relationships. Some women choose lesbian separatism due to firmly held feminist beliefs.

Understanding Sexual Fluidity

Sexual fluidity is the ability of sexual feelings to change over time. Some people embrace this notion. They may be more open to changes in their sexuality. Others are surprised to experience a shift in sexual feelings. 

Sexologists are people who study human sexuality. They have attempted to understand and quantify human sexuality using scales. For example, the Kinsey Scale ranges from 0-6. It includes identities ranging from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes. This is one way to explain sexual fluidity. If most people are not entirely homosexual or heterosexual, then the right experiences or setting may cause a person’s orientation to change.

Other scales that measure sexuality include:

  • The Klein Grid. This scale looks at a person’s past, present, and ideal experiences. It includes measures of romantic, sexual, and social attractions. The Klein Grid also makes room for personal sexual identity.
  • The Multidimensional Scale of Sexuality. This measure breaks sexuality into nine categories. It was developed primarily as a criticism of other tools that don’t distinguish sexual identity from behavior or treat sexual orientation as something that remains consistent across a person’s lifetime.

Researchers have developed dozens of other scales. Many of these are slight variations on the Kinsey Scale.

Are Sexuality and Gender the Same? The Link Between Sexuality and Gender

Sexuality and gender are distinct. A person’s sexuality includes a wide range of factors, including the gender to which they are attracted. Gender refers to gender identity. Most people are male or female, while others may have a different gender identity or be nonbinary. Some believe that the concept of gender is harmful or problematic.

Gender and sexual identities can change with time, but a change in one does not necessitate a change in the other. When a person’s gender identity changes, they may remain attracted to the same gender(s) of people. For example, a trans woman who once identified as heterosexual may identify as a lesbian following her transition.

The notion that sexuality can change has long been used to oppress sexual minorities. Conversion therapy uses physical and emotional abuse to urge non-heterosexual people to become heterosexual. It hinges on the idea that it’s possible to force someone to change their sexuality.

How Sexuality Affects Identity

Most people see sexuality as a fundamental part of their identity. Relationships often depend on sexual identity. It is common for people to participate in sexuality-based subcultures. For instance, a heterosexual couple may have primarily heterosexual friends.

When sexuality changes or when someone questions their sexuality, their identity may also shift. Sexuality changes may spur fears of rejection. For example, a lesbian who begins to be attracted to men may worry her friends will judge her.

People with non-normative sexual identities—including lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual, and asexual identities—can be especially anxious about shifts in their sexuality. The notion that sexuality can change has long been used to oppress sexual minorities. Conversion therapy uses physical and emotional abuse to urge non-heterosexual people to become heterosexual. It hinges on the idea that it’s possible to force someone to change their sexuality.

The Difference Between Change Over Time and Forced Change

Forced change is categorically different from natural shifts in sexuality. People change many preferences or interests over a lifetime. These include changes that are key to their identity. Careers, hobbies, romantic partners, and political ideals figure prominently in identity. And while they often change with new experiences, they are unlikely to change under duress.

Sexuality is similar, though one’s sexual orientation is never a matter of preference. People cannot change who they love or are attracted to. While those feelings may shift with time, attempting to force change for political or religious reasons is unlikely to work. It can also cause lasting harm. Most medical and psychological organizations oppose conversion therapy as a form of psychological abuse. Several states have banned the practice.

When Sexual Practices and Identity Differ

People align with specific sexual orientations for many reasons. Sometimes a person’s sexual practices are not included in their sexual identity. Someone might identify as heterosexual but occasionally have sex with people of the same gender. Many factors, including stigma, may contribute to this behavior.

The philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault famously argued that sexual identity is a social and historical construct, not an unchangeable identity. He saw sexual identity as linked to power structures and historical shifts. Foucault disputed the idea that sexual orientation is a fundamental part of one’s essence. With this understanding of sexuality, shifts in identity may be inevitable. They may be no different than changes in taste or fashion.

No matter how someone views their sexual identity or how that identity changes over time, sexuality can prompt important questions about relationships, politics, religion, and more. A therapist can help untangle these issues in a respectful and nonjudgmental setting.

References:

  1. Berkey, B. R., Perelman-Hall, T., & Kurdek, L. A. (1990). The multidimensional scale of sexuality. Journal of Homosexuality,19(4), 67-88. doi: 10.1300/j082v19n04_05
  2. Overview of sexual orientations. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/sexinfo/article/overview-sexual-orientations
  3. Sexual fluidity. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://vaden.stanford.edu/health-resources/lgbtqia-health/sexual-fluidity
  4. The emergence of sexuality: Foucault, sexual identities, and the modern self. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thinkolio.org/olios/emergence-sexuality-foucault-sexual-identities-and-modern-self
  5. The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.americaninstituteofbisexuality.org/thekleingrid

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