Sexual Orientation: Black and White, or Lavender and Gray?

Abstract watercolor background on paper textureOn the “about you” paperwork that I ask new clients to complete I have one section which is loosely based on the mid-20th century Kinsey Scale that researcher Alfred Kinsey used to classify men and women based on their sexual behavior. He and his colleagues would interview people, ask them about their sexual practices, and place them on a scale. My adaptation invites people to place an X wherever they feel they best fit between 1 and 7, with 1 as homosexual and 7 as heterosexual.

I asked a handsome young man recently why he hadn’t filled out that part of the form and he rolled his eyes. “I’m metrosexual,” he replied. Upon questioning, it turned out that this term was more about how he dressed and where he hung out than who he was attracted to.

Yep, he was garden variety straight guy, a seven on Kinsey’s scale. The vast majority of guys that have completed my scale are adamant that they are straight as straight can be; i.e. “I’m not gay!” Some actually write this next to the scale!

But lots of women place themselves in or around the middle, and one new female client recently used watercolor to paint a lavender pink cloud that stretched from 2 to 5! “I’m fluid,” she smiled, “and I play all over the landscape!” Increasingly I’m noticing that orientation is a lot more colorful for women than for men, with shades and textures and patterns that defy quantification.

Research in sexuality and sexual orientation is also fluid, and didn’t really exist before Kinsey took it on in the early 20th century. And he was a zoologist who gradually morphed into a sex researcher! I, of course, am a clinician and not a researcher, so my observations are purely anecdotal, based on many, many clients who share their experiences with me.

This latest state of research flux is being fueled by new ways of peering inside the brain (think MRIs) while people are being shown images of stuff that turns them on. Before this, sex researchers would have women put tampon-like probes in their vaginas to measure blood flow while they looked at sexy pictures. (Men’s penile response is, of course, easier to measure.)

The results surprised the most progressive researchers, who are probably not used to hearing about fluid and lavender clouds. Both probes and MRIs confirm that just about any kind of stimulus (even videos of zoo animals mating) causes genital arousal for the majority of women, even if most of us don’t play all over the landscape in our real lives and real relationships!

Psychoanalyst Paul Joannides said it well at an American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) conference I attended years ago: “Before you take a girl to the zoo hoping you’ll get lucky, what flows between a woman’s legs and what she feels in her heart or thinks in her head can be very, very different … it’s a very unwise person who assumes that a woman is interested in sex just because her genitals are showing signs of arousal.”

Women’s sexual orientation does indeed appear to be more fluid and flexible than men’s, which seems to be more fixed and black and white, without those shades and textures and patterns of gray. For example, recent studies of overall physiological arousal to sexy male and female (human!) images show that straight men are turned on by sexy women but not by men, and gay men are turned on by men but not women. But here’s the fascinating and perhaps surprising part: women—both straight and lesbian—were turned on by both men and women!

It’s my observation that men and women live sexual orientation differently. Guys are straightforward (although not all are straight!) Their orientation results from what kind of person (or animal or object) gives them the most dependable erection.

Women’s sexuality does indeed appear more fluid, in that it can shift between different types of people. And most of us know women that have fallen in love with one another at one time in their lives and then moved to (or remained in) a straight identity and lifestyle.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Faith

    March 25th, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    Do you find that it actually is more fluid or do you think that it is simply that women are more open to the possibility that it could be?
    I happen to think that there are far more women who are not as intimidated by being something a little diffeernt than what society may see as the norm. It might feel okay to them to get love freely from whomever they feel that love from. If they feel it from a man then great, but if they have that strong attraction and desire from another woman then that is also fine and they are more open to exploring that than perhaps a man could be.
    There are some men who are completely closed off to the idea that a relationship could be anything beyond that of a man and a woman but I think that there are more females willing to recognize that their relationships with other females can be just as loving and satisfying as those with members of the opposite sex and that they should not close themselves off to those possibilities.

  • doyle

    March 26th, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    as a guy I guess I am confused because if something gives me an erection then this means that there is an attraction there on amny levels so this must be what I am attracted to… why can’t I then say that this is how I sexual self identify?

  • Doreen

    March 26th, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    You would hope that in this day and time that things like this would not even matter so much but apparently to a great number of people they still do.
    I don’t mind saying aloud that I am a lesbian and I don’t really care who knows but my parents are mortified at this and I swear they are still trying to set me up on dates with men any chance that they get!
    Why does this even matter to them so much? I can matter in lots of states, have kids, be in love, have a family, all of the same things that other couples do, so why don’t they just let me be me and be happy with that? Wouldn’t they rather have me be happy being who I am instead of miserable living some terrible sham of a lie?

  • Alison

    March 27th, 2014 at 4:16 AM

    Things used to be so much easier, but then again I guess we all used to feel a little more suppressed than we do now.

  • maura

    March 27th, 2014 at 4:42 PM

    We have all been confused at one time in our lives! What’s wrong with that? I think that sometimes it is that confusion that leads us to the ultimate answers about who we really are and who we want to be with. Without that confusion and those questions then we would never do those deep dark searches and truly look at what means the most to us in a partner.

  • amey

    March 28th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    hmmm makes me feel kind of strange that I have never had to question this part of my identity

  • Annie

    March 28th, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    Are you serious about the sex research?
    This is what they used to do or still do?
    That weirds me out on so many levels.
    Why not just simply ask what turns you on and what doesn’t?

  • Andrew P

    March 29th, 2014 at 5:06 AM

    So I have a question for you- if the theory is that women are a little more comfortable with themselves and their sexuality, cause this is the vibe that I am getting from this piece then why do they also have all these hanngups about their bodies and being more overtly sexual then men? I have never been with a woman who was blatantly sexual and they always seems ready to let men take charge of the whole sexual relationship, or at least that has been my expereience. So if what you say is true, that they are more comfortable with going in many different directions, shouldn’t that then translate to being more open with their own sexuality in general?

  • Jill Denton

    March 29th, 2014 at 2:37 PM

    Hi Andrew – This ain’t necessarily so! Keep in mind that my piece is about sexual orientation more than sexual behavior. What is true is that many of females have hang-ups about our bodies – we’re socialized from an early age that our personal worth is closely tied to our appearance. We’re also taught that it’s unattractive to “take charge” sexually, so we often defer to you guys when it comes to sex. Does this help?

  • elena

    March 30th, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    No shades of gray for the guys? I don’t believe it! I think that there have to be as many of them out there as confused as the gals, please tell me it’s true!

  • Shelly

    March 30th, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    Seriously I think that there are many of us who have been made to feel afraid to identify one way or another!

    You feel this extreem backlash from all sides who want you to be on their team, when honestly I could go either way and be okay ;)

    I just want to find that perfect person who makes me feel good, and I don’t really have expectations as to whether that will be a woman or a man, I just want it to be someone who loves me for me. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, so I guess when I find that person and settle down then I can let you know which category I most identify with.

  • jemma

    March 31st, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    And goodness knows that those of us who identify as bisexual really throw a curveball into the whole sexual identity concept!

  • Jill Denton

    March 31st, 2014 at 5:48 PM

    Hey Elena what I can tell you that’s true is that (in my clinical experience) more guys have same gender experience (as in “circle jerks” or mutual masturbation) as youngsters, but homophobia hits pretty hard among older teens and identification tends to be more rigid as guys get older. And…I don’t think that most women are “confused..” many respond to romance and attraction a lot like Shelly (last post)

  • Jill Denton

    April 1st, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    Jemma thanks for your comment – I truly LOVE curveballs – they make life so much more interesting and that’s why I love to talk about shades and textures and patterns of grey!

  • lmj

    April 2nd, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    So, my bf is bisexual. He says he’s never been in a relationship with a man but loves the penis. My difficulty here is that I have been with women and men too. But I have never been with a man who’s bisexual. The thought of it can be arousing but then it scares me too. I have this unending fear that one day I’ll wake up and we’ll just be friends while he “sees” other guys. Like, it was right in my face but I chose to ignore it. Ugh, its a real mind #$%&. Please help me sort this out in my head. Also, I’ve had this never ending naughty/nice battle with myself my whole life. Iwant it but I fear it.

  • anonymous

    April 16th, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    lmJ: does being bisexual like make him different than if he was straight or just gay? any relationship can have affairs no matter what your sexual orientation are. sounds like you gotta be true to you! you can be naughty and nice or whatever u want i think thats not bad

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