Breaking sexual boundaries

Lisa Diamond, author of Sexual Fluidity, argues for a more flexible conception of human sexuality

Lisa Diamond
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Lisa Diamond

If Lisa Diamond, author of Sexual Fluidity, published in February 2008, had a different roommate in college, our knowledge of gender and sexual identity might not be as vast as it is today. Diamond, an associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, was initially interested in pursuing anthropology during her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago in 1993.

“It’s almost funny. My best friend and roommate also wanted to be in anthropology,” she said. “I thought it would be bad for our friendship and lead to competition.” So Diamond decided to pursue psychology. While completing her BA, she made some personal discoveries regarding her own sexuality and her interest in the topic was instantly sparked.

“I came out when I was in college,” she said. “In the process of coming out, I became interested in the subject.” During this period, Diamond recalls the disappointing research published in the area, especially with regard to women’s sexuality. “It struck me, around this time when I was becoming interested in social sciences, that the stuff that was out there was like drivel,” she said. “The work out there was mostly done on men. There were voices missing in this research.”

Diamond went on to complete a master’s degree and doctorate in psychology at Cornell University. As a young researcher, Diamond was eager to complete more work on the subject of sexuality.

“Very new and interesting work had yet to be done,” she said. “This was a really good time to get into the subject.”

Diamond heads her own sexuality and development lab at the University of Utah in the department of psychology and gender studies, where she researches how emotional and sexually intimate relationships develop and how these relationships effect sexual identity and mental health.

One of her research directions involves a longitudinal investigation of female sexual identity development. Since the mid 1990s, Diamond has interviewed and followed 89 women between the ages of 16 and 23 in New York state regarding their sexual identities. “I’ve asked them about their experiences and how they identify themselves. I will continue to talk to and follow these women and plan to follow them as long as I can. I am just now finishing with a 13-year follow-up.”

Although there’s a social tendency to affix labels of sexual orientation in distinct terms, such as straight, lesbian or bisexual, Diamond’s research argues that sexuality may not be that simple.

Her work suggests some women aren’t restricted to specific classes of sexual identity, but display a capacity for sexual fluidity. Diamond has reported and published instances where her interview subjects have changed their sexual labels during different stages in their lives. Many have built serious relationships with both men and women. “They seem to be drawn to the person rather than the gender,” she said.

Although her work indicates a fluidity of female sexuality, Diamond doesn’t think university students, who seem to engage in a lot of experimentation, are any more fluid at that age than any other.

“I think that the environment of college puts women in contact with newfound opportunities to act on their fluidity and the associated costs are often much lower than with ‘regular life,’” she said. “I think that’s why you often see more experimentation during the college years.”

Last year, Diamond compiled her results into the comprehensive book, Sexual Fluidity, which summarized her findings and detailed cases of the women she had followed.

Although her work is focused on women, Diamond believes fluidity may also exist in men.

“I get e-mails from men who’ve read the book all the time, saying ‘I think this applies to me,’” she said. “Maybe fluidity exists in men, but it is not as general and it probably applies to a smaller subset.”

Aside from her work on sexual fluidity, Diamond’s research interests also include the effect of close relationships in adolescence on physical and emotional health.

“Alongside the sex identity research, the close relationship work evolved in its own direction,” she said. “They are motivated by the same questions.

“In colloquial terms, I am convinced by the power of love and what these relationships do to us.”

Margaret Little, full professor with a joint appointment in women’s studies and politics, said she supports the idea of fluid sexuality.

“Having a continuum makes sense to me,” she said. “When we look at the animal kingdom, we see birds with quite fluid sexualities. Why would we be considerably different?”

During her time as an undergrad at King’s College in Halfax, Little said she defined herself as heterosexual.

“I was a happy little heterosexual in my undergard and I worked in that framework which was fine for me,” she said. “I spent a lot of time with my queer friends but I had the status of having a boyfriend. Then I went out into the bigger world and met more feminists and queer people. That opened me up to think about sexuality more but it was really coming back to Kingston and doing a masters here when I came out as a lesbian.”

Little got involved with the lesbian community in Toronto but was “excommunicated,” when she started dating a man.

“That’s what caught me about the rigidity of that community,” she said. “It didn’t fit who I am. Queer really appeals to me because it doesn’t matter who you’re sleeping with … as long as you allow for the fluidity of your sexuality.”

But not everyone can appreciate that, Little said, because they are confined by society’s institutions.

“I think some religious and medical institutions and even some laws have tried to put sexuality in really rigid boxes,” she said. “If our schools were more open to the idea of sexuality as fluid, we wouldn’t be so confined.”

Little said a lot of these reservations about sexuality come from societal insecurities.

“Some people get nervous about fluidity,” she said. “It challenges their sexuality. People like things to be fixed and they get anxious when things aren’t set in stone.”

Although many institutions attempt to constrict sexuality, Little said the university environment allows people to better explore their sexualities.

“Sexuality at university is more fluid,” she said. “It’s like war times or an economic crisis and that’s because some people, at those times, are more removed from their families and the institutions that were confining their sexuality. We go to university and we’re away from our families. We get a choice what we want to get involved in and we’re exposed to new people we wouldn’t be in our old environment who give us new ideas … and this allows us to explore more.”

But sometimes students don’t break away from societal confinements, Little said, especially when they leave university and return home.

“Sometimes the mindset is experiment now and then move on and don’t look back,” she said. “But by my sense it’s more positive. I see students being much more open and fluid about sexuality … back then you had to choose in clear boxes … I don’t see this generation doing that.”

Although students have more liberal freedom today than they did 50 years ago, Little said female university students still don’t get to experience sexual freedom equal to men.

Little said women are still bound by traditional standards, in terms of their sexual freedom.

“It’s interesting to see what men and women are allowed to do at university,” she said. “Women have less room to move by far.”

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