Feature

The gay rights' movement notwithstanding, the bulk of the public is still not ready to accept the fact that people display a range of sexual and affectional proclivities, says Linda Garnets, PhD, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But there is irony in society's attempts to avoid sexual discomfort, Garnets contended in a keynote address at the January National Multicultural Summit II.

The latest research shows that people's erotic and affectional "personalities" are as varied and unique as a fingerprint or someone's voice, and that no one person is, as she puts it, "100 percent heterosexual 100 percent of the time." People's erotic attractions can be surprisingly fluid when it comes to erotic attractions, and science fails to support the conventional wisdom that people's sexuality can be neatly placed in rigid categories, she said.

Emerging research from hundreds of studies debunks a number of notions about sexual orientation, Garnets said. One is that sexual orientation is dichotomous--that one is either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual. Instead, new research finds that sexual orientations exist along a continuum, like colors in the spectrum of a rainbow. People can be sexually, affectionally or erotically attracted to people of the same gender, the other gender or both genders, she said.

New research also challenges the idea that people's sexual behavior is what defines sexual orientation, Garnets said. Sexual orientation has many dimensions that are related to their sexual orientation, including erotic and affectional fantasies, emotional attachments, self-identification and current relationship status.

The idea that people's sexual identities, behaviors and fantasies comprise a seamless whole is likewise disproven by research, Garnets added. Studies show a wide variety of overlapping possibilities--the woman who identifies herself as a bisexual but never develops a strong attraction to a man, for instance, or the heterosexual man who uses homoerotic fantasies when having sex with his female partner--that point to more complex realities.

New empirical findings also challenge the notion that sexual orientation begins at a young age and doesn't change, Garnets added. There's considerable evidence that some people's attractions toward both women and men can change over time. Both those who identify as bisexuals and those who don't can experience these changing gender attractions. Women who have had exclusively heterosexual experiences, for example, may develop attractions to women at any point in their lives.

In addition, research shows, strictly biological, genetic, social or familial explanations rarely explain how each of us develops a particular sexual orientation, she said. For instance, only four studies to date have examined brain differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals, and each has different results. There are gender differences in such findings as well, Garnets said. While some evidence points to a possible genetic link for homosexuality in men, no such evidence exists for women. Similarly, women appear to be more fluid in their propensity to change their feelings about which gender they're attracted to.

Bisexuality, which has come under increasing study recently, provides a fascinating new model that challenges rigid beliefs about sexuality, Garnets added. Bisexuals "challenge the either-or assumption that sexual orientation comes in only two mutually exclusive categories," Garnets said. In contrast to society's mandates, bisexuals tend to put someone's personal qualities before gender as the criteria for choosing a partner. As one bisexual woman put it, "'My sexual orientation is toward creative people of color who can cook,'" Garnets quipped. Likewise, transgendered individuals raise interesting questions for society, Garnets said. There is no clear relationship, for example, between cross-dressing and other cross-gender behaviors and sexual orientation.

When society condemns those of differing sexual orientations, it limits its own expression, Garnets contended. People's condemnation of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people is particularly based on fear of being labeled gay themselves. In turn, this fear leads people to conform to gender roles to avoid being labeled "gay." Yet such restrictions limit the range of human potential, she believes.

Other cultures provide kinder models for differing sexual orientations. Native American cultures, for example, view cross-gendered individuals "as blessed, possessing both a male and a female spirit, as two-spirited," Garnets said, a latitude that may open up new doors for rich and creative expression.


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

Further Reading

For more, see "Women's sexualities: perspectives on sexual orientation and gender" in the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 56, No. 2).