In Brief

A significant number of non-heterosexual women alternate between calling themselves lesbian, bisexual or "unlabeled," finds a recent study.

In the study, psychologist Lisa Diamond, PhD, interviewed 80 women, ages 16 to 23, who considered themselves either lesbian, bisexual or unlabeled, about their sexuality. The women were drawn from community events and youth groups for sexual minorities, as well as from college classes on gender and sexuality.

Two years later, she interviewed them again to see if their sexual attractions, behaviors and identities had changed. The interviews revealed that half the women had changed their sexual identity--meaning their self-described sexual predisposition--more than once since first rejecting a heterosexual identity.

The result supports findings from previous research that non-heterosexual women tend to recall a number of changes in their sexual identity over the course of their lives. And, says Diamond, the study confirms this in longitudinal research with a wider pool than those sampled in previous studies--the women in her study were younger than those in previous samples and included women outside of gay and bisexual groups.

In the study, the women's sexual behavior was also somewhat variable--many reported having sexual relations with men and women--although their pattern of attraction to other women or men tended to remain stable over time. Bisexual and unlabeled women reported the most fluctuation in attractions and sexual behavior, but some lesbians reported having sexual relations with men, despite being mainly attracted to women.

"The reality is that women's sexual identity is often quite complicated," says Diamond, an assistant professor at the University of Utah. "Western culture expects sexuality to come in one neat package when often that is not the case."

Emotional ties, she says, often appear to influence women's attractions in either direction. For instance, one woman she interviewed was a self-declared lesbian who began a sexual relationship with her male best friend. Other women claimed to have had heterosexual identities in adolescence, but later adopted bisexual or lesbian identities.

Sexual identity, attraction and behavior are certainly related, but they're often "discordant" for women, says Diamond, whose study appears in this month's issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 36, No. 2).