“I’m not gay, I’m fluid.” “I’m not straight, I’m fluid.” “I’m queer, but I’m fluid.” “I don’t like labels on my sexuality.” Sexual fluidity as a term seems to spike in popular awareness whenever a celebrity resists labels on their sexuality, but that doesn’t mean it’s a trend.
Whether you personally connect with the term “sexually fluid” and want to know more about how to talk about that, or whether you just want to know what it means when someone tells you they’re sexually fluid, here’s a quick guide to sexual fluidity.
What Is Sexual Fluidity?
If you’re thinking of instances where a seemingly confirmed lesbian gets involved with a (trans or cis) man, or where a seemingly straight woman has one long-term relationship with a (trans or cis) woman, or where someone seems to otherwise contradict the label you thought applied to them, you might be thinking of an instance of sexual fluidity.
“The reason such cases are so perplexing is that they flatly contradict the prevailing assumptions about sexual orientation,” writes researcher and psychologist Lisa Diamond in Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. Those assumptions, based largely on research focused on men, suggest that someone’s sexuality develops early and is stable and consistent over time.
Instead, a growing body of research suggests that this is not the case. It’s less about “where do you fall on the Kinsey scale?,” and more about “where do you fall on the Kinsey scale at a given moment?” In a 2016 literature review, Diamond describes sexual fluidity as “a capacity for situation-dependent flexibility in sexual responsiveness, which allows individuals to experience changes in same-sex or other-sex desire, over both short-term and long-term time periods. The existence of sexual fluidity does not imply that ‘everyone is bisexual,’ or that sexual orientation does not exist. Rather, it indicates that sexual orientation does not rigidly predict each and every desire an individual will experience over the lifespan.”
Is Being Sexually Fluid The Same As Being Bisexual?
No. Bisexuality is consistent over time, while sexual fluidity is a capacity for change over time. As Diamond discusses, a bisexual person may be attracted to multiple genders in different ways and to different degrees, but they have that consistent experience of non-monosexual desire over their lifetime. Sexual fluidity means that a person’s erotic responsiveness could change, but doesn’t mean anything about whether or not it will. “Although both bisexuality and sexual fluidity can produce non-exclusive sexual attractions, such attractions are expected to be a regular feature in the lives of bisexually oriented individuals, whereas they may prove more sporadic and/or context-specific for individuals who are highly sexually fluid,” Diamond writes in her 2016 study published in Current Sexual Health Reports.
Okay, But –
For an example, let’s use the invented experience of my invented friend, Ava. Ava has had a long series of great boyfriends, but always said she’d go gay if she ever ran into [her redacted woman celebrity crush]. Sure enough, one day Ava went down to Los Angeles and through an exceptionally gay yet plausible series of events ended up seated next to [her redacted woman celebrity crush] at a movie screening. The show was delayed, the two got to talking, and now it’s three years later and they live together on a farm near Altadena with their three beautiful rescue pits.
Discussion question: Does it actually matter whether Ava’s sexuality is bisexual or fluid? If so, why?
Labels are a useful shorthand for conveying in broad strokes what someone’s identity is and what boundaries they might have around that. For instance, if you’re a gay woman, you might tell a straight man who is trying to flirt with you “I’m gay” as a shorthand for “I am not interested in your advances and I am trying to make out with my wife, who you are standing in front of. Please leave.” If you’re a straight woman, and you’re sitting next to the hottest woman you’ve ever met in a pre-pandemic movie theatre, you might say, “I’ve dated men in the past” when what you actually mean is, “You are the hottest woman I’ve ever met, please spend the rest of your life with me.” We also obviously use labels to find and build community, friendships, partnerships, connection, and love.
But while labels can be a shorthand, they cannot possibly describe every way someone experiences sexual attraction or identity in their lives. There’s also no way to know whether what Diamond calls non-exclusive attractions come from bisexuality, sexual fluidity, or both. We all have different relationships with our labels and experiences. What’s important to focus on is not the labels, but the people and the personal narratives behind them.