How important are sexual attraction, desire and love in shaping our identities? How fixed are our sexual identities? How much choice do we really have in identifying our sexual orientation(s)? And how can we disentangle the biological, psychological and social contexts of our lives to answer these questions successfully? These are among the many problems that Lisa Diamond sets out to answer in Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire.
Demonstrating equal awareness and sympathy for evidence from genetics, endocrinology, neurology, developmental and evolutionary psychology and social constructionist/feminist perspectives, Diamond also provides a balanced and informed critique of the methodological conduct of previous contributions to the relevant debates. That she opted for a ten-year longitudinal study using in-depth interviews with a self-identified "sexual minority" and heterosexual young women, using extracts from these interviews to support her argument, makes a pleasing change from the more typical surveys or experiments that comprise the majority of research literature on human sexuality.
The robustness of the concept underpinning her thesis, that sexual fluidity characterises many women's experience of sexuality throughout their lives, needs closer scrutiny. Diamond argues that there is a particular set of assumptions that has remained unchallenged about the fixed nature of sexual orientation in both women and men that leads to categorisation as "heterosexual", "lesbian/gay" or "bisexual".
Diamond posits that perhaps women's sexuality is fundamentally different from men's and researchers have (mistakenly) been too inflexible in explanations of sexual behaviours and orientations. Despite evidence across cultures and time that male homosexuality is not necessarily an immutable concept either, Diamond considers that she has data to show that women's experience reflects even greater variability in the development of sexual orientation across the life span.
Does this mean that women have choice as to their sexual orientation? The idea, floated during the mid-1970s, that heterosexual relationships were inevitably deeply oppressive raised the possibility that sexual connections between women were the ultimate answer for a balanced, emancipated life. However, feeling passionate about feminist politics and the company of female friends failed to impact widely on women's sexual desire so that "political" lesbianism was a short-lived fad.
Even so, many women who identify themselves as bisexual, lesbian or heterosexual do report other sexual relationships and attractions and their stories permeate Diamond's study.
These accounts resonate with my own much earlier study of sexual life histories. I was not then alerted to "fluidity" as a phenomenon. I am now resolved to re-examine the data to seek out how far Diamond's "new type of model, one that systematically explains both stability and variability in sexuality", might be applied.
I wonder, though, whether her "dynamical systems model" differs substantially from biopsychosocial or material-discursive-intrapsychic approaches to understanding the human condition.
Sexual Fluidity presents itself as a well-constructed and coherent study. Graduate students with specialist interest would find it informative. So would relationship counsellors and sex therapists.
However, despite its accessibility I fear the potential market is small. Diamond herself indicates: " ... as I have repeatedly emphasised, women's sexual desires show more variability than do men's, both over time and across situations." This message is a difficult one to promote.
Our identities are not fixed. Falling in love has always been unpredictable. Attitudes towards lesbian, gay and bisexual women and men continue to change. The conundrum of whether a feminist can live in a heterosexual relationship without compromise has not been solved.
I have still to be convinced that sexual fluidity is more than a repackaging of what we already knew about female sexuality and women's psychology. However, this is undoubtedly a fascinating read.
Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire
By Lisa M. Diamond
Harvard University Press
Published 22 February 2008