post_womanOne of the most common fantasies among “straight” women is having sex with another woman, and lesbian-identified women frequently fantasize about sex with men. But what does it mean if a fantasy comes to life and then takes on larger proportions than you ever imagined? What if you think you’ve fallen in love with a person of the “wrong” sex? Does that mean you were really confused about your sexual identity all along?

Newest research into women’s sexuality – such as the groundbreaking work of Lisa Diamond at the University of Utah – tells us that much of what we once believed to be true about sexual orientation and identity is just plain wrong. Instead of falling into static, either/or categories, a woman’s sexual and romantic attractions can be fluid and extremely variable throughout her life span. Can women who identify as lesbian have attractions to men and enjoy sex with men? Yes. Do women who identify as bisexual divide their relationships into neat, equal pile-ups of men on the one side and women on the other? No. Can “heterosexual” women have real love affairs with other women? Yes. Are you always romantically and sexually attracted to the same sex? No. If you’ve enjoyed sex with a woman does that automatically make you bisexual? No. Must everybody wear a label? No to that, too.

The idea that people are either straight, gay, or bisexual lacks the dimension of our real sex and love lives, which are sometimes messy and illogical. Thanks to the new research, science is starting to back up what many of us in the clinical trenches have known from experience: the degree of a woman’s sexual attraction to men or women can ebb and flow over time. The way we experience, identify, label, or refuse to label ourselves may change as our attractions shift in intensity.

What some people might call being “open” to experiences is often referred to in sexology as “sexual fluidity.” Researchers have noted that sexual fluidity shows up more often when studying same-sex attractions among women than men. This may be what we call a “socially constructed” artifact of a culture that eroticizes and popularizes hot girl-girl action, sanctioning more options for women to act on their fantasies than for men. Or, further research may show a biological basis, or a more purely romantic basis, for female sexual fluidity. Whatever the source of this difference, we’re just beginning to understand how exclusive and non-exclusive same-sex romantic and sexual attractions really flow along a continuum. Yet, people often want clear-cut positions and labels – especially when someone is involved in a relationship that is different from the one before. We see this highlighted publicly when celebrities depart from the straight and narrow. For instance, when Sex and the City co-star Cynthia Nixon (Miranda) spoke about her relationship with a woman after her divorce from her husband, the press wrote: Cynthia Nixon has not said if she is a lesbian or bisexual, but she did say to the New York Daily News, “My private life is private. But at the same time, I have nothing to hide. So what I will say is that I am very happy.” Conceivably, if her relationship choices had gone in the opposite direction – like actress Anne Heche’s did – the question would have been the same, but stated in reverse. Later, Nixon commented, “I never felt like there was an unconscious part of me around that woke up or that came out of the closet. There wasn’t a struggle. There wasn’t an attempt to suppress. I met this woman, and I fell in love with her.”

Labels may not work well for some, but they do speak truth for others. Even those who are more comfortable defining their sexual identity sometimes discover that they have grown to love somebody who doesn’t fit the way they view themselves. They may be operationally fluid…but ambivalent about those feelings. Where does that leave them?

Making a commitment to a relationship is more challenging than taking a “go for it” attitude to living out sexual fantasies. Relationships are hard, and anybody who says love isn’t often harder outside one’s comfort zone is either lying…or blinded by love. When most of our emotional traffic lights are green, it’s the usual suspects that put the brakes on driving forward: shame, fear and political correctness. We live in a culture that doesn’t really respect sexual pleasure or sexual/romantic difference. As a result, if you’re part of a sexual minority and you veer the other way, you can be perceived as betraying your group; if you’re part of the mainstream and you get seriously involved with a same-sex partner, you will suddenly face many of the difficulties of being a minority. These issues can influence your choices regardless of where you land on the sexual identity continuum. They aren’t pretty, but they’re legitimate.

If we could easily live out our romantic ideals, most of us would vote for leaping into love and letting it sweep us where it will. However, when actually faced with strong feelings about the “wrong” person, choices aren’t so clear. While everyone’s situation is different, there are some questions that anyone who is struggling can ask herself to help gain a sense of direction:

  1. Do you take risks in your life, generally? Are you OK with uncertainties? Some people are less risk-tolerant than others; some are motivated by the challenges of ignoring the conventional path. It’s helpful to know where you fit on that continuum.
  2. Do you prefer to make choices out of emotion or pragmatism? If you’re an emotional decision maker you’ll probably go with your desires; if not, you’ll need to line up all the reasons why you should or shouldn’t take the next step.
  3. How important are your family, friends and others’ opinions or judgments to your decisions? Are you over or under emphasizing how much they really care, anyway?
  4. Does your new relationship somehow feel “right” to you, despite its difference? Sometimes love feels right “just because.” And, sometimes “right” is wrong. Can you be realistic about the fact that right for now doesn’t always mean forever?
  5. How will you feel if you don’t pursue this relationship? Will you always think of this as “The One” you let get away?
  6. Do you know how to find the support you need for yourself and your relationship? All relationships can use support, especially those that make special demands on you. Isolation is destructive to relationships. Are you willing to find new support systems if your existing ones fail you?

In the final analysis, maybe the main choice we make about love is between the risk of pushing the limits of authenticity and the risk of saying someday, “If only I had given it a chance.” I admit that I’m a romantic, so I’ll usually support risks of the heart, barring any concrete dangers to body or soul. While there will be rough patches in any love affair…and even some hefty boulders…seeking advice and support when you feel the need is paramount to a smoother journey.