Barry and Amelia fell in love in law school, celebrated their graduation with a country club wedding, and marked their 3rd anniversary with the birth of twins. Everybody thought they had the “picture perfect marriage,” but if their friends had fast-forwarded to the couple’s 10th anniversary, they would have seen a different snapshot.

post_womanBarry and Amelia’s marriage faces the obvious challenges of one spouse having a torrid affair, and the mélange of reasons for it. However, the matter of sexual orientation complicates both the problem and possible solutions. Barry’s assumptions about Amelia’s orientation are based on a common form of black/white thinking that allows for only a splatter of gray. Since Amelia was “straight” before, she must still be straight, albeit with a curlicue. Amelia doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t give a hoot about labels,” she says. “I fell hard for Sharon, and that is that!” In rejecting a primary conception of her sexuality as gender-based, she falls into a spectrum of sexuality that sexologists refer to as “fluid.” Women have been found to display more sexual fluidity than men, that is, their attraction to same-sex and other-sex partners may ebb and flow with time and circumstance.

When we talk about “fluid sexuality,” we’re referring to many components, including sexual attraction, romantic feelings, sexual responses, sexual fantasies, sexual behavior, and romantic relationships. These elements don’t always cluster together in one of three convenient packages: homosexual, heterosexual, or 50/50 bisexual. Sometimes, key sexual attraction and romantic attraction are split between different sexes. Even when all the pieces cluster together, they don’t necessarily remain consistent for a lifetime. Amelia demonstrates how women can align their sexual and romantic attractions toward the other sex at one point in development, and toward someone of the same sex at a later point – often inspired by a powerful draw to a particular person. Women who are somewhat fluid in their sexuality might perceive their sexual orientation or sexual identity as matching up with or in contradiction with the sex of their current partner. While that can lead to confusion and emotional angst for some, it can be liberating for others.

At this point you might be wondering about the difference between sexual identity, orientation and preference, so let’s take a moment to clarify a few operational definitions. “Sexual preference” is a term that has slipped from favor because it implies a lighthearted “chocolate or vanilla” approach to gender-based desires – which is disrespectful and inappropriate for most people who identify as part of a sexual minority. “Sexual orientation” refers to how one’s sexual urges are directed; whether toward people of the same or other gender. Orientation implies a strong, if not complete directional sway that remains stable over time – and it presumes only two genders. There are problems with this term, too. “Sexual identity” is traditionally regarded as an individual’s perception and social expression of the “truth” of their sexual orientation, that is, self-acceptance of their gayness, straightness or bi-ness.

To confuse matters, sexual identities and sexual orientations are usually referenced by the same words, and always in terms of what IS, rather than what may be developing or fluctuating. The whole idea of sexual identity development, therefore, is traditionally limited to matching one’s sense of identity to one’s “real” orientation. Changes in identity are interpreted as movements toward or away from this idealized, one-to-one match up.

Given these defining terms, is it any wonder that Barry is having trouble with Amelia’s change of heart? His paradigm for sexual identity implies that if she “really” once loved and desired him, she’ll eventually come home to roost in her true identity as a heterosexual female. If Barry were to accept that Amelia’s identity is neither so limited nor immutable, he’d be far more worried by her new relationship. The “real truth” is that women like Amelia can fall in love with someone of the same sex even when their sense of hetero-identity was previously stable. We change; we develop; and, yes, we can change back. Of course, this is not without challenge and confusion, especially since the traditional model of sexual orientation and identity is presumed to be the only model, and sexual fluidity is spoken of mostly in whispers.

Perhaps no group is more genuinely puzzled by evidence of sexual fluidity than folks who are just beginning to adjust to the idea that “gay is okay.” When gay-acceptance hinges on the idea that homosexuals are born different and can’t help themselves, the realization that not all people with genuine, deeply felt same-sex attractions or romances come into the world with a factory installed “homo-chip” can be disconcerting. Knowing that we (and maybe even they) could have a choice about their sexuality – at least to the extent that anyone can “choose” who to fall in love with – is even harder to take. I’d venture to say that society has “needed” hard and fast categories for homo and hetero identities because our cultural narrowness about sex and gender forces a reliance on polarities. If we were more generously accepting of sexual desire, pleasure and behavior, we’d be more comfortable with, and have better terms for describing, variations of romantic and sexual attraction to same-sex and other-sex partners.

Until very recently, same-sex attraction and sexual fluidity was a poorly researched phenomenon. However, in recent years sexologists have begun to study sexual identity development by looking at what people actually experience across their life spans, rather than compartmentalizing first and then trying to fit data into predetermined slots. We still have much to learn, and in a sense have barely scratched the surface of this complicated and fascinating sexual landscape. However, the research does teach us that sexual orientation may be as outmoded a term as sexual preference. Many experts agree that we should be speaking of “same-sex sexuality” and “other-sex sexuality” in a way that encompasses everything from fleeting sexual fantasies, enduring sexual attractions, temporary sexual experimentation and “romantic” friendships, to full-fledged sexual and romantic affairs like Amelia’s. Once we expand our language, we also need to re-imagine “sexual identity” as each individual’s unique perspective about their own sexuality, rather than insist upon a single, permanent truth or label.

In a contemporary model of sexual identity development – one that accounts for the possibility of continuing growth throughout life – there would be no right or wrong identity; no “lesbian who doesn’t know yet” or woman in love with a woman who is “really” straight. Only an appreciation of our own feelings, desires and leanings at any given moment in time would be a “true” identity. Your identity might remain stable from age 14 to 94, or it might take interesting twists and turns from 22 to 35, stabilize at 40 and get curvy again from 50 to 60.

As we continue to gather research into sexual identity formation and step back from the 3-way model of orientation we may discover that “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals” have far more in common with each other than either group shares with those who tend to fall for a person, not necessarily a person of a certain gender. Or we could find that for some folks, sex-style is more important than gender. For instance, some “kinky” people might be more attracted to a compelling “top” or “bottom” than a person of particular gender. Their sexual identity could be best stated as “kinky” if labeled at all. Or, some might be sexually drawn to a “top” but romantically drawn to only women, or only men, so that a full throttle love-match requires an aligned sexual and romantic attraction.

Grasping sexual identity from a unique, perceptual angle may be difficult for those who like seeing the whole world carved up into simple, stable fractions. However, for people who can’t quite cut it in a three-sizes-fit-all universe, it’s gratifying to know that they are still as much a part of the spectrum as those who wear obvious labels. Like Popeye crying “I yam what I yam,” being sexual in whatever way you “yam” could translate into a most honest and accurate sexual identity.