Fixed vs Fluid: New Perspectives on Sexual Orientation


I just finished the book Sex at Dawn. Amidst much fascinating data on the biological underpinnings of human sexuality was a discussion of a 2006 study by Meredith Chivers that involved showing a variety of sexual videos to straight and gay men and women and measuring their arousal patterns.

The study points to two orientations that have nothing to do with the gender you are attracted to, and everything to do with how much plasticity and fluidity you have in your attraction.

In the study, they hooked up monitors to the participants genitals so they could tell when people were aroused. The videos they watched included  a wide variety of erotic imagery: straight, gay, men, women, alone, and in couples. They even threw in a clip of bonobos having sex.

Both straight men and some lesbian women had a fixed sexual response – they would respond sexually to the videos you would expect based on their orientation. But most of the women, regardless of orientation, would respond sexually to everything — from men to women to bonobos. Even if they didn’t report being “turned on”, their genital blood flow showed a response.

This points to two basic ways of experiencing sexuality:

  • Fixed sexuality means that whether you are a man attracted to women, a woman attracted to men, man to men, or woman to women, you are fixed and static in that attraction. You don’t get turned on by anything else. And you might find it hard to understand how anyone else could be. You just don’t have an experience that these things can be fluid. 
  • Fluid sexuality means that whatever your gender is or how you identify yourself socially, anything sexy is kinda sexy. You relate to the idea of being attracted to a person rather than to a gender. You’re at least a little bit bi, or it makes a lot of sense why someone would be. Your sexuality has changed over time, and will continue to change.

This explains my personal experience that strict lesbians and bisexual women just do not mix very well. We have less in common than you might think.

To many lesbians, bisexual women are threatening, or at least bewildering. How could you possibly date a man after you’ve experienced the wonder of being with a woman? This was the message I got when I moved into a lesbian community household in 2005 and promptly started dating a man. This put me in a tailspin of confusion – I really had experienced the wonder of being with a woman–so what was wrong with me?

I was trying to figure myself out, and my roommates were not helping. One said, “There’s a moment when you just know”. This makes sense for a fixed lesbian–for her, it was the moment when she had a sexual experienced that matched her internal sexual compass and everything clicked.

But I’m never going to have that moment. I mostly prefer women, I mostly tend toward submission rather than domination, I mostly am exhibitionistic rather than voyeuristic–but in any of these sexual polarities, I have never experienced “coming home”, or “finally having a name for what I am”. My sexuality changes in response to the person I’m with, where I’m at in my life, what book I just read, how I feel that day, etc.

While I’ve had periods of wanting more lesbian community, I’ve never really felt at home there. Now I get it: while I’m attracted to women, my experience of sexuality is fundamentally different than that of a fixed lesbian. There is a fixed-ness in the energy of many lesbians about their lesbian-ness that I don’t relate to. And if I am honest about who I am, they don’t relate to me. So I’m not friends with that many lesbians–and the ones I am friends with are actually bi, even if they don’t advertise it.

I get why fixed lesbians would think bi women just “can’t make up their minds”. To them, it was simple, and sexuality is something that clicks into one slot. So clearly, we just haven’t committed to a slot, so we should get with the program!

I don’t think most non-queer people understand how much bi-phobia exists in the queer community. I certainly never wanted to claim it. The “B” in LGBT feels pretty tacked-on. While there are many groups for Ls, Gs, and Ts, there aren’t many bisexual groups. Which makes sense too–by its very nature, fluid sexuality isn’t something you can hold on to or define, so there’s not much to base a group on.

So where does that leave me?


Instead of feeling like a tiny minority of a tiny minority, I can understand myself to be a woman who leans more toward women than men in her fluid-sexuality. I can ditch the idea that my confusion about where I fit in the lesbian community is internalized homophobia and just let go of worrying about it. And I can revel in the fact that there is so much sexiness in the world that I can enjoy

I’ve shifted from a perception of uncertainty to an awareness of possibility. Woot!


  1. Good post! I have never been able to understand how people can have a fixed sexuality. Sexy is sexy.

    It’s funny, I have had this same “what-am-I” dilemma from the opposite end of the same group (women with a fluid sexuality). I used to ponder “Do I get to call myself bisexual if I’ve never been in a relationship with a woman?” Since I hit upon the idea of fluid sexuality it doesn’t really matter anymore.

  2. What you said about no longer feeling like a tiny minority of a tiny minority, sparked an image in my mind. I saw borderlands, being on the edge, on the margin. The shifting you describe, from uncertainty to possibility, feels like such a powerful and potent unveiling of perspective. The margin, the edge, isn’t necessarily precarious or scary. But maybe that space between solid points, swimming in mystery, pregnant with possibility, is a frontier. Like with so-called flyover states, there can be a lot of interesting things to explore there, in the space between.

  3. I recently read “Sex at Dawn,” also, Emma. So many things in that book blew my head wide open! The idea of fluidity in sexuality helps so many things fall into place for me.

    A couple of weeks ago my adult, married daughter, mother of a three-year-old, come out to me as questioning her sexuality. I was surprised, but… not that much. In talking that day with my beloved daughter, I got to “come out” to her, too, about my open relationship and poly attitude, as well as fluid sexuality. I got to talk to her about everything! It was wonderful! We cried and laughed and rekindled our adoration of each other.

    Though I’ve primarily been paired with men in my life, I’ve always fallen for a person rather than a gender, regardless of what configuration lurked behind their zippers. For visual beauty, the female form gets my attention far more than the male. With men, I’m most attracted to fine features and long hair or some level of androgyny. I’m apparently in the “everything is sexy” camp.

    Within the last year, I learned of the idea of “pansexuality,” which intrigued me. Have you come across that idea? I like the idea of sexuality as a spectrum rather than a polarity, similar to the “fluid” idea. Or maybe the same? I’m just beginning to educate myself in these areas.

    Thank you for an intriguing and thoughtful post, Emma.

    p.s. I have felt a sense of loss after the visit we had in Portland some years back. I don’t really remember specifically what went down, only that my partner was not happy with the exchange. I’ve never stopped appreciating your ideas and writing. I’m amazed at how often you’re thinking about the same things I’m thinking about! If you’d rather I did not comment on your posts, I’ll understand. I just want you to know of my appreciation.

  4. @Holly 🙂
    I remember that visit — I remember feeling disappointed that it wasn’t more connecting, but I don’t have any particular ongoing noise/pain about it. I figured people just miss each other sometimes. I’m sad hearing you wonder if I welcome your comments–I feel warmth and am always happy to hear from you and receive your perspective and sharing, and I welcome your participation on my blog. I’m going to write you more directly to see what we can clear up about this.

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