Gay, straight or bi — sexuality is hard to categorize | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 06.05.2019
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Sexual orientation

Gay, straight or bi — sexuality is hard to categorize

The sexual orientation of Millenials is flexible and goes beyond traditional categories such as homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality — especially among women, a new study in the Journal of Sex Research shows.

At the age of 20, many people still don't know exactly what they want to do with their lives. The same seems to apply to sexual orientation. This, at least, is a result of a survey of almost 7,000 American students. They were interviewed three times about their sexual preferences between 1995 and 2009: as teenagers, in their early twenties and in their late twenties.

Especially for young women, the early twenties are a sexually dynamic time. In contrast to young men, out of whom 90 percent said that they were heterosexual, only two thirds of young women would place themselves in this category. Ten percent felt they were mostly heterosexual and 7.5 percent expressed a clear interest in both sexes.

Among young men, the latter two categories together accounted for just under four percent. Only 1.5 percent of women and 2.4 percent of men identified themselves clearly and exclusively as homosexual.

Young women are more flexible

Women are more fluid in their sexual orientation, the reasearchers found. They understand this to mean "flexibility in sexual responsiveness depending on situations." 

Their findings have already been substantiatedby other studies.

Read more: HIV drugs stop sexual transmission of AIDS virus, say doctors

A couple playing a computer game (picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Tetra-Images)

In the late 20s, most people's sexual orientation has become less fluid

While men tend to define themselves more clearly, either as homosexual or heterosexual, women seem to experience their sexuality more as a wider spectrum. Even if they describe themselves as heterosexual, this does not mean they have no interest in women.

Whether the higher fluidity of women is due to their biological or socio-cultural background remains contested. Probably there are different factors at play. One reason for the gender difference could be, for example, that the classical male image is still much more strongly connected with heterosexuality than the classic image of a woman.

The current study in the Journal of Sex Research has also shown, however, that the older the respondents got, the clearer they assigned themselves to one of the categories. The number of women who were interested in both sexes in their early 20s, but who nevertheless described themselves as predominantly heterosexual, fell towards zero at the end of the 20s. They were then almost exclusively interested in men. 

Nonetheless, one thing remained clear: The increasing acceptance of sexual diversity has led to people of all ages being able to live out their sexuality more freely. This is shown not least by the example of the author Elizabeth Gilbert. While her autobiographical bestseller Eat Pray Love still ended with a loving happy ending between her and now-ex-husband Jose Nunes, she indeed lived together with a woman for several years after publication.

Because one's sexuality can change over time through personal experiences, categorization is never easy. But maybe that's not important anyway. Because the more acceptance of different sexual orientations becomes the cultural norm, the less important clear classifications become in everyday life. 

Read more: Transgender troops — how open is Germany's army?

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