Erotic postcard, circa 1920.

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Erotic postcard, circa 1920.

In the 1940s, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who was on the verge of publishing his first major report on male sexuality in the US, enlisted a photographer named Thomas Painter to investigate gay subcultures. Painter, a white, openly gay man, had taken to photographing hustlers on the beach at Coney Island, one of New York City’s earliest gay hubs. He was particularly drawn to masculine white men who generally viewed themselves as heterosexual; Painter offered to take their photos, a trick he used as a lead-in to sex. In letters sent to Kinsey, Painter reported on the men’s sexual prowess and the changing landscape of Coney Island’s gay scene.

Although Painter was sometimes physically attacked, many men agreed to sleep with him — sometimes for money, sometimes not. “They don’t necessarily see themselves as being any different because of what they’re doing with him or other men,” said historian Hugh Ryan, who featured Painter in his 2019 book When Brooklyn Was Queer.

In one letter to Kinsey, Painter paraphrased a heterosexual-identified man who explained why he slept with Painter: “It does him no harm, is not unpleasant … so why not do it?”

But by the mid-1950s, as categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality hardened in the American consciousness, Painter noticed a change. Where once these straight-identified hustlers could move freely in and out of queer spaces, they were now defined by their association with queer men. Women wouldn’t sleep with them because they assumed these men were homosexual; the mixed bars serving both queer and nonqueer clientele that Painter frequented started closing down, and a polar vision of sexuality that also discounted bisexuality took cultural hold. Men who had a more fluid sense of their own heterosexuality thus had to suppress their desires.

Men who had a more fluid sense of their own heterosexuality had to suppress their desires.

But that doesn’t mean the desires were never there to begin with. In his twin reports on the sexual behavior of men (1948) and women (1953), Kinsey found that same-gender sex was far from a trivial phenomenon: His report found that 37% of men and 13% of women had at least one “overt homosexual experience” to the point of orgasm.

Kinsey’s methodology has undergone criticism, and few studies have found rates of same-gender sex in the US population quite as high as those Kinsey identified. But one finding of Kinsey’s work that remains apparent is that a wide gap between sexual behavior and sexual identity has always existed.

In a landmark 1994 University of Chicago report, for instance, researchers found that less than a quarter of people who reported having had same-gender sex (25% of men and 16% of women) identified as gay or bisexual. Although the exact rates vary slightly, this gap appears to hold true across gender and racial categories. A 2010 study found that, among women who have had sex with other women, 52.6% “self-identified as heterosexual/straight.” Another survey from 2003 concluded that agreement between reported sexual identity and sexual behavior is highest among Asian men and women — meaning they are most likely to identify their sexuality in the popular conception of what those terms mean, e.g., that homosexual women have sex primarily with women — and lowest among white men and black women.

A low rate of agreement does not mean that people are lying about their sexuality, however. Rather, this gap between sexual identity and sexual behavior suggests that the way many people experience their sexuality is far more complicated than our most common models of sexual orientation can account for. For decades, Kinsey’s most radical conclusion has been ignored in the name of reinforcing strict categories of homosexuality, heterosexuality, and (when it’s actually acknowledged) bisexuality.

But 50 years after the Stonewall riots that kick-started the gay liberation movement, young queer people are expressing a new openness to identifying with more fluid sexuality labels like “queer” — or with no label at all. As more research has found wide variability in how people experience their desires, and as bisexual, asexual, and pansexual activists have challenged the binary model of attraction, the notion of a fixed, inborn sexuality is ripe for revision.

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Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956), July 1948.

In the US, the popular understanding of sexuality is that it develops from a young age and becomes solidified as a person grows older. “Gay” and “straight” are treated as the default categories, while bisexuality and the overarching umbrella of asexuality are repeatedly ignored. In the popular consciousness, these identities are also tethered to behavior — we assume that gay-identified people, for instance, exclusively have sex with those of their same gender — and they are supposed to be fixed throughout a person’s life.

Although in recent years more space has been made for people who come to terms with a gay, bisexual, or queer identity later in life, that act is usually framed as a “discovery,” reinforcing the idea that sexuality is an inherent characteristic that simply requires excavation. Though this model may align with how a sizable portion of the LGBT community experiences sexuality, it is far from universal.

In her 2009 book Sexual Fluidity, psychologist Lisa Diamond studied 100 women who reported some degree of same-gender sexual experience and found that many of them saw their sexual desires shift over time. Nearly half of the women Diamond studied “reported changes in their attractions equal to 1 Kinsey scale point” (out of six points) from 1995 to 2005, while one-fourth of the women reported two-point Kinsey shifts. According to Diamond, that sexual fluidity only increased as women aged.

Some women told Diamond that they were generally heterosexual except in very specific cases. One woman interviewed for the book, Jennifer, regarded herself as “primarily attracted to men,” but she still recounted an anecdote from her college years in which she developed a close emotional friendship with another woman. When that friend admitted to having physical feelings for Jennifer, Jennifer realized that she shared them. Following a yearlong relationship that Jennifer classified as “more satisfying than the sexual relationships she had had with men,” it ended. After that, Jennifer stayed largely attracted to men.

As sexologists pushed the categorization of homosexuality and heterosexuality, homosocial spaces disappeared.

Diamond proposes a model of sexuality she calls the “dynamical systems approach.” Rather than view sexuality as fixed, this model measures the changes in sexuality over time, which also accounts for potential discrepancies between sexual behaviors and sexual identities.

While remodeling traditional ideas about sexuality might seem radical, it has been done repeatedly over time. Our current view of sexuality dates back to the late 19th century, when sexologists classified people along a hetero- and homosexual binary based on their sexual behavior — whom they preferred to sleep with was assumed to be constant, deriving either from early childhood (as Sigmund Freud’s research suggested) or from biology.

Leila Rupp, a historian who wrote about changing models of sexuality in her 1999 book A Desired Past, said that “historically, the idea that people were sexually fluid … [was not] talked about it in those terms, but I think that was recognized. The fact that women who were married to men with multiple wives could become lovers with their co-wives. The whole notion that elite men could have sex with anybody as long as they were penetrating. They didn’t think that sexual behavior meant anything about the kind of person you were.”

In the Victorian era too, people lived in “separate spheres” divided along a strict gender binary. Many developed passionate same-gender relationships that were neither fully romantic nor fully platonic. But as sexologists pushed the categorization of homosexuality and heterosexuality, those homosocial spaces disappeared. Like the hustlers Thomas Painter followed on Coney Island, suddenly people who had experienced much more varied types of romantic or sexual desire had to conform to a binary.

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Vacationers on the beach at Coney Island in New York, 1944.

Part of the reason these categories have remained largely unquestioned since the Victorian era is that, by the late 1970s, gay legal activists seized on the idea of inherent sexuality. “The gay rights movement found itself being most effective when it could make sexuality a biological or natural category,” said Naomi Mezey, a professor of law at Georgetown University. That is because the American legal system has tended to grant “protected class” status to communities who can prove they are part of a stable identity group.

“I don’t want to say that the modern gay rights movement is somehow blameworthy,” Mezey told me. “We’re all better for it. The modern project was an important effort by people who had been essentially criminalized, whose sex lives had been criminalized, and who themselves had been ostracized for normal human desire.” But she adds that the definitions of sexuality pushed by the movement in the legal realm do not account for the variations in people’s day-to-day sex lives.

However, it was not always a given that a stable biological view of sexuality would become the dominant model in the queer community. In the early 1970s, waves of activists pushed a view that did not assume sexuality to be fixed at birth. “Political lesbians,” for instance, did not necessarily feel they were born as anything other than straight, but they became sexually and romantically intimate with other women as a way of rejecting the patriarchy. In one 1972 essay, Charlotte Bunch argued that “feminists must become lesbians if they hope to end male supremacy.” Gay activist Carl Wittman, in his 1970 “A Gay Manifesto,” also noted that sexuality “is not genetic” and that his identity as a gay man is primarily a political rejection of heteropatriarchy. “We’ll be gay until everyone has forgotten that it’s an issue,” wrote Wittman. “Then we’ll begin to compete [with straight men].”

Certainly, the assumption that sexuality is a constant comes from a genuine place — while many people intentionally choose their sexuality labels, a lot of others feel they never made such an active decision. But a stable vision of sexuality has also obscured the experiences of people who are attracted more strongly to different genders at different points in their lives — as well as people who go on to identify as different genders.

That erasure disproportionately impacts the bisexual and pansexual communities, who are often dismissed as “confused.” Because of phallocentrism, bi men are often assumed to be secretly gay, while bi women are dismissed as straight and simply “experimenting.” In a 2013 study, for instance, 15% of Americans refused to acknowledge bisexuality as a “legitimate sexual orientation.” That erasure has real public health impacts. Bi people, for example, face higher rates of depression and substance abuse than lesbian and gay members of the queer community.

Eileen Darby / The Life Images Collection / Getty

Bisexuality isn’t the only category obscured by a stable vision of sexuality. Although heterosexuality is assumed to be a hard boundary, it is equally fluid, if not more so, than other identities.

Following in Thomas Painter’s footsteps, sociologists Jane Ward and Tony Silva, in their 2013 and 2016 studies, respectively, have tracked the phenomenon of masculine white men who have sex with one another while identifying as heterosexual — what Silva terms “bud-sex.”

Instead of something erotic, these men often framed sex as “helpin’ a buddy out” or satisfying “urges,” according to Silva. Yet these aren’t one-off affairs: Silva reported that although the hookups are “unromantic,” they are not emotionless, and many men maintained regular sexual partners whom they likened to sexual friends.

One man Silva interviewed noted, “I know that there are a lot of guys out there that are like me… they’re manly guys, and doing manly stuff, and just happen to have oral sex with men every once in a while [chuckles].”

Prejudice against bi people is likely a factor in why these men identify as heterosexual, Silva told me, but it’s far from the only explanation. In fact, all 60 men that Silva interviewed did express an awareness of bisexuality as an option. Although 16 out of the 60 simultaneously identified as both straight and bisexual, an intriguing twist on conventional sexual labels, the rest saw themselves as purely heterosexual, in large part because “most participants were romantically attracted only to women,” said Silva. Further, they reported rare to nonexistent sexual attraction to men. Just seven men claimed they were exclusively sexually attracted to women — even while admitting to engaging in bud-sex.

Instead, many of these men saw sex with other men as primarily social validation. They often expressed contempt for more feminine gay men, and they preferred to have sex with others like them because it reinforced cultural ideas that masculine white men are the epitome of sexual desire.

A stable vision of sexuality has obscured the experiences of people who are attracted more strongly to different genders at different points in their lives.

Much like Lisa Diamond, Silva found that these men reported shifts in their sexual behavior over time. But while the women whom Diamond studied had corresponding changes in their sexual identity, almost all of these men fit their behavior into the framework of heterosexuality. “The men I interviewed already saw themselves as straight and masculine, and this did not change, even as their sexual attractions and/or sexual practices did,” said Silva. “So both things happen — some people change their identities, whereas others experience unintentional changes to their attractions or sexual practices but do not change their identities.”

White men are the most studied example of variations in straight sexuality, but that is mostly a result of researchers taking white men’s sexual fluidity more seriously. The same unstable heterosexuality is found across communities, although similar phenomena in communities of color — such as black men who have sex on the “down low,” which, public health research stigmatizingly suggests, exacerbated the AIDS crisis — are taken less seriously.

This widespread unsteadiness is not a bug, but an active feature of heterosexuality. “If you go back in time to the genesis of sexual categories, all of the sexologists are really concerned that heterosexuality is fragile, that it needs to be promoted and kept safe and made to happen, because otherwise it won’t [be],” said Hugh Ryan. “I think they understand something that is quite true — that heterosexuality is a construction.”

“I’m a little bit joking when I say I don’t think sexual orientation exists,” Ryan added. “But I don’t think it is this permanent, unwavering way that you can divide the world into, or even that you can define yourself. I think it moves and shifts and plays in concert with all of these other aspects of what makes us have sex or romance or attraction to people.”

Women who long identified as lesbians may, past adolescence, switch to labeling themselves as bisexual without necessarily feeling like they “discovered” a long-buried self. Or on the flip side, as Alison Hinman described in Go magazine, an ostensibly straight-identified woman can just as suddenly jump to labeling herself a lesbian. Hinman wrote that, after a history of dating men in college and feeling “boy crazy,” she began to date women exclusively. Although she had experienced an attraction to people of multiple genders, she didn’t feel that the term “bisexual” fit her. Nor did she believe that, when she was dating men, she was lying to herself. As Hinman noted, “It’s possible to feel differently about your sexuality at different points of your life.”

Part of understanding the variability of sexuality is accepting that someone else in Hinman’s situation might decide to identify differently; another woman who shifts from dating exclusively men to dating exclusively women, for instance, might consider herself bisexual instead of a lesbian. Because sexuality is not as stable or monolithic as commonly implied, neither choice is more accurate than the other.

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Two men embrace in Paris, July 1979.

Too often the belief in stable sexuality has pressured people to “prove” that they really are queer — a demand that has often marginalized the least-acknowledged communities within the LGBT umbrella. Many people naturally move in and out of attractions, and how they identify does not always correspond with whom they choose to date. A bi-identified person is still bi whether or not they are actively seeking out people of the same gender. They are also allowed to shift how they label over time without being saddled with the assumption that they are “confused” or “faking it.”

Accepting that sexuality and gender are at least somewhat socially constructed does not mean dismissing sexual identities as insignificant, however. Many people hold their labels close to their hearts. Rather, a constructivist vision of sexuality gives space for personal agency when it comes to sexual orientation.

Now that the House of Representatives passed an LGBT antidiscrimination bill in May, the question of how best to protect people whose sexualities are fluid or who may not identify under the LGBT umbrella at all is one new generations will have to grapple with. While some writers, like Lisa Duggan, have proposed a model of protecting sexuality similar to religious toleration — something deeply held that is not biological and that could, but rarely does, change in a significant way — most argue in favor of advancing a strategic biological argument in the courtroom, even if it may not fit many people’s lived experiences. This strategy has worked for the country’s major LGBT rights advocates in the past, and they continue to employ it today as they argue that LGBT people should be covered by existing civil rights bans on sex-based discrimination. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether the language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 necessarily guarantees protection to LGBT people.

In the meantime, the real work has to happen socially. Greater understanding that sexual attraction can shift with time will open the fold for more people to explore the bounds of their sexualities without needing to prove themselves. We can all better acknowledge that people bring a wide variety of experiences and desires to each identity category — which can also create more empathy for one another even within the queer community.

Just because legal protections have previously been secured on a biological model does not mean that same model has to be how we approach sexuality day to day. According to Ryan, “Homosexuality is useful and fruitful as a political and organizing category — but not as a way of describing our actual lives.” ●

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