THE BLOG

Going With the Flow: Male and Female Sexual Fluidity

02/12/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The assumption that females are more sexually fluid than males is a falsehood. In my 30 years of practicing as an openly gay sex therapist, I have seen and worked with far too many men who exhibit sexual fluidity. What is increasingly happening now is that these men are being discovered and "outed" by their female partners who find their browser histories, and it is causing them distress.

Straight couples often come to me, worried because the man in this couple has looked at gay porn or had bisexual fantasies and may be, in fact, gay or bi--and "what does this mean for our future?" In these situations, I find it crucial to explore the phenomenon of "male sexual fluidity" and how it tends to manifest somewhat differently than the sexual fluidity of women.

Sexual fluidity is the understanding that sexual preferences can change over a lifetime and be dependent on different situations. It is a person's ability to engage in sexual behaviors and interest in members of both genders. Sexual preference and sexual orientation are two different things. One's sexual preference is not always equal to one's sexual orientation, but rather to the things one fantasizes about and enjoys sexually in bed. Sexual orientation is how one self-identifies from gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, etc., and is separate from, but related to, one's sexual preferences.

In the past few years, evidence has suggested men's sexuality is more fluid than we thought. Lisa Diamond, Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at the University of Utah, presented a convincing amount of data to this effect in her 2013 lecture at Cornell University. Ritch Savin-Williams is doing his own research on "mostly straight" males at Cornell University, studying men who fall into number one on the Kinsey scale.

But male and female sexual fluidity are expressed in ways that may not yet be showing up on paper. If a guy marks a box on a survey saying, yes, I've been attracted to another man, or, yes, I've had sex with another man in the past year, it may not be at all the same thing as when a woman checks the same box. There's a big difference between sex with an emotional bond and a 5-minute bathroom glory hole adventure.

By culture and biology, men are pushed into limited modes of sexual and tenderness expression. Straight women can touch, hold hands, kiss in greeting, even lie in each other's arms (see recent episodes of The Bachelor) without being vilified or (for the most part) misconstrued as lesbian or bisexual. By contrast, little boys are rigidly de-feminized, discouraged from being affectionate with each other from the time they are about eight years old. While this may be changing, open-minded parenting with regards to gender behavior is far from the current norm. In essence, men, under threat of physical violence and ridicule, learn to compartmentalize tenderness, sex, and love.

Plenty of research exists suggesting that, in general, men are big on objectification and separating sex from feelings. Whereas, a fluid woman (tenderness-entitled) might say, "It's not the gender, it's the person." The fluid man (tenderness-repressed, but sexuality-entitled) might say, "Hey, if my dick likes it, I'm going to go for it."
This corresponds to Diamond's data analysis suggesting that while more women in general tend to report being bisexual, men who consider themselves exclusively-straight, while half as likely to report a same-sex attraction than their exclusively-straight female counterparts, have been shown to be more than four times as likely to get it on with a same-sex partner.

This reminds me of the old Billy Crystal joke: "Women need a reason to have sex, men just need a place!"

There are many various expressions of straight male sexual fluidity. In my clinical experience, the one general commonality is that there is no romantic attachment involved. Authentically straight men who have sex with other men are attracted to the sex itself, not necessarily the guy. It may be just a novelty, or an easy way to get laid, but the question: "Do I need to know this person?" is answered with a resounding, "No."

Because of their ability (or dis-ability) to be impersonal, guys are more often drawn to various kinks and fetishized body parts, able to relate sexually with little personal connection. Research has shown a 20:1 ratio between men and women in terms of fetishes.

Look no further than the ads on the gay app Grindr for affirmation of this tendency. Nothing like a nice direct, unsentimental appeal to raw sexuality between two gay men who understand each other:

"Come worship my huge 9-inch python..."
"Hairy thick-bearded bear bottom, prepared to take discipline..."

Try to imagine a lesbian or straight woman soliciting her partner with this approach:
"My quadruple D's are lonely for your...

If a straight woman put that in a personal ad, she may wind up being mistaken for an escort. That she should have to even worry about this is a fairly depressing example of the sexual repression of women.

But are women generally interested in creating or responding to many ads like this? Once, I was teaching a sexual orientation course for straight therapists, and talking about gay male ads for dating and sexual hookup partners, and asked how many women would answer an ad like one of the above. Almost immediately, a straight female therapist raised her hand and said, "That would be the reason I would not answer an ad!" Almost every woman in the class agreed. Yes, it's anecdotal, but it does speak to the more relational aspect of women's sexual fluidity.

There are videos online that depict showing gay dating apps to straight men, to which the straight men react with things like, "I am in awe of the directness of these guys around sex." This directness may be one reason a man with an exclusively heterosexual orientation may seek out sex with a person of his own gender (or, for that matter, a female prostitute). He responds to a type of language that is incomprehensible or hurtful to his wife or girlfriend. He seeks to fulfill his fantasies in an arena where they are welcome.

I'm not trying to say men cannot have a personal romantic attachment that is sexual. Just that sexual attraction or activity doesn't necessarily lead to attachment, and that often the language men use in expressing their attraction is different. Nor am I trying to say women can't objectify people or enjoy booty calls. But, I do think it is somewhat less easy for them to navigate casual sex with multiple partners. Is this biological or a matter of culturally shaming women's sexual expression? I don't know. Just like I'm not sure how much of men's sexual expression is culturally- versus testosterone-induced.

No matter what the ratio is between biological vs cultural, there's no doubt cultural influences play a part. For example, why the recent need to name any sexuality or affectionate relationship between straight men as a special category? If a guy has a new friend, he has a bromance. If he has a strong admiration for a male celebrity or sports figure, it's a mancrush. If he only digs guys when he's stoned, it's highsexualism.

On one hand, the very definition of these terms is that they are non-sexual or non-threatening to their hetero-orientation. On the other, there's something more tender there--and it appears liberating to the guys blurting out the names of their mancrushes on TV. Is this homophobia or biphobia? A chink in the armor of male tenderness expression? Or both?

In contrast, women don't have all these categories for themselves. Why would they? Society doesn't misread affection between women in the same way.

I've found it interesting and rewarding to explore these differences with straight couples in ways that lead to better communication, empathy, and understanding. Maybe it's true that sexual expression is as diverse as human beings themselves.