The coming of age of erotic plasticity

When I first met Jenny, she was a very angry woman. She had just discovered that her partner of five years was living a double life, spending half the week with another woman, with whom he had a child. They broke up. Jenny was left feeling betrayed, rejected and lonely, even at times suicidal with despair, as well as deeply sensitive to the injustices imposed on women of her age (42) by comparison with the opportunities seemingly still available to older men. She raged about her status as a single woman in our society and the future she must contemplate. At the same time, Jenny was profoundly sad about not having had access to the experiences other women enjoyed of motherhood, and family life as well as the security and contentment she believed a committed relationship might offer. Two and a half years later, Jenny and I had worked through her anger. We had grieved for her losses, and come to terms with the painful reality of ageing, as well as the need to co-exist with a less than perfect world, and its concomitant implications. Jenny had ended therapy still single, but no longer blaming herself for that, and more capable of enjoying what life offered in terms of friendships, her love of the arts, and her extremely impressive career as a human rights lawyer.

That was a few years back. Then, two months ago, Jenny was back in touch requesting an appointment. She said that, although life was on the whole better, recently she had become confused by her thoughts and desires. After all these years of living and loving, and seeking her “soul mate,” Jenny was feeling a strong attraction to a woman friend. In fact, Jenny declared, she wondered if she was falling in love, perhaps for the first time, so strong was the attraction and so extraordinarily powerful the attachment.

The two friends had met through work and had immediately felt pleasure in each other’s company in a way that, Jenny said, she could not remember ever experiencing before. It seemed that her feelings were reciprocated. Her friend was a lesbian and was quicker to recognise what she believed was the beginnings of a mutual attraction which held the promise of both erotic and romantic love.

“Is it possible,” Jenny asked me, “to switch from straight to lesbian? Or am I just lonely and fed up of battling with men? Or have I been gay all along and not realised it?”

Jenny was amazed and even shocked at herself.

Is it possible to switch from straight to homosexual, or is it possible truly to be bisexual? Or is it possible, as Jenny asked, to crave romantic and erotic fulfilment to such an extent that ways of being which once might have seemed unthinkable, become not just thinkable, but doable?

This is the age of plasticity and fluidity –  when neuroscience and politics unite to challenge the tyranny of genes, generational expectations, cultural norms, religious dogma. Anything goes and anything comes, in theory at least. We may change our minds, we can change our ways. Free will has, at long last, come of age, perhaps?

So when my patient, having been heterosexual all her life, begins to identify in herself homoerotic longings for a friend, I am not surprised. The problem, it seems, was not so much about whether she was truly experiencing a change of sexual preference, but whether she could accept her own capacity to have such feelings.

Freud was certain of our capacity for bisexual and homosexual attraction, hypothesising that such tendencies were biological, stemming from our evolutionary origins as androgynes. He struggled to give this theory proper attention, preferring to believe that any such lingering tendencies revealed an immature sexual development on the part of the individual, the Oedipus complex having been incompletely experienced and not fully resolved.

Research by more contemporary psychosexual theorists demonstrates ample evidence of our capacity to experience erotic longing for either sex. For many of us, sexual orientation becomes fixed at some stage in life, but for some, it does not.

The American social psychologist Roy Baumeister has written extensively on the subject, suggesting that women are, by nature, less fixed in their thinking and more naturally adaptive, therefore more capable of bisexual feelings, or of changing their sexual preference according to the object of desire.

He explains this by suggesting that women’s enhanced plasticity has evolved as an adaptive imperative because of their, historically, less powerful status. Additionally, the female child’s sexuality is hidden from herself (anatomically) and often, via tradition, it is also hidden from others, which leads to a slower, more subtle form of sexual development.

It seems that the more educated and higher the status a female holds in society, the greater the prevalence of female bisexual and homosexual activity. You could argue, as Baumeister infers, that this is because women’s adaptability means that the more options that are open to them, the more adventurous they will be (or easily influenced, depending on your point of view). Or is it because, the more powerful and sexually confident a woman feels, the more able she feels to experiment and seek an understanding of her longings?

According to the Office of National Statistics survey 2011, 1.5 per cent of UK men admit to being homosexual while only 0.7 per cent of UK women admit the same*, but interestingly when it comes to bisexuality, approximately twice the amount of women describe themselves as bisexual, as men. **

Jenny is not prepared to describe herself as lesbian. She says she still finds men attractive. But she has admitted that she has fallen in love with a lesbian woman and that the relationship which she has embarked upon so hesitantly is, thus far, meaningful and fulfilling.

*Stonewall believes the figure of 5-7 per cent of the total population is probably a more accurate reflection of the numbers of gay people living in the UK.

**The majority of respondents stating non-heterosexual orientation were below the age of 25 years and lived in or near to London, suggesting that cultural taboos still have a major influence on respondents.

Helga St Blaize
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