I shouldn’t have to type this but: Straight women are real.
You might even be one yourself and, if not, you almost certainly know a few. But that didn’t stop dozens of media outlets from rushing to press this week with decade-old research to declare that heterosexual women are a figment of your imagination.
“New Study Claims Women Are Bisexual or Lesbian—Not Straight” wrote Yahoo. Other headline choices ranged from the downright rude “Don’t Believe Women Who Say They’re Straight” to the overly confident “Women Are Either Bisexual Or Gay But ‘Never Straight’.”
That’s not quite right. Here’s what sexological researchers already know: Straight women’s patterns of genital arousal are generally more flexible than those of men. This is not news.
So how did we get this new run of over-the-top headlines?
These attention-grabbing claims about straight women are attributed to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by Dr. Gerulf Rieger, a psychologist from the University of Essex. But the supporting evidence doesn’t even come from the study’s original findings, it comes from the introductory literature review. By scholarly standards, some of this research is ancient history.
For example, in 2007—which is how many years ago, now?— Dr. Meredith L. Chivers, found that straight women respond “about the same to both sexes” when viewing videotaped stimuli of genital intercourse, masturbation, and nude exercise. Her study used a vaginal photoplethysmograph—essentially a high-tech tampon that monitors arousal—to determine whether or not her subjects’ bodily responses corresponded to their self-reported orientations.
For straight women, more than any other group, they didn’t.
Straight women’s vaginas proved to be the omnivores of the genital world, responding even to depictions of chimpanzee sex. But this doesn’t mean that straight women aren’t straight any more than it means they are all secretly into bestiality. It means that human sexuality is a lot more complicated than a headline. It means you can’t conflate genital response with sexual orientation.
That would be tantamount to declaring that vegans don’t exist if they salivate over bacon, or that North Dakotans are living a lie if they like warm weather, too. How your body responds to a stimulus and how you feel, act, and think about that stimulus are two separate things.
As Rieger explained to Yahoo, “[F]or a lot of women, what’s going on in their mind is disconnected from what’s going on in their lower body. If you tell me you’re straight, I won’t discredit that—I’m sure you are.”
Sexual orientation is a lot more than what happens in your pants. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines it as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes.” It also refers to “a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”
Sexual orientation cannot be determined by a miniature dildo that measures blood flow. In fact, Chivers’ research has also shown that vaginal photoplethysmography cannot even accurately predict the self-reported arousal of straight women. In other words, there are many situations in which your vaginal blood flow might suggest arousal but you, yourself, do not even feel aroused.
Yes, at this point, given the quantity of sexological research on the subject, it would be foolish to claim that female heterosexuality is as straightforward as male heterosexuality. Straight women do have more complex patterns of arousal and attraction, and there are competing theories to explain this circumstance, ranging from the evolutionary to the social.
On the evolutionary angle, Rieger’s new study reviews literature that suggests that “[w]omen may have evolved to be sexually responsive in sexual context-dependent situations [rather than gender-dependent situations] in order to avoid genital injury.” In other words, because many species engage in forced heterosexual copulation, women’s genitals could be responsive to a wider variety of stimuli as a form of self-preservation.
So, while social theories about male homophobia and the proliferation of female-centered sexual imagery are also compelling explanations, those who declare all women bisexual based on genital response patterns could, at worst, be deciding their orientation for them based on some sort of evolutionary reflex.
And if you really want to know what orientation an adult woman is, you could also ask her, instead of believing that her vaginal blood flow speaks some secret truth. Sociological research suggests that straight women are more than capable of sorting out their orientation on their own, thank you very much.
A 2011 study of 227 female undergraduates who identified as “exclusively heterosexual” found that the majority—67 percent—had questioned their orientation. Of those who questioned, 60 percent had kissed another woman but 42 percent of those who didn’t question also engaged in this behavior. One percent of the non-questioning straight women had even performed oral sex on another woman. But many of the undergraduates told researchers that this behavior ultimately had little bearing on their orientation.
“I don’t think it means that I’m gay, I think I just like kissing people. I am straight but I’m very open to pretty much anything,” one said.
“Results from this study suggest that contemporary young women’s heterosexuality is not necessarily an unexamined identity,” the authors observed. “[I]ndeed, the large majority of young women in this sample were deliberately identifying as heterosexual after contemplating alternative possibilities.”
Female heterosexuality might be incredibly complicated—it certainly encompasses a wider pattern of behavior than male heterosexuality typically does—but it still exists. Just as college women’s same-sex sexual behavior cannot fully predict their orientation, studies of vaginal response are not sufficient to write an entire sexual orientation out of existence.
Once again, with feeling: Straight women exist. And declaring otherwise, even in a headline, condescendingly implies that they aren’t capable of determining themselves how they feel and identify. That’s not science, it’s subtle sexism.