Women are more sexually-fluid throughout their lives than men – and the physiological changes of middle age make them more open to exploring those feelings, a psychologist says.
More and more high profile women have been coming out about their relationships with women later in life, but research presented by this year’s North American Menopause Society (NAMS) suggests it’s not just a fad.
Far more women (as well as men) are attracted to both sexes than are attracted exclusively to people of the same sex, so later relationships don’t mean that previous hetero ones should be dismissed.
University of Utah psychologist Dr Lisa Diamond says that more research is needed to understand how social and physiological factors interact to affect a middle aged woman’s sexuality.
Sexual fluidity is becoming more socially acceptable. Psychologist Dr Lisa Diamond says that middle age may offer an opportunity for women, who tend to be more sexually fluid throughout life, to act on their same-sex attractions
Though research on the intersection of these factors is lacking, Dr Diamond hypothesizes that ‘it’s a complicated dynamic between hormonal changes, physical experiences, and, certainly sexual desires.’
In recent years, celebrities like Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon and American Horror Story actress Holland Taylor have been the subject of media attention and Hollywood gossip about their relationships with women.
The idea of so-called ‘late-in-life lesbians’ has led to questions about why women enter these relationships during middle age.
Dr Diamond says that ‘we don’t know if fluidity is more likely at certain life stages than others. But one of the things we have observed is that individuals, but especially women, go through changes that give them a little more freedom’ around middle age.
She says that as a marriage ends and children leave home, a woman ‘might have the opportunity to discover and act on [her sexual fluidity] as she gets older.’
Through qualitative interview studies, Dr Diamond has found that many women report that sexual exploration is quite different later in life from what it was when they were younger.
A woman may be at a point where she can ask herself, ‘”what do I want, who am I?” Questions of sexuality come to the forefront,’ she says.
American Horror Story star Holland Taylor, 74 (right) has historically been very quiet about her relationships, but confirmed in 2015 that she was in a relationship with actress 42-year-old Sarah Paulson (left)
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2011 and 2015, about 17 percent of women reported that they were sexually attracted to both men and women.
During the same period of time, only 5.6 percent of men felt desire for both sexes.
‘Sexuality really is a life span phenomenon,’ says Dr Diamond.
‘People are living longer, so when we talk about menopause and post-menopausal changes, we’re talking about a substantial portion of your life, so there’s a lot to study about how sexuality evolves at that part of life.’
She suggests that there may be physiological factors that ‘shape the course’ of a person’s sexuality, as well as normal developmental factors.
Many women choose to undergo hormone replacement therapy after menopause, which has been reported to increase libido by as much as 44 percent. However, there is not conclusive evidence on whether or not it’s linked to changes in sexual fluidity.
Cynthia Nixon (right) started dating women when she was 38 after 15 years with ex-boyfriend Danny Mozes. She married her wife, Christine Marinoni (left), in 2012
Dr Diamond says she’d love to see that kind of research, but that she hasn’t seen ‘a huge interest’ from major funding bodies to understand sexual fluidity.
Non-heterosexuality has also become far more openly socially accepted in recent years than it was 25 years ago, when women who are now post-menopausal were in their twenties.
‘Now, you see more discussion of same sex sexuality in general in the media, which allows women to even have a language to talk about it,’ Dr Diamond says.
The fact that they weren’t talking about it before doesn’t mean that middle-aged women were not attracted to women before, and ‘the capacity to express same sex attractions doesn’t invalidate previous hetero relationships,’ Dr Diamond stresses.
She worries that ‘if women go through these changes at a later stage [in life], they might think “oh my god, was I just repressed, was I living fake life?” It’s important for them to know that it doesn’t mean that they were repressed.’
But being fluid ‘doesn’t require that you pick a new identity and commit to it,’ Dr Diamond says.
‘Embrace the questioning process and don’t feel pressured to figure out who you are and what you want right now.’