Heteroflexible -- or Fauxmosexual?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Parents and teens alike are exploring sexual identity issues.

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Are they heteroflexible -- or fauxmosexual?

Girls barely in their teens are exploring their sexuality. And more and more often, that exploration includes same-sex behavior.

The trend has, inevitably, spawned new words. Some say they're "heteroflexible." Others sneer that they're merely "fauxmosexual."

Is it really new? More importantly -- to parents and to the teens themselves -- what does it mean? Lisa M. Diamond, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, studies young women's sexual orientations, sexual attractions, and sexual behavior.

"Women's sexual behavior is more influenced by cultural and situational and even educational factors than men's," Diamond tells WebMD. "So given that today there is more visibility of same-sex behavior, it's likely there is an increase in young women experimenting with same sex behavior -- and talking openly about their experiments."

That's true, says Charlotte Patterson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Patterson's work focuses on sexual orientation and human development.

Blame It on Britney?

It has certainly always been true that teen girls are quick to pick up on the latest fab fads. Some 40 years ago, it was teen girls who ushered in Beatlemania. The sexual undercurrents of this phenomenon -- fairly mild by today's standards -- shocked parents of the '60s.

Dick Hall, assistant headmaster at The Lovett School in Atlanta, says teen girls' exuberant embrace of their sexuality can be a good thing.

"With the Madonna-Britney influence and all, things are much more outrageous in the popular culture these days and the girls pick it up," Hall tells WebMD. "I don't see it as unhealthy. For the most part it is girls being proud of their femininity and their strengths and not being timid or taking secondary roles. It is often a matter of pride, although they can also fall into those roles that do dim the light of individuality."

But what's happening today goes far beyond the Britney-Madonna tease-the-boys kiss. It's more than a fad.

Anthony D'Augelli, PhD, professor of human development at Penn State University, hasn't yet heard the term "heteroflexible." But he says girls today are exploring their sexuality in different ways than their mothers and grandmothers did.

"There really are changes in the way young people look at sexuality that are different than other generations," D'Augelli tells WebMD. "They don't stigmatize diversity the way we did." He says the media present positive images of woman-oriented women, and this will make a big difference in females. "There really are changes that are going on in the younger groups: destigmatized sexual discussions, sexual experimentation, and so on."

More Girls Than Boys

What about the boys? The experts who spoke with WebMD agree that although there's much more exposure to sexuality today than in previous generations, the phenomenon of teens openly exploring same-sex sexuality is largely limited to females.

"Since females are allowed by our culture to explore sex-role diversity -- they can be more tomboyish than boys can be sissyish -- there is more flexibility for them to explore sexuality," D'Augelli says. "There are more girls in my research that explore bisexuality than boys."

D'Augelli notes that boys are much more likely to be penalized for exhibiting behavior that goes against the norm than are girls. Patterson agrees but suggests that there's more to it than that.

"Certainly men are more stigmatized for non-heterosexual behavior than women are, because of men's higher status in our society," she says. "But there is also some degree to which our inbuilt nature as sexual creatures is different. The survey data always show women are more likely to describe themselves as bisexual than men. So you would expect on that basis alone to see more women experimenting."

Out: The 'Lay's Potato Chip' Theory of Sexuality

So what are these young women really up to? Are they really heteroflexible? Or are they just going through a fauxmosexual phase?

None of the above, says Diamond.

"A lot of the problem is we have very simplistic ideas of sexuality and development," she explains

It isn't simple because humans aren't simple. Our sexuality is one of the most complex things about us. From time immemorial, humans have engaged in what Diamond calls "an incredible variety of behaviors." And at different times of their lives -- particularly in their youth -- individuals may engage in different kinds of sexual behavior.

"There are sexual behaviors people engage in at some early times in their lives that aren't necessarily consistent with what they end up doing," Diamond says. "Our only language is to say it's only a phase. But it is more accurate to say our sexuality is such that it is possible for people to desire and want something that runs counter to their predominant sexual disposition."

That's hard to understand for people who subscribe to what Diamond calls "the Lay's Potato Chip" theory of sexual orientation: You can't have just one.

"It's the old way of seeing things: The 'you can't have just one' theory," she says. "The old idea is that if you have one same-sex affair, you are a lesbian. But some girls do just have one same-sex affair. It is a real phenomenon. It is neither a phase nor repression. It just results from the complicated nature of sexuality during the adolescent years."

Sex Without Labels

Diamond is eight years into a study in which she's following 80 women who -- between the ages of 18 and 25 -- originally identified themselves as not being exclusively heterosexual.

About half the women changed the way they identified themselves during the course of the study. Although some came to identify themselves as heterosexual, most who switched identities did so by giving up labels altogether.

A woman's sexual identity does not necessarily define her sexual attractions and sexual behaviors.

What About My Child?

Any label other than "heterosexual" distresses many parents.

"It is such a big label in our culture," Patterson says. "Before a child is born, everyone wants to know if it's going to be a boy or girl. We wonder about their sexuality, too, and we all have our intuitions about our own kids. But when you compare parents' ideas to what the kids tell us they have become -- well, I don't know if parents are very good at telling the answer in advance."

Constantly worrying about a child's sexual orientation is an exercise in futility, Diamond says. And it may say more about the parent than the child.

"Rather than monitor their kid for signs of gayness, they should know that what you see isn't necessarily what you end up getting," Diamond says. "Not every sign of same-sex sexuality means homosexuality. But parents have to become comfortable with more sexual ambiguity than they have been used to. And some of this may be reflecting the fact that if I don't know what is happening with my child's sexuality, I am not sure what is going on with my own sexuality. Remember, fluidity is the way we are made."

Even so, the way a parent responds means a lot to a young person.

"Parental reactions are important," D'Augelli says. "They have to get used to the fact that things are changing, and this is not a bad thing. Young people will eventually get to an identity that feels comfortable to them. Things are so different now."

Puberty is a time of turbulence. Traditionally, we've tried to get a handle on human sexuality by trying to fit everything into just a few simple categories. What's going on now, D'Augelli says, is a the rediscovery of true human development.

"That is scary, because most people think of their kids as heterosexual," he says. "Any divergence is scary, even for the most liberal parent. But more and more parents are going to have to deal with their children coming out in more and more ways at earlier ages. And parents are going to need to deal with what it means for them to be a sexual person."

Published March 19, 2004.

SOURCES: Diamond, L.M. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003; vol 84: pp 352-364. Essig, L. "Heteroflexibility," Salon, Nov. 15, 2000, accessed Jan. 13, 2004. Lisa M. Diamond, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and gender studies, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Charlotte Patterson, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Virginia. Dick Hall, assistant headmaster, The Lovett School, Atlanta. Anthony D'Augelli, PhD, professor of human development, Penn State University.

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