Evidence for Multiple Pathways to Sexual Orientation

Social scientists have long debated the “true” nature of sexual orientation. In the past, this debate has been characterized as another example of the classic battle of nature vs. nurture/biology vs. society. Today, most acknowledge that a simplistic this or that explanation doesn’t fly for most things and likely doesn’t rightly characterize sexual orientation, either. Over the past decade or so, psychologists have begun gathering evidence indicating that there are likely multiple pathways to sexual orientation; for instance, some may be attracted to people of the same-sex because of something in their biology, others because of their social environment.
A recent study by Diamond and Wallen in the April issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior (“Sexual Minority Women’s Sexual Motivation Around the Time of Ovulation”) found evidence supporting a multiple pathways perspective in women’s sexual orientation. However, a little background is necessary to understand their study.

Women experience changes in their motivation for sexual contact that corresponds with hormonal fluctuations across their ovulatory cycle. Specifically, when a woman is ovulating, her desire to initiate sexual activity is higher than at any other point in her cycle (e.g., Wallen, 1995). From an evolutionary standpoint, the best time for a woman to want to have sex is when she’s is ovulating and, therefore, able to get pregnant. The authors reason that if sexual orientation is mostly biologically coded (and, therefore, susceptible to the influence of our evolutionary past), the orientation (that is, if it’s directed at men or women or both) of sexual desire during ovulation should correspond to a woman’s sexual orientation. Thus, a lesbian woman should be more motivated to have sexual contact with other women during ovulation than at any other point in her cycle.

Okay, now to what they found. Like they expected, they found that during ovulation women who had consistently sexually identified as lesbian since 1995 showed a significant increase in their desire for sexual contact with other women. However, they found that women who had consistently identified as bisexual since 1995 or who had given up their lesbian or bisexual identities at some point since 1995 showed a smaller increase in their desire for same-sex sexual contact. Furthermore, they found that across all the women in the sample, those women who said “choice” played a role in their same-sex sexuality also showed smaller increases in desire for same-sex sexual contact at ovulation. The authors conclude that “women with consistent versus inconsistent patterns of same-sex sexuality might be experiencing different types of same-sex desires influenced by different factors.” In other words, different women’s sexual desires might be originating from different sources.

This research is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. First, it indicates that sexual orientation, like almost everything else about people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, is not simple. It is influenced by different factors and derives from multiple pathways. Second, and perhaps most important, while the women in this study differed in certain psychological variables, their same-sex relationships and desires were equally important and real. To me, this indicates that even if choice or society or upbringing plays a role in our sexual orientation, that doesn’t make our experiences any less legitimate or worthy of protection.

Citation: Diamond, L. M., & Wallen, K. (2011). Sexual minority women’s sexual motivation around the time of ovulation. Archives of Sexual Behavior,  40, 237-246.