Madonna and Britney Spears famously locked lips in front of millions during the 2003 Video Music Awards, with Scarlett Johansson and Sandra Bullock following suit seven years later at the MTV Movie Awards. In 2008, Katy Perry went platinum singing that she “kissed a girl” and “liked it.” Meanwhile, we’ve seen portrayals of otherwise unlabeled women acting on same-gender desire in a number of popular primetime shows, from “Orphan Black” to “The Good Wife.”
In one sense, this reflects real life. Many young women who identify as straight have had sexual or romantic experiences with other women. Research on sexual fluidity, hooking up and straight girls kissing has mainly focused on women living on college campuses: privileged, affluent, white women.
But studies have found that same-gender sexual experiences between straight women are common across all socioeconomic backgrounds. This means existing studies have been ignoring a lot of women.
As recent surveys have shown, women outside of the privileged spaces of college campuses actually report higher rates of same-gender sex. This happens even though they’re more likely to start families at a younger age. They also have different types of same-gender sexual experiences and views of sexuality, all of which we know less about because they’re often underrepresented in most academic studies of the issue.
As a sociologist who studies gender and sexuality, I wanted to know: How do straight women who don’t match the privileged, affluent and white stereotype we see in the media make sense of their same-gender sexual experiences?
‘Straight girls kissing’ in social science
Some social scientists have followed the media’s fixation on straight girls kissing to further explore theories of female bisexuality.
In her 2008 book, psychologist Lisa Diamond developed the influential model of “sexual fluidity” to explain women’s context-dependent or changing sexual desire. Meanwhile, sociologist Laura Hamilton argued that making out at college parties served as an effective, albeit homophobic, “gender strategy” to simultaneously attract men and shirk lesbians. And historian Leila Rupp, with a group of sociologists, theorized that the college hookup scene operates as an “opportunity structure” for queer women to explore their attractions and affirm their identities.
All of these scholars are quick to recognize that these ideas – and the studies on which they are based – focus mostly on a certain type of person: privileged women living on the progressive campuses of selective universities. In part, it is easier to recruit study participants from classes and student groups, but it leaves us with a picture that reinforces stereotypes.
Around the same time I conducted my study, the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) found that women with the lowest levels of educational attainment reported the highest lifetime prevalence of same-gender sex. The New York Times correctly observed that these findings challenged “the popular stereotype of college as a hive of same-sex experimentation.” A 2016 update of the survey did not find a statistically significant pattern that varied by education level, but reiterated the high prevalence among women who didn’t go to college.
Rich insights just below the surface
In 2008, I started work as a research assistant on the Relationship Dynamics and Social Life (RDSL) study, which surveyed young women weekly for two-and-a-half years to learn about the prevalence, causes and consequences of unintended pregnancy. It was my job to handle participants’ questions, comments and complaints. Most of the inquiries from the participants were about how to complete the surveys or receive the incentive payment.
But a few came from women unsure about how to answer questions on sex and relationships. They wondered: Were they supposed to include their girlfriends?
Many demographic surveys focused on health or risk do not explicitly collect data on sexual orientation or same-gender relationships. But valuable information on these topics often exists just below the surface.
In 2010, I decided to write new RDSL survey questions about sexual identity, behavior and attraction. Nearly one-third of participants gave some type of nonheterosexual response (including women who said they “rejected” labels or that gender was not a determining factor in their attractions). In 2013, I recruited 35 of these women to interview. Because RDSL had a racially and socioeconomically diverse population-based sample, I was able to interview women that many sexualities scholars struggle to access.
After becoming a mother, goodbye to all that?
Many women I interviewed had become mothers in their teens or early 20’s. All of these moms had hooked up with a woman, had a girlfriend in the past or said they were still attracted to women. Nonetheless, most identified as straight.
They explained that it was more important to be a “good mother” than anything else, and claiming a nonheterosexual identity just wasn’t a priority once kids were in the picture.
For example, Jayla (a black mom with a four-year degree from a state school) broke ties with her group of LGBTQ friends after her daughter was born. As she explained, “I think what our relationship didn’t survive was me becoming a mom… I kind of shifted away from them, because I know how I want to raise my daughter.”
Women who married men or settled down in their early 20’s also felt that their previous lesbian or bisexual identities were no longer relevant.
Noel, a white married mom with a General Educational Development certificate, dated girls in high school. Back then, being bisexual was a big part of her identity. Today, she doesn’t use that term. Noel said monogamy made identity labels irrelevant: “I’m with my husband, and I don’t intend on being with anybody else for my future.”
Sexual friendships emerge
Being a young mom can foreclose some possibilities to fully embrace an LGBTQ identity. But in other ways it created space to act on same-gender desire. I came to call these intimacies “sexual friendships.”
Chantelle, a black mom with a high school diploma, was struggling to co-parent with her ex-boyfriend. In the midst of her frustrating situation, she had found intimacy and satisfaction in a sexual friendship with a woman. As she put it, “relationships have a different degree and different standards. But with a friendship it’s kind of like everything is an open book.”
Amy, a white woman working on her associate’s degree, has had sex a few times with her best friend. They don’t talk about that, but they have daydreamed together about getting married, contrasting their feelings with their experiences dating men: “I feel like a man will never understand me. I don’t think they could. Or I don’t think that most men would care to. That’s just how I feel from the experiences I’ve had.”
Some of the women I interviewed told me they strategically chose hookups with women because they thought it would be safer – safer for their reputation and a safeguard against sexual assault.
Tara, a white woman attending a regional public university, explained: “I’m a very physical person and it’s not all emotional, but that doesn’t go over well with people, and you get ‘the player,’ ‘whore,’ whatever. But when you do it more with girls, there’s no negative side effects to it.”
Tara also said that men often misinterpret interest for more than it was: “Like if I want to make out with you, it doesn’t mean I want to have sex with you. But in a lot of guys in party scenes, that’s their mentality.” I asked her if this happened to anyone she knew, and she uncomfortably said yes – “Not that they ever called it rape or anything like that.”
Less exciting, more real
Intersectional studies like the one I conducted can upend the way we frame the world and categorize people. It’s not binary: Women don’t kiss each other only for either the attention of men or on their way to a proud bisexual or lesbian identity. There is a lot of rich meaning in the middle, not to mention structural constraints.
And what about that popular image equating “straight girls kissing” with “girls gone wild”? It’s more provocative cliché than reality. Many are at home with their kids – the father gone – looking for companionship and connection.
By using large-scale surveys as both a source of puzzles and a tool for recruiting a more diverse group of participants, the picture of “straight girls kissing” gets a little less exciting – but a lot more real.
Jamie Budnick does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.