In preparation for my fall semester class, I’m reading Lisa Diamond’s excellent Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. It’s a book about her longitudinal research on women’s sexual identities and behaviors; I first heard a talk of hers in 2003 and have been fascinated ever since.
I intend to include the book in the readings for my class because there’s an ongoing flurry among students on my campus about sexual orientation and the dreaded LUG – Lesbian Until Graduation.
The problem as I understand it is this: a woman who dates women while she’s in college but who will date men once she graduates is a Fake Lesbian and therefore is fundamentally untrustworthy, will break your heart, and more or less deserves the social backstabbing she gets. (Dear students, please tell me if I’ve got this wrong.)
It took me a long time to understand what the problem is because, in the context of sexual fluidity, it just doesn’t make any sense. I pestered my poor intern with questions:
Does anyone self-identify as a LUG? No.\ How do people tell someone is a LUG? Basically if they’ve ever dated men.\ So any bisexual or lesbian who dates a transman? Yup, basically.
(Note: Like many students, my intern totally doesn’t buy the LUG thing; she was just trying to help me understand what other people think.)
Let’s start with a definition, here, yeah? Fluidity is
“a sensitivity to situations and relationships that might facilitate erotic feelings… [like] an intense emotional relationship (with either a man or a woman) or exposure to environments that provide positive experience with same-sex relationships.” (p.84)
Women have a sexual orientation, yes, but it’s fluid. Fluidity around sexual orientation may be transient or long-term, depending on those “facilitating factors,” and some women are more fluid than others.
But in Diamond’s 10-year longitudinal study, 30% of participants who identified as lesbian (as opposed to bisexual, queer, or unlabeled) at the start of the study fell in love with a man at some point during the study. Not just “had sex with,” or “were attracted to,” but had a full-blown romantic relationship.
Were they “real lesbians” in 1995? They sure felt like it. And, btdubs, there were no developmental or other characteristics that distinguished them from any of the other lesbians in 1995 – in other words, there was no way to predict who would date exclusively women and who would have relationships with men over the next 10 years. None. Not even frequency of attraction to men!
(SUBSEQUENT measures of frequency of attraction to men were correlated with relationships with men; it turns out there’s a mutually reinforcing kind of feedback loop between experience and attraction. Which is totally neat!)
The book has sparked so many things in my head I’ll probably end up writing a number of posts about it, but my first interest was in this question of LUGs.
Lesbian – a problematic label, QED. Until. Graduation – graduation marking a major shift in the “facilitating factors” of a woman’s environment. At my school, it’s a shift away from a community of women – “the bubble,” they call it – and into the world.
The majority of students, of course, identify as heterosexual throughout their time in college and they never have a same-sex sexual encounter. And, of course, there are some women who enter college already identifying as lesbian and who have relationships exclusively with women both while they’re in college and after they leave. And there are some who have same-sex sexual encounters while they’re in college and then find the environment outside of school more facilitating of different-sexed relationships. There are even students who never have a same-sex sexual experience on campus, but then go on to lead lives of rampant, unremitting lesbianism, bless them.
Is any of them a better or worse lesbian than the others? Better in what way? According to whom? What makes the sexuality of a person who is attracted to both men and women any better or worse than someone whose orientation is (as Diamond calls it) “exclusive”?
What’s the fear about, and why the prejudice? It’s all couched in untrustworthiness and – horror of horrors – heartbreak. “She doesn’t really love her, she’s just dating her because she’s curious.”
Well. Since Diamond’s work shows us that even people who self-identify as the purest of lesbian are capable of both fucking and loving men, we know it’s NOT that those perceived as LUGs are any “less real” than the dykiest of dykes.
So I say it’s either (a) plain old ignorance about the nature of women’s sexual orientation – which it could very well be, even among this population of curious, educated, queer-positive people; or (b) basic insecurity about being abandoned because of something fundamental about themselves: their gender.
I’ll address (a) in my class, but I don’t think that’ll make a dent in (b), and I’m inclined to think that the fears around LUGs are ultimately about insecurity. Golly folks, ANYBODY could break your heart. She could leave you for another woman, too, and does someone’s bona fides as a lesbian make it any more certain that they really love you for who you are?
I’m inclined to believe that if you doubt that your love object/partner’s sexual orientation is legitimate, that may indeed reflect your own deeper insecurity about your fundamental lovableness. Or if you fear for a friend who is interested in someone whom you don’t trust, maybe you’re pinning “LUG” on as a label when actually there’s some other, less socially acceptable reason why you don’t trust this person.
I think students fear “LUGs” because they’re trying to keep themselves and their friends emotionally safe and they think this is a way to do it – when actually all it does is ostracize students who don’t meet some externally imposed standard. In other words, it’s discrimination.
Ultimately what they seek is a kind of shibboleth – a guarantee that someone’s sexual orientation is true and pure. But there is no “proof” of orientation, no real “proof” of love. You know it with your heart, alone in silence, when it speaks to you.
And maybe in the end what students need to learn is not the biology and sociology of sexual orientation, but how to listen to – and trust – their own hearts. Can I teach that, do you think?