Sexual Identity More Fluid In Women

Elizabeth Aura McClintock PhD Assistant Professor Department of Sociology University of Notre Dame Notre Dame, IN Interview with:
Elizabeth Aura McClintock PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. McClintock: Sexual identity is a social construct that emerged in the late nineteenth century. People have always engaged in homosexual and heterosexual behavior, but we have not always had the concept of homosexual and heterosexual as types of personal identities. That is not to say that sexual desire or sexual preference does not have biological origins, but the concept of sexual identity and the specific labels that we use (gay, straight, bi-curious, etc.) are fundamentally social in origins.

Given that sexual identity is a social construct, social context should influence it. By social context I mean socioeconomic position, social networks, romantic status and experience, and family, among other factors. As a parallel example, researchers have recently shown that racial identification depends on context–a person may be perceived differently and self-identify differently depending as their social context changes. Extant research on sexual identity, however, largely ignores social context. My goal was to begin to fill this gap.

I found that several aspects of social context, including class background, educational attainment, race, and timing of childbirth, are associated with sexual identity. Indeed, context is associated with sexual identity net of sexual attraction. Perhaps because women have more flexible sexual attractions (they are more likely than men to report attraction to both sexes), social context has a larger effect on women’s sexual identity.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. McClintock: Sexual identity categories are not fixed and they are not simply a function of sexual attraction and behavior. For example, it is not at all uncommon for an individual to identify as heterosexual despite a capacity for same-sex attraction and past (or current) same-sex sexual encounters. Clinicians should assess patient needs (such as STD screening and contraception) by asking patients about sexual behavior directly. It is not accurate to infer behavior from sexual identity. Patients should be open with clinicians about their past and present sexual behaviors.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. McClintock: We need more research into the processes by which sexuality desire and behavior are translated into sexual identity. Insofar as social context may influence this process, different groups may tend to attach a different label to the same desires and behaviors. The implications of a given identity label for medical needs may therefore depend on the social position of the patient.


Abstract presented at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association
The data came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health,

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Elizabeth Aura McClintock PhD (2015). Sexual Identity More Fluid In Women 

Last Updated on August 26, 2015 by Marie Benz MD FAAD