Culturally, this makes sense. For millennia, women have fallen in line with social expectations; they’re trained from birth to get a man to the altar, reproduce, live happily ever after. The problem is, this isn’t entirely in sync with a woman’s biology. “While men know their sexuality early on, women are late bloomers,” says Eli Coleman, head of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “A woman awakens to her own needs and her sexuality around her 30s or 40s” — smack in the middle of building her life. At first blush, the timing may appear hormonal, but no studies point to that.
As if women weren’t complicated enough, there’s another perplexing element: A woman’s libido can shift back and forth between genders, based on emotions and situations, says Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and the author of Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. This confirms Kinsey’s research 60 years ago that showed orientation isn’t black-and-white, either/or. Human sexuality, he said, forms a continuum, and the sooner we learn that, the better we’ll understand ourselves. This reality is only recently coming to light, however; for decades, subsequent researchers threw out responses that didn’t fall at either end of the Kinsey scale (0 being straight, 6 being gay), which defeated Kinsey’s point in creating in.
“It doesn’t mean women are bisexual,” Diamond cautions. Rather, it means they can respond to emotions over gender. A woman can be attracted to another woman without being hot for females in general. One potential reason – based on animal studies — is that certain brain circuits that mediate emotional bonding also influence arousal, and women may have more of these love-sexuality circuits than men. Diamond has known die-hard lesbians to jump to the other team in the right circumstances, too — think Anne Heche. None of this is to say one’s sexuality is a choice. Ample scientific evidence proves it’s something we have no control over.
Going back to Dana: While she felt as if her sexuality changed mid-life, it’s a variable that exists within a woman from the beginning, “but is irrelevant to your day-to-day life until a really influential relationship with one particular woman triggers it,” says Diamond.
So, then, are women who find themselves married and attracted to women actually lesbians? Most women have an inherent preference, Fleisher insists, though it may not be clear immediately. “It’s not like ‘Aha, now I’m a lesbian,’” she says. “I didn’t know what I was for a while. If I went to a lesbian event, I felt like a closeted heterosexual. If I went to a PTA meeting, I felt like a closeted something else.” The only thing Fleisher knew was that she’d “experienced something so dramatically better, I could never be with a man again.” This sentiment is echoed repeatedly on Fleisher’s message board.
In researching this story, I interviewed eight local, suburban mothers- who responded to a posting on Fleisher’s message board. Of the five who have come out of the closet, four are struggling; one is happy with her situation. One came out to her husband and is staying with him for now. One is remaining in the closet; her husband agreed to let her have a girlfriend. (She continues to have sex with him, too.) One is hiding behind her soccer-mom life, dating a woman secretly. The experiences varied greatly, but all the women said this: The sex is off the charts, like nothing you can experience with a man. “It’s mind-blowing,” said a soccer mom from West Chester.