Sexual friendships can fulfill women's desire for meaningful connection and intimacy without declarations of sexual identity. Photo by BzSm8GH3md7y7hXYGrqPm, Flickr CC.

“Straight Girls Kissing,” Beyond the Elite College Campus

Many straight-identified young women have same-gender sexual or romantic experiences. Research on sexual fluidity, hooking up, and “straight girls kissing” has largely focused on women living on the progressive campuses of selective universities. Yet women outside these elite spaces are more likely to report ever having had same-gender sex, despite being more likely to start families or settle down with men earlier in life.

Popular attention to the phenomenon reached a fever pitch when Katy Perry went platinum singing that she “kissed a girl” and “liked it.” More recently, Emmy-award winning stars at the heart of the popular shows Orphan Black and The Good Wife have portrayed characters who have same-gender sex after establishing plotlines as presumably heterosexual women. As a twist to the first generation of primetime LGBTQ plots, these characters are not in their teens and/or confronting a sexual identity crisis.

“Straight girls kissing” has become something of a curious and controversial cultural touchstone. Some social scientists have used it as a launching point to study female bisexuality, but agree this attention has focused too narrowly on women living on the progressive campuses of selective universities, only bolstering stereotypes. How are young women’s experiences and understandings of same-gender sexuality shaped by their context?

a stereotype-shattering demographic puzzle

In 2011, 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 wrote that the study challenged “the popular stereotype of college as a hive of same-sex experimentation.” A 2016 update did not find a statistically significant pattern by education, but reiterated the high prevalence within this understudied demographic. As we will see, yesterday’s “LUG” (lesbian-until-graduation”) is today’s sexually experimental coed—and both stereotypes divert attention from the women in the NSFG.

One reason this finding is puzzling is that it falls into a gap in how different types of social scientists typically study sexuality. Demographers tend to investigate gendered life experiences—such as sex, relationships, pregnancy, and parenting—excluding topics related to non-heterosexuality and often focusing on women between the ages of 18 to 24 (“the transition to adulthood”). This is a life stage when these life experiences begin to strongly diverge along race and class lines, with privileged women going to college, dating casually or hooking up instead of settling down, and delaying parenthood to advance their education and careers. Meanwhile, disadvantaged women are more likely to seek stability by commuting to school or studying part-time while balancing jobs and families. The women I interviewed who did pursue higher education did so in a very different space and context than women at elite universities.

Studies of sexuality based on in-depth interviews and ethnography tend to delve into identity and desire. For many college women, the “transition to adulthood” is a time of self-exploration and relative freedom to act on their sexual desires, including same-gender attractions (though many later settle into monogamous relationships with men). “Sexual fluidity” is an influential concept that explores how sexual desire could be context-specific or change over time. Recent sociology builds on this theory to explain how same-gender hookups are a “gender strategy” for college women in the Greek Life party scene as they paradoxically titillate men by making out while ostracizing lesbian and bisexual women. Scholarship has also explored how this hookup scene can serve as a low-stakes “opportunity structure” for queer women to explore authentic same-gender desire.

Demographic surveys include the “straight girls kissing” who do not experience the “transition to adulthood” within elite university settings, but can’t explain the puzzles the numbers reveal. Our best sexuality theories are based on research that leaves these women out altogether.

The Relationship Dynamics and Social Life (RDSL) study followed 1,000 women for two-and-a-half years, collecting weekly surveys to learn about the prevalence, causes, and consequences of early, unintended pregnancy. Most demographic and fertility surveys do not explicitly collect data on sexual orientation or same-gender relationships (surveys about risk are an exception—and this trend is changing), but valuable information about these topics is often there just below the surface.

For three years, it was my job to handle RDSL participants’ questions, comments, and complaints. Most inquiries were about how to complete the surveys or receive the incentive payment, but a few came from women unsure of whether the questions on sex and relationships were meant to include their girlfriends. In response to this feedback, I wrote new survey questions about sexual identity, behavior, and attraction. Over a third of RDSL participants (213 of the 579 who completed the new survey) gave some type of non-heterosexual response. I systematically recruited 35 of these women to interview. Participants were enrolled in RDSL at age 18-19 and interviewed at age 22-23. Because RDSL had a racially and socioeconomically diverse sample, representative of the Michigan county in which respondents lived, I was able to interview women that many sexualities scholars struggle to access.

how early motherhood shapes sexual identity

Demographers have written about how women of lower socioeconomic status have earlier paths toward family formation and are less comfortable hooking up. Sexualities researchers have written about how bisexual and other non-heterosexual women report declines in same-gender sex as they get older. These two patterns intersect earlier in the lives of my interviewees. The resulting, shorter timelines reflect socioeconomic status and limit possibilities for LGBTQ identification in two important ways: young moms put their identity as good and self-sacrificing parents first, and women in committed relationships with men simply felt their same-gender sexual desires or experiences were no longer relevant.

Women in the study described reconsidering sexual identities, relationships, and values after becoming mothers.
Women in the study described reconsidering sexual identities, relationships, and values after becoming mothers. Photo US Gov’t work via Flickr. Click for original.

The women I interviewed described reconsidering sexual identities, relationships, and values after becoming mothers. Jayla, a Black woman with a recent bachelor’s degree from a regional state school, became pregnant after her on-again/off-again boyfriend pressured her to stop using condoms. She described making big changes in her social circle after she and her infant daughter moved in with her parents. Previously, Jayla’s best friend had been a gay man, and she was the godmother of her lesbian friend’s daughter. “I think what our relationship didn’t survive was me becoming a mom. I even told him, ‘I will make you the godfather of my child,’ but when reality hit… I’m going to always do something for the sake of the child, this is where my opinion bursts forth. …I kind of shifted myself away from them, because I know how I want to raise my daughter.” She severed these friendships, hoping to move on from the attraction she once felt for her lesbian friend and maybe even meet a man who would be a partner in parenting.

Similarly, Summer, a Black woman with a high school degree, found herself reconsidering her progressive sexual values and the place of same-gender attraction in her life after becoming a mom in her late teens. Her four-year-old daughter asks questions about a cousin who has two moms. Summer calls herself “protective,” explaining, “I know my nephew got teased for having two moms. …I don’t want [my daughter] to have to go through that.” Jayla and Summer are both confronting the challenges they see their gay friends and family struggle with as “out” individuals in their communities.

Over time, the mothers I interviewed saw their same-gender sexual experiences or desires as less relevant. It was more important, they felt, to focus on fulfilling expectations tied to being a “good mother”: self-sacrifice and “settling down”. If their child’s father was in the picture, this could mean bending over backward to make things work. None of these mothers saw raising their child with a woman as a real option, and they defended that idea by describing discrimination among family members, their sense of what was acceptable in their social circle, and the perception that same-sex families were simply not present in their communities.

bisexual and monogamous?

Actress Anna Paquin made national headlines in 2014 when she struggled to convince Larry King that actually, she could still be bisexual, even though she was married to a man. The late-night talk show host is not the only one confused by this idea. Those women among my interviewees who held proud bisexual identities or had girlfriends in high school struggled to find a place for this part of their sexuality alongside their commitment to their boyfriends or husbands. Some thought that having or planning a threesome could be a low-stakes way to bring up the issue of same-gender attraction within a relationship without challenging their primary identity as a mother or monogamous partner. In these cases, suggesting threesomes served as a way to offload attraction and longing, while ostensibly involving their partner in their sexuality without threatening the relationship. These interview participants brought up threesomes unprompted, and their stories challenge stereotypes about who wants threesomes and why.

Marissa, a White mother working on an associate’s degree, was engaged to a man who disapproves of her past sexual experiences with women. Her tone was resigned and a bit sad as she described her situation: she still harbored strong romantic feelings for a married friend who never gave their former sexual friendship an official relationship status. Marissa said, “I wanted her to be my girlfriend, but she was married. It was like, ‘Well, if I can’t be your girlfriend, I’m going to do it anyway.’ …I told her I loved her one time. I was like, ‘I love you. Like, I’m in love with you.’” Both women are now moms in relationships with men, but Marissa shared, “I’m still kind of upset about it. I hang out with her every once in a while, and I get so jealous. I’m not a jealous person either. I just get so emotional when it comes to her.”

Contrary to stereotypes in which a threesome is every man’s fantasy, Marissa’s fiancé was judgmental when she brought up the idea: “It makes him really insecure. He just doesn’t like it. When I told him about it, he said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to look at you the same.’ …I’m not a bad person. I’m not a whore or anything. …Yeah, I was hurt.” The couple stayed together.

Imani, a Black woman and part-time commuting student, lived with her parents while raising her four-year-old son. She is at a stalemate similar to Marissa’s: her boyfriend was excited about the idea of a threesome, but rejected Imani’s real-life plans to make it happen. “He’s told me before he wanted to do that. … But [my high school girlfriend] would be the only person I’d do it with, and vice versa. So we’re at a stalemate.” Her ex’s boyfriend is enthusiastic about Imani joining them, but that’s not a motivating factor for Imani: “I don’t like him like that, it would be awkward for me. I would do it as a favor for her maybe, but not for him.” Both Marissa and Imani used threesomes as a way to bring up their same-gender attraction to their boyfriends, but by specifying their interest in a specific woman (with whom they’d previously been sexual), undermining what is stereotyped as every man’s fantasy.

sexual friendships

The campuses, clubs, and classrooms of selective universities provide a specific context in which to understand women’s sexuality. Women on these campuses may have access to progressive ways of talking about same-gender sexuality, but the flipside is that they are forced to confront pressures to name their experiences and label themselves. Outside of the university context, “sexual friendships” provide opportunities to explore same-gender sex and desire without labeling oneself with a sexual orientation that may be controversial or even unintelligible to friends and family.

Jayla (introduced above) was chosen to be godmother to her best friend’s daughter, and their deep friendship is still intimate and playful: “The running joke between her fiancé and I is she was married to me first. I’m her first husband! [She] will do this ‘honk, honk’ [playful squeeze] to my boob, or I’ll come over and slap her on the behind, or [she] called herself my baby dad. She’ll be like, ‘Oh, my baby’s mama is here!’ And we walk hand in hand, and we walk around like a little family. …You can’t break us up… it’s just that strong.”

Amy, a White woman living at home while working on an associate’s degree, has sex with her best friend. The two women don’t discuss it directly, preferring to joke about moving to Canada to get married. Amy shares story after story of sexist disappointment involving bad boyfriends, disrespectful doctors, and offensive teachers. It’s all shifted her thinking about gender: “The more I see finding a soul mate in a man isn’t realistic, the more appealing [marrying my friend] is. …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.”

It can be easy to take for granted something young mothers get out of sexual friendships: friendship with a woman who shares their struggle and isolation as a single parent navigating frustrating relationships with men (who are often unsupportive at best and abusive at worst). Public lesbian relationships are seen as “impossible” or “unimaginable,” and women in sexual friendships might say they are “joking” or “playing around.” Still, these sexual friendships fulfill the desire for meaningful connection, intimacy, and sex without the drama of heterosexual “friends-with-benefits” situations or the pressure to adopt an LGBTQ identity label.

labels outside the women’s studies classroom

How did my interview participants answer the original survey question about sexual identity labels? About two-thirds chose “straight” (despite having same-gender sexual or romantic experiences) and most of the remaining chose “I don’t label myself in this way.” In interviews, nearly everyone told some version of a story that goes: “My life and feelings are complicated, I don’t fit into those boxes. I’d rather tell you the whole story, or leave some possibility open and not choose a label at all.”

It is common for today’s non-heterosexual young people to reject sexual identity labels, but working-class and non-college attending women do so for different reasons. My interviewees embrace “bisexual” and reject “queer” in an opposite pattern from that typically observed among research participants recruited from university women’s studies courses and LGBTQ student groups.

Privileged women dismiss “bisexual” as an outdated term weighed down with the baggage of negative connotations from both mainstream society and lesbian subcultures. But for my interviewees, “bisexual” was an untainted, easily understood idea. Nikki, a Black woman and part-time commuting student, said simply, “I always thought ‘bisexual’ was a pretty good term for it.” Krystina, a White woman with a bachelor’s degree from a regional school, explained, “I feel like that’s much more acceptable in today’s society.”

Meanwhile, they see “queer” as an alienating slur, not the empowering anti-label prevalent in university women’s studies classrooms. If “queer” is framed as a rejection of confining identity labels for more privileged women, Jayla and others in my study felt the term as “degrading.” Amber, a White woman with an associate’s degree, cautiously said, “I think, in a joking sense, I’ve heard people call each other that. Even if they are gay, they joke about it. …I wouldn’t go around and just be like, ‘Oh, you’re queer,’ because some people do take a lot of offense.” She had not heard any of her friends self-identify as queer, but saw the term as similar to the N-word: she recognizes that some people might reclaim and use it among friends, but it is a word to be careful with, because its predominant meaning is an offensive slur.

Outside elite campus contexts, labels may go from empowering to alienating (and back again). Photo by, Flickr CC. Click for original.
Outside elite campus contexts, labels may go from empowering to alienating (and back again). Photo by, Flickr CC. Click for original.

Erin, a White community college student in a same-gender relationship, did not see how “queer” could be positively reclaimed: “I’m sure it means the same thing as if you called a Black person a ‘nigger’ or a Mexican person a ‘spic.’ It makes me kind of mad.” And what if someone called her queer? Erin didn’t skip a beat: “I’d probably punch them right in the face without even thinking about it.”

The term “queer” has been used in some contexts to open possibilities for understanding sexual identity and behavior, but my interviewees did not draw on these ideas when defining what it meant in their own lives. If disadvantaged individuals do not have equal access to ideas that “queer” is empowering and radical, the word loses some of its ability to do this work. If we were to truly learn from what these women are telling us, we would have to recognize the limitations alongside the power of “queer.”

fulfilling the promise of intersectional research

A major goal of feminist research is to be intersectional in the way we think about society. That is, we need to consider how different identities come together to make and shape each person and each social group. Sexuality is shaped by experiences and identities such as race, class, status as a parent, and specific environments (such as elite college campuses). In my study, I found that early motherhood limited possibilities for some women to develop or claim LGBTQ identities; they prioritized being self-sacrificing good mothers. My interviewees described specific experiences and observations that make these identities seemingly incompatible for them. I also found that sexual friendships gave some women a different way to explore same-gender sex and desire. Together, my findings show how sexual identification and acting on desire are intersectional processes and that the lives of “straight girls kissing” look different offstage and outside the college hookup scene. The feminist goal of intersectionality is often undermined by our focus on educated, middle-class White women in so much of our sexualities research. In this study, I used large-scale surveys as both a source of puzzles generating interesting research questions and a tool for recruiting participants. This allowed me to locate and learn from a more diverse group of women. By listening to stories like theirs, we can move scholarship on “straight girls kissing” beyond stereotypes.

recommended resources:

Jamie Budnick. 2016. “’Straight Girls Kissing’? Exploring Same-Gender Sexuality Beyond the Elite College Campus,” Gender & Society. The original, elaborated version of this Contexts feature.

Anjani Chandra, William Mosher, Casey Copen, and Catlainn Sionean. 2011. Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth. Reports national survey findings on sexual behavior, attraction, and identity across the population and explains how scientists develop and analyze these data.

Lisa M. Diamond. 2008. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A developmental psychologist presents the influential theory of “sexual fluidity” based on ten years of research with women during and after college to examine how sexual behavior and desire unfold over time.

Laura Hamilton. 2007. “Trading On Heterosexuality: College Women’s Gender Strategies and Homophobia,” Gender & Society. Explains same-gender hookups as a “gender strategy” for women in the Greek Life party scene.

Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor. 2010. “Straight Girls Kissing,” Contexts. Cracks the popular attention to “straight girls kissing” wide open with one of the first scholarly studies–and calls for more research on women who don’t fit the stereotypes.

Leila J. Rupp, Verta Taylor, Shiri Regev-Messalem, Alison Fogarty, and Paula England. 2014. “Queer Women in the Hookup Scene: Beyond the Closet?Gender & Society. Considers how the college hookup scene can serve as a low-stakes “opportunity structure” within which queer women can explore authentic same-gender desire.