Women’s Queer Sexuality in College
What queer sexuality are college women engaged in on today’s campuses? Using data from the Online College Survey of Social Life (OCSLS) led by one of us (Paula England), we provide data on what women have done sexually with other women, as well as what they have done with men, and how this differs by women’s reported sexual orientation. The OCSLS survey was taken online between 2005 and 2011 by more than 20,000 students from 21 four-year colleges and universities. Both men and women took the survey, but here we focus just on women.
Table 1 at the end of this post details what we found. We show the percentage of all college women who have participated in various sexual activities with men and women. We then show what percentage of women who identified as heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, and unsure have participated in these activities.
Here are highlights from our findings, and our interpretations.
Women Kissing Women—What Does it Mean?
It is now commonplace to see women kissing other women on the dance floor or in public at parties. Often these are women who identify as straight, and it is hard to tell if their motivation is simply to attract men’s attention (where the behavior may arouse men’s fantasies about threesomes) or to genuinely explore same-sex attraction. Our data here don’t directly reveal what women are thinking when they kiss other women (but see Hamilton 2007 and Rupp et al. 2013). But we came up with one way to help us discern whether it was real attraction: whether they have kissed a woman in private or only in public. Among women who identified as straight at the time of the survey, 27% have kissed in public and 11% have done so in private (the groups overlap somewhat). We can probably be confident that the 11% were acting out of sexual attraction to women. But the motivations of the 27% are less clear; some may have been providing a display for men, others may have been exploring attractions to women that did not culminate in a nonheterosexual identity. By contrast, a majority have kissed a woman in private among bisexuals (80%), lesbians (69%), and women unsure of their sexual orientation (51%).
Who are the Bisexual Women?
While the vast majority of our sample identifies as heterosexual (93%), more college women call themselves bisexual (3.5% of the sample) than lesbian (1.5% of the sample).
We explored what mix of sex with men and women these bisexual women have had. To explore whether the same-sex interest of bisexuals runs very deep, we compared the percent of bisexuals and lesbians that have had oral sex with a woman; 57% of lesbians, compared to 46% of bisexual women have performed oral sex on a woman. A similar picture exists for receiving oral sex, as the graph below shows. The percentages aren’t drastically different for the two groups of women and are high enough for bisexual women to suggest that they aren’t merely “posing,” but have substantial same-sex interest that they act upon. While lesbians are somewhat more likely to have had oral sex with a woman than those identifying as bisexual, we might ponder why lesbians’ percent isn’t higher than 57%. This could be because many in the sample are only 18 or 19 years old and not very sexually active yet. But the percentage of lesbians who have performed oral sex on a woman (57%) is substantially lower than the percent of heterosexuals who have performed oral sex on a man (71%). Perhaps this is because sexual activity comes later to women who are developing a nonheteronormative identity. Another possibility is that two features of heterosexuals’ interaction that are less present among lesbians particularly encourage heterosexual women to give oral sex: men’s assertiveness in initiating the activity, and the fact that women in heterosexual encounters may give oral sex to lessen pressure on them to have intercourse. These are speculative hypotheses suggestive of the need for more research.
Bisexual women also have substantial sexual experience with men. Indeed, they are more experienced with men than heterosexual women are: 77% of bisexual women have had vaginal intercourse with a man, compared to only 68% of heterosexual women, and 80% of bisexual women have had oral sex with a man, compared to only 71% of heterosexual women.
Overall, it seems that bisexual women are more libertine and sex-positive than most other groups of women, having substantial experience with both men and women.
How is the Term “Vaginal Intercourse” Understood by Women who Have Sex with Women?
One goal of the OCSLS was to shed light on both heterosexual and same-sex sexual experience. Unfortunately, in one respect the OCSLS used some imprecise, heteronormative language. Breaking findings down by sex and sexual orientation revealed where the terminology misled. (One of us—England—is responsible.) The check lists of behaviors one has ever done with a woman or man each included the term “vaginal intercourse.” Given that both men and women, queer and straight, were given the same checklists, the modifier “vaginal” had been put in front of intercourse because we wanted to make sure that “intercourse” wouldn’t be read to include anal sex (which formed two separate items on the checklist as seen in Table 1). But we failed to specify that the “vaginal intercourse” we had in mind was “penile-vaginal intercourse.” Results in the table below show that no heterosexual women said they have had “vaginal intercourse” with a woman, but 18% of bisexual women and 36% of lesbians said they had. Obviously, the term “vaginal intercourse” is not always interpreted to mean penile-vaginal sexual intercourse since that cannot be what women reporting on sex with women can have been referring to, unless they were having sex with individuals with a penis that they called women (for example, transwomen who have not had surgery). But this seems unlikely to account for such substantial percentages. Rather, we suspect that these women were probably referring to digital penetration of the vagina, or vaginal penetration with a dildo or other sex toy. Our conclusion is that if researchers aim to measure penile-vaginal intercourse, they should call it this, and that if they want to capture the full range of women’s sexual practices with women, they should ask about other forms of vaginal penetration.