By Jamie Budnick
There are a lot of words used to describe women who hook up with other women. Even if they do not identify as lesbian or bisexual, the media might label them “straight girls kissing” and social scientists might study their “sexual fluidity.” A generation ago, they might have been called a LUG – that is, “lesbian until graduation.” What do all of these labels have in common? They usually refer to a narrow group of women: white, middle-class, and living on the progressive campuses of selective universities.
The New York Times acknowledged this stereotype of college as “a hive of same-sex experimentation” when it reported a puzzling research finding: in a national survey, women with the lowest levels of educational attainment reported the highest lifetime prevalence of same-gender sex. How could that be? If non-college attending women (or women working on associate’s or vocational degrees) also have a high prevalence of same-gender sexual behavior, then we need new research to understand their lives and sexual identities.
In my research, I put a piece in this puzzle by interviewing 35 young women who were already participating in a large-scale survey and who mostly did not attend a selective four-year college. Most of the women I interviewed identified as straight and all reported same-gender sexual behavior or desire.
Although I did not specifically try to recruit moms, about half of the women I interviewed became moms in their teens or early twenties. All of these moms had hooked up with a woman, had a girlfriend in the past, or said they were still attracted to women, but most identified as “straight.” They all felt it was far more important to be a “good mother” than anything else, and claiming a lesbian, gay, or queer identity just wasn’t a priority once kids were in the picture, especially if their family or community wasn’t accepting. For example, Jayla, a Black mom with a college degree, stopped hanging out with her LGBTQ friends after her daughter was born because she worried they could be a bad influence. She said, “I think what our relationship didn’t survive was me becoming a mom.”
Some of these moms also got married young. Even if they were still attracted to women (a few confided they’d love to have a threesome with a woman in their life), they didn’t see the point in calling themselves “bisexual” anymore. Noel is a white woman who strongly embraced her bisexual identity in high school, but even though it’s only been a few years, a lot has changed. She’s married now, and working on her GED after taking time off school while she had her two kids. She explained, “I’m with my husband, and I don’t intend on being with anybody else for my future.” Some just didn’t bother with identity labels if they were monogamous with men.
Being a young mom can foreclose some possibilities to embrace an LGBTQ identity, but in other ways it made space to act on same-gender desire. I call these intimacies “sexual friendships.” Chantelle, a Black mom with a high school diploma, found her sexual friendship easier to navigate than her relationship with her son’s father, saying “because relationships have a different degree and different standards. But with a friendship it’s kind of like everything is an open book.”
In addition to telling me these stories about their lives, many of the women I interviewed told me they didn’t like the label “queer” (some said it was a “derogatory” and “degrading” “slur”) but they didn’t mind the label “bisexual.” This was the opposite of what I’d heard from my college classmates, friends, and students. A lot of what we know comes from college, especially when it comes to sexuality. I argue that we should take intersectionality seriously by looking at women’s sexualities beyond the elite college campus.
Jamie Budnick is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan. She specializes in gender, sexualities, and feminist science studies. Her dissertation examines how demographers and other social scientists measure and make meaning of same-gender sexuality in survey research.Her article can be found in the October 2016; 30 (5) issue of Gender & Society here. Jamie was invited to write about this work for The Conversation which was picked up by The Daily Mail.