Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Eight reasons why more women in the UK are having same-sex than they were 20 years ago

Women in the 1990s: less likely to have sex with other women
Over the past few days, there has been much discussion in the media about the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.

Fifteen thousand people around the UK aged 16-74 were interviewed about various aspects of their sexual behaviour in 2010-2012.

This survey – the third, following previous surveys held 20 and 10 years ago – has had its headline results published in the Lancet

Out of all the interesting research published in the survey, the aspect that has been both under-discussed and is relevant for this blog is this: women are now four times more likely to say they had had same-sex activity than they were 20 years ago. (4% in 1990 to 16% in 2010)

Director of the research, Professor Kaye Welland, was reported in Pink News as saying that this was too big a change to be simply a difference in what women said. In other words, it was not just that they had changed their way of gathering data, or that the women were being more honest. Women actually ARE having more same-sex behaviour than they were 20 years ago. Much, much more.

It is not that women are necessarily having what they coyly describe as “genital contact” – that is only 8% or half of the women reporting same-sex contact - so what does “sex” mean here? And what’s behind the increase

Here are eight (connected) reasons why I think more women are having sex with each other. They are only theories, but they sound right to me. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them. (I have comment moderation on, so please be patient if you post!)

Increased acceptability/less prejudice against women-women relationships
As well as the rates of same-sex going up, according to this survey, the percentages of people thinking same-sex relationships were always or sometimes wrong have gone down a great deal too. Women are more likely than men to think such relationships are acceptable – this has gone up from 28% in 1990 to 66% now. Relationships between women are more accepted than are those between men, especially by men, with 52% of men thinking that same-sex relationships between men are always wrong, and 48% that those between women are always wrong. In 1990, those figures were 78% and 76%.

More same-sex couples and individuals in the media
Oh yes. I mean, there’s even a UK bank ad featuring female identical twins one of whom has a female partner, the other a male. This is presented as no more of an issue than whether she does or doesn’t like swimming.

Lesbian power couple: Alice Arnold (left) and Clare Balding
There are more lesbian celebrities (Clare Balding, Sandi Toksvig etc) who are just there being presenters, comedians, newsreaders, and so forth. There are also bi celebrities (Jessie J et al) speaking about their interest in women.

More sex in general
Women are having more sexual partners in general than they were 20 years ago. The average for women aged 16-44 in 1990 was 3.7 and now is 7.7. So if there is more sex, there is also likely to be more same-sex too. There’s no research (that I know of, although you might) showing that women are more open and assertive in their sexual desires than 20 years ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Internet dating
You are 25, you live in a tiny village where everyone knows everyone and no one available is of interest to you. But pop online, and dozens of potential partners of whatever gender you desire are just waiting. And you know they are interested in people like you – in terms of gender, looks, interest, what-have-you – because they say so. There may be problems of course, but “do they want to have sex with someone of my gender” isn’t one of them. There is a whole pool of sexual partners who simply would not have been available before. For older people, I think this is much more difficult but for reasons of age, not gender.

The lesbian community
Not so long ago, women usually had to be part of a lesbian community if they wanted women to be their sexual partners. Of course, some women didn’t do this: they happened upon each other by accident, or maybe were part of other radical political movements, or met through friends. But most did. While of course many women were happy in their lesbian community, it had its political, social and sexual norms which you had to adhere to. It didn’t always (and still doesn’t) welcome women who didn’t agree with those norms. Bi women in particular.

But to be fair, I think it is also true that some parts of the lesbian community, anyway, are more tolerant towards women who aren't 150% lesbian, though understandably perhaps not towards women who are "experimenting".

There are also now many more same-sex friendly communities – queer, poly, bi, kink, swinger, pagan, goth, BDSM, etc etc – where women can meet each other. Many of them were around 20 years ago too, but they are much easier to find now. And if there are more women having same-sex, the chances of you just coming across them in everyday life are that much greater.

I have no idea what proportion of women look at any kind of porn, but some of them will see other women having sex with each other on screen and start to fantasise about it themselves. I know this to be the case, because some have told me so. Of course, maybe their boyfriends have fantasies about this, or maybe they both do. Or maybe they think their boyfriends want them to (whether they actually do or not).  But maybe they have turned on their computers, gone actively searching for porn or found it by accident, and seen a woman who made them think…

For all of these reasons, women may feel it is less of a big deal to think about having sex with another woman and possibly to act on it.

Katy Perry

 “I kissed a girl and I liked it”
According to today’s colloquium on the survey, which I followed on Twitter through the hashtag #NATSAL, the increase in same-sex between women is because more of them are experimenting, rather than changing their identity [Though I don’t see why it is either experimenting OR changing your identity, or indeed what identity per se necessarily has to do with it at all]. Maybe they listened to the Katy Perry song.

In principle, I am in favour of young people experimenting, with the normal provisos of openness, honesty, safer sex, respecting your partner, and so on. But I still think the concept needs much more unpacking if nothing else than because “experimenting” implies something very trivial and meaningless. While sex can be both trivial and meaningless (as well the reverse), experimenting can be pretty damn serious.

Some women who start off with experimenting will go on to have more, deeper, relationships with other women. They may not call themselves lesbian, or bi, or indeed have the remotest interest in sexual identity or community, but “experimenting” doesn’t always start and finish with a bit of pawing in a club (pleasant though that might be).

Experimenting is just that – trying something out. You don’t necessarily know what the result will be. Your desires and fantasies are not always enough. You need to see whether what you have thought about really works for you – at this place, with this person, at this time in your life.

Performing bisexuality
I think some observers might count this as experimenting too. Yes, some heterosexual women are definitely kissing and groping each other in public, probably for attention, mainly from men. This was first spotted as a phenomenon around 15 years ago, and now seems pretty ubiquitous. The expectation is that this is all a bit of a joke, and that no “real sex” will occur.

But women who are doing this are not necessarily experimenting or even not properly into women. I was shocked (yes reader, I can still be shocked) by women I know to have had genuine relationships with women setting out to torment/arouse men by kissing other women in front of them.

So while I don’t dispute that more women may be sexually experimenting… can this really account for such a vast increase? It doesn’t seem likely. I think it is all of the reasons listed above.

Just for the young?
Given that I have, as I said in my last post, changed the focus of this blog to be on ageing, I do want to touch on what this might mean for us older women.

To start with, are these just young women having all this same-sex? Mostly, yes.

According to the statistics, when asked whether they’ve had any sexual experience or contact with another female, only 3% of women aged 65–74 said yes. It’s 7% for those aged 55–64, 9% aged 45–54, 12% 35–44, 18% women 25–34, and 19% 16–24. If the prevalence of same sex was constant, it would increase with age, based on the accumulation of experience. But the opposite is true. So among younger women, it’s either more common, or more honestly reported, or (as I would guess) both.

But I wonder whether older, previously heterosexual, women will start experimenting too (if not to such a great extent) as we grow and change and explore different opportunities in life. I have certainly read about women having their first female partners when they are 50+ and I am going to write about this phenomenon at some point.

In this survey, women did report “less sexual anxiety” as they got older, which can only be a good thing!

Another thing coming out of this survey is that men are now far less likely to report having same-sex behaviour than are women (7% - the same rate as in 1990 – compared to 16% for women). This seems very low.

So what does this figure mean? As the (male) commenters on the Pink News site above mention, that depends on so many things. One is certainly: “what counts as sex?”

To quote one commenter:

“In my experience more men than ever are having sex with other men. These men do not regard themselves as gay at all - they just think they are sexually adventurous. As for the anal aspect [there were very low rates of penetrative sex between men] that’s just a distraction thrown into the argument by heterosexuals. Most men who have sex with men have non-penetrative [sex].”

Many other men have said this to me over the years, and I’ll be writing about all of that in some future post.


Anonymous said...

Boy is it getting harder for us straight guys trying to meet a good woman these days.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I was unaware of that study, but I have noticed, as @BisexualBatman on Twitter, that there are an awful lot of comments along the lines of "Seems like every woman is bisexual these days." And I wondered if there was an actual increase or just a perception of that.
One thing that should be mentioned in terms of why older women may not be showing an increase in same sex activities, is that by the time many women are age 35 or so they have settled into committed relationship and thus aren't having sex with anyone other than their S.O.

Anonymous said...

Its tougher for bi guys than it is for women and i think that is evident almost everywhere. Katy Perry's song I kissed a girl was a huge success, imagine if George Michael had sung i kissed a guy!!!
It is hard for guys to be openly Bi and i'd like to hear your views on this.
I am bi and very few know and i also involve penetrative sex with men in my sexual adventures.
Does it make me homosexual no, because i don't really fancy men i just enjoy the sexual experiences.
I have a lovely girlfriend who understands which makes life easier too.

Sue George said...

In many ways I do think it is harder to be an openly bi man and yes, I will write about this in the future. I am sure I already have, actually - look at the labels to the right of the page.