The Rise of Sexual Fluidity on College Campuses
Sexual fluidity explains the concept that sexuality can fluctuate based on a number of factors, such as education, environment and natural attraction ("The Lovers II," by Rene Magritte)
College /// Culture x

What is it, who is it and what does it mean for college students?

Upon hearing the term “sexual fluidity,” the general population might frown and scratch their heads in confusion. Then, after sifting through their minds for a meaning, they might simply try to break it down.

Fluid denotes that something is malleable and/or flowing — picture water rushing down a stream. It is neither stable nor static, but in constant motion. “Sexual” can be muddy but, in this case, it refers to sexual attraction.

Combining the two words helps construct a definition: sexual fluidity simply means that an individual’s sexual preferences evolve, in that they might change over time and/or depend on certain situations.

College campuses are a hotspot for young-adult revelations and discovery, which is why it is unsurprising that many researchers and students have a lot to say about sexual fluidity amongst college students.

The Literature

Research stemming back the past few years has discussed sexual fluidity, its rise amongst college students and its impact on the greater population. “Learning to be queer: College women’s sexual fluidity,” an article by Leila Rupp, Verta Taylor and Shaeyla D. Miller featured in the third edition of “Introducing the New Sexuality Studies,” notes that the occurrences of sexual fluidity amongst women on college campuses has skyrocketed.

It also claims that “sexual fluidity is based on academic research” and thus “queer scholarship, coursework on sexuality and gender, and queer campus organizations influence students to embrace fluid desires, behaviors, and identities.”

Thus, with the material college coursework opens access to, students have a greater chance and ability of delving deeper into different perspectives that foster personal growth. The breadth of ideological exposure also allows them to question themselves, including but not limited to their sexual orientation and identity, which allows them to be queer on campus. However, students who do not open themselves up to such courses or other individuals with these resources might be kept in the dark.

The Rise of Sexual Fluidity on College Campuses
Critics who doubt sexual fluidity say that humans don’t change their sexuality, but that cultural repression surrounding natural desires is being lifted (Image via Philia)

“New Sexuality Studies” also features an interview with Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah. Diamond similarly defines sexual fluidity as the capacity for “situation-dependent change in one’s sexual attractions.” She further explains that she thinks the capacity for fluidity might be biologically based but triggered by social factors, meaning those born into cultures with rigid ideas about sexuality might have a lesser chance of discovering their capacity for fluidity.

Both Rupp et al., and Diamond seem to think that sexual fluidity is primarily accessible to those who have interacted with members of other identities and sexual preferences. Doing so, they feel, broadens an individual’s mindset and allows them to consider lifestyles alternative to their own, not only for others but themselves, as well. There are students on college campuses who believe so, too.

What Students Think

Paige Miceli, a senior statistics major and sociology minor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, aligns with Rupp, et al. and Diamond when it comes to what individuals are aware of and open to sexual fluidity.

“I think people who have friends who are sexually fluid or take a class on sexuality are more aware,” she says. Still, exposure alone does not necessarily lead to embrace or experimentation. “It comes down to the type of person they are,” says Miceli.

Sarah DeLena, a student at SUNY Cortland and editing intern for Study Breaks, notes that many students are likely unaware of sexual fluidity, a realization she has had as a bisexual woman.

“There are a lot of stigmas inside and outside of the LGBTQ+ community about bisexuality,” says DeLena. “I think most people assume you can only like one gender all the time, but that’s not true for a huge amount of people.”

Another Loyola student had some thoughts on sexual fluidity. A mechanical engineering major and math minor who asked to remain private, she explained that despite growing up at a “very Catholic private school,” after getting to know a lot of people with different sexual and gender identities, she has managed to move past her initial convictions.

Jean, as I’ll call her, noted that she was never against different sexualities or genders but was instead confused by it. From this, she believes that education is essential to making people more accepting and aware of not only sexual fluidity, but other sexualities, as well.

A Different Perspective

Eric Anderson and Stefan Robinson are sociologists who do not believe sexual fluidity exists.

In their article, “Men’s sexual flexibility,” in “New Sexuality Studies,” they argue that there is a lack of research on the subject that makes it less credible. Referring to a report by Kinnish, Strassberg and Turner (2005), they point out that their research showed fluidity occurred more so for non-heterosexuals and mostly in women, which led Anderson and Robinson to believe that fluidity merely happens when sexual minorities come to terms with their sexuality.

Instead, Anderson and Robinson focus on sexual flexibility in men, arguing men can be flexible in their approach to heterosexuality. They argue that many college students today value the freedom to physically embrace one another to express their fraternal love, something very different from earlier generations. They argue these desires are inherent in nature but were originally repressed due to society’s rigid structures pertaining to masculinity.

They feel sexual flexibility is a form of social change unique to millennials, in which most people from older generations may not veer too far from the culture of their youth, in which sexuality was likely more rigid. Now, decreasing homophobia makes way for a greater range of gendered and sexual behaviors.

What Does Sexual Fluidity Matter?

DeLena, Miceli and Jean all mentioned the importance of education in making others more accepting.

“People tend to lash out at things they do not understand … If we implement more education into peoples’ lives, they’d understand it and most would be more accepting,” says Jean.

Ellyot Chen, Study Breaks writer and English major at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California, thinks that changes will show in society once the media represents more LGBTQ+ members. She believes including more representation will help people grow accustomed to seeing those of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

Miceli also believes that the media as of late has helped make individuals more open to labeling themselves as other than heterosexual. However, she believes that transgenders have a hard time finding acceptance and that there is still a lot of violence that occurs toward them.

The Rise of Sexual Fluidity on College Campuses
Sexual fluidity in media, such as The Skins’ lead singer Bayli, helps normalize the idea (Image via Galore)

The Role of the Media

Because the media and popular culture have such a strong impact on personal opinions and defining what is “normal,” Miceli believes that there should be more conversations about sexual fluidity to educate others, which will in turn encourage more people to be accepting.

Popular culture plays a large role in making certain subjects less taboo. Films and televisions shows are noteworthy for pushing the envelope and opening audiences to less prominent subjects. An example of this is “The Apartment” (1960) starring Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray. The film centers on a man (Lemmon) who allows his company’s bosses to use his apartment for extramarital affairs as he falls for an elevator operator (MacLaine) having an affair with his boss (MacMurray).

Unlike most earlier films, the picture heavily focuses on the topic of adultery and sex, with frequent scenes of heavy kissing amongst extras or provocative dancing. Following the release of this film, many more mainstream movies began to portray sex far more candidly.

Another example is “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) starring Jon Vought and Dustin Hoffman. The film follows a man (Voight) who leaves Texas for New York City to become a prostitute. It was the only X-rated film ever to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. “Midnight Cowboy” bluntly portrayed sex and likely urged filmmakers to do so more often.

The film also depicts homosexuality, as well as references the main characters possible latent homosexuality. The fact that “Cowboy” and “The Apartment” went on to win Academy Awards for best picture shows that it set the bar for what could and could not be shown in movies, as well as what was “allowed.”

Much like how sex became strikingly less taboo as years passed, recent movies have demonstrated how times are changing, as well. The recent “Love, Simon” (2018), and Academy Award-winners such as “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “The Danish Girl” (2015), and “Moonlight” (2016), all portray characters with different sexual orientations or gender identities that stray from societal norms.

Television shows have done the same for some time, too, such as with cable programs like “Will & Grace,” “Roseanne,” “Modern Family” and “The Fosters,” and premium shows like Showtime’s “Shameless” or HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Including representation is essential to helping people learn about and open up to differing perspectives and lifestyles.

While these shows — and likely other shows to come — will continue to portray and promote change, only time will tell if society and culture will, too.

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