Bisexuality among women isn't just a phase, according to new research that followed 79 non-heterosexual women for a decade and found that bisexual women continue to be attracted to both sexes over time.
Being bisexual is a distinct orientation, not a temporary stage, says the study by Lisa Diamond, an associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah. It is being published next week in the January issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
Diamond conducted face-to-face interviews around New York state in 1995, when the women (who identified themselves as lesbian, bisexual or unlabeled, but not heterosexual) were ages 18-25. She then spoke with them by phone every two years.
"These findings are therefore more consistent with the model of bisexuality as a stable identity than a transitional stage," the study says.
Diamond suggests that most women "possess the capacity to experience sexual desires for both sexes, under the right circumstances."
She found that bisexual women were more likely than lesbians to switch between describing themselves as bisexual and unlabeled, rather than to identify as lesbian or heterosexual.
"If it was a phase, it should have burnt out," Diamond says. "They might have a change in identity and relationships, but that pattern of non-exclusive desire is still there, even among those who have married. It debunks the notion of it being a phase."
Sociologist Paula Rust of East Brunswick, N.J., has conducted quantitative research on bisexuality and says Diamond's study is important as the only long-term look at women's bisexuality to date.
"What she's doing is an in-depth study of people's lives," Rust says of the 79 women who participated. "For qualitative research, that's a pretty good number."
Other limitations noted in the study include a reliance on a small, exclusively female and disproportionately white and middle-class sample.
New attention has focused on young women today and their interest in experimenting with their own sexual identity, which Rust says is because the young are more open about sexuality and are more tolerant.
"I think young women are feeling a little bit freer," Rust says. "If they have anything other than purely heterosexual feelings, they are more free to think about it … and question their identity."
Diamond says heterosexual women may "experiment with same-sex desires and behaviors, but if they really are predominantly heterosexual, they may enjoy experimentation but may not change their sexuality."
The study also debunks the stereotype that bisexual women aren't able to commit to monogamous relationships because they're always thinking about desire for the other gender.
Denise Penn, a clinical social worker who serves on the board of the American Institute of Bisexuality, based in San Diego, says there hasn't been enough research on these questions:
"Women's sexuality in general has taken a back seat in terms of research overall."