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Notions Of Sexuality Can Change After Reading Theories of Its Non‑Rigidity: Study

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Aug 23, 2021

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An Australian study found that people’s reported sexual orientation can change after reading more information about it, giving further weight to the idea that sexuality exists on a spectrum and is not as rigid as was once believed. 

In the study, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of Sydney showed participants one of two information articles. In one, the article stated that sexuality is a continuum in which there are several “gradations” of attraction to men or women (referred to hereafter as ‘continuous’ theory). In another, the article suggested that sexuality is fluid and can change over time (referred to hereafter as ‘fluid theory’).

While it has been acknowledged that the rise in non-exclusive heterosexuality can be attributed to greater acceptance of same-sexuality, the question that researchers sought to answer was this: “could it also be the case that exposure to continuous or fluid theories of sexual orientation—might provide some heterosexuals a framework to acknowledge and embrace their occasional same-sex attractions for the first time?”

In the study, one group of 160 participants was shown the continuous theory only, and another group of 460 was shown both. All participants self-reported as ‘straight’ before the study — after, however, many shifted their reported orientation to ‘non-exclusive heterosexual’, defined in the study as “mostly attracted to the opposite sex but with some small degree of same-sex attraction.” 

In the first group, everyone was less certain of their own orientation after exposure to the continuous theory and was more willing to engage in future same-sex experiences than the control group. Additionally, progressives and moderates (but not conservatives) reported being less exclusive to heterosexuality. 

In the second group, participants were five times more likely than the control group to consider themselves non-exclusively heterosexual. More specifically, 36% of those who read the continuous theory reported non-exclusive heterosexuality after the study, as did 21% of those who read the fluid theory — irrespective of gender and political orientation. 

Depending on which information article they had been given (continuous versus fluid understandings of sexuality), participants with “identical sexual orientations” were likely to describe them very differently, researchers noted. 


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“Our findings suggest that non-exclusive heterosexual orientations might become more prevalent as continuous and fluid notions of sexuality become more culturally mainstream and provide currently-identified heterosexuals with more nuanced ways of describing themselves,” the study concludes. 

The study is significant because it could spell more tolerance. “A body of research indicates that people’s beliefs about sexual orientation are predictive of their attitudes toward sexual minorities,” the study notes. The idea of sexual orientation being a non-discrete continuum could mean less prejudice against people since they are less likely to be viewed as fundamentally different. 

More importantly, however, the study notes that while much attention has been paid to beliefs about sexual orientation affecting prejudice, little has been studied about the effects of the same on one’s own sexual orientation. “How we come to understand and label our sexuality is at least partially circumscribed by the concepts and language available to us,” the paper suggests. With many not having had the vocabulary and concepts available before, the study offers insights into how many more people perhaps identify as non-exclusive in their heterosexuality than was previously estimated. 

“This is not that surprising given that ‘non-exclusive heterosexuals’ (as opposed to bisexual, gay or lesbian individuals), although being the biggest same-sex attracted group, are not well captured in our society’s representations and even vernacular,” said Ilan Dar-Nimrod, senior author of the study. 

“Given the social value that our society attach[es] to these labels… such a shift may have far-reaching implications,” he added. 

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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