G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.
Meridith Baxter, the character who played the mom in Family Ties, recently came out of the closet as a lesbian, and she’s 62. I wonder if she smells like moth balls.
In an interview Baxter says she was “converted” at the late age of 49. She didn’t have a clue that she was a lesbian until she developed a strong emotional bond with another woman that eventually led to sex. When asked if she had an inkling when she played a lesbian in a TV movie in the early 1990s she said “Not a clue, nothing. Not a clue.”
This got me thinking about why female sexuality seems more fluid than mens, and why there seem to be more incidences of late-age lesbianism rather than late-age male homosexuality. It seems that gay men, even if they lead a hetero lifestyle, have at least some inkling that they were homosexual the whole way through. Some lesbians have an epiphany-like moment later in their lives or they bounce in and out of lesbianism and bisexuality. Baxter says that her realization was a revelation rather than a slow process of acceptance.
The term “erotic plasticity” has come to define this phenomenon. Roy Baumeister defines erotic plasticity as the degree to which a person’s sexuality can be shaped and altered by cultural, social, or situational pressures. Baumeister argued that women’s sexuality is more malleable than men’s by offering three testable hypotheses. First, women’s sexuality is more prone to change over their lifetime than men’s. Second, cultural and social changes tend to impact women to a greater degree than men. Education, a great shift in socialization of young people, is a major catalyst for female sexual change; a college-educated woman is 9 times as likely to identify as gay or bisexual while men are only twice as likely to do so. Also the sexual revolution impacted female sexual behavior much more than that of men. Third, women’s attitudes towards sex in general, infidelity, same-sex relationships, and condom use are more contingent on certain situational factors whereas men have black and white judgements on the issues.
Donald Symons, godfather of evolutionary psychology, wrote in The Evolution of Human Sexuality that “female sexuality seems to be generally less rigidly channeled than male sexuality.” There are instance where men engage in more homosexual behavior than they would given other social circumstances i.e. prison, but given equal shifts in culture and social setting, it is unlikely that men will be compelled to “transform” into homosexuals without some underlying attraction already built in. Men rarely have an “A Ha” moment at later stages in life.
Another cultural catalyst to the phenomenon of late-age lesbianism could be the low sex ratio of 40+ year olds. Men have higher mortality rates than women at all ages; by the time they’ve reached their forties, enough men have kicked the bucket to leave a surplus of women of the same age. Also, since men tend to marry younger women, there are even fewer opportunities for older singles to form relationships as the men a few years older than these women are even fewer in number than men of the woman’s same age.
Female financial freedom and low sex ratio provide further catalyst to female sexuality. According to UCLA social psychologist Anne Peplau, in China during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, silk-weaving factories led to financial independence for women who resided in cooperative housing. The sacrifices a woman had to make to marry led many women to remain single. The groupification of these women sparked widespread homosexual relationships.
“Boston marriages” sprouted in New England in the 19th century. Although not always lesbian in nature, Boston marriages were same-sex relationships between financially independent women. These relationships could have been platonic – as in two spinsters residing in the same domicile – or they could have been sexual. Peplau cited evidence that these situations often led to homosexual relations. Again, late 19th century New England was very low sex ratio. In the aftermath of the Civil War, increased female employment due to the Industrial Revolution, and Manifest Destiny’s impact on male out-migration to the West left a high ratio of women to men.
From Prescription for Failure, Byron Mitchell Roth points to Guttentag and Secord’s argument that low sex ratios altered the traditional New England woman:
“Guttentag and Secord think the feminist movement gained strength in nineteenth-century New England because of the low sex ratio created by the men who traveled West in search of better circumstances.”
While greater male confinement may lead to higher incidences of male homosexuality and/or sexuality drift over the course of a man’s life, these arguments predict that the tendency won’t be as strong in men as in women. This is backed up by anecdotal evidence in which we rarely see men have their first homosexual relationship at the age of 49. Also, we never hear of men getting fed up with women to the point of turning to male relations. If a man can’t find a good woman, he’s more likely to seek out prostitution, porn, career improvement, or rifles.
So what are the reasons that women have greater plasticity than men? Baumeister believes it stems from men’s stronger sex drive. If the sex drive is higher this would imply that it is more fixed and stronger. Individuals with lower sex drives i.e. women would have less concrete attitudes and less consistent behaviors towards sex. Baumeister points out that plasticity may not be relegated to the sexual realm. Women have low levels of plasticity when it comes to child nurturing. Its in their nature to have strong reactions and behaviors toward rearing children. Their stronger urge is associated with less flexibility and plasticity in that realm.
Baumeister argued that greater erotic plasticity in women has implications:
“…sexual self-knowledge and self-understanding will prove far more elusive for women than for men. High erotic plasticity implies that the sexual self is a moving target.”
This implication could be at the heart of the reason for the increase in the happiness gap between men and women in the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution. Women, faced with more of an inclination towards malleable sexuality, poorer self-knowledge, and a paradox of sexual choice were left confused and wanting. The sexual revolution tried to tell women that they could be like men in their sexual behavior, but their different natures don’t allow for the smooth transition.
Higher erotic plasticity is associated with women. Their weaker sex drives may cause their views, desires, attitudes, and behaviors towards sex to be more culturally attenuated than men’s. This plasticity manifests itself in situations where men are less needed and where homosexuality is more accepted. Other underlying cultural factors such as a low sex ratio may also increase plasticity. This plasticity in women has implications that can confuse women trying to fit their sexual attitudes and behaviors into the same box as men’s. It could also be the cause of much sexual dissatisfaction among women today. Higher female plasticity gives more reason to delineate the differences between male and female sexuality.
Addendum: Is it also possible that greater incidence of late-age homosexuality in women has evolutionary roots? It would be interesting to conduct research on the homosexual desires of women who reach menopause. Perhaps after become unable to bare children (and evolutionarily obsolete) women take on a different role that includes more intimate relationships with other women. I’m not steeped enough in evolutionary knowledge to know whether this could be a naturally selected trait.