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Article • Sexual Orientation: Imperfect Indicator of Sexual Experiences and Practices

9 January 2018
Laurence Dion | M.A. sexologie (c.) ; Marie-Aude Boislard | Ph. D

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☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Audrey Morabito and Zoe Yarymowich


The sexuality of women who have sex with women (WSW) is poorly documented. The few studies that have focused on the sexuality of WSW note that they begin their sexual lives earlier and report a higher number of sexual partners than their heterosexual counterparts (Goodenow et al., 2008; Ybarra et al., 2016). These behaviours are also being directly linked to increased exposure to sexually transmissible and blood-borne infections (STBBIs) (Goodenow et al., 2008; Ybarra et al., 2016). However, since sexual health education conveys a phallocentric image of STBBIs, the sex lives of WSW are falsely presented as being without risk. Sexual health educators need to remain critical of their constructs of non-heterosexual sexuality. This article aims to provide a critical look at current knowledge concerning non-coital sexual practices to shed light on the issues of the sexuality of WSW.

Although there is abundant research on what constitutes (and does not constitute) a sexual act, little research examines the differences that exist in the conceptualization of sexual relationships depending on sexual orientation and gender (Barnett et al., 2017; Byers et al., 2009; Cohen & Byers, 2014; Diamond, 2015; Diorio, 2016; Horowitz & Bedford, 2017; Horowitz & Spicer, 2013; Preciado & Peplau, 2012). Studies are often cis-heterocentric, establishing phallo-vaginal penetration as the sole marker of the transition to active sexuality, and leaving little room for sexual diversity beyond homosexuality and bisexuality. However, even when studies recruit non-exclusively heterosexual participants, they tend to situate them in fixed sexual orientation and gender categories that falsely assume that a single definition exists for each of these orientations.

This lack of nuance constitutes an important limitation in the current state of knowledge, thereby concealing the sexual experiences of people who self-identify within the same sexual orientation.

Diorio (2016) investigated the sources of the widely accepted presumption that phallo-vaginal intercourse constitutes a paradigmatic sexual act, as well as the implications of such a presumption on the health of adolescents during their sexual development. According to this study, the discourses held in medical and social circles establish and maintain this dichotomy of sexual practices, with coital acts on one end and non-coital acts on the other, which are often considered preliminaries to penetration. Thanks to this review, Diorio (2016) showed that these discourses are reinforced by health professionals and those working with adolescents. For their part, the studies evaluating the perception of certain sexual acts and their classification as sexual or not, or preserving virginity or not, are often based on exclusively heterosexual participants. Such was the case in a study on “the university population” in which less than 3% self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer (Byers et al., 2009). Similarly, according to this study, the only behaviours classified as overtly sexual were phallo-vaginal and phallo-anal penetration, demonstrating the idea that coitus is central to the conception of what constitutes the true act of sex. Thus, writings on sexuality are tinged with hetero- and androcentric biases and are generally based on the traditional male-female couple model (Diorio, 2016). The concept of virginity is still widely used, both in scientific literature and in popular language.

However, for many, the idea that virginity is only lost during coitus and that true sexual activity begins with it makes several forms of sexuality, including that of WSW, invisible.

Sexual Act or Not?

In a recent study asking participants to classify acts as chaste, sexual acts that maintain virginity or sexual acts resulting in the loss of virginity, the male participants associated a greater variety of acts with chastity than their female counterparts – for example, masturbation during phone sex or virtual sex (camming or sexting) during which the other partner reaches orgasm (Barnett et al., 2017). Similar studies have shown that, for example, manual and oral stimulation of the genitals is more often considered a sexual act in its own right by WSW than by their male and/or heterosexual counterparts, who tend to consider these acts as preliminary to coitus or as maintaining virginity (Cohen and Byers, 2014; Horowitz and Bedford, 2017; Horowitz and Spicer, 2013). Finally, a study of women who have sex with men and women and which aimed to establish what is considered a sexual act depending on the gender of the partner showed that a larger proportion (compared to similar studies with heterosexual women) indicated that they considered fellatio a sexual act in its own right (Schick et al., 2016). It is also noted in this same study that the diversity of the responses of the participants is in line with the results of other studies which aimed to establish a link between sexual orientation and definitions of what is considered a sexual act. The cis-heterocentrism that assumes any non-coital act is only preliminary contributes to heterosexual people’s generally narrower views of what a sexual act is. Belonging to a minority sexual group, therefore, seems to play a central role in the markers that determine sexual acts, and these studies thus affirm that among WSW, a greater variety of sexual acts are considered in their definition of what sex is, compared to the data collected from heterosexual women and men.

Virginity and Heterocentrism

Much of the research on sexual behaviour focuses on gay, lesbian and bisexual participants' sexual orientation as an inclusion or exclusion criteria, which can lead to the assumption that all the respondents to a study who identify with the same orientation form a homogeneous group when this is not the case. Keeping this limitation in mind, however, interviews with non-heterosexual adolescents reveal that they do not think of their sexual activity as losing virginity but rather in terms of “first times”, an important distinction as it affects the formulation of research questions and the quality of the responses given (Averett et al., 2014). In this same study, the loss of virginity remained the central theme, even when the participants expressed that the concept did not apply to them and that they did not think in terms of maintaining or losing virginity. Similar differences in the conception of virginity emerged in focus groups conducted with 76 Singaporean women who identified as lesbian or heterosexual in equal proportions (Ho and Sim, 2014). All of the participants considered that phallo-vaginal coitus led to the loss of virginity. However, some lesbian participants mentioned not subscribing to the more popular definition of virginity (understood in this study as the tearing of the hymen) when discussing the definition of the concept.

In addition, in a qualitative study of virginity scripts with 61 adults aged 18-35, Carpenter (2001) observed that respondents’ age appeared to have an effect on their beliefs about the possibility of “losing their virginity” for non-heterosexual people. Younger respondents, potentially more open to sexual diversity (Blais et al., 2009), were more in agreement than their older counterparts that homosexual people can also “lose their virginity” when this concept is understood as the transition to active sexuality and not exclusively as the first coitus. Non-heterosexual people were also more inclined than their heterosexual counterparts to believe that oral and anal sex also leads to the loss of virginity, thus broadening the definition to non-coital and non-heterosexual contexts. A new study examining the definitions of what constitutes a sexual act among non-heterosexual people mentions that among WSW, no consensus had been reached on the meaning of engaging in a sexual relationship (Sewell et al., 2017). This lack of consensus demonstrates the diversity of conceptions of the act of sex in the populations studied.

This shows the importance of the variety of methods and ideological backgrounds of researchers, who must be aware of the diversity among their target population if the purpose of the research is to report facts on their behalf.

Focusing on behaviour rather than on sexual orientation could better account for the range of experiences of non-heterosexual people, notwithstanding their self-identification.

These studies show that there are differences in the conceptualization of virginity and the act of sex, which depends on sexual orientation, gender and the age of respondents. Non-heterosexual women and young people are generally more flexible and open about what represents a sexual act, in the sense that traditional gender relations seem to be increasingly discussed and deconstructed (Blais et al., 2009; Carpenter, 2001; Ho and Sim, 2014). As a result, sexuality that is fluid, non-traditional, or that does not have phallo-vaginal penetration as its main objective seems more globally accepted. It is therefore possible to presume that fewer non-heterosexual young people feel obligated to first acquire a heterosexual relational experience, at least in Western contexts demonstrating an advancement of the rights of sexual minorities, reflecting changes at the social level concerning the acceptance of non-heterosexuality (Lévy and Ricard, 2013).

This heterosexual detour is possibly less common today for young people in whom non-heterosexuality is clear from their first romantic and sexual attractions, hence the importance of not assuming a false homogeneity in the face of a range of sexual practices from the beginning of active sexuality.

Sexual Experiences, Sexual Orientation

What stands out from these studies is that not all women have necessarily experienced phallo-vaginal coitus, but that does not mean that they are not sexually active. In a chapter on the mental and sexual health of American lesbian women (mean age 40), the majority of respondents reported having had only or mostly experiences with other women since the age of 18 years old (Matthews et al., 2006), which nevertheless shows a variety of sexual experiences. Sexual orientation alone would have led us to believe that all these women have only had sexual experiences with other women, whereas this study demonstrates well that diversity can exist even within the same group that self-identifies in the same way.

A person’s sexual experience is not always congruent with self-identification, particularly among women (Diamond, 2015).

It is possible for heterosexual women to engage in non-coital acts and to consider themselves sexually active afterwards (Diamond, 2016).

Some studies have also reported identity changes in 40 to 70% of women, demonstrating that self-identification with one category (e.g. lesbian) can not be used as the sole determinant of sexual experience, since these labels are subject to change over time (Diamond, 2016). Once the social pressures and the fact that sexuality is a fluid concept that continues to evolve over a sexual life are considered, it becomes more difficult to assume that sexual orientation reflects lived experience or predicts sexual trajectory. According to Chandra and colleagues (2013), sexual attraction and identity are correlated with reported sexual behaviours but not in a perfect way. However, these data are not always studied when respondents are categorized by reported sexual orientation. For example, results from a national study in the United States found that although almost one in five women between the ages of 18 and 44 are attracted to other women, only 7.7% self-identify as lesbian or bisexual (Copen et al., 2016)

Thus the presumption that any lesbian or WSW women has only had sexual relations with women would be a logical shift with potentially serious sexual health consequences. The correlation between sexual identity and sexual history has been seldom studied up until now; it is therefore important not to presuppose an individual’s sexual experience based solely on reported sexual orientation. In any intervention context, it is imperative to review and update our knowledge of the early sexual acitivities undertaken by non-heterosexual youths, and especially among WSW, at the risk of failing to assess certain risks to which individuals in this population may be exposed, but which may be erased by labels we consider homogenous.

In light of the state of knowledge, what about the specificities of WSW’s sexuality, which are rarely the subject of in-depth studies or studies outside the heterocentric definition of virginity? To our knowledge, no research has yet focused on the first sexual experiences of WSW and what they consider to be the defining activities that mark their entry into active sexuality. Although sexology research does not yet provide a clear answer to this question, this article recalls the importance of developing a critical view of the presumptions arising from an often limited conception of what does (or does not) constitute a sexual act. Thus, it is important not to assume how important an intimate or sexual act may be to a person - whether they are belong to a sexual minority or not - and to question our biases to avoid reproducing cis-heterocentric interventions that suggest that active sexuality and its risks are limited to phallo-vaginal activities.

It may be worth spending time making sure that the answers we receive when the time comes to assess the needs of our clientele really mean what we believe, since there may be a divide between our definitions and theirs.


To cite this article

Dion, L. and Boislard, M.-A. (2018, January 9). Sexual Orientation: Imperfect Indicator of Sexual Experiences and Practices. Les 3 sex*. https://les3sex.com/en/news/13/chronique-l-orientation-sexuelle-indicateur-imparfait-de-vecu-et-de-pratiques-sexuelles

women, sexual identity, sexual orientation, virginity, sexual act, heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, sexual relation, sexual diversity, sexual history, sexual experience


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