3 min

Something strange is going on with straight women

A Canadian researcher says female heterosexuality isn’t as simple as it looks

A new study finds straight women may actually be divided into two groups: entirely straight and mostly straight. Credit: Niko Bell

Most women may be straight but not all of them, it turns out, are narrow. A new study from a Canadian psychologist shows that in terms of sexual arousal, there are actually two very different groups of straight women. And what arouses them might not be what you would expect.

Queen’s University sexual psychologist Meredith Chivers has been trying to parse female sexual arousal for over a decade. She uses a device called a plethysmograph to measure blood flow in the vagina, signalling sexual arousal, while her subjects watch clips of gay, lesbian and straight sex.

In her PhD thesis research, she came to the surprising conclusion that straight women are just as aroused by watching women as watching men. She later showed gay women are more aroused by watching women than men, but straight women’s ambiguous reactions remained a mystery.

Her results were so counterintuitive that many journalists mistakenly assumed she was suggesting straight women don’t exist (she wasn’t).

Chivers’ new study may finally throw a little light on the mystery of straight women — although it raises more questions than it answers.

In this study she hypothesized that perhaps the reason straight women’s genitals seem indifferent is because straight women are actually divided into two groups: entirely straight women, who would be aroused by men, and mostly-straight women, who would be more ambiguous (and who are muddling up the data). It turns out she was both right and wrong.

When Chivers divided self-identified straight women into two groups, those who said they’re exclusively heterosexual and those who said they’ve had at least a tiny bit of attraction to women, she found they were, in fact, very different — just not how she had expected.

The exclusively straight women still reacted equally strongly to male and female video clips. The mostly-straight women, however, reacted more strongly to female stimuli than to male.

In other words, Chivers’ research has divided women into two basic arousal patterns. On one side are one hundred percent heterosexual, haven’t-kissed-a-girl-and-wouldn’t-like-it straight women, who are equally aroused by watching men and women. On the other side are all other women, from the slightly bi-curious to the inveterately lesbian, who react more strongly to watching women.

There seems to be a “fulcrum” of sexual specificity, Chivers says, that divides off the straightest of women from everyone else.

Chivers was so surprised by her results that she didn’t publish them until she could be sure of what she was seeing. In a new experiment, she tried the same test but with erotic audio stories instead of video clips. The results came back the same: exclusively straight women reacted to both stories, while mostly-straight women reacted more to stories about women.

“I think up to this point people thought it was pretty intuitive,” Chivers says. “You’d only get turned on by the same things you were sexually into. But now we see that it’s much more complex than that.”

It’s worth pointing out that just because mostly-straight women’s genitals are more aroused by watching women, they are not necessarily really bisexual or gay. Chivers has shown in the right circumstances most women can be aroused by videos of sexual assault, or by monkeys having sex. It would be ridiculous and offensive, she points out, to suggest women are “really” attracted to sexual assault or monkeys.

What it does show is a confusing divide between how straight women describe themselves sexually (who they find attractive), and what excites their vaginas.

“I think an idea of sexual orientation based on the idea that there needs to be strong congruence between sexual attraction, response and identity doesn’t work very well for women,” she says.

Chivers has a heaping handful of theories that could explain the mysterious sexual responses of straight women.

Could the sexualization of women in popular culture be somehow reinforcing arousal responses to women in women’s brains?

Could there be some hidden hormonal or developmental factor that, independent of gender and sexual orientation, triggers monosexuality and bisexuality?

Could mostly-straight women be latent bisexuals, just waiting for the tides of sexual fluidity to kick in?

Are straight women aroused by women in video clips not because they are attracted to them but because they identify with them?

Chivers’ next step, she says, is to look for the answer to all these questions. Her next study will use eye-tracking sensors to watch what women pay attention to while watching videos of sex.

 “Where I really want to go,” she says, “is I really want to understand what’s going on with heterosexual women.”