Research finding sexuality is more shades of grey than black and white

By: Sheri Hall,  College of Human Ecology
Tue, 06/12/2018

Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental health disorder. In the 45 years since then, Americans have grown to understand more about sexuality thanks in part to researchers who have documented the experience of people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual.

Among them is Ritch Savin-Williams, professor emeritus of developmental psychology in the Department of Human Development. Savin-Williams has dedicated his career to advancing the understanding of the sexual development of youth and mental health of non-heterosexual youth. He has written nine books on sexual development. The most recent, “Mostly Straight: Sexual Fluidity Among Men,” explores the concept of a spectrum of sexuality. It was published last fall by Harvard University Press.

“It’s not that people fit into categories like gay, straight or bisexual, but that people fit in different points on a spectrum,” Savin-Williams explained. “That’s what the book is about.”

“Romantic infatuation, love and crushes also play into this concept,” he said. “For most people, the person they want to have sex with is the same gender as the people they fall in love with. But there are other people who want to have sex with one gender and romance with the other. People can be attracted to and fall in love with people of different genders to varying degrees.”

Society tends to be more accepting of the idea that sexuality is fluid for females, Savin-Williams said. That is, we are more willing to believe that a woman can be attracted to both sexes, and that her sexual and romantic preferences may change over time. “I’m trying to show this kind of flexibility is true among men as well,” he said. “Not so long ago, people questioned whether there was such a thing as a bisexual male.”

But opinions are changing. “In the past decade, there has been an amazing increase in the acceptance of non-heterosexual people,” he said. “There is a level of comfort and support across the board regardless of religion, region of the country and education.”

Savin-Williams credits part of the shift in public opinion to social media.

“Mass media helps us to understand that we are not made of the same thing, there are not just straight people and there are not just gay people,” he said. “People who know someone who is not straight are more likely to give that person a break. They think, ‘I love Jane. She’s not straight? I still love her, even though it goes against my religious beliefs.’”

Today, society is grappling with transgender issues as a more difficult and divisive topic, Savin-Williams said.

“As a society, we are having a more difficult time wrapping our heads around gender issues,” he said. “Research helps us to better understand that, for some people, the body and brain are disconnected. Society will eventually come to understand these are real people, and loving caring people. But right now we’re in a tough period.”

Above all, Savin-Williams wants people – and especially young people – to know that it is okay to be attracted to different genders or have gender identities different from their physical features.

“I hope my work shows people they are not alone in this,” he said. “And that it’s okay if you are not in sync with the traditional perspective.”

Ritch sexuality more shades cover