Chocolate/vanilla. Black/white. Either/or. By now we know that life is a lot more nuanced. It’s an infinity of shades of gray. (Also a lot more flavors of ice cream.) Recently, a quiet phenomenon is gathering steam that challenges the either/or notion of sexuality and attraction as well as the theory that sexual orientation—our attraction to boys or girls—is pretty rigidly in place by adolescence.
They call themselves the “latebloomers.” These are women who discover well into middle age and often to their utter surprise, that they are sexually attracted to other women.
In a previous post, I wrote about some studies that examined arousal in men and women. Men, if you recall, are turned on by straight-up heterosexual sex. (Gay men are turned on by scenes of homosexual sex.) And they made no bones about their level of arousal in their self-reports, which were totally consistent with their physiological levels of arousal, as measured by blood flow to their genitals.
Women, on the other hand, were turned on by a wide variety of sexual pairing, including scenes of primates mating, according to those same instruments. But they reported that they were only aroused by heterosexual sex, which was decidedly not what their bodies were saying.
So, that makes me wonder about this groundswell of latebloomers. By and large, they are stable, mature, married women with children who had never before been attracted to women, but who suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves with feelings they had never experienced before.
As you can imagine, this realization is like a land mine in the middle of the kitchen floor, causing tremendous upheaval, both to the woman’s identity and, if acted upon, to all her close relationships. When mamma comes out as a lesbian, it can alienate children, shock extended family, and destroy marriages. (Although interestingly some women manage to continue living with their husbands, albeit in a renegotiated relationship. Others found their husbands remarkably sanguine once they understood that it wasn’t about some shortcoming in themselves.)
Women who’ve made this transition often say it’s like discovering themselves anew. “It’s as if you spoke Chinese and lived in Mexico, then went back to China and could suddenly understand everything,” says Micki Grimland, who left a 24-year marriage after realizing she was gay in an article for More magazine. “Being straight was my second language, and I didn’t realize it until I found my first.”
Science has come a long way from the time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Still, sexual orientation was thought to be partly genetic and fairly hardwired by the time a person completes adolescence.
Yet, maybe things aren’t so black and white. Maybe sexual attraction isn’t so rigidly defined, at least for women. Among women in their 40s who now live with a same-sex partner, 35 percent had been married to a man. Among women in their 50s, that number is over 50 percent; and 75 percent of lesbian women over 60 had once been married.
By contrast, “almost 100 percent” of men were aware of their homosexual tendencies when they got married, according to Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota in the More article. “Many women, though, are unaware of same-sex attraction until they’re much older.” And I've heard some discussion that women, who value deep emotional connections and communication, find that connectedness more readily later in life with women than men.
“The Kinsey scale shows women’s sexuality as very fluid,” says Barb Elgin, a social worker and relationship coach.
There simply isn’t enough scientific data to make any firm statements about female arousal or sexual orientation or about how changeable and fluid it may be over the course of a lifespan. At this point we’re mostly relying on anecdotal evidence. But that may be enough to suggest a cautious and compassionate approach to the issue, especially if you know, as I do, several women who have made this difficult crossing.
Because life just isn’t black or white.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.