Sexual identity construction among lesbian, bisexual and unlabeled women

Kelly Brooks, University of Rhode Island


Current research and theory regarding women's experience of sexuality depict more flexibility and variability in sexual identity development and self-labeling than generally accounted for in traditional sexual identity models. The present study examined lesbian and bisexual women's use of sexual identity labels, attitudes about sexual fluidity and self-labeling, and patterns associated with sexual identity processes. ^ Two hundred nineteen women with same-sex attractions or experiences participated in the study, completing an anonymous online survey. The majority of participants (85.4%) identified as White, with ages ranging from 18 to 69. One hundred eighteen women identified as lesbian, 59 as bisexual, 5 as heterosexual, and 34 chose not to label their sexual orientation (termed "unlabeled women"). In addition to choosing one traditional category designation, participants rated the frequency and context of their use of 10 sexual identity labels (e.g., lesbian, dyke, queer). They then completed measures of sexual attractions and behaviors, importance of sexual group identity, beliefs about sexual orientation, and identity history and change. Finally, participants were asked to react to a news story about fluidity of sexual identity and hesitance to use sexual identity labels among young women. ^ Overall, participants reported using a wider range of labels when thinking about themselves than when talking to others, and unlabeled women used a wider range of labels with themselves than did self-identified lesbians or bisexual women. Comparisons between self-identified lesbian, bisexual, and unlabeled women's experiences of sexual identity and fluidity yielded numerous differences. Lesbians had a more exclusive sexual and emotional orientation to women, a stronger sexual group identity, more essentialist sexual orientation beliefs, and less focus on the person (not the gender) than bisexual or unlabeled women. Unlabeled women reported greater future likelihood of sexual identity change than lesbians or bisexual women. Analysis of the open-ended items revealed that participants supported young women's explorations of sexuality on their own terms, but also felt a hesitancy to abandon sexual identity labels because of their utility in catalyzing collective identity and combating heterosexism. Results are discussed in relation to a social constructionist framework for sexual identity. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Social|Women's Studies|Psychology, Developmental

Recommended Citation

Kelly Brooks, "Sexual identity construction among lesbian, bisexual and unlabeled women" (2006). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3225313.