Sexual Fluidity and <i>Orange Is the New Black</i>

It's a lot easier to believe that people are either gay, straight, or bisexual (and many are!) -- but there's another explanation for it: sexual fluidity.
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In the first episode of Netflix's new cult fave series, Orange is the New Black, Piper tells her fiancé Larry that she used to be a lesbian, but she isn't anymore. Her fiancé is happy to believe her, but I could also feel the collective cringe of lesbians watching the show. It's threatening for lesbians to see women go back to men -- or become "hasbians," as if being gay or straight is not intrinsic to a person.

It's a lot easier to believe that people are either gay, straight, or bisexual (and many are!) -- but there's another explanation for it: sexual fluidity. In Dr. Lisa Diamond's book of the same name, Diamond shares research that shows that women often experience one or more shifts during their lives, identifying first as straight and then later as gay, or first as gay and then later straight, or bisexual, or some combination thereof. How is that different from being bisexual? The research subjects in the book don't simultaneously feel attracted to men and women. Their attraction is exclusive to men or women, over long periods of time.

Many women, like Meredith Baxter and Cynthia Nixon, have left heterosexual identification behind in midlife to partner with women. In my anthology, Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women, women share their experiences of falling for women mid-stream. They recount being shocked by this change in themselves. With integrity and the best of intentions, they married or partnered with the men in their lives. But then, years later, they noticed a radical shift in their desire. They fell in love with their best friends, or new acquaintances, or colleagues, or online friends.

Like Piper in Orange is the New Black, who identified as straight before she met Alex, they didn't see this coming. They didn't feel bisexual. They don't identify as bisexual now.

Amelia Sauter writes, in "Falling for Leah," "You won't find me rewriting history to say that I was gay all along. I was straight. Now I am gay. I won't insult my past self by saying I was in denial or confused. I am a textbook example of the fluidity of sexuality."

"I was just another person in line for a latte at the neighborhood Starbucks," Erin Mantz writes, "Then I fell in love with a woman. I was shocked and I was immediately absolute. I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life."

Many of the inmates serving time with Piper are "gay for the stay," dealing with their own confinement, sexual needs, and lack of eligible male presence by getting together with other women in the meantime. Morello, who has a male fiancé on the outside, ends her relationship with lesbian Nicky as her release date approaches.

But Piper wasn't incarcerated when she fell in love with Alex, her early-20s girlfriend who is now a fellow inmate.

In episode one, Piper presents that time to her family and Larry as a romp, a period of experimentation, but later on, she admits that her time with Alex was more authentic than that. In episode 8, Piper says, "That wasn't an adventure or a romp. That was my life."

We watchers of Orange is the New Black don't know yet where Piper is going to end up. With Alex, with Larry, with another man or woman? (Keep your spoilers to yourself, ye readers of the book.) But I do know that sexuality is not tidy, to the sometime dismay of straight people and gay people alike. After reading dozens of stories for Dear John, I Love Jane, connecting with more women who found themselves represented for the first time while reading the book, and especially after going through it myself, as I share in my memoir, Licking the Spoon, it's important to be compassionate, and to withhold judgment, whether you're the one suddenly in love with a woman, or you're watching someone you know go through it.