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Abstract

The phenomenon of presumably straight girls kissing and making out with other girls at college parties and at bars is everywhere in contemporary popular culture, from Katy Perry's hit song, “I Kissed a Girl,” to a Tyra Banks online poll on attitudes toward girls who kiss girls in bars, to AskMen.com's “Top 10: Chick Kissing Scenes.” Why do girls who aren't lesbians kiss girls?
28
contexts.org
The phenomenon
of presumably
straight girls kissing
and making out with
other girls at college
parties and at bars is
everywhere in
contemporary popular
culture, from Katy Perry’s
hit song, “I Kissed a Girl,”
to a Tyra Banks online poll
on attitudes toward girls
who kiss girls in bars, to
AskMen.com’s “Top 10: Chick
Kissing Scenes.” Why do girls who
aren’t lesbians kiss girls?
by leila j. rupp and verta taylor
girls
29summer 2010 contexts
Contexts, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 28-32. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2010 American Sociological Association.
All rights reserved. For permission to photocopy or reproduce, see http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI:
10.1525/ctx.2010.9.3.28.
Some think it’s just another example of “girls gone wild, seek-
ing to attract the boys who watch. Others, such as psycholo-
g
ist Lisa Diamond, point to womens sexual fluidity,
suggesting that the behavior could be part of how women
shape their sexual identities, even using a heterosexual social
scene as a way to transition to a bisexual or lesbian identity.
These speculations touch on a number of issues in the
sociology of sexuality. The fact that young women on college
campuses are engaging in new kinds of sexual behaviors brings
home the fundamental concept of the social construction of sex-
uality—that whom we desire, what kinds of sexual acts we
e
ngage in, and how we identify sexually is profoundly shaped
by the societies in which we live. Furthermore, boys enjoying
the sight of girls making out recalls the feminist notion of the
“male gaze,” calling attention to the power embodied in men
as viewers and women as the viewed. The sexual fluidity that
is potentially embodied in women’s intimate interactions in
public reminds us that sexuality is gendered and that sexual
desire, sexual behavior, and sexual identity do not always match.
That is, men do not, at least in contemporary American cul-
ture, experience the same kind of fluidity. Although they may
identify as straight and have sex with other men, they certainly
don’t make out at parties for the pleasure of women.
The hookup culture on college campuses, as depicted in
another article in this issue, facilitates casual sexual interac-
tions (ranging from kissing and making out to oral sex and
intercourse) between students who meet at parties or bars.
Our campus is no exception. The University of California, Santa
Barbara, has a long-standing reputation as a party school (much
to the administration’s relief, it’s declining in those rankings).
In a student population of twenty thousand, more than half
of the students are female and slightly under half are students
of color, primarily Chicano/Latino and Asian American. About
a third are first-generation college students. Out of over two
thousand female UC Santa Barbara students who responded
to sociologist Paula Englands online College and Social Life
Survey on hooking-up practices on campus, just under one
percent identified as homosexual, three percent as bisexual,
and nearly two percent as “not sure.”
National data on same-sex sexuality shows that far fewer
people identify as lesbian or gay than are sexually attracted to
the same sex or have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior.
Sociologist Edward Laumann and his colleagues, in the National
Health and Social Life Survey, found that less than two percent
of women identified as lesbian or bisexual, but over eight per-
cent had experienced same-sex desire or engaged in lesbian
sex. The opposite is true for men, who are more likely to have
had sex with a man than to report finding men attractive.
Across time and cultures (and, as sociologist Jane Ward has
pointed out, even in the present among white straight-identi-
fied men), sex with other men, as long as a man plays the
insertive role in a sexual encounter, can bolster, rather than
undermine, heterosexuality. Does the same work for women?
The reigning assumption about girls kissing girls in the
p
arty scene is that they do it to attract the attention of men.
But the concept of sexual fluidity and the lack of fit among
desire, behavior, and identity suggest that there may be more
going on than meets the male gaze. A series of formal and
informal interviews with diverse female college students at our
university, conducted by undergraduates as part of a class
assignment, supports the sociological scholarship on the com-
plexity of women’s sexuality.
the college party scene
What is most distinctive about UC Santa Barbara is the
adjacent community of Isla Vista, a densely populated area
made up of two-thirds students and one-third primarily poor
and working-class Mexican American families. House parties,
fraternity and sorority parties, dance parties (often with, as
one woman student put it, some sort of slutty theme to
them”), and random parties open to anyone who stops by
flourish on the weekends. Women students describe Isla Vista
as unrealistic to the rest of the world It’s a little wild,
“very promiscuous, a lot of experimenting and going crazy,”
and “like a sovereign nation…a space where people feel really
comfortable to let down their guards and to kind of let loose.”
Alcohol flows freely, drugs are available, women sport skimpy
clothing, and students engage in a lot of hooking up. One
sorority member described parties as featuring “a lot of, you
know, sexual dance. And some people, you know, like pretty
much are fucking on the dance floor even though they’re
really not. I feel like they just take it above and beyond.
Another student thinks “women have a little bit more free-
dom here.” But despite the unreality of life in Isla Vista, there’s
no reason to think life here is fundamentally different than on
other large campuses.
At Isla Vista parties, the practice of presumably hetero-
sexual women kissing and making out with other women is
Actresses Scarlett Johansson and Sandra Bullock prepare to
lock lips onstage at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards.
Photo by Vince Bucci/MTV/PictureGroup via AP Images
widespread. As one student reported, “It’s just normal for most
people now, friends make out with each other.” The student
n
ewspaper sex columnist began her column in October 2008,
“I kissed a girl and liked it,” recommending “if you’re a girl
who hasn’t quite warmed up to a little experimentation with
one of your own, then I suggest you grab a gal and get to it.”
She posed the “burning question on every male spectators
mind . . . Is it real or is it for show?” As it turns out, students
offered three different explanations of why students do this: to
get attention from men, to experiment with same-sex activity,
and out of same-sex desire.
getting attention
Girls kissing other girls can be a turn-on for men in our cul-
ture, as the girls who engage in it well know. A student told
us, “It’s usually for display for guys who are usually surround-
ing them and like cheering them on. And it seems to be done
in order to like, you know, for the guys, not like for their own
pleasure or desire, but to like, I don’t know, entertain the guys.”
Alcohol is usually involved: “It’s usually brought on by, I don’t
know, like shots or drinking, or people kind of saying something
to like cheer it on or whatever. And it’s usually done in order
to turn guys on or to seek male attention in some way.” One
student who admits to giving her friend what she calls “love
pecks” and engaging in some “booby grabbing” says “I think
it’s mainly for attention definitely. It’s usually girls that are super
drunk that are trying to get attention from guys or are just
really just having fun like when my roommate and I did it at our
date party… It is alcohol and for show. Not experimentation at
all.” Another student, who has had her friends kiss her, insists
that “they do that for attention… kind of like a circle forms
around them egging them on or taking pictures. One
woman admitted that she puckered up for the attention, but
when asked if it had anything to do with experimentation,
added “maybe with some people. I think for me it was a little
bit, yeah.”
experimentation
Other women agree that experimentation is part of the
story. One student who identifies as straight says “I have kissed
girls on multiple occasions.” One night she and a friend were
“hammered, walking down the street, and we’re getting really
friendly and just started making out and taking pictures,” which
they then posted on Facebook. “And then the last time, this
is a little bit more personal, but was when I actually had a three-
s
ome. Which was at a party and obviously didn’t happen dur-
ing the party.” She mentions “bisexual tendencies as an
explanation, in addition to getting attention: “I would actu-
ally call it maybe more like experimentation.” Another student,
who calls herself straight but “bi-curious,” says girls do it for
attention, but also, “It’s a good time for them, something they
may not have the courage to express themselves otherwise, if
they’re in a room alone, it makes them more comfortable with
it because other people are receiving pleasure from them.”
S
he told us about being drunk at a theme party (“Alice in Fuck-
land”): And me and ‘Maria’ just started going at it in the
kitchen. And this dude, he whispers in my ear, ‘Everyone’s
watching. People can see you.’ But me and ‘Maria’ just like to
kiss. I don’t think it was like really a spectacle thing, like we
weren’t teasing anybody. We just like to make out. So we might
be an exception to the rule,” she giggled.
In another interview, a student described a friend as liking
“boys and girls when she’s drunk But
when she’s sober she’s starting to like
girls.” And another student who called
herself “technically” bisexual explained
that she hates that term because in Isla
Vista “it basically means that you make
out with girls at parties. Before her first
relationship with a woman, she never
thought about bisexuality: “The closest
I ever came to thinking that was, hey, I’d probably make out
with a girl if I was drinking. These stories make clear that exper-
imentation in the heterosexual context of the hookup culture
and college party scene provides a safe space for some women
to explore non-heterosexual possibilities.
same-sex desire
Some women go beyond just liking to make out and admit
to same-sex desire as the motivating factor. One student who
defined her sexuality as liking sex with men but feeling
“attracted more towards girls than guys” described her com-
ing out process as realizing, “I really like girls and I really like
kissing girls.” Said another student, “I’ve always considered
myself straight, but since I’ve been living here I’ve had several
sexual experiences with women. So I guess I would consider
myself, like, bisexual at this point.” She at first identified as
“one of those girls” who makes out at parties, but then admit-
ted that she also had sexual experiences with women in private.
At this point she shifted her identification to bisexual: “I may
have fallen into that trap of like kissing a girl to impress a guy,
but I can’t really recollect doing that on purpose. It was more
of just my own desire to be with, like to try that with a woman.”
Another bisexual woman who sometimes makes out with one
of her girlfriends in public thinks other women might “only do
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The reigning assumption about girls kissing girls
in the party scene is that they do it to attract the
attention of men, but there may be more going
on than meets the male gaze.
it in a public setting because they’re afraid of that side of their
sexuality, because they were told to be heterosexual you
k
now… So if they make out, it’s only for the show of it, even
though they may like it they can’t admit that they do.”
The ability to kiss and make out with girls in public with-
out having to declare a lesbian or bisexual identity makes it
possible for women with same-sex desires to be part of the
regular college party scene, and the act of making out in pub-
lic has the potential to lead to more extensive sexual activity in
private. One student described falling in love with her best
friend in middle school, but being “too chicken shit to make
t
he first move” because “I never know if they are queer or
not.” Her first sexual relationship with a bisexual woman
included the woman’s boyfriend as well. In this way, the fact
that some women have their first same-sex sexual encounter
in a threesome with a man is an extension of the safe hetero-
sexual space for exploring same-sex desire.
heteroflexibility
Obviously, in at least some cases, more is going on here
than drunken women making out for the pleasure of men.
Sexual fluidity is certainly relevant; in Lisa Diamond’s ten-year
study of young women who originally identified as lesbian or
bisexual, she found a great deal of movement in sexual desire,
intimate relationships, and sexual identities. The women moved
in all directions, from lesbian to bisexual and heterosexual,
bisexual to lesbian and heterosexual, and, notably, from all
identities to “unlabeled.” From a psychological perspective,
Diamond argues for the importance of both biology and cul-
ture in shaping women as sexually fluid, with a greater capac-
ity for attractions to both female and male partners than men.
Certainly the women who identify as heterosexual but into
kissing other women fit her notion of sexual fluidity. Said one
straight-identified student, “It’s not like they’re way different
from anyone else. They’re just making out.”
Mostly, though, students didn’t think that making out had
any impact on one’s identity as heterosexual: And yeah, I
imagine a lot of the girls that you know just casually make out
with their girlfriends would consider themselves straight. I con-
sider myself straight.” Said another, “I would still think they’re
straight girls. Unless I saw some, like level of like emotional
and like attraction there.” A bisexual student, though, thought
“they’re definitely bi-curious at the least… I think that a woman
who actually does it for enjoyment and like knows that she
likes that and that she desires it again, I would say would be
more leaning towards bisexual.”
everybody but lesbians
So, although girls who kiss girls are not “different from
anyone else,” if they have an emotional reaction or really enjoy
it or want to do it again, then they’ve apparently crossed the
line of heterosexuality. Diamond found that lesbians in her
study who had been exclusively attracted to and involved with
other women were the only group that didn’t report changes
in their sexual identities. Sociologist Arlene Stein, in her study
of lesbian feminist communities in the 1980s, also painted a pic-
ture of boundary struggles around the identity “lesbian.
Women who developed relationships with men but continued
to identify as lesbians were called “ex-lesbians” or “fakers” by
those who considered themselves “real lesbians.” And while
straight college students today can make out with women and
call themselves “bi-curious” without challenge to their hetero-
sexual identity, the same kind of flexibility does not extend to
lesbians. A straight, bi-curious woman explained that she did-
n’t think “the lesbian community would accept me right off
because I like guys too much, you know.” And she didn’t think
she had “enough sexual experience with the women to be
considered bisexual.” Another student, who described herself
as “a free flowing spirit” and has had multiple relationships
with straight-identified women, rejected the label “lesbian”
because “I like girls but “guys are still totally attractive to
me.” She stated that “to be a lesbian meant… you’d have to
commit yourself to it one hundred percent. Like you’d have to
be in it sexually, you’d have to be in it emotionally. And I think
if you were you wouldn’t have that attraction for men… if you
31summer 2010 contexts
Photo by Marco Gomes via Creative Commons
32
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were a lesbian.”
In contrast to heteroflexibility, a
t
erm much in use by young women, stu-
dents hold a much more rigid, if unarticu-
lated, notion of lesbian identity. “It’s just
like it’s okay because we’re both drunk and
we’re friends. It’s not like we identify as les-
bian in any way….” One woman who has
kissed her roommate is sure that she can tell
the difference between straight women
and lesbians: “I haven’t ever seen like an
a
ctual like lesbian couple enjoying them-
selves.” Another commented, “I mean, it’s
one thing if you are, if you do identify as gay
and that you’re expressing something.” A
bisexual woman is less sure, at first stating
that eighty percent of the making out at
parties is for men, then hesitating because
“that totally excludes the queer commu-
nity and my own viewing of like women who absolutely love
other women, and they show that openly so, I think that it
could be either context.” At that point she changed the per-
centage to fifty percent: Cause I guess I never know if a
woman is like preferably into women or if it’s more of a social
game.” A bisexual woman described kissing her girlfriend at a
party “and some guy came up and poured beer on us and said
something like ‘stop kissing her you bitch,’ suggesting that any
sign that women are kissing for their own pleasure puts them
over the line. She went on to add that “we’ve gotten plenty
of guys staring at us though, when we kiss or whatever, [and]
they think that we’re doing it for them, or we want them to
join or whatever. It gets pretty old.”
So there is a lot of leeway for women’s same-sex behavior
with a straight identity. But it is different than for straight men,
who experience their same-sex interactions in a more private
space, away from the gaze of women. Straight women can be
“barsexual or “bi-curious or “mostly straight,” but too much
physical attraction or emotional investment crosses over the line
of heterosexuality. What this suggests is that heterosexual
women’s options for physical intimacy are expanding, although
such activity has little salience for identity, partner choice, or
political allegiances. But the line between lesbian and non-les-
bian, whether bisexual or straight, remains firmly intact.
recommended resources:
Lisa M. Diamond. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love
and Desire. (Harvard University Press, 2009). A longitudinal study
of women’s shifting sexual behaviors and identities in the contem-
porary United States.
Laura Hamilton. “Trading on Heterosexuality: College Womens
Gender Strategies and Homophobia. Gender & Society (2007), 21:
145-72. Looks at the sexual constructions adopted by college-
aged women.
Arlene Stein. Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation.
(University of California Press, 1997). A sociological study of Amer-
ican lesbian feminist communities in the 1980s.
Elisabeth Morgan Thompson and Eliza-
beth M. Morgan. “’Mostly Straight’ Young
Women: Variations in Sexual Behavior and
Identity Development.” Developmental
Psychology (2008), 44/1:15-21. A psycho-
logical study of U.S. college students’ shift-
ing sexual behaviors and identities.
Jane Ward. “Dude-Sex: White Masculini-
ties and ‘Authentic Heterosexuality
Among Dudes Who Have Sex With
Dudes.” Sexualities (2008), 11:414-434. A sociological study that
complicates the concept of “men who have sex with men.”
Leila J. Rupp is in the feminist studies department and Verta Taylor is in the soci-
ology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rupp is the author of
Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women,
andTaylor is the coauthor (with
Rupp) of
Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret.
Photo by Matthew Blake via Creative Commons
Attention or attraction? Either way, they’ve got an audience.
Straight women can be “barsexual” or “bi-curious”
or “mostly straight,” but too much physical
attraction or emotional investment crosses over
the line of heterosexuality.
... Though qualitative inquiries have examined women's reported motivations for engaging in SSP, we know little about how others perceive these women and the public sexual performances in which they engage (e.g., Yost & McCarthy, 2012). Previous research has indicated that onlookers assume women engaging in SSP to be heterosexual (Lannutti & Denes, 2012;Rupp & Taylor, 2010;Yost & McCarthy, 2012). However, these studies have largely been limited to interviews and focus groups (with some exceptions, e.g., Lannutti & Denes, 2012), and have mostly examined the experiences of heterosexual performers; only rarely has emphasis been placed on observers of SSP. ...
... Most commonly, women attribute their engagement in SSP to a desire for male attention; women also commonly report engaging in SSP as a result of social pressures, alcohol intoxication, and as a means to an end, that end often being access to some resource controlled by men, such as alcohol or entry to party spaces (e.g. Boyer & Galupo, 2015;Brown, 2014;Esterline, 2014;Esterline & Galupo, 2013;Fahs, 2009;Hamilton, 2007;Rupp & Taylor, 2010;Yost & McCarthy, 2012). Previous work has explored this exchange of sexuality for resources drawing upon sexual economics theory (SET; Rudman & Fetterolf, 2014). ...
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... In addition, sexual behavior can be motivated by a variety of reasons aside from desire. For example, research on the phenomenon of "straight girls kissing" at college parties has found that women report a range of motivations for these public displays of behavior, including a desire for male attention, experimentation, fun, and social pressure (Rupp & Taylor, 2010;Yost & McCarthy, 2012). ...
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Bisexual individuals face identity denial and erasure and qualitative analyses suggest that it may be gendered, such that people stereotype bisexual women as truly heterosexual and bisexual men as truly gay. Across three studies (total N = 787), we examined perceptions of bisexual targets’ attraction patterns. Participants rated the attraction of either a female or male bisexual target to both the same gender/sex and opposite gender/sex. An internal meta‐analysis revealed that heterosexual, lesbian, and gay participants all perceived bisexual men as more attracted to men than to women. No such pattern emerged for bisexual women. These differences between the perception of bisexual women and bisexual men were also reflected in the endorsement of an explicit measure of bisexual erasure. Our findings add to the understanding of the unique bias bisexual people face by showing that perceived attraction patterns may underlie the labelling of bisexual men as “actually gay”. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved
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Sexual attraction, behavior and identity are subject to change across the life course for some individuals, and certain developmental periods such as emerging adulthood appear particularly conducive to this. However, the evidence documenting these phenomena comes overwhelmingly from data collected 10–20 years ago. In the brief interlude since, the socio-political context has changed markedly and increasing numbers of women are reporting non-heterosexuality. Drawing on contemporary data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (n = 16,870), we provide up to date evidence on changes in sexual identity labels among emerging adult women. We found that 19% of women changed their sexual identity label from one survey wave to the next, and 30.6% changed their identity label at least once across the four waves. Mostly heterosexual and bisexual labels were both more common and more stable in our sample than in previous studies. We propose a new typology of sexual identity sequences and fit this to our data, providing a blueprint for researchers looking to define sexual minority status longitudinally. Findings suggest that the ways women perceive and label their sexual orientation should be treated as dynamic phenomena situated within the nested temporalities of biographical and historical time.
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Based on examination of an online community in which white `str8'-identified men assert that sex with other white men bolsters their heterosexual masculinity, this article examines the heterosexual and racialized meanings that white str8 dudes attach to their same-sex behaviors. The study points to the role of whiteness in the process of establishing heterosexual `realness', or believable straight culture. Findings indicate that for the white str8 dude, Black male bodies disrupt the staging of normal `male bonding', and occupy a distinctly queerer space `down low'. I argue that in a culture constituted by both a racial and sexual binary, whiteness and heterosexuality are `natural' bedfellows that simultaneously signify the `really, really normal' subject.
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Researchers have begun to explore and identify various gradations in sexual orientation identity, paying attention to alternative sexual identity categories and attempting to clarify potential subtypes of same-sex sexuality, particularly among women. This study utilizes both quantitative and qualitative data to explore the behavioral experiences and identity development processes among women of a particular sexual identity subtype, "mostly straight." Participants were 349 female college students whose primary sexual identities included exclusively straight, mostly straight, bisexual, and lesbian. Results indicated that, on most behavioral variables, mostly straight women fell directly between and were significantly different from exclusively straight and bisexual/lesbian women. Mostly straight women were also distinct from exclusively straight women but were similar to bisexual women and lesbians on several quantitative measures of identity. Narratives about sexual identity development for mostly straight women revealed the complexities of sexual identity exploration, uncertainty, and commitment within this population. As a whole, this study encourages researchers to begin to recognize and examine mostly straight as a distinct sexual identity subtype in young women.
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Rupp is in the feminist studies department and Verta Taylor is in the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara Rupp is the author of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women, and Taylor is the coauthor (with Rupp) of Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret
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Leila J. Rupp is in the feminist studies department and Verta Taylor is in the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rupp is the author of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women, and Taylor is the coauthor (with Rupp) of Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret. Photo by Matthew Blake via Creative Commons Attention or attraction? Either way, they've got an audience.
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  • Arlene Stein
Arlene Stein. Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation. (University of California Press, 1997). A sociological study of American lesbian feminist communities in the 1980s.
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