Chris Rock once joked that men are only as faithful as their options, and new research suggests that women may only be as heterosexual as their options—with more attractive women more likely to identify as 100 percent hetero, and less attractive women more open to other sexual identities. Of course, the implied causality here is not at all what it may seem on the surface, so let’s take a closer look.

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Elizabeth McClintock, an assistant sociology prof at the University of Notre Dame, examined data taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that followed thousands of teenagers beginning in 1994, then checked back in at various intervals. McClintock looked at data on about 5,000 men and women in the study at age intervals of 16, 22, and 28, examining their self-reported sexual identity, which included:

  • 100 percent heterosexual
  • mostly heterosexual
  • bisexual
  • mostly homosexual
  • 100 percent homosexual

Participants had also been asked if they had ever been attracted to someone of the same sex or if they’d ever had a sexual encounter with the same sex. According to the study release, McClintock found that men were more likely in general to report 100 percent compliance with either heterosexuality or homosexuality, while women were more likely to report being bisexual. Women had triple the likelihood of changing their sexual identity between age 22 and 28, during the third and fourth wave of the study.

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“Women have a greater probability than men of being attracted to both men and women, which gives them greater flexibility in partner choice,” McClintock says in the press release. “Having flexible sexual attractions may grant greater importance to contextual and experiential factors when it comes to sexual identity.”

Here is where it gets interesting. The women in the study who were rated physically attractive, were well-educated, and who hadn’t been young mothers were more likely to identify as 100 percent hetero. For men, physical attractiveness had “no clear association with sexual identity,” and it was less education and younger fatherhood status that lined up with 100 percent heterosexual identity.

McClintock speculates that good-looking women with more education who could go either way, attraction-wise, are basically more likely to have better romantic options with men and therefore may never need or be compelled to experiment elsewhere. From the release:

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“Women with some degree of attraction to both males and females might be drawn into heterosexuality if they have favorable options in the heterosexual partner market,” McClintock said. “Women who are initially successful in partnering with men, as is more traditionally expected, may never explore their attraction to other women. However, women with the same sexual attractions, but less favorable heterosexual options might have greater opportunity to experiment with same-sex partners. Women who act on same-sex attraction are more likely to incorporate same-sex sexuality into their sexual identities.”

Reading this, it would be easy to conclude that this chalks up sexual orientation to a kind of supply-and-demand logic—the “when in Rome” of your particular sexual options. (This certainly can be true when you’re still sorting out your sexual orientation—you date as you are “supposed to” until you figure out otherwise.) Or alternately, that it inadvertently backs up the long-held and highly discriminatory stereotype that bi or lesbian women are bi or lesbian because they have been first rejected by male suitors, you know, that they are are fat, ugly, and can’t get a man.

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Tia Ghose at LiveScience clarifies this directly with McClintock:

“I do not claim that women become lesbians because they are not attractive enough to get men,” McClintock told Live Science in an email. “One could just as easily imply that some women never have the opportunity to partner with women because they are caught up in the pressure of hetero-normativity,” or the pressure to adhere to straight norms.

Rather, the study suggests that women who are rated as less attractive may feel less pressure from straight norms and so are free to explore same-sex attractions.

Still, this way of phrasing it places the attractiveness first—as if to suggest that being told you aren’t hot your whole life is why you become a lesbian, because being ugly has freed you from the pressure to snag a man.

A better way to put that would be this: Women who are lesbians may feel less pressure to look hetero feminine, and as a result, be rated less attractive in a culture that values male ideas of female attractiveness to a flatly insane degree.

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Huge difference. The latter puts the onus on the culture and its arbitrary values for prettiness, rather than the woman, maybe a non-straight woman, who literally gives less of a heterosexual fuck. People who reject traditional (which is to say “straight”) norms in appearance and behavior probably won’t be considered “hot” by other straight people regardless of sexual orientation. That was true for me, anyway, for much of my life: heterosexual but weirdly uncomfortable with a certain kind of male attention, which I disguised by dressing down, wearing dudes’ clothes, covering up. I was called a lesbian about a bajillion times because of it.

No one is shocked to find out that it’s a straight world. Most of us grow up in cultures and environments that assume our sexual orientation will be hetero. As a result, we’re consciously or otherwise routed to these identities and the correlating self-expression. As girls we are taught how to do femininity even if we resist. And this can be tied up in an emerging sense of sexual preference, which for some people is obvious at age 5, and for others, not until 50.

In other words, it makes a lot of sense that women who know they are attracted to other women feel less pressure to dress in a way that attracts men, since, why would they give a fuck about attracting men? And in turn, to then be rated as less attractive or “ugly” by the very people whose heads they aren’t trying to turn—and then to keep going about their business. Again, even hetero women who don’t lacquer up are criticized by men for not performing to standard. Attractiveness as rated by men is often synonymous for fuckability, regardless of who the woman actually wants to fuck.

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And Ghose gets at this when she notes that “it’s also possible that interviewers rated women more attractive when they follow conventional beauty norms—maintaining a certain weight, doing their hair a certain way, or generally getting dolled up.”

Possible, yes, even likely. McClintock stresses that she isn’t suggesting same-sex partnerships are in any way a “second-best option to heterosexual unions,” but rather that everyone is tangled in a complicated causal web:

I do not think that women are strategically selecting an advantageous sexual identity or that they can ‘choose’ whether they find men, women, or both sexually attractive. Rather, social context and romantic experience might influence how they perceive and label their sexual identity.

In other words, some people are stuck in more hetero-conforming environments than others, and presenting a certain way (and thus having the option of a hetero life when your sexuality is in fact fluid) may, in the end, be easier or more appealing than exploring other identities. It’s an external fluidity, maybe, and less of an overt slide if you’re not rigidly straight or gay.

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It’s all a fascinating chicken-and-egg sort of ponderance about how attraction and sexual identity work. Bisexuality has only fairly recently emerged as a valid sexual orientation—for most of my life, for instance, it was joked about and maligned as either being “confused” or “greedy.” But one thing is for sure, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum: Minimizing traditional hetero male attention by veering off-script in terms of traditional femininity has nothing to do with being pretty.

Image via Buena Vista Pictures