The stereotype of the LUG (lesbian until graduation) takes a big hit this week, with news that women without high school diplomas are actually more likely to have had a same-sex experience than college-educated women. The finding may have large-scale implications for how we understand sexuality and class.
Tamara Levin of the Times discusses data from the National Survey on Family Growth, which found that 15% of women between 22 and 44 who hadn't graduated high school reported at least one same-sex variant, compared to only 10% of female college graduates in the same age group. And while just 6% of college graduates said they'd had oral sex with another woman, 13% of high school dropouts had. These figures have changed significantly since 2002, when a similar study found no difference in same-sex activity between women of different educational attainment. Since then, the number of less-educated women reporting lesbian experiences has risen.
A number of experts take this as evidence that the idea of college as a haven for lesbian experimentation was always somewhat simplistic. Sociologist Barbara Risman tells the Times, "I always thought the LUG phenomenon was overblown, in the context of it being erotically titillating for young men." Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force says, "It may be that the commonly held wisdom was wrong, that people just liked to imagine women in college having sex together, or it may be that society has changed, and as more people come out publicly, in politics or on television, we are getting a clearer view of the breadth of sexuality." And Dan Savage isn't going to win any new feminist fans with his view on college lesbians: "A lot of them are out to prove something and want their effort to smash the patriarchy to be very visible."
Perhaps the most interesting implication of the study, though, is the way it challenges assumptions about sexuality and privilege. Lewin talked to gender studies professor Lisa Diamond, who pointed out that while Hollywood usually shows us gay parents who are "sophisticated white professionals," there are actually more minority and working-class LGBT couples raising kids. The idea that gay people are all white and college-educated is harmful to those who don't fit into these groups — hopefully the study will bring more visibility to the many gay and bisexual women for whom the "LUG" stereotype never made much sense. At the same time, the data may reveal a decline in prejudice — it's possible that women without a college education simply feel more comfortable disclosing their same-sex experiences now than they did in 2002. The whole idea of the LUG posited sexual fluidity as a luxury available only to those who could afford to hook up in ivy-covered dorms. Maybe as LGBT people of all backgrounds gain more exposure in media and pop culture, this idea holds less power. We have a long ways to go still — as Diamond points out, films like The Kids Are All Right still deliver a white-washed view of LGBT life. But perhaps this study is a step in the right direction.