Close-up shot of two people smiling at each otherShare on Pinterest
Mattia/Stocksy United

At this point in time, experts have disproved many of the myths surrounding sexual orientation.

Like the color of your eyes or the shape of your nose, orientation is a trait many are born with or grow into over time.

Maybe in high school, for example, you developed crushes on people of one gender only. In college, you found yourself attracted to people of different genders.

Now, as an adult, you mostly date people of one gender but occasionally feel a flash of sexual attraction for people of other genders.

Does that mean you’re confused? Can’t make up your mind? That your college attractions were just a phase? No, no, and absolutely not.

No one can define your orientation for you, but the concept of sexual fluidity can help explain your experiences.

Sexual fluidity, in short, means your sexual orientation isn’t permanently fixed.

Yes, everyone has an underlying orientation — asexual, pansexual, or heterosexual, for example. Yet there’s room for it to expand a little, based on your experiences and current situation.

It can help to think of orientation as a spectrum that includes people of all genders. Sexually fluid people tend to experience attractions at different points along the spectrum as they go through life.

Maybe you grew up thinking you were only attracted to men, until you had a few flings with people of other genders. After a few years, you felt most attracted to men again, but you couldn’t say for certain whether that would always be the case.

These changes in how you experience romantic and sexual attraction are totally valid.

“Fluidity is an absolutely normal aspect of sexual orientation,” explains Will Zogg, a Washington therapist who specializes in gender affirming counseling.

“Attraction is far more complex than many people can communicate,” says Zogg. “And fluidity and the presentation of sexuality vary widely across cultures, age, access, and region.”

He goes on to say people sometimes interpret fluidity as confusion, or betrayal of an allegiance to a specific community.

“As a result of the stigma around fleeting same-sex attraction and consequences for that ‘betrayal,’ normal feelings of love and sex and curiosity often get swept under the rug, where the limits of Western societal norms keep them hidden,” explains Zogg.

If you’re sexually fluid, you might notice most of your sexual experiences and attractions fit under the label you use to identify yourself.

The key word here is “most,” since you’ll probably have a few outlier experiences that fall elsewhere on the spectrum.

Here’s an example:

You’ve only ever felt attracted to women. Then you develop a close relationship with a nonbinary friend. Your physical and emotional closeness eventually lead to a crush.

You think about kissing, touching, even having sex with them. Maybe you act on those desires, maybe you don’t. Eventually, you spend a little less time together, and your attraction fades, leaving you primarily attracted to women once again.

This one experience may not lead you to redefine your sexual orientation, but it does suggest some fluidity.

Close friendships sometimes fuel romantic feelings that lead to sexual desire, but attraction can exist without you acting on it.

Fluidity, by definition, changes over time, so you could develop a similar attraction in the future.

Though fluidity adds an extra factor in the equation of attraction, it won’t necessarily change your sexual behavior.

“What Westerners refer to as fluidity in sexuality (and in gender) is not a new idea for many cultures,” Zogg notes.

Researchers and anthropologists have explored fluidity across cultures and history. In terms of Western research, this concept has had many names, including erotic plasticity.

The term sexual fluidity comes from the research of psychologist and professor Dr. Lisa Diamond, who drew attention to the concept with her 2009 book, “Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire.”

In theory, yes, anyone can experience this fluidity, but not everyone does. Plenty of people only ever feel attracted to one gender.

While people of any gender can be sexually fluid, existing research suggests women tend to experience the most fluidity. Of course, this doesn’t mean all women are sexually fluid.

“Some sexually fluid men may feel more reluctant to talk about the range of attraction they experience, in part due to gender and sexuality stereotypes,” Zogg points out.

“They might avoid commenting on masculine celebrities they consider attractive, for example, or hesitate to express closeness to a male best friend,” says Zogg.

Most definitely, yes. Attraction, like orientation, is something you can’t control.

You might feel more attracted to one gender for a while, then your attraction might shift elsewhere on the spectrum.

Maybe you choose not to express or act on certain attractions, and that’s OK. All the same, you typically can’t pick and choose what part of the spectrum your attraction settles on at any given point in life.

Sexually fluid people might notice attraction shows up in a range of ways.

You could feel sexually attracted to people of one gender but develop stronger romantic feelings for people of another gender.

Maybe one specific person brings out feelings you’ve never had before. Though their traits don’t align with what you’d normally consider your “type,” you feel drawn to this specific excitement or arousal response.

You might also notice the characteristics that appeal to you in more masculine people are completely separate from the characteristics that you look for in more feminine people.

It’s pretty common to act differently on varying types of attraction.

You might:

  • enjoy kissing and cuddling partners of one gender but only have sex with people of another gender
  • enjoy a specific type of sex with one gender, but have different kinds of sex with other genders
  • develop romantic attachments with people of one gender and pursue physical relationships with people of other genders

These are all valid relationship styles. Just take care to practice good communication!

On the surface, sexual fluidity might seem pretty similar to bisexuality and pansexuality. Remember, though, bisexuality and pansexuality are orientations, and sexual fluidity is not.

Bisexuality doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but it’s typically recognized as a fairly consistent attraction to two groups: people of your gender and people of other genders.

Some people who identify as bisexual might only feel attracted to people of two genders. Others might develop attractions to people of multiple genders.

Pansexuality, on the other hand, means you might experience attraction to any person, regardless of their gender. In other words, you’re attracted to people of all genders.

You can be both sexually fluid and bisexual or pansexual. For example:

  • Sexually fluid pansexual people might occasionally feel most attracted to people of one gender, then more attracted to different genders again.
  • Sexually fluid bisexual people might temporarily feel more attracted to one gender over another, but this won’t permanently alter their overall attraction to people of other genders.

Learn more about bisexuality and pansexuality here.

You might describe yourself as sexually fluid when you generally identify with an orientation that doesn’t consistently represent every attraction you experience.

Say you primarily feel attracted to women, but you’ve had a few relationships with men. You don’t identify as bisexual, but you consider yourself somewhat fluid, since you’re not exclusively attracted to women.

Maybe you’ve never had a romantic or sexual relationship with someone of your gender. Still, straight doesn’t entirely resonate with you as an orientation because you feel open to the possibility of a non-heterosexual relationship. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Generally speaking, sexually fluid people have an orientation that remains roughly stable over time.

So you might use this term if you mostly feel attracted to one gender but want to acknowledge the way your attraction and responses sometimes shift.

As Diamond and other experts have pointed out, fluidity offers a better, more accurate explanation for what people have, in the past, stereotyped and stigmatized as “confusion.”

As you go through life, you gain plenty of experience, both personally and from relationships with others.

This expanding knowledge can have a pretty big impact on self-identity, including your understanding of your orientation.

As awareness of your orientation develops, you might land on a different way of describing your attractions, and that’s just fine. You’re always free to use whatever term you identify with best.

Interested in learning more about sexual orientations and identities?

  • Start with our guide to key terms here.
  • Check out the It Gets Better Project for a glossary of LGBTQ+ terms.
  • Visit Identiversity, a nonprofit website that provides factual, expert-informed education about gender and sexual diversity.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.