Research Blog: Seeking language and representation for girls who like girls

by Elise Bragard

When was the first time you realized you were sexually attracted to someone? And what did that sexual attraction feel like, either emotionally or physically?

It can be difficult to answer these questions, because it’s possible that when we did have that feeling for the first time, we may not have had the language or knowledge about sexuality to think of it as sexual attraction. The way we interpret these memories as adults are potentially different from how we interpreted them at the time. And if we have experiences that don’t fit with what society tells us is ‘normal’, we might not initially realize that what we are feeling is sexual attraction in the first place.

I remember the first person I had a crush on. Tom was the friend of my best friend’s older brother. I was 5 or 6. I remember liking his face, feeling drawn to him and being a little shy around him. One day I wrote a secret note to my friend that said “I love Tom.” Excruciatingly, she told her older brother Jack, and later that day, Jack confronted me about my crush in front of Tom, bluntly asking “Do you fancy Tom?” (fancy is British slang for ‘like’). I remember the blood rushing to my face and a feeling of panic as I answered “Yes” before I even knew what was happening. The rest is a blur of embarrassment. There was definitely a physical experience but it had more to do with the pain of embarrassment than any sort of sexual desire.

Other memories that I have of liking boys in my class are similarly not connected with feeling sexual desire in a physical sense. The first time I ever felt sexual desire in my body was actually with a girl friend of mine. I was probably 10 or 11. We were playing some game where I was sitting on her back with my legs on either side and she was crawling around the floor, perhaps she was a horse. I remember the sensation feeling good and that there was no way I could ever admit that to her or anyone else because she would definitely get weirded out. I was weirded out! I wasn’t attracted to her, but I felt aroused. There seemed to be a disconnect between the romantic attraction I was feeling towards boys and the physiological feelings I experienced in some of my intimate relationships with female friends.

Why didn’t this experience lead me to wonder more about same-sex attraction at the time? Maybe it was because I was still quite young, and I didn’t really understand what the feeling was. Maybe it was because when I was growing up, I didn’t see a lot of examples of girls who liked girls in my daily life or in the books I read and TV I watched. I could identify with young female characters who developed crushes on boys. As I grew up and experienced sexual attraction with boys, I felt fairly sure I was heterosexual, but I wasn’t able to resolve my early experiences with same-sex attraction. No one around me talked about that kind of thing as a ‘normal’ experience.

This led me to wonder how early experiences of same-sex attraction are interpreted by people who do identify as lesbian, bi, or queer (LBQ), whether at the time or later on in life. What do these experiences look or feel like? How does the societal pressure to be ‘normal’ shape how girls understand same-sex attraction? When do these experiences provide clarity, and when do they cause confusion?

I was able to find a research study about girls’ first memories of same-sex attraction to help answer some of my questions. Sara McClelland, Jennifer Rubin, and José Bauermeister (2016) wanted to understand how young women remembered their initial experiences of same-sex attraction; specifically, what it felt like, and how they understood it in relation to sexual identity. They wanted to understand how different contexts might have helped women recognize their sexual attraction.

They interviewed 30 young women aged 18-24 from Michigan who identified as lesbian bisexual, queer, pansexual or any other sexuality that was not heterosexual. Michigan’s state policies have not been all that LGBTQ-friendly, so the women grew up in a place where hostility towards same-sex attraction may have been pretty commonplace.

During the interviews, the researchers asked the women to describe what it felt like when they were first attracted to other women and to talk about the time they first learned about same-sex attraction. As part of their analysis, they focused on the different contexts that helped women recognize experiences of same-sex attraction, and on their emotional and physical reactions to those moments.

What McClelland and colleagues found was that different women experienced and recognized same-sex attraction in different ways depending on the context. There were three particular different contexts the participants talked about their first experiences of attraction happening in. They referred to these as embodied, relational, and social contexts. Most of the women in the study remembered feeling different than their peers, and that their attraction towards girls and women wasn’t “normal.” They remembered trying to figure out what was going on inside of them but not having the language to help explain it. They knew their feelings made them different, and that there were negative connotations to these differences, but they weren’t able to articulate to themselves or others what this meant. Only now as grown women are they are able to interpret these memories as initial experiences of sexual attraction.

Embodied contexts referred to feelings that these women felt in their bodies, such as early masturbation fantasies or feeling butterflies in their stomachs. Some women found these embodied experiences to be meaningful and helped clarify questions about their sexuality. Others found it confusing because they didn’t have the knowledge or awareness of what these feelings could be. Noticeably, no one talked about any physical sensation in their genital regions or getting wet. I wonder if that was because they didn’t feel anything like that, or if they didn’t feel comfortable talking about it? There’s such a taboo in our society when it comes to talking about any kind of girls’ sexual desire.

Other women talked about relational contexts, which referred to when women all of a sudden realized they liked someone they had a relationship with (like a friend or teacher) romantically or sexually. These were some of the most important contexts in which the women recognized their same-sex attraction. Some women remembered realizing that they really liked one of their friends, or that they had the experience of “falling into a relationship” with a close friend. There was often a seamless transition between friend and lover as the relationship became more intense. This finding is interesting because female friendships in general are often viewed as more intimate and affectionate than male friendships. It makes me wonder whether this type of experience happens as frequently with gay men.

Finally, social contexts referred mainly to media influences, such as feeling desire for a female character or actress in a movie, or messages from peers. The feelings women remembered experiencing were often subtle, and they remembered knowing that admitting their feelings might have had negative consequences. They felt they couldn’t share these female crushes within their friendship groups. When friends would talk about crushes they had on boys, participants would realize that they felt different.

So what does this tell us about the development of same-sex attraction? It seems like it’s often difficult for LBQ girls to find language to understand their experiences of same-sex attraction while they are still young. This is made harder by the absence of LBQ narratives in the media. LBQ girls face challenges in processing their feelings because there is a risk of negative response from family or friends, and a sense that what they feel might not be normal. LBQ girls need representation in sex education and the media so that they understand their feelings are normal and awesome. Fortunately these stories are starting to make their way into TV shows, movies and books, so that lesbian, bisexual and queer girls see representations of themselves experiencing romantic or sexual attraction. A stand out example for me is Lena Waithe’s character in Master of None. The “Thanksgiving” episode in season 2 shows Denise’s developing understanding of same-sex attraction and how she speaks about it first with her friend, and then with her family. Her changing desires for women with different physical and personal characteristics reflect a realistic, nuanced picture of how sexual attraction develops as people mature. This representation is step in the right direction but we definitely need more.

I also think it’s important not just to talk about same-sex attraction as an experience that only LBQ girls face. It would be great to know more about the connections between the intimacy most girls experience as friends and our early experiences of sexual attraction. If we could talk more openly about how these feelings of intimacy and attraction between girls are so common, then LBQ girls might not feel like their experiences were abnormal, or that they couldn’t participate in conversations about adolescent crushes with their friends. Girls’ and women’s desires and attractions are still considered taboo. That can make it difficult to talk about and process our feelings as we figure our sexual identities out. If girls and women are empowered with language that help us describe the sexual feelings we are having or have had in the past, then it can help us not only work towards figuring out who and what we want sexually and romantically; we can also resist the silencing of female sexual desire and pleasure in general. We could have more conversations about embodied feelings of sexual attraction and desire for and with people of any gender. And opening up possibilities to talk about desire for us all, sounds like a good thing to me.

McClelland, S. I., Rubin, J. D., & Bauermeister, J. A. (2016). “I liked girls and I thought they were pretty”: Initial memories of same-sex attraction in young lesbian and bisexual women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(6), 1375-1389.

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