Women are embracing lesbianism in their thirties, according to research indicating that shifts in sexual orientation may be more widespread than previously thought.
While “late-blooming lesbians” are not uncommon in history – the married writer Virginia Woolf had an affair with the poet Vita Sackville-West – the phenomenon of mature women switching sexualities is now attracting academic scrutiny.
One study even indicates that as many as two-thirds of women who feel lesbian attractions may have changed their sexual orientation over time.
The findings appear to pose a challenge to the scientific consensus that a person’s sexuality is determined more by their genes than environment.
Christan Moran, a researcher at Southern Connecticut State University in the US, said that many women who develop lesbian feelings in later life refuse to “come out” for fear of society’s reaction.
Women in long-term heterosexual relationships, especially those with children, face even greater problems reconciling themselves to their new identities, she said.
Following interviews with more than 200 married lesbians, Moran concluded that there is “great potential for heterosexual women to experience a first same-sex attraction well into adulthood.”
She added that late-blooming sexuality was often wrongly dismissed as repressed lesbians finally coming to terms with their true feelings.
Most research ignored “the possibility that a heterosexual woman might make a full transition to a singular lesbian identity … in other words change their sexual orientation.”
Describing the emotional torment suffered by many late-blooming lesbians, Moran added: “To leave a heterosexual marriage in favour of lesbian identity is to abdicate enormous and undeniable privilege.”
High-profile examples of women leaving their husbands to pursue same-sex relationships include Portia de Rossi, the Ally McBeal actress who married the US comedian Ellen DeGeneres in 2008, nine years after divorcing a man.
Further evidence for the idea that female sexual orientation is less concrete than men’s comes from Lisa Diamond, professor of psychology and gender studies at Utah University.
She tracked nearly 100 women who felt some degree of attraction to the same sex; most described themselves as either lesbian or bisexual, while others declined to be labelled.
Over the course of a decade two-thirds of the women changed their sexual orientations, with some bisexuals deciding to redefine themselves as lesbians, while women who previously classified themselves as lesbians switched to heterosexuality.
The research is contained in Prof Diamond’s recent book Sexual Fluidity.