Research Corner: Sexual Identity Development Among Sexual Minority Women

Aug 1, 2012 | 2012 Summer - Then and Now, Articles, Research Corner

By Jennifer Taub, Ph.D.

In a nod to the theme of “Then and Now,” we begin with the changes in the average age at which women come out. Reliable data specifically on bisexual women are not readily available, but the ages at which young people are coming out to family and friends as bisexual, lesbian or gay has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years, according to researchers in Israel and the UK. In 1991, the average age at coming out was 25. In 2010, it was 16 (Shilo & Savaya, 2012). This is a huge change in a relatively short period of time!

Coming out about one’s sexual identity is a rite of passage that sexual minority women have in common. However, the path for coming out and sexual identity development can be complex and can be different for lesbians and bisexual women. A typical lesbian identity development model follows this sequence: 1) awareness of same-gender feelings, 2) experience of same-gender relationships, 3) acceptance of lesbian identity, 4) disclosure of lesbian identity, 5) integration of lesbian identity into one’s overall identity. Clearly this is a general model, and there is a tremendous amount of variation across individuals. For example, awareness of same-gender feelings may take place within the context of a same-gender relationship; a woman may accept herself as a lesbian before she has any same-gender romantic or sexual relationships; she may disclose her identity to others only after she has integrated her lesbian identity.

Vivienne Cass’s widely used homosexuality identity development model mirrors racial identity development models (Cass, 1984). The individual first recognizes her own same gender feelings (Confusion), begins to accept the possibility of being lesbian (Comparison), and begins to tolerate and accept her own sexual and emotional needs (Tolerance, Acceptance). Once she has accepted her own orientation, there is a period of identity (Pride), where she becomes more immersed in lesbian subcultures but may also reject the “non-lesbian” world. The last stage is Synthesis, where one’s lesbian identity becomes integrated into the rest of the individual’s identities and has less primacy as a central organizing feature of one’s life. Research has indicated support for this general model, while noting that there is often overlap between Confusion and Comparison, as well as between Pride and Synthesis. Further, many people do not follow a clear, sequential trajectory. However, these models have been useful in understanding the typical developmental stages that a lesbian woman may experience as she comes to understand herself as different from the societal norms.

It has been posited that bisexual identity development follows a more complex path. To begin with, the stages involving recognition and acknowledgement of one’s attractions and desires must take place with both genders. While this can happen concurrently, it is common for this to happen at different points in a woman’s life. Additionally, these models presume that the sexual minority identity is formed later, and in opposition to, the prevailing societal (e.g. heterosexual) model. However, many women who come to label themselves as bisexual, or choose to remain unlabeled (such as actress Cynthia Nixon, who is very public about her committed same-sex relationship, yet chooses not to self-define as lesbian or bisexual) do so from a lesbian orientation. It would appear to be overly simplistic to conclude that such women would simply travel through the stages again, as they realize their other-sex attractions.

Recent research has found more nuances and complexities in understanding women’s sexual identity development, which do not fit neatly into the previously developed “stage” models. Women appear to have a high degree of fluidity in their sexual identity development over a lifespan, and this fluidity is influenced by a woman’s attractions and relationships, as evidenced by longitudinal research. Developmental researcher Lisa Diamond followed a group of 80 sexual minority women over a ten-year period, conducting in-depth interviews every two years. This allowed Diamond to examine the varied paths that women take in their processes of integrating their sexual identities. Diamond found evidence for a tremendous amount of fluidity over time, as two-thirds of her sample changed their sexual orientation label at least once in the 10-year study period, and half of those women changed twice or more. Sixty percent of the lesbian-identified women at the start of the study had sexual contact with a man by the end of the study.

Ultimately, Diamond concluded that “Bisexuality may best be interpreted as a stable pattern of attraction to both sexes in which the specific balance of same-sex to other-sex desires necessarily varies according to interpersonal and situational factors” (Diamond, 2008: p. 9). Over time, women were seen to change their labels to fit with their current patterns of sexual attractions and behavior, and these were often seen to change over time. Many women who identified as lesbians at the start of the study reported progressively more “bisexual” patterns of attraction and behavior as the study progressed, resulting in more selflabeling changes from lesbian to bisexual or unlabeled identities than the reverse.

These findings present a challenge to the Cass model, which presumes that once an individual completes the stages and integration is achieved, sexual identity questioning is permanently resolved. In fact, with the majority of women changing their identity labels over time, identity change may be more common than a stable lesbian or bisexual identity.

Jennifer is a licensed clinical psychologist who lives in Boston. She has conducted research about bi women and is a proud member of BBWN.


  1. Cass, V. (1984). Homosexual Identity Formation: Testing a theoretical model. J of Sex Research, 20(2), 143- 167.
  2. Diamond, L. (2008). Female Bisexuality from Adolescence to Adulthood: Results From a 10 year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 44(1), 5-14.
  3. Shilo, G. & Savaya, R. (2012). Mental Health of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth and Young Adults: Differential Effects of Age, Gender, Religiosity, and Sexual Orientation. J of Research on Adolescence.

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