Girls Kissing Girls: Explaining the Trend

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Teenage female couple (16-18) dancing at prom

Britney and Madonna did it; so did Scarlett Johansson and Sandra Bullock. And so do women in bars, at mixers, on the street and, increasingly, in private — especially when those women are college students. The “it” is the kiss, of course, and even before Katy Perry celebrated the all-girl lip-lock in song, it was clear that the party was definitely on.

Girl-girl kissing is not new, anymore than boy-girl or boy-boy — or any of the other mix-and-match combinations of genders and numbers in which sexually charged human beings can find themselves. What is new is the openness with which girls are sampling from among their own, and the way the phenomenon has rapidly gone from startling to  titillating to, if not quite commonplace, at least not all that uncommon either. (More on Time.com: See a photogallery of the visual history of the gay rights movement)

Sociology professor Verta Taylor, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her colleague, Leila J. Rupp of the school’s feminist studies department, examined the trend in an article for the American Sociological Association magazine Contexts. In one national survey, they report, fewer than 2% of women called themselves lesbian or bisexual, but fully 8% reported either feeling same-sex desire or engaging in some kind of same-sex act. The absolute numbers seem low — no surprise in a study that relies on self-reporting about so personal a matter — but what’s more important is the 4-to-1 ratio between label and behavior, and that, the authors say, reveals a lot.

There are three main drivers of  the girl-girl trend — four actually, once you get past the copycat trendiness that is inevitable when stars on awards shows do something sensational on camera. Perhaps the biggest — for better or worse — of the other three reasons is a desire for attention, typically from boys. This is why parties are so often involved in same-sex kissing — and why the disinhibiting effects of alcohol frequently contribute. (More on Healthland: Osama Bin Laden as Doting Granddad?)

“It’s usually brought on by, I don’t know, like shots or drinking or people kind of saying something to like cheer it on or whatever,” said one female student the professors interviewed. “And it’s usually done in order to turn guys on or to seek male attention in some way.”

That, say Rupp and Taylor, plays into the old feminist notion of the power imbalance involved in the “male gaze,” with men as observers and women as the observed. Girls may hold boys in thrall with openly sexual displays, but they’re still performing for the pleasure of an audience, and the boys are still in the socially dominant position. (More on Healthland: More Americans Consider Pets Family, But Not Gay Couples)

Genuine experimentation is another motivation for same-sex connecting between females who don’t see themselves as lesbians. “Bi-curious” girls — or, as they’re increasingly called when drinking is involved, “bar curious” — are hardly unique in wondering what it would be like to have a same-sex experience. But when the culture becomes more accepting, experimentation is likelier to follow.

One girl who embraces the bi-curious label told the UCSB researchers that the fact that experimentation often takes place when other people are around  does not mean showing off is all that’s involved. “It’s good for [the girls], something they may not have the courage to express…if they’re alone in a room. It makes them more comfortable [in public] because other people are experiencing pleasure from them.”

Some bi-curious girls also call themselves LTGs, for lesbian till graduation, and that captures what same-sex kissing represents for a lot of them: a form of intimacy and diversion, but not something that ultimately feels like a true orientation. For other girls — those on their way to coming out as lesbians, or just discovering their orientation themselves — girl-girl kissing, particularly in a party setting, provides a safe and comfortable glide path in what can often be a rocky transition. Tell yourself you’re kissing girls just to impress the boys, then begin to realize you like it, then finally embrace that there’s a deep and real reason for that. Rupp and Taylor point out that the same kind of gradual transitioning may explain why so many lesbian girls’ first same-sex experience is in a threesome that  involves a male. This, they write, “is an extension of the safe heterosexual space for exploring same-sex desire.”

All of this amounts to what students and researchers alike are increasingly calling “heteroflexibility,” a sexual elasticity that, on the whole, is a very good thing. It’s rigid — and ultimately brittle — sexual rules that have caused so much sorrow in the past, and it’s only greater tolerance and openness that can help heal some of that damage. Unchecked sexual adventurism — whether straight, gay or both — is never a safe or wise way to go. But a judicious sampling of the sexual menu, if that’s where your appetites and interests take you, can be a way for young people to get to know themselves better — and avoid regrets later.

Correction: A previous version of the story wrongly attributed the study the American Anthropolgical Association.

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