By TAMAR LEWIN -
The popular stereotype of college campuses as a hive of same-sex experimentation for young women may be all wrong.
To the surprise of many researchers and sex experts, the National Survey on Family Growth found that women with bachelor’s degrees were actually less likely to have had a same-sex experience than those who did not finish high school. “It’s definitely a ‘huh’ situation, because it goes counter to popular perceptions,” said Kaaren Williamsen, director of Carleton College’s gender and sexuality center.
For years, sex researchers, campus women’s centers and the media have viewed college as a place where young women explore their sexuality, test boundaries, and, often, have their first — in some cases, only — lesbian relationship.
That phenomenon gave rise to the term LUG (lesbian until graduation). In 2003, a New York magazine article, “Bi for Now,” suggested that women’s involvement in their college’s gay scene exposed them to a different culture, like junior year abroad in Gay World.
But according to the new study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on 13,500 responses, almost 10 percent of women ages 22 to 44 with a bachelor’s degree said they had had a same-sex experience, compared with 15 percent of those with no high school diploma. Women with a high school diploma or some college, but no degree, fell in between.
Six percent of college-educated women reported oral sex with a same-sex partner, compared with 13 percent who did not complete high school.
Anjani Chandra was the lead author of the report, based on data from 2006 through 2008.
Although 13 percent of women over all reported same-sex sexual behavior only one percent identified themselves as gay, and another 4 percent as bisexual. To get accurate answers to intimate questions, the researchers asked those surveyed to enter their responses directly into a computer.
“It’s like a Rubik’s cube of sexuality, where you turn it a different way, and the factors don’t fit together,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It may be that the commonly held wisdom was wrong, that people just liked to imagine women in college having sex together, or it may be that society has changed, and as more people come out publicly, in politics or on television, we are getting a clearer view of the breadth of sexuality.”
The findings are especially striking — and puzzling — since the previous round of the survey, in 2002, found no pattern of educational differences in women’s sexual behavior. Most of the change came from higher levels of same-sex behavior reported by the women without diplomas.
“I always thought the LUG phenomenon was overblown, in the context of it being erotically titillating for young men,” said Barbara Risman, an officer of the Council on Contemporary Families and a University of Illinois at Chicago sociology professor. She added that the new findings may reflect class dynamics, with high school dropouts living in surroundings with few desirable and available male partners.
Amber Hollibaugh, interim executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, a New York-based advocacy group, said the results of the federal survey underscored how poor, minority and working-class lesbians had been overshadowed by the mainstream cultural image of lesbians as white professionals.
“Working with a gay-rights group is now something you’d put on your résumé,” said Ms. Hollibaugh, who did not attend college. “Lesbians who aren’t college-educated professionals are pretty much invisible.”
Dan Savage, a gay sex columnist in Seattle, said the LUG phenomenon may be overrepresented in the national imagination because so many students sought attention for their sexual exploration: “A lot of them are out to prove something and want their effort to smash the patriarchy to be very visible,” he said.
Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, said that with gay relationships so much more common throughout society, college campuses may have lost their status as the “privileged site” for women’s exposure to different kinds of sexuality. “Maybe our stereotypes are just behind the times,” Ms. Diamond said, adding that while lesbian and gay couples raising children were still assumed to be sophisticated white professionals, as in the movie, “The Kids Are All Right,” the latest parenting data showed that “holy-moly, it’s less likely to be upper-middle-class same-sex couples than ethnic minorities and working-class couples.”
Most headlines about the report, released earlier this month, focused on a finding that young people were waiting longer to have sex. Almost 29 percent of the females and 27 percent of the males, age 15 to 24, had had no sexual contact, an increase from 22 percent for both sexes in the 2002 survey.
The gender gap on homosexuality remains substantial: Twice as many women as men reported same-sex behavior. Three percent of the women — and 5 percent of the least-educated women — said they were attracted equally to men and women, compared with one percent of the men.
“A lot of data shows that women’s sexuality is more hetero-flexible, more influenced by what they see around them,” Professor Diamond said.
In the past, she said, a women with a single homosexual relationship would have been labeled gay, and urged to accept that identity. But now there is a growing sense that a lesbian relationship need not define a woman.
“It’s becoming more acceptable, at least in some parts of society, to see your gender identity as fluid,” said Joan Westreich, a Manhattan therapist. “I see women whose first loves were women, who then meet and fall in love with a guy, and for whom it seems to be relatively conflict-free.”