What does it mean when a woman calls herself a lesbian? On the one hand, the answer may seem pretty obvious: a woman who identifies as lesbian loves and has intimate relationships with other women. But once we start asking more in-depth questions, the answers may not be so clear-cut: is a lesbian a woman who is only attracted to other women? Is a lesbian a woman who has never had sex with a man? Or a woman who doesn't want to have sex with a man, even if at some point in her life she did? Is a lesbian simply a woman who calls herself a lesbian?
These are just some of the complex questions that the Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women study (CHLEW) explores. The nearly 450 women who are part of CHLEW offer some very interesting answers. Nearly all identified as lesbian when they were first interviewed—this was the major criteria for being in the study. However, once we asked questions about sexual attraction and behavior, answers tended vary, indicating that 'lesbian' means different things to different women.
For example, about one-half of the participants said they could be attracted to 'only women,' but most of the remainder (40%) chose the response 'mostly women,' indicating some level of attraction—or at least potential attraction—to men. The remaining 10% indicated they could be equally attracted to men and women. In contrast, most CHLEW participants (75%) have had at least some sexual experience with men. Nearly one-half (44%) of women in the study reported that their sexual partners have been mostly women and about one-fourth (27%) reported having had sex only with women; 14% reported sexual experiences with an equal number of women and men and another 14% reported sex with mostly men in their lifetimes. Reports about gender of sexual partners in the past five years were more consistent with sexual attraction, although a full third of respondents had at least one male sex partner in the past five years.
African-American lesbians were more likely than white and Latina lesbians to report sexual activity with a man in the past five years. In addition, younger lesbians (18-29 years old) were more likely to have had only female sex partners in their lifetime—38% compared with 16% of women who 50 to 59 years old. However, women under 30 were also much more likely to report sexual activity with a man in the past five years. This seeming inconsistency may have to do with older lesbians being more likely to be in long-term committed relationships and the greater tendency of younger women, especially younger women today, to be open to a broader range of sexual experiences.
These results from the first round of CHLEW interviews provide a brief glimpse into the complexity of women's sexuality. The information we gather in the second wave of interviews should provide even more insight into how sexual identity is shaped and experienced by our sample of Chicago lesbians.