For many women, college is a time for exploration, identity formation, and transformation in a host of ways. The popular notion is that a considerable number of women will have at least one same-sex experience — whether that is a crush, a hook-up, a relationship, or more — regardless of sexual self-identification. Some women will be of the “lesbians until graduation” (LUG) variety while others credit collegiate crushes with opening their eyes to the wonders of the woman for the rest of their lives. That college is seen as an open place of discovery for all, and women are more likely to report having same-sex attractions, it seems only natural that many undergraduates would dabble in lesbian dalliances.
While this appears plausible, especially in light of the perceived greater acceptance of society to sexual fluidity and the generally progressive attitudes of college campuses, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study suggests that perhaps our impression is overstated. Based on data from 13,500 respondents during 2006-2008, the study finds that 5% more women with no high school diploma reported having had a “same-sex experience,” compared with the respondents with a bachelor’s degree (15% compared to 10%). Six percent of the college-educated respondents reported having had oral sex with another female, compared to the 13% with high school diplomas. Additionally, although 13% of the respondents overall reported having had a same-sex experience, only 1% identified as “gay,” and 4% as “bisexual.”
What explains these puzzling findings? The New York Times reports that, compared to a 2002 study that found no difference in sexual behavior across education levels, the findings of this CDC study are confounding. Perhaps such stereotypes of college women’s sexual exploration is outdated or a result of recent trend to delay sexual behavior. The findings raise questions about socioeconomic status and sexuality; the experiences of lower SES queer women are often eclipsed by the mainstream idea of lesbian professionals, mostly white, suggesting that for the first time, women of this demographic are represented.
Hayden Panettiere and Madeline Zima in Heroes
If this study is telling, a compelling reason for the overstatement of college women’s sexual experimentation is the media’s obsession with it. Though there’s no question that many women grapple with their sexuality in college, pop culture, tickled by this so-called “phenomenon,” reinforces the idea of pervasive bi-curiosity among university females. Framed in a way that would titillate the likes of men (girl-on-girl? All right!), it’s no wonder that in many TV shows and movies, men’s fantasies of sexually involved college roommates are played out. In American Pie 2, the perverted pals, driven by the likely porno plot, are convinced that two roommates are lesbians simply because they live together, and although the boys are easily manipulated, they’re able to experience their deluded fantasies, broadcast live over the Internet.
Not all media representation is problematic, however, and some even progressively convey the nuances of female sexuality. Even the fleeting references to lesbian roommates’ past with Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) in Friends, Bette (Jennifer Beals) in The L Word, and Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) in House bear positive aspects, despite the titillation factor. Each example illustrates the complexity of sexual exploration, from LUG to committed lesbian: for Rachel, her kiss with Melissa (Winona Ryder) was an isolated drunken episode, and she still identifies as straight. Bette’s fling with Kelly Wentworth (Elizabeth Berkley) was her first time with a woman, leading her to solidify her identity as a lesbian; Thirteen’s relation with her college roommate perhaps assisted her current identification as bisexual.
Elizabeth Berkley, Laurel Holloman and Jennifer Beals
Additionally, the scenes between Claire (Hayden Panettiere) and Gretchen (Madeline Zima) on Heroes portray a somewhat real — minus the super powers — situation of two female roommates being attracted to one another, although neither explicitly labels herself. Furthermore, many of our own burgeoning non-straight journeys throughout our collegiate careers may lead us to validate and support the belief that scores of women use college, whether knowingly or not, as a forum to be romantically or sexually involved with other women, without pressure to be labeled.
Ultimately, the CDC’s study is only a small sample, and may not be representative of the cleavages of different women’s identities and willingness to report same-sex experimentation. Perhaps I’m biased as a result of the media and my own romanticized ideals, but I have a hard time believing that few college-educated women are experimenting. Still, the topic is worth further discussion and research.
What are your thoughts on the esteemed girl-roomie-on-girl-roomie idea?