On Thursday, Johnny Depp’s 16-year-old daughter Lily-Rose became the latest in a string of female celebrities — including supermodel Cara Delevingne, actress Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus — to come out publicly as bisexual or “sexually fluid.” It’s well established that women are more likely than men to identify as bisexual, and a new study from the University of Notre Dame confirms that women are both more likely to report attraction to both sexes and more likely to conceive of their sexuality as flexible.
Researchers tracked more than 5,000 women and 4,000 men for over 14 years, regularly surveying them about their sexual histories and identities from the time they were teenagers until they were in their late 20s. They found that men were more likely to say they were either “100 percent homosexual” or “100 percent heterosexual,” and they were much less likely to change their minds: during their 20s, the women in the study were three times more likely than men to change their sexual identities. According to the study’s author, sociologist Elizabeth McClintock, these findings suggest “that women’s sexuality may be more flexible and adaptive than men’s.”
There’s long been a double standard about bisexuality; it’s one of not very many areas where most societies are more permissive toward women’s sexuality. Women can more easily experiment with other members of the same sex without being definitively labeled as gay (even if bisexual women are often assumed to be just going through a “phase”).
But there’s something else at play. Sexuality isn’t the only area in which women are more flexible, more “tolerant of ambiguity.” Men are more likely to take black-or-white positions in other spheres, too, from politics to religion. They’re more likely to affiliate with fringe political movements, like libertarianism. As Katherine Mangu-Ward, an editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, told The New Republic, in response to a Pew poll showing that more than two-thirds of Americans who identify as libertarians are male: “Fringes tend to be populated by men. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, if you investigate the long tails of any bell curve you’re going to discover a sausage fest, and libertarianism is no exception.”
Around the world, men are also more also likely to take strong stances against religion. Men account for 70 percent of Americans who identify as atheists, 77 percent of Ukrainian atheists and 76 percent of Portuguese nonbelievers. Scientists have speculated that men are more comfortable calling themselves atheists because they’re more willing to incur the risk of not getting into heaven.
Research in psychology and behavioral economics also suggests that men are somewhat less comfortable with ambiguity in a variety of settings. In speech, women are more likely to “hedge” their statements by using qualifiers like “really,” “maybe,” and “you know.” In one study of nearly 400 medical students at Johns Hopkins University, men consistently scored lower on tests of tolerance for ambiguity. (The researchers were concerned with how the future doctors’ comfort or discomfort with ambiguity would impact their decision to diagnose patients with clinically ambiguous diseases, like alcoholism.)
In a study from 2009, a team of economists devised an experiment to test male and female students’ tolerance of ambiguity in a betting situation. The economists set up four urns, each containing some combination of 10 blue and yellow balls. Students were informed that the first urn — the only unambiguously stocked one — held five balls of each color. The second urn, they were told, held four to six yellow balls and four to six blue balls. The level of uncertainty increased until the fourth urn, when the students were given no information about the color of the balls within. In each situation, students had to indicate at what price they would be willing to sell a bet that a ball of a certain color would be drawn.
As soon as an element of ambiguity was introduced, the price at which the men would sell their bet began to drop off — even as it held steady for women. By the fourth urn, both men and women valued their bet at a similarly low price, but the difference in valuation between the bet on the most and least ambiguous urn was still greater for men — a testament to their greater discomfort with ambiguity.
As we move away from the assumption that the “norm” or default position derives from men’s behaviors and choices, we might see men embracing shades of grey, too — in their sexuality and beyond.