Sex

Sex with Another Woman: Likelier in a Sorority or on a Team?

It may depend on what the individual young woman is seeking.

Posted Jun 09, 2019

Fashion photographer Anthony Citrano
Source: Fashion photographer Anthony Citrano

I have heard sexual-minority young women say that the best chance to have sex and romance with another woman is to join a women’s sports team—basketball, softball, rugby, field hockey, or soccer. If you are a woman seeking sex with another woman, is this the best choice? It might well depend on what kind of sex you want. 

Janelle Pham’s study of over 5,000 women in American colleges who have had at least one same-sex encounter in their lifetime provides guidance.

The women responded to an online survey question, “Which of these have you ever done with a female partner?” The list of possible responses included the following sexual acts, in two categories:

  1. Nongenital: making out with a woman, touching a woman’s breasts or bottom, or having their breasts or bottom touched by a woman.
  2. Genital: stimulating a female partner’s genitals or having their genitals stimulated, performing or receiving oral sex from a female partner, or having vaginal or anal intercourse with a female partner.

Findings

  • The majority (78 percent) of the women had had the nongenital variety.
  • Greek-affiliated women were significantly more likely to have engaged solely in nongenital sexual behavior.
  • Women involved in team-based (not individual-based) sports were more likely than sorority women to report a genital sexual history with women. 

The author notes that the nongenital acts of the sorority women frequently occurred at fraternity/sorority parties or other places where the sexes mingle, usually in the presence of inhibition-lowering alcohol. These “male-dominated, heterosexually predominant party scenes where sexual acts between women are eroticized [by the men] facilitate sexual encounters among women.” This public “performative bisexuality” was deployed by women, Pham hypothesizes, to garner desired male attention (“for fun or male benefit”). Many were invested in “hegemonic femininity” and hence felt strongly that they wanted to distance themselves from known lesbians or being thought of as lesbian. Compared with female athletes, sorority women tended to be straight-identified, to have more nongenital and genital contact with men, and to hold more conservative sexual attitudes.

By contrast, sex-segregated team sports tend to be female-affirming and accepting of sexual minorities and, hence, bring young women together into intense bonds with each other to build cohesion, which also encourages physical and romantic intimacy. Individual sports, however, often include both sexes and do not foster collaboration and strong relationships among women to the same degree:

     “Unlike Greek life, women’s team-based varsity sports is [organized] such that the bulk of a woman varsity team athlete’s social encounters will be with other teammates. This may have a facilitative partnering effect, with women engaging in sexual relationships with other teammates, or may signal a subcultural dynamic that is supportive of women’s same-sex eroticism.”

The female athletes were more likely than sorority women to identify as a sexual-minority, to be an advanced student, and to be a woman of color.

My Take

It is difficult to disentangle whether it is the context (sorority parties vs. team sports) or the selection process of each context that is most critical.

1. In terms of selection, straight-oriented young women are likely to find sororities more accommodating because of the access it provides to male sexual and romantic partners. 

2. Sexual-minority women are more likely to personally value athleticism, fitness, and escape from gender roles and to find other women who value the same in a sex or romantic partner, and hence are attracted to team-based sports. 

Contrary to this point, Pham suggests: “Alternatively, women in team-based sports may have come to adopt a nonheterosexual identity after having a sexual encounter with another woman.” This appears to imply that sexual behavior makes the woman a sexual-minority. Although this may be true for some women, my guess is that by age 20, most women with same-sex attractions are keenly aware of this disposition.

It is also critical to consider that another kind of selection is at play: The fact that sororities and sports “regulate whom they admit.” My guess is that straight-appearing or acting women are more desirable for sororities than non-straight appearing and acting women. In most sororities, “heteronormativity is an organizing principle,” and to advance this, sororities have a vested interest in selecting carefully. Also, given longstanding findings that sexual-minority women tend to have slightly different bodies than straight women, they may have more of the athletic abilities desired by sports teams. The all-female nature of team sports adds an extra bonus.

Finally, the study makes a strong statement about race that I believe is worthy of serious consideration: “While all women are subject to the gendered double standard, White heterosexual women enjoy greater flexibility in negotiating their sexual lives.” By contrast, women of color can feel that their sex lives are “open to greater scrutiny and more likely to be taken as representative of their entire communities,” and thus may be less likely to be public about their same-sex activities in sororities. They may thus find athletic teams more supportive and safe, especially on predominantly White campuses.

References

Pham, J. M. (online). Institutional, subcultural, and individual determinants of same-sex sexual contact among college women. Journal of Sex Research. doi:10.1080/00224499.2019.1607239