The Vagina Dialogues

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"I just moved here to phoenix . . . and since it's new to me, I thought, I would experience something else new also," a 25-year-old wrote. "I'm seeking to have my first sensual experience with another female."

A second ad, posted on the same day: "I am a young 23 year old woman curious about what it would be like to be with another woman or couple . . . Like I said I am a little new to this so I am a little shy and not sure how this works."

Andy Sutcliffe, whose Tucson ad company has been handling adult personals for alternative weeklies across the country since 1988, says the percentage of personal ads placed by women seeking women has doubled in the last decade. At the Seattle Stranger, Washington City Paper, and Portland Mercury, more than 20 percent of the women who place ads are now looking for a chick.

Lisa, a 44-year-old lesbian who lives in Phoenix and frequently uses personals, says nearly 40 percent of the women she's met in recent years have been bi-curious or bisexual.

"Do you know how many bi women I've pulled?" she brags. "At least 10."

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, a professor of human development at Cornell University and author of The New Gay Teenager, says he was first introduced to the term "bi-curious" through his female research subjects, who kept using it to describe themselves.

"I had to ask, 'What does this mean? Is the emphasis on the curious or the bi?'"

In time, Savin-Williams honed his definition: "It's young people who really haven't settled on a definite route they're going to go. They're open to sexual relationships with either gender, and they see no reason to make a commitment to pursue one at the expense of the other."

That bi-curious women are suddenly so ubiquitous -- both on the dance floor and in pop culture -- caught the experts off guard, Savin-Williams says. "It's causing a lot of researchers to say, 'What do we know about women's sexuality?'"

One of the biggest problems, says Savin-Williams, is that studies of homosexual behavior have mostly focused on people who identify themselves as gay. But the evidence is increasingly clear that these people are only the end of a very complicated continuum.

For example: Most studies show that only 2 to 3 percent of adolescents identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. About 4 percent report sexual behavior with the same sex, if "sexual behavior" is broadly defined.

Those are the groups that researchers used to study. But, as Savin-Williams points out, there's a much bigger group of kids that bears looking at. Most studies show 10 percent of boys, and a whopping 20 percent of girls, report same-sex "attractions."

Historically, those kids might have called themselves "straight" and thought no more of it. But with bisexual behavior not just accepted, but downright hot, it's now likely that some of them will end up in more complicated couplings.

Meanwhile, researchers have long urged kids to check boxes limited to "gay" or "straight," Savin-Williams says. But today, they're giving them a broader choice -- and finding a swatch of bi-curious girls who prefer "not sure" or "no label." That fluidity is reflected on the options for female users at the busiest Web site for early twentysomethings, myspace.com: "bi," "lesbian," "straight," "not sure," or "no answer."

For girls like Miriam Grill, a 23-year-old ASU undergrad, it's all about the possibilities. Grill has never done more than make out with a girl, although she's done that "a lot," she admits, and not because guys are watching. She thinks there's something sensual about it.

Grill has a boyfriend of two years, but she doesn't consider herself strictly straight -- she prefers "bi-curious."

"I don't think I ever see myself with a woman, but I have thought about it," she says. In the long run, "I'm open to it. I don't want to eliminate half the people on this earth and say, 'My soul mate is going to have to be a guy.' That's not something I'm carving out."

Elizabeth, the 22-year-old massage therapist, agrees. Before she got serious with her current boyfriend, she twice kissed girls. If she and her boyfriend break up, which she admits is a distinct possibility, she's not going to limit her options by gender.

"I think for me, things are still kind of wide open," she says. "I'm equal opportunity all the way."

The new freedom affects lesbians, too. Elaine, a 35-year-old Phoenix sales rep, says she originally "came out" as gay when she was 18. But she had to admit as time passed that she was attracted to men, too.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske