"When I was a teenager, everyone was either gay or straight, apart from a few bisexuals who were assumed not to have come out properly," says journalist David Northmore, who explored the issue of modern sexual identity in last week's Pink Paper (headline: "They're not gay, not lesbian, not bisexual. They sleep with both sexes and they don't like labels"). These days, he says, that range is ludicrously limited. "Youth culture in particular is very androgynous. Young people are aware of the fact that sexuality is not set in stone."
A decade or two ago, he says, being gay was an all-or-nothing political issue. "Anything blurred around the edges was seen as politically naive. Now, although the mechanics of policy and the law still have to be sorted out, there's no need to be such a political animal."
Similarly, Kathryn Hoyle, who runs Sh!, Britain's first women's sex shop, says, "I know a number of women who think of themselves as lesbians but who sleep with men and who aren't ashamed." Ten years ago, she says, things would have been very different. "They'd have had lesbian feminists on their backs, all that debate about penetration. Calling someone queer is no longer viewed as an insult. Straight people don't have the same fear of that label and are more prepared to experiment, and it has also freed up gays to find members of the opposite sex attractive."
Six years ago, when she opened her shop, she found that she sold very few sex toys to straight couples. Now, she says, that has changed. "It's not just that straight men have discovered their prostate glands; it is that they know their own sexuality and they are not scared of being labelled 'queer'." FHM magazine found a similar story when they ran a sex survey in February; they discovered that a growing number of their male readers are prepared to experiment with vibrators, dildos and "strap-ons", so this bastion of testosterone-laden laddism sent out one of their writers to try sex out from the receiving end, as it were. This he duly did, not without some initial nerves. The result? Surprisingly upbeat: "a blend of pleasure and discomfort" involving "a series of gentle, soothing waves".
Susan Parker, 32, a graphic artist now in a relationship with a man and pregnant with her second baby, would agree that the blurring of sexual roles is a positive move. "I have always felt that relationships depend on the people involved, whether they are men or women. I had a very intense relationship with a woman that lasted a year and I got a lot of joy out of it. Then I met my current partner and I get a lot of joy out of this relationship, too. But a few of my women friends were upset and angry that I could form a relationship with a man, and I don't see why it has to be like that." Sex, she says, should be fun. "It's not about politics, it's about two people. I could never understand why 'lesbian chic' annoyed some gay women; if people want to experiment, why ever shouldn't they?"
Richard, 34, is a straight man who has experimented with sex with other men. "I don't see myself as gay because all my long-term relationships have been with women. But if I sometimes try something else, why not? When I first did this, with quite a close gay friend of mine, we were both drunk and I felt a bit startled and alarmed after. I wondered if I could be gay. But I still mainly wanted to sleep with women. Now I'm quite open about it in my own circle of friends. It's only like being a vegetarian who still wants the occasional bacon sandwich."
James Collard, formerly the editor of Attitude magazine, now editing Out in New York, believes a flexible attitude makes everybody's life easier. "One of the problems with gay politics is rigidity, which isn't very liberating. My idea of liberation isn't a gay-only space. Sexuality shouldn't be defining." It may be harder to achieve in the US, he adds. "In Britain the New Jerusalem is the same for gays and straights - they only have to push the door. There's nobody on the other side opposing with any energy; non-progressive views are seen as old-fashioned. But here the Christian right is very strong, and they are actively pushing in the other direction. Positions have become very entrenched."
The Pink Paper's David Northmore believes the current social climate is one that fosters flexibility. "Social developments have allowed for the evolution of sexual identity. Twenty years ago, everyone was
expected to find a partner and settle down for life. Today the majority of people have more than one partner and there is plenty more scope to experiment; today's social structure allows for more fluid relationships for everyone, gay or straight."
Could we be moving towards the notion that our sexuality is more accurately represented by a spectrum, with exclusively heterosexual and homosexual people at each end, and infinite variety in between? Or is one's sexual orientation ceasing to be used as a definition at all? (Many health promotion campaigns have already dropped the term "gay" in favour of "men who have sex with men" because so many men who do this don't consider themselves gay.)
Maybe, though urban centres like London are still streets ahead of further- flung towns and rural areas. Lisa, 28, a lesbian from Leicestershire, laughs at the very notion of flexi-sex being an issue where she lives. "I share a house with my partner, and we have agreed that it's best that anyone we don't know very well indeed thinks of us as flatmates. My parents know, but hers don't, though I'm sure they must suspect. I love the idea of openness but I wouldn't test it out by holding hands down at our local supermarket."
While Kim Watson, marketing director of Diva and Gay Times, agrees that social barriers are blurring, she adds "We produce gay-branded publications and our circulation is rising. In London and the metropolitan areas there is more and more integration, but there are plenty of people in rural areas who need inspiration and encouragement." There is, she points out, no statistical research to support the idea that sexual experimentation is increasing. "I think it has always been there - it's just that the taboo about talking about it is lifting. That is positive in itself, because the important thing is feeling comfortable about your own sexuality, regardless of what it is."
But there does seem to be some loosening up going on. Tom Robinson, writing last month in the Independent, observes, "For years gays and lesbians have urged hets to get in touch with the bisexual side of their nature and not feel threatened by it. The big news from the bi world is: increasing numbers of dykes and faggots are beginning to do the same." He would like to see "a space where everyone's welcome and anything goes: straights, dykes, males, females, drag kings, families, transsexuals, skinheads, the androgynous and the very, very gay. A space where we ask something other than 'what sex is this person?', where people can define themselves in any way they want, or not at all."Reuse content