I’ve flipped flopped around this trend again and again over the past few years. The more I read, the more often I change my mind. The trend I’m discussing is straight girls kissing other straight girls.
I used to defend these antics wholeheartedly, freedom of sexual expression and all that. To some degree I still do. There are some very positive repercussions that result from the sexual freedom women feel nowadays. Out are the days of prim and proper behavior expected of young women in Western society (well, for the most part), and in are a new set of standards that allow us to explore our sexuality more openly.
This does two things. One, it allows us to develop our sexuality, to become more comfortable and confident with it. And two, it allows us to explore our sexuality in ways we might not have before. For most women who go to bars or parties and kiss or make out with each other it may be harmless fun, but for others they could be exploring a same-sex interest that they might have been too nervous to sample otherwise. The lighthearted way in which girl-on-girl kissing is treated now allows women to explore this facet of their sexuality in a safe environment that doesn’t necessarily mean a commitment to any kind of label.
In a study conducted by Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the two colleagues discussed what they believed to be the three main reasons girls kiss one another in this fashion. According to Taylor and Rupp, girls kiss one another for attention, out of experimentation, or out of legitimate same-sex desires. This idea is supported by data collected from the National Health and Social Life Survey, which found that less than two percent of women identified as being lesbian or bisexual, but more than eight percent had experienced same-sex desire or participated in a same-sex act.
These results are important, especially when you consider that results for men were almost entirely the opposite. The results suggest a phenomenon that has been coined as “heteroflexibility” among women. The idea is that women are more flexible in their sexuality than men are, and a self-identified straight woman can have a girlfriend for a few years and then go back to dating men — Anne Heche being a perfect example — or vice versa. Sexuality for women is beginning to be understood as more of a situational construct than a rigid one.
So the fact that girls kissing other girls is now accepted so casually is good, at least in this sense. It allows women to explore this “heteroflexibility” in a safe place. Yes, women may be subjecting themselves to the male gaze in order to achieve this expression, but the fact that their kissing is so sexualized by men is what makes it so acceptable. Two straight men kissing one another is never done for “the female gaze.” In fact, it isn’t really done at all. So women are allowed more leeway when it comes to their sexuality, the trade being that they become eroticized images for male viewing pleasure. It’s s a tough patriarchal world in which we live.
Being able to kiss other women without fear of stigmatization can be great and have some wonderful results. Writer Stephanie Gilbert of UCLA’s OutWrite wrote about her own experience kissing straight girls before she chose to come out, “And when she pulled me into the bathroom and closed the door, the realization that our public straight-girl kissing was now private lesbian sex made every drop of degradation worth it.” Experiences like these can be very powerful. Discovering a part of your sexuality that you were unaware of or afraid of in this way can be liberating.
However, as great as all of that is for exploration and self-discovery, I will say that for the most part I feel like making out between two straight women is generally done for the benefit of the men within viewing distance. I myself am guilty of this. I have kissed or made out with most of my female friends at bars and parties, and I can say that all of these instances have exactly two things in common: The first is that we were always drinking, and the second was that it was always in front of an audience of men. Most of the time we did this to garner free drinks for ourselves. I’m not proud of this, but I was a poor undergrad, and it was a cheap way to get served.
It’s only recently that I have begun to fully understand the concept of the male gaze. I’ve realized that as much I tried to defend my behavior, really all I was doing was demoting myself to a subject for male viewing. I objectified myself in this process, stripping myself of my own autonomy and transforming into a subject solely present for the pleasure of men. Yes, I got some free drinks, but at what other cost?
Also, there is the question of what effect this behavior has on legitimate lesbian couples. Rather than existing as two individuals showing affection toward one another, lesbian couples kissing at bars also become the subjects for male viewing pleasure. And by participating in this behavior, straight women kissing for the male gaze essentially serves to perpetuate this “erotication” and strip lesbian couples of their legitimacy.
In fact, in Taylor and Rupp’s study they found that girls kissing girls was acceptable — up to a point. The women they interviewed seemed to think it was okay for two straight girls to kiss, to even have fun with it, but if the two began to enjoy it in any real way or seem to show any kind of emotional connection beyond the simple physical aspect of the kiss, then the kiss crossed the line from innocent fun to real same-sex tendencies. At this point the kissing left the safe space established for heterosexual participants and ventured into new territory.
One bisexual woman interviewed for the study had this to say about her experience of kissing her girlfriend at a party: “Some guy came up and poured a beer on us and said something like ‘stop kissing her you bitch.’” When the kissing is done for a woman’s own pleasure, it somehow leaves the space of safe experimentation and moves to a place where it represents a threat to male heterosexuality, and that is dangerous. The same woman spoke of how sick she and her girlfriend grew of having men stare at them in bars as they kissed, either cheering them on or wanting to join in. “It gets pretty old.”
Every couple should have the same freedom to express their affection without being denigrated to the level of a lame male fantasy, and I feel like by making out with my friends just to get some free drinks, I am aiding in stripping this right from same-sex couples.
I understand that this behavior is often done simply for fun, but I also think its important for us to understand the repercussions it might have for other women and for ourselves. I am all for exploring one’s sexuality and being okay with it, but I feel that the fact that we have to objectify ourselves in order to establish this safe space is not the way to go about it. If we want to experience real empowerment, we need to be able to explore our sexuality on our own terms without men. It’s a tough issue, one that I think has no clear solution. But at least for me, I feel like I have no business swapping spit with my friends just to get some free drinks or some extra attention.