What It Means to Be Heteroflexible

A Brief History of Sexual Orientations

Five men of different nationalities at a pride parade

Diego Duarte Cereceda / Unsplash

Heteroflexibility describes the sexual behavior of someone who identifies as straight but sometimes has sex with people of the same sex. Some research indicates that as much as 15% of the U.S. population identifies as heteroflexible.

Heteroflexibility emerged as a term to describe people who identify as predominantly straight (and do not identify as gay, bisexual, pansexual, or another queer label) but sometimes have sex with people of the same gender. The term can be controversial, as some suggest that it contributes to bi-erasure and bi-invisibility. Others suggest that such claims minimize the identities of those who use the heteroflexible label.

LGBTQ+ Orientations

From the late 19th century to recently, American culture recognized only two possible sexual orientations: straight and gay/lesbian. This also held true for the man/woman gender binary, aside from the idea of Two Spirits from Indigenous and other cultures where gender fluidity was more accepted.

Visibility and representation of bisexuality, pansexuality, and other queer orientations have expanded the range of sexual orientation identities acknowledged in "mainstream" American culture.

However, our society still expects people to be heterosexual as the default—a phenomenon known as heteronormativity.

What Is Heteronormativity?

In short, society treats heterosexuals as normal and unworthy of notice, while people who are not heterosexual face extra scrutiny, sexualization, and stigma.

The term heteroflexible has recently emerged to describe people who have same-sex desires but still identify as primarily heterosexual.

Heteroflexibility vs. Bisexuality

Heteroflexibility is a subcategory of bisexuality. If you're heteroflexible, you're primarily straight but are open to sex with people of the same sex. If you're bisexual, you're attracted to both men and women.

The History of Heteroflexibility

To understand what this label means, it might be helpful to understand its history.Sexual orientation categories appeared in the late 19th century, with the invention of the words "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality." Before the invention of these words, gay and lesbian "acts" were outlawed, but there was no one widely-accepted word for identifying as a person who had sex with people of the same gender.

In his famous book "Gay New York," historian George Chauncey described how New York men in the early 20th century could have sexual relationships with other men without losing their identity as "men" (which at the time, was synonymous with heterosexual).

As long as a man dressed and acted in masculine ways and was the penetrating partner, it was acceptable to have intercourse with other men. Men who acted in feminine ways and were the receiving partner were called "fairies" rather than gay. It was all about gender performance, rather than attraction.

As the 20th century moved on, however, ideas of heterosexuality and homosexuality took hold as identities.

In other words, having sex with people of the same gender became more than an act; it was something someone was, rather than something someone just did—an identity over an activity.

These categories have been more or less flexible throughout the last hundred years. The 1960s and 70s were looser in terms of sexual experimentation and identity, while the 80s and 90s saw a return of clear, rigid boundaries around the actions that were acceptable from heterosexuals and LGBTQ+ people.

Heteroflexibility Today

In the past few years, social scientists have seen a return to flexible notions of what it means to be heterosexual. Research from 2018 by social scientists Carillo and Hoffman suggests that men who have an occasional attraction to and/or sex with other men are able to expand the category of "heterosexuality" to include their behavior.

Mostly, they do this in terms of denying their attraction to men and talking about sex with men as only for pleasure, when women are unavailable, or as a "perversion."

This research concluded that instead of switching to a bisexual identity, these men change the definition of heterosexual to include occasional attraction or sexual acts with men—something that sounds a lot like the early 20th century New Yorkers that Chauncey studied.

As long as these men maintain that they are not inherently attracted to men and behave in typically masculine ways, they mentally retain their heterosexuality—and privilege.

Heteroflexibility as an Orientation

Heteroflexibility as an orientation is akin to categories 1 and 2 on the Kinsey scale, with 0 being "exclusively heterosexual" and 6 being "exclusively homosexual." However, because it involves attraction and/or acts with people of the same sex, some critics have argued that heteroflexible is just another word for bisexuality.

Some suggest that some people might choose heteroflexibility as a label as a way to minimize stigma.

Though research by Carillo and Hoffman highlights a key difference between bisexual and heteroflexibility for some people, which is that heteroflexible people sometimes claim that they are not usually attracted to people of the same gender. This raises interesting questions.

Having Sex Without Attraction

Many people have sex with people they are not attracted to and have even enjoyed that sex. It could be for many reasons: They hired a sex worker, or they had sex with an available partner exclusively for their own pleasure, for example.

This means that heteroflexible men don't have to be attracted to men to be willing to have sex with them. But, in some cases, they could also be denying their attraction to avoid the label of gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It is difficult for scientists to separate the two, as that would require access to a person's most private thoughts.

What Makes Someone Gay?

Some people think that one instance of same-gender attraction or sex makes someone gay or a lesbian automatically. This is obviously not the case. Bisexual people have sex with people of the same gender without being gay. The boundaries between heterosexuality and LGBTQ+ are often subjective, leaving people lots of leeway in how they can identify.

Therefore, one can choose to identify as predominantly heterosexual even after having sex with people of the same gender. This is why social scientists have created the following categories for talking about sexuality:

  • Sexual orientation identity (what you call yourself)
  • Sexual behavior (what you do)
  • Sexual attraction (who you are attracted to)

These three things can (and often do) show different patterns among individuals and throughout each person's life course.

Why Some Find the Term Controversial

Some critics question whether people who have sex with others of the same sex can claim to be heterosexual.

One common criticism of the term heteroflexibility is that it perpetuates bi-erasure and bi-invisibility. Such criticism suggests that people are identifying as heteroflexible because they are uncomfortable being called bisexual or pansexual.

Some suggest that the label of heteroflexibility can give people the comfort to explore same-sex attractions. This, however, can leave those who describe themselves as heteroflexible feeling that their identity is less valid and only a step in the journey toward embracing another queer label. 

On the other hand, some argue that a person may identify with any orientation they please; it's up to the individual to discern. In this light, heteroflexibility is just as genuine and significant as any other orientation.

It is important to remember that people self-define and choose their own labels. Some people may feel that heteroflexible best describes how they feel, whereas others may feel that a different label such as bisexual, pansexual, or fluid better reflects their sexual identity.

How to Know If You Are Heteroflexible

Like other terms that describe sexual identities, the meaning of heteroflexibility is subjective: It might mean something different to you than it does to another person. Generally, you might be heteroflexible if:

  • You're straight but have enjoyed being with someone of the same sex.
  • You prefer the opposite sex, but you've felt attracted to people of the same sex on a few occasions.
  • You know (or suspect) you're not 100% straight, but "queer" and "bisexual" don't seem to fit your orientation exactly.
  • You'd be with someone of the same sex only in certain situations.
  • You prefer the opposite sex, but you like to experiment with people of the same sex.
  • You're satisfied with your orientation but are curious.
  • Being with someone of the same sex is on your bucket list, but you're content with someone of the opposite sex.

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, "heteroflexible" is just one way to describe someone who does not identify as entirely heterosexual. Labels can be helpful in some ways. They may help people learn to embrace their own identity and find a community of support, for example.

Recent polls suggest that the younger generation may be more comfortable not identifying by a rigid sexuality dichotomy; one recent survey found that among Americans between the ages of 13 and 20, only 48% identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual.

Rather than stress about the labels that people choose, the most important thing is to support all people in the LTBTQ+ community to ensure everyone feels safe, accepted, and supported.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Legate N, Rogge RD. Identifying basic classes of sexual orientation with latent profile analysis: Developing the multivariate sexual orientation classification systemArch Sex Behav. 2019;48(5):1403-1422. doi:10.1007/s10508-018-1336-y

  2. GLAAD. The U.S. bisexual+ movement: A #BiWeek history lesson.

  3. Legate N, Rogge RD. Identifying basic classes of sexual orientation with latent profile analysis: Developing the multivariate sexual orientation classification system. Arch Sex Behav. 2019;48(5):1403-1422. doi:10.1007/s10508-018-1336-y

  4. Chauncey G. Gay New York, Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. Basic Books; 1995.

  5. Carrillo H, Hoffman A. ‘Straight with a pinch of bi’: The construction of heterosexuality as an elastic category among adult US men. Sexualities. 2018;21(1–2):90–108. doi:10.1177/1363460716678561

  6. Legate N, Rogge RD. Identifying basic classes of sexual orientation with latent profile analysis: Developing the Multivariate Sexual Orientation Classification System. Arch Sex Behav. 2019;48(5):1403-1422.  doi:10.1007/s10508-018-1336-y

  7. Copen CE, Chandra A, Febo-Vazquez I. Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual orientation among adults aged 18-44 in the United States: Data From the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth. Natl Health Stat Report. 2016;(88):1-14.

  8. Wunderman Thompson. Gen Z goes beyond gender binaries in new Innovation Group data.

By Anabelle Bernard Fournier
Anabelle Bernard Fournier is a researcher of sexual and reproductive health at the University of Victoria as well as a freelance writer on various health topics.