what I got wrong about LUGs

A beautiful thing about my job is that if I ask students to tell me when I get something wrong, they do (thanks ya’ll!).

What I got wrong with my LUG (lesbians until graduation) post is that I completely missed a MAJOR piece of the problem, and it has turned my brain inside out. It is this:

LUGs, the argument goes, are taking advantage of the safe space of college to experiment with sexuality and then ducking out into the privilege of a straight identity once they’re in a less safe space.

There is a resentment about this among the, um, True Lesbians, who face a life of constant discrimination and prejudice.

This is really terribly, terribly complicated. Here are two complications I can see.

(1) Facilitating Factors. Diamond writes about “facilitating factors” and specifically identifies safe spaces (“exposure to environments that provide positive experience with same-sex relationships”) as facilitating factors.

My dears. My dearie dears, do you see the inherent conflict here? This here is a brain inversion moment. If we do what (I’m pretty sure) most lesbian-identified women would want, which is to create an INCLUSIVE environment, where sexual diversity is accepted and supported, we are ALSO creating a space that facilitates fluidity.

An environment that affords positive experiences for lesbians inherently affords fluidity. We are thus not ONLY opening up a safe space for lesbian women to have loving, out relationships; they’re also opening up a space for non-exclusively oriented women to experience fluidity.

(2) Fluidity Itself. Remember, if Diamond’s sample is representative – and I’ve reason to believe it is – then 30% of students who currently identify as lesbian will, at some point in the coming 10 years, have a full blown romantic relationship with a man. In the coming 10 YEARS, not just during college. And there are NO predictive variables to help us know which 30% it will be.

It’s more brain inversion: which lesbians are just taking gratuitous advantage of the safety of the campus, and which are committed lesbians who just happen to meet an exceptional man? Right now we have no way of telling. The research SAYS there is no way of telling.

Now imagine you’re a person who’s always identified as straight and then you come to college and you meet this amazing person who happens to be the same gender and you just fall head over heels, even though you never even imagined being in a same-sex relationship before… are your feelings less genuine simply because they might not have occurred in a less inclusive environment?

Should you choose NOT to get into a relationship this person you’re attracted to, on the grounds that you might not be attracted to that person under other circumstances?

Is the only REAL love a love that would thrive even in a hostile, hateful landscape? Only if you can love through being egged and threatened on the street is your love real?

That’s not the standard we set for straight relationships or relationships that look heteronormative.

I can totally see where the resentment would come from, and yet… I can’t bring myself to judge a person’s individual, internal, emotional experience on the basis of its political import. How could *I* know whether or not someone really loves someone else? Can I tell from the outside whether she’s a “real lesbian” or “just experimenting?” If it not my relationship, is it any of my business?

People love whom they love. Fluid women have it in them to love beyond gender. Isn’t that something to celebrate? Shouldn’t we aim for a world where EVERYWHERE is a “facilitating factor,” where people see positive examples of same-gender and same-sex relationships, where permission is granted for us to love the people we love? Why not, instead of resenting them, take fluid women as a sign that the campus has achieved something extraordinary?

Again, I can see where the resentment would come from. But it’s hard, it’s complicated. I want freedom for everyone. Love, in women, is contextual. Not everywhere is equally free, so love varies for women from place to place. What are the ethics of that?

It’s a brand new question.

I think we need me and Dan Rivers and a lot of students to get together in a room and have chat about it; that’s what I think.

11 responses to “what I got wrong about LUGs

  1. I think you hit the issues a lot more here. There is definitely a lot of resentment among the “true lesbians” but at the same time, I don’t think the so-called LUGs are discriminated against in a hateful or hostile way. They are definitely judged for sure by many but really who isn’t? While Smith is a very safe place to explore your life and your orientation and whatever else, it is also a bubble where everyone judges everyone else and everyone is in everyone else’s business. It is a crazy and complicated place and I do think Smith is truly unique in it’s level of safety and openness to be who you want to be but at the same time, it is a bit too incestuous to not have it’s own level of judgment and complication.

  2. mulierosity

    Judging others is inevitable in all of us but judging love is definitely… unlovely.

  3. Emily,
    Thanks for taking this on. I went to Scripps, a small women’s college in California, for a year but transferred out before the ‘epidemic’ of ‘predatory LUGs’ appeared among my classmates. But I had a close high school friend who went to Mt. Holyoke and heard no end from her lesbian friends about the parasites that were LUGs. Now that I’m almost 10 years out of college (and myself work in college sexual health, albeit at a definitely het-norm straight public school) I think that perhaps what is going on here is more nuanced. First of all, there IS male bisexuality/fluidity among men in this age group. It just doesn’t get as much public notice, because the places men go to cruise other men (gay clubs, primarily) are usually not frequented by very many straight people and so everyone is surprised when it turns out that, yes, male sexual fluidity exists. Also, there is tons of literature about ‘sexual fluidity’ among men in prisons and the military, but I suspect the people interested in studying female sexual fluidity, which is considered to occur only in ‘chosen’ environments like women’s colleges, are not interested in examining male ‘fluidity’ in non-chosen environments like prison. But at bottom, humans in the 18-22 age range are interested in experimenting, period. A huge percentage of sexual encounters that happen among college students are explicitly *not* directed at determining permanent, lifelong identities. For example, I have students who ask me about very low level kink (handcuffs, say) who are clearly not heading down the path towards identifying as hard-core BDSM. But you put 1500 women (or men) in a small space and the chord of same sex interest is going to get struck in some individuals who it would not otherwise, probably just because of the increased level of exposure to non-heterosexual people and options. And maybe they find a lifelong partner and maybe they don’t. But most people don’t find a lifelong partner in college regardless. And, I mean, aren’t more girls interested in having sex with girls a *bonus* to girls who like having sex with girls?

    • I take issue only with your concluding sentence. While I do not discount that it is their right to experiment without being disparaged or degraded, saying that the existence of LUGs is a boon to the lesbian community is a joke.

      The idea that the simple existence of more possible sexual partners for a short period of time would be a “bonus” implies that lesbians are seeking short-term sexual relationships.
      I’ve seen many women heartbroken after their partner leaves them for a male — a heartbreak certainly more intense then when the relationship ends for other reasons because, in this case, the woman is left wondering if she turned her partner off women entirely or why she was unable to see the male-attracted part of her partner.

      I have been the subject of a few girls’ “experiments.” It’s never a pleasant experience. The sex is invariably sub-par and the girl usually wants to make you into her personal sexual orientation counselor afterward. No, I don’t deny them their right to experimentation. In fact, I encourage it! We are sexually liberated 21st century women, after all. But, please, experiment amongst yourselves.

      • Madeleine, please. Every dating relationship is an experiment, even if you are certain of your gender preference and only dating within it. I have been the subject of both male and female experimenters, and was always happily experimenting right back. Using the term “experiment” only for same-sex relationships is itself pejorative.

        Also, not expressed here (except by Meg, below) is how the “LUG” woman identifies once she starts exclusively dating men. I doubt most go on to think of themselves as “straight”. Many will, like me, consider themselves queer for the rest of their lives. Think about how powerful that is, politically: all those women coming out of college with emotional ties to the LGBT community. They go on to do things like follow LGBT issues in the news, fight homophobia, work for legal equality, and raise gay or LGBT-friendly kids. Yes, I know, I am swimming in a sea of hetero privilege, and you can look down your nose at me all you want, but I consider myself a LGBT ally and I VOTE. ;-)

  4. I’m left puzzled. Puzzled by how little fact, and how much membership or belief, influences our thinking and decision-making.

    Here, as a moderately well-informed biologist, is what I understand we *know* at the current time about gender preferences:


    For males, there are very large genetic and developmental components — a substantial majority of men who are erotically oriented toward other men find themselves that way because of inherent factors not of their choosing. Gender preference in males is strikingly bimodal, with many hetero males, 5% or so gay males, and a very scanty distribution of bi males.

    BUT many more men, in all-male environments, or with cultural permission (e.g., Brazil) will avail themselves of other men as sexual outlets. And epidemiological work related to AIDS has also shown us that a good third of strongly gay-identified males have at least occasional sex with women.


    In just the last few years, after a long and difficult search, we seem to have identified a small number of relatively weak genetic and developmental factors that influence female same-sex behavior, but for the vast majority of women, same-sex is a choice, part of a powerful spectrum of female nonsexual and sexual affinities that provide community, protection, economic advantage, and, yes, sexual and relationship satisfaction. The parallels to female alliances among bonobos is striking.

    Same-sex, for the vast majority of females, is situational, not inherent, and the number of women who are exclusively female-female over long periods of time is quite small. The broadest pattern looks like it may be this: early fun and experimentation, a strong shift toward reproductive (female-male) sex in the prime reproductive years, and another shift toward same-sex connection from the 40s onward.


    The terms Emily mentions in this post strike me as purely political in meaning and intent. “True Lesbian”? What an odd term. What awful judgments of other people’s sexuality are implied. “LUGs”? Besides the (probably intentional) ugliness of the acronym, what an amazing collection of put-downs are included.

    Does anyone remember when, not so many decades ago, anyone using penetration in female-female sex was a sellout, a traitor to women, a pervert? Or how silly and sad that seems today?

    Are we making progress toward a genuinely caring, sex-positive world?

    Maybe. If we’re lucky. And if we can stay conscious of some of the ickier aspects of our political behavior.

  5. Jeez: two posts. Addictive behavior. But I wanted to add a thought to what Julie Sunday said.

    18-22-year-old experimentation? My life experience is that experimentation is greatest (where it’s not successfully suppressed by society) peaks at 8-16. I also explored a bunch from 18 to 22, but I suspect that was largely situational. Wonderful fun, and with previous experience base that helped make it particularly vivid, but I think my real shaping happened much earlier.

  6. Bill, you know these aren’t my terms, right? And you noticed the “um” and the ironic capitalization, right? I’m just reporting the dynamic as students have explained it to me. And I am actually making the same comment that you are, that it sure would be swell if we could check our judgments and create space for everybody. (You probably knew that – I’m just… ya know.)

    And Julie, yes I’m only talking about women at this point, both because I work at a women’s college and because it’s the exclusive subject of Diamond’s book, which inspired the original post. But Bill is right that men have some fluidity, but much less than women. It’s a genuine difference between men and women, and it’s not just socially constructed. Come to think of it, maybe I should do a post about men.

  7. Perhaps some relabeling could be of use?

    “True lesbians” => “Obligate lesbians” unattracted to and unable to function sexually/emotionally with men. (For whatever reason)

    “LUG’s” => “Facultative lesbians” or “Exploratory bisexuals” who can–at their option–function with men and/or women…

    If you consider it that way, as long as there are some form of consequences (social, transfer costs, emotional) to being a lesbian outside of college, obligate lesbians will probably see facultative lesbians as “cheaters” because they can get whatever benefits there are to being a lesbian without acruing the costs of lesbianism.

    So, you could look at “solutions” in two ways:

    1) Reduce the costs for being a lesbian outside of college.

    2) Increase the costs of lesbian behavior so both “types” have the same costs.

    Personally, I vote for solution #1.

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  9. I’ve known some of the “true lesbians”, including the most militant, Dianic lesbians I have ever met who hated all bisexuals much less LUGs, go on to have heterosexual relationships after college.

    My theory, pretty much solely the product of personal anecdote, is two-fold: one, availability of partners and two, LUGs don’t really go away, it is just socially acceptable and even desirable in the straight world after college.

    If you don’t meet someone during the 4 intense, work-filled years in college, you re-enter a world where 3% of the population are lesbians and another 5-10% are bisexual, whereas 47%-ish are men who might be attracted to you. It is hard to meet lesbians, especially given all the other characteristics women who have gone to expensive women’s colleges tend to look for. I know other women who accept lackluster sexual relationships in exchange for fulfilling emotional relationships.

    In my experience, the women with entitlement complexes who were the predatory LUGs become the bisexuals in straight marriages hoping for threesomes or drunken hook ups with friends. There is actually a pretty strong culture where I am among “straight” women of meaningless hookups with other women, especially at parties. They tend to play into patriarchal expectations and objectification, which is why they annoy me, but LUGs don’t automatically grow up to be straight.

    I considered myself a hard-core butch dyke in college, and ended up with a femme man after five years of not meeting a compatible woman. I still hang out in the gay community, but I certainly fit the definition of LUG. Unless you stay somewhere like Northampton or Santa Cruz, flexibility means being able to have a relationship (or, for that matter, casual sex.)

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