Various close relationships for lesbian women in 1986 and 2005.

Author:Giertsen, Merethe


Several researchers studying close relationships point to the need to explore the contribution of structural and historical factors, and the need to examine relationships outside of the cultural mainstream (e.g., Felmlee & Sprecher, 2000; Wood, 1995). In this article, we seek to explore various close relationships in the lives of self-identified lesbians within two historical contexts.

Important works within sociology and social psychology during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have exposed social structures that regulated the lives of lesbian and gay men, such as homophobia (Weinberg, 1972), sexual stigma (Plummer, 1975), essentialist notions of sexual orientation (Richardson, 1984) and stereotyping and negative attitudes towards lesbian women and gay men (Herek, 1988). Although several of these social structures may still be strong, structural changes relevant to lesbian women and gay men seem to have taken place in Norway and other Westernized societies since the 1980s. In Norway, marriage-like same-sex partner registration was implemented in 1993, and Internet technology has provided much easier access to information about non-heterosexual sex and ways of living one's life, as well as offering new forms of exploring identities and connecting to other people. An increasing number of Norwegians report favorable attitudes towards lesbians and gays (Anderssen, 2002). In addition, the very distinctions between homosexuality and heterosexuality have been challenged (e.g., Seidman, 1996). It is believed that such recent historical changes have transformed the lives of lesbians (Patterson, 2000). However, very little empirical evidence exists from studies investigating this view. It is necessary to assess whether these structural, attitudinal, and conceptual changes have actually altered the living conditions for lesbian women and gay men so that important aspects in their lives are different today compared with only two decades ago.

Based on data collected in 1986 and 2005, we analyzed various close relationships in the life course of self-identified lesbian women, in the context of historical period. Specifically, we studied romantic relationships with women, romantic relationships with men, and giving birth.

Previous research

Regarding romantic relationships with other women, the very concept of identification as heterosexual, bisexual or lesbian is based on some sort of romantic relation or erotic attraction (e.g., De Cecco's definition of sexual orientation, 1981). Therefore, romantic relationships with other people probably constitute a significant aspect in the life experience of most self-identified lesbian women. In general, whether one is in a steady relationship or not constitutes an important feature of a person's everyday life. In a Norwegian pioneer survey among lesbian women and gay men in 1978 (Bergh, Bjerck, & Lund), 56% of the lesbian women (n=86) in the late 1970s reported being in a romantic relationship with another woman. In the late 1990s, 69% of the lesbian respondents (n=1135) in a national survey among lesbian women and gay men reported having a steady relationship with another woman (Hegna, Kristiansen, & Moseng, 1999). In the US, the figures range from 45% to 80% (Koh et al., 2005; Patterson, 2000). In Norway, among those who reported having romantic relationships with other women, the same proportion reported living with their lovers in the late 1970s (70%, Bergh et al., 1978) and late 1990s (73%, Hegna et al., 1999).

Regarding romantic relationships with men, many women who identify themselves as lesbians have complied with cultural expectations and explored heterosexual relationships on their way towards a lesbian way of life. Several studies indicate that a substantial proportion of lesbian women reported having had romantic relationships with men, both sexual and long-term (Bailey, Farquhar, & Owen, 2003; Brooks, 1981; Koh et al., 2005). In Norway, 84% of the lesbian respondents in the national survey reported that they had experienced a sexual relation with a man, while 59% reported that they had been in a steady relationship (more than three months) with a man (Hegna et al., 1999). Due to changes that have occurred within the past 20 years relevant to lesbians (such as more favourable public attitudes) one might expect that fewer lesbian women have experienced a romantic relationship with men today compared with the earlier period.

The issue of motherhood is thought to be crucial to many or most women in Western societies (Smart, 1992). In a national survey in the US, 21% of a sample of 2,431 lesbian and bisexual women reported having children (Morris, Balsam, & Rothblum, 2002). A growing number of women in the US are believed to have become parents after coming out as lesbian, in what has been described as a lesbian baby boom (Patterson, 1994). In the Norwegian surveys described above, Bergh et al. (1978) reported that 8% of the female participants had children, while Hegna et al. (1999) two decades later found that 13% of their lesbian and bisexual informants had children of their own. On the issue of wanting to become a mother, Hegna et al. (1999) reported that 29% of those who did not have children said they wanted a child, and we may speculate that this will result in more lesbian women of today giving birth.

Age of self-identification as lesbian and life-course

Lesbian women report to self-identify as lesbian at different ages, and this has impact on their future lives. For example, age, sequence of, and time between different lesbian identity events, such as first sexual relation with another woman, coming out to parents, and establishing a first lesbian relationship, are probably different for women who self-identify as lesbians in their 20s compared with those who do so in their 40s (see Giertsen & Anderssen, in press). Age of self-identification as a lesbian may also structure various relationships which is the focus of this article. Based on this, the figures reported above could be different for lesbians who self-identify as lesbians early in life versus those who do so later in life.

Effects of time

Time measured on an individual level corresponds to time measured on a societal level, and these two variables constitute an extreme form of collinearity because of the logical correspondence between them (Glenn, 2003). Because of this, the effects of time as age and as historical period are difficult to separate. Further, gay and lesbian studies in general reporting on time effects often utilize cross-sectional studies with various age groups (e.g., Hegna et al., 1999) or time series studies (e.g., Savin-Williams, 1995; Troiden, 1988), while not being appropriately designed to assess this. In a cross-sectional study, one cannot distinguish between period and age effects based solely on differences between age groups. If one does, one runs the risk of conducting a time bias, or interpreting changes in terms of historical time when one actually measures the phenomenon at only one point in time (Riley, 1973). The same logic applies to comparing samples from different historical time periods, where the age distribution in the different samples differs. In comparing age-related phenomenon between samples, differences can be an effect of different age distributions, rather than that of different time periods. To assess historical time changes in an age-related phenomenon one has to compare samples of people of similar ages from different time periods. We have found no studies on lesbian relationships and time period effects that utilize appropriate samples.


Based on the above literature review it is evident that existing literature suffers from time biases (especially comparing age groups within a cross sectional study). Thus, there is a great need for conducting research were one asses time period effects with comparable samples. The present work investigated whether historical period structured close relationships of lesbian women. Specifically, we investigated the following question: Did various close relationships in the life course of lesbian women change with historical time period?

From the review above, we expect that: (i) the same proportion of lesbian women today are in a romantic relationships with another women as in the earlier period, (ii) fewer lesbians today explore romantic relationships with men, and (iii) more lesbian women of today have given birth, and more wish to have children.


Design and samples

Two samples were established: one from 1986 and the other from 2005. The 1986 sample was recruited through the contemporary Norwegian national organizations for lesbians and gays, which sent a total of 250 questionnaires to female members (selected by the organizations), with response envelopes attached. In addition, 50 questionnaires were distributed at meeting places for lesbians. A total of 148 completed questionnaires were returned, representing a response rate of 49.3% (possibly higher since some organization members probably also attended meetings of lesbian groups and thus received two questionnaires). Respondents who reported identifying themselves as bisexual (n = 7), or with unknown labeling of sexual orientation (n = 1) were not included in the analyses. The resulting preliminary 1986 sample consisted...

To continue reading