Up to 15% of the U.S. population may identify as heteroflexible, according to a 2020 study1. That's more than the number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people combined. But to many people, this identity is still a mystery.
Here's what it truly means to be heteroflexible and how to figure out whether this label applies to you.
What is heteroflexible?
In a nutshell, heteroflexible means "mostly straight." The term refers to people who are mostly attracted to the "opposite" gender but are also open to same-gender experiences. Because heteroflexible people are not entirely straight, they fall onto the LGBTQIA+ spectrum of sexual and romantic identity. (On the queer-women-focused dating app Her, for example, "heteroflexible" is one of the sexual identities that users can choose from.) Both women and men can identify as heteroflexible or mostly straight.
"Heteroflexible is still a very new term and can refer to a wide range of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings," Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness in New York City, tells mbg.
People who identify as heteroflexible may experience a range of same-gender desires or behaviors, including sex, flirting, kissing, crushes, or fantasies—all while being mostly attracted to the other gender. That said, the meaning of heteroflexibility is subjective; there's not just one way to be heteroflexible.
Heteroflexible vs. bisexual
"Bisexual" refers to someone who is attracted to people of their own gender as well as other genders. If you think that sounds somewhat similar to being heteroflexible, you're not wrong. The terms "heteroflexible" and "bisexual" can describe similar experiences, and some people even identify as both. Like all sexual identities, both of these words are subjective. Their meanings are nuanced and often have more to do with evolving popular usage than strict dictionary definitions.
Bisexual and heteroflexible are separate, coexisting identities. Many people do feel drawn to one label over the other, and which identity is more "accurate" for a particular person is ultimately up to that individual. "For each person it will be different," psychotherapist Todd Baratz, LMHC, tells mbg. "Ultimately, this is a subjective experience. Some don't want to commit to one label or feel more comfort and congruence with another."
Linguistically speaking, heteroflexible and bisexual are very different-sounding words. The word heteroflexible has the term "hetero" front and center, which may appeal to people who feel tied to their straight or mostly straight identity. By contrast, the word bisexual doesn't contain "hetero" at all. This may appeal to those for whom same-gender attraction is a more central part of their identities.
In the end, "we have to become more curious" about why people pick specific labels rather than trying to prescribe them, Baratz says. Caraballo agrees, adding, "It's really important to listen to not only what terms people use to label themselves but also what it means for them."
How to know if you're heteroflexible
In some ways, it's great that identities like heteroflexible don't have strict definitions—it means that the term is expansive enough to fit a range of people's experiences. But also, this can make life confusing for not-straight folks. If there's not a strict definition of heteroflexible, then how do you know whether you're heteroflexible or not?
"There isn't usually a 'how to do sexual orientation,'" Baratz explains. "People explore and experiment." Only you can decide whether you identify with this word.
Here are some clues that you may fall into the heteroflexible category:
- You're mostly into the opposite gender, but you've been attracted to the same gender once or twice in the past.
- You only seriously date people of the opposite gender, but you sometimes like to "have fun" with the same gender.
- You're happy being straight, but you're curious about experimenting sexually or romantically with people of the same gender.
- You're happy being straight, but you've tried being with someone of the same gender and enjoyed it.
- You don't completely rule out being with someone who shares your gender, but you'd only do so in special circumstances.
- The idea of never being with the same gender makes you feel like you'd be missing out on an important experience.
- Or, conversely, being with the same gender is something you could take or leave—a recreational activity, not a necessity.
- Terms like "bisexual" or "queer" don't feel like they fully capture who you are.
RELATED STORY: What's The Difference Between Bisexual & Pansexual?
The history of heteroflexibility
The term "heteroflexible" first appeared in slang used by college students in the early 2000s, according to Merriam-Webster. The term derives from "heterosexual," which originated in the 19th century alongside its counterpart "homosexual." (The term "homoflexible" also exists for those who identify as mostly gay.)
While the term "heteroflexible" is new, being mostly straight is definitely not a recent phenomenon. "This kind of flexibility has existed as long as sexuality has, so it's not really a new idea per se," Caraballo says. The labels "gay" and "straight" have never been enough to fully capture the wide range of human sexual experience. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey developed the Kinsey scale to more accurately reflect this range.
The scale goes from 0 for "exclusively heterosexual" to 6 for "exclusively homosexual." That leaves numbers 2 through 5 to represent everyone who's somewhere in between, which, it turns out, is many people. Years of research, dating all the way back to Kinsey’s original studies, have found that many people who self-identify as straight also report same-sex romantic or sexual behaviors2. This is true for both men and women.
In more recent years, being heteroflexible or mostly straight has evolved into its own identity, with many personal essays and books on the topic. A 2015 report found that half of people between 18 and 24 years old say they're "not 100% straight." Moreover, this trend seems to be on the rise in younger generations. A 2016 survey found that only 48% of Generation Z identifies as completely straight, compared to 65% of millennials.
Debates and controversy over the term heteroflexible
Given that sexual fluidity has existed for such a long time, the rise of the word "heteroflexible" to accurately describe this fluidity has proved useful to many folks, particularly those who identify with the label. But not everyone is supportive of this new identity. "I think that any time someone finds new, uncommon language, there is a pushback," Caraballo says.
One popular criticism holds that identifying as heteroflexible is biphobic. Biphobia often comes in the form of erasure, wherein bisexual people get excluded, invalidated, or made invisible3. This is a major problem even within the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, many people mistakenly believe that bisexuality isn't a "real" sexual orientation. Bisexual women are often presumed to be straight, while bisexual men are often presumed to be gay.
Some people believe that identifying as heteroflexible rather than bisexual is just another way to avoid validating bisexuality as a real experience. However, just because these two terms have some overlap in meaning doesn't mean that they're exactly the same. There are other words that people who fall into the dictionary definition of "bisexual" choose to use instead, including pansexual, queer, fluid, and polysexual. Each of these words comes with its own distinct, nuanced meaning, and people who identify with these words often do so because they feel like home, not necessarily because they have anything against being bi.
"I think that largely people use language ultimately that is both comfortable and familiar to them," Caraballo says. Baratz agrees, adding, "Oftentimes people don't feel as if they fit into any category, and the label becomes the default language they use to communicate to others."
Sexual fluidity isn't going anywhere—so the more words we can use for our experiences, the better. As heteroflexible identity becomes more popular, it also becomes more widely embraced, by both straight and queer people alike. "While there are folks in the queer community who don't accept all of their LGBTQIA+ family, the majority do," Baratz says. "Over time it is likely that people will be given more and more permission to self-define and/or identify as they please."
Kim Wong-Shing is New Orleans based writer with a B.A. from Brown University. Currently, she is a contributing writer for GO Magazine and StyleCaster. Her work focuses on beauty, identity, wellness, relationships, and pop culture. Bylines in: Men’s Health, USA Today, Healthline, Autostraddle, Bustle, and more. She is a queer woman, a Black feminist, a lipstick hoarder, a plant lover, and a Buddhist.