Everyone’s relationships are different, with diverse goals, intentions, behaviors, and structures. Interviews with sexual minority, cisgender women (whom we’ll refer to as LGB+ women from now on) left us reflecting about how we can all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, think more expansively about sex, relationships, and sexual health.

Young LGB+ women are often left out of the picture by researchers and medical professionals  when it comes to sexual health- even though they’re actually at increased risk for getting sexually transmitted infections and becoming unintentionally pregnant. Similarly, LGB+ women are often left out of the picture when we talk about sex and relationships, because so many of the messages we receive about romantic and sexual relationships focus on straight couples and families. Whether we’re aware of it or not, that messaging can influence how we act in our own relationships with our partners. This is sometimes referred to as heteronormative sexual scripts.

What we wanted to find out:

Since heteronormative sexual scripts are pervasive and often unavoidable, we wanted to learn more about how these scripts show up for LGB+ women in their sexual relationships. Thus, our recent study, Queering LGB+ Cisgender Women’s Sexual Health Scripts, explored these questions: How do heteronormative sexual scripts show up in LGB+ women’s sexual relationships and health promotion decisions? If heteronormative sexual scripts do not appear in their relationships, how do LGB+ women construct sexual health scripts that are grounded in their experiences as LGB+ women?

What we did:

To answer our questions, we interviewed 22 LGB+ women about their decision-making processes when it came to their sexual health and relationships (like preventing STIs, condom use, and birth control). Our goal with these interviews was not to say that our sample reflects the sexual experiences or decisions of all LGB+ women. Rather, we used interviews to better understand a shared, lived experience more in-depth, which we can use to inform other research, social and medical policy, or relationship education. We got to listen to LGB+ women tell us about their relationship experiences so we could share the meaningful patterns with others as family and relationship scientists.

Finding 1: Redefining Sex

The women in our sample all discussed expansive definitions of sex. Participants’ definitions of sex included many components such as individual pleasure, sexual behaviors beyond penile/vaginal intercourse (e.g., touching, oral sex, sex toy use), and a focus on altruism and partner pleasure. In other words, re-defining sex had less to do with the “what” (i.e., behaviors) and more to do with the “why” (motivations, like promoting a partner’s pleasure). In this way, LGB+ women moved beyond heteronormative sexual scripts (which would say that sex really boils down to penile-vaginal intercourse) and thought creatively and expansively about what sex can look and feel like.

Finding 2: Leaning into Trust

A second pattern we noticed was that many women talked about establishing trust with potential partners as part of health promotion strategies. Through conversation, STI testing, or just getting to know their partner, they learned that they were able to trust partners to protect their sexual health. This new sexual script contrasted with a heteronormative script, which would tell us that women often act as gatekeepers around potential sexual partners who can’t be trusted. By instead falling back on trust, LGB+ women also enacted agency in their relationships, often sitting in the driver’s seat of their own sexual health decisions. (This was the case regardless of whether participants were partnered to someone of the same or a different gender.)

Finding 3: Thinking Inside and Outside the Box about Safer Sex

We also asked women about using barriers like condoms or dental dams (which are used for oral sex) to prevent STI transmission or pregnancy. Interestingly, while our participants often talked about using condoms to prevent unintended pregnancy, women did not often did not discuss using condoms as STI prevention during interviews. Centering pregnancy prevention over STI prevention is a common heteronormative sexual script. Emphasizing pregnancy prevention  also carried over into conversations about dental dams, which women did not embrace or discuss favorably (often categorizing them as unaffordable, uncomfortable, or inaccessible). Basically, if the barrier didn’t directly prevent pregnancy like condoms, it wasn’t endorsed by LGB+ women. However, women also used creative, expansive health promotion strategies like washing hands and sex toys, or urinating before or after sex with partners. In that way, LGB+ women moved beyond the idea that a barrier method is the only way to practice safer sex.


All in all, LGB+ women’s stories taught us that their relationships and sexual health promotion strategies are creative, expansive, and reflect their own needs and goals. Although some beliefs about sexual health were influenced by dominant heterosexual relationships and scripts (for example, a focus on pregnancy prevention over STI prevention), LGB+ women teach us that there are ways to think with and beyond what we’re told when it comes to our sexual health and relationships.

Mari Tarantino, M.S. (she/her) is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech studying Human Development and Family Science. Her research focuses on sexually, gender, and romantically marginalized individuals in partnerships and family contexts, as well as interdisciplinary perspectives on LGBTQ+ health. Her dissertation research will explore how transgender men and their partners make decisions about HIV prevention strategies. You can follow her on Twitter @mari_tarantino

Rose Wesche, Ph.D. (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Science at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on how diverse interpersonal relationships, including friendships, romantic relationships, and casual sexual relationships, are associated with adolescents’ and young adults’ well-being. Rose uses diverse statistical methodologies and theoretical perspectives to examine how interpersonal relationships create risks and benefits related to health. You can follow her on Twitter @RoseWesche