Shore says her husband was willing to let her explore her new feelings. Then he stayed behind with the kids when, three years later, she moved out of their home and into a rental. But his support didn’t make everything easy. Shore was nervous about what it meant when he said she should "go with it," she recalls. "It was a very brave thing for him to give me that freedom — and scary for me to take it. All at once I was in this apartment, alone, with the whole life I had planned for myself gone." Her daughters, 21 and 16, now accept her sexuality. But it took nearly two years before they felt comfortable spending their visits with her in the apartment.
"You feel like, is this real, is this happening to me, is this something I can live out loud?" she says.
It is hard enough for any newly separated older woman to begin again — imagine trying to relearn the rules in a whole new social milieu. "I know how to flirt with men; I’ve done that all my life," says Jean, a 44-year-old New York City nurse who is in the process of coming out as bisexual. (She asked that we use only her middle name.) "I’m very shy with women, though. I haven’t quite learned how to flirt with them yet. I actually thought it’d be easier, but it’s not." The fact that Jean remains attracted to men has proved a unique challenge: Gay people, she says, are "not always 100 percent accepting of bi people. We get suspicion from both the straight and gay communities. Being around other bisexuals, male or female, is very liberating."
Yet with the confusion can also come the exhilaration of newness, a feeling akin to discovering sex for the first time. Fleisher assures the women she counsels that "a normal part of coming out as an adult is the feeling of being an adolescent on fire, caught in the body of a 40- to 50-year-old."
"I don’t have a type yet," Shore, now 51, admits. "I’m like a teenage boy. I think every woman is absolutely freakin’ gorgeous."
Women’s Sexual Continuum
With no comprehensive research to go by, experts can go only so far in explaining how or why an apparently straight woman might feel lesbian urges at midlife. "There’s a general recognition in the psychology and public health literature that women are much more likely to refer to themselves as bisexual than men are," Gates says. Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has studied both men and women who acknowledged a same-sex attraction during marriage. "Almost 100 percent of the men were aware of their feelings before they got married," Coleman says. "Many women, though, are unaware of same-sex attraction until they’re much older." He attributes this to several factors: "Women marry at an earlier age, before awareness might take place, and they may be more scripted by societal roles." Female desire, Coleman adds, is determined more "by emotional and relationship factors." Men, he says bluntly, are "much more visually motivated."
Could hormonal changes play a role? No studies have indicated that so far, Coleman says, but age does seem to be a factor: "The average time for this kind of crisis is somewhere in the late 30s to 40s. At midlife, you’re more likely to be reevaluating what you want."
Fleisher warns against "always looking for the one reason" for a midlife sexual shift. But she agrees with Coleman that for many women, an over-40 self-assessment may be involved. Midlife can be a time when "their internal wisdom tells them they’re ready to deal with what they maybe couldn’t have dealt with when they were younger. Or maybe they’re beginning to grow up and pay attention to what they want, to what makes them happy or unhappy," she says. "For others," she speculates, "maybe it’s [life] events that put them there."