There’s an old joke credited to Lea DeLaria that has since become a cliche in LGBTQ circles:
“What does a lesbian bring to a second date?”
Even Issa Rae knows the joke — on a recent episode of Insecure, she found out her gay brother just moved in with his new boyfriend. “Y’all some lesbians!” she says.
I laughed — and most lesbians would say it’s funny because it’s true. The long-held stereotype has been that female/female couples move quickly, cohabitating early in a new relationship, whether it’s after a handful of dates or just a couple of months. But while there are surely those who prove the theory, new research finds that queer women actually don’t U-Haul any faster than their gay male or heterosexual counterparts.
“The long-running assumption has been that men and women are presumed to have different desires and preferences in regard to commitment and relationships, and as a result, we might expect men and women in same-sex relationships to reflect these differences,” says Taylor Orth, a Sociology Ph.D. Candidate at Stanford University. “Qualitative research on different-sex relationships in the United States has demonstrated that male partners tend to play a dominant role in initiating whether couples become sexually or romantically involved, while female partners are typically the ones to first suggest that the couple move in together or raise the issue of marriage.”
In “Commitment Timing in Same-Sex and Different Sex Relationships,” Orth and co-author Michael Rosenfeld utilized Rosenfeld’s 2009-2015 study called How Couples Meet and Stay Together to look at the progression of courtship, relationship formation, and cohabitation, specifically whether the rates of romantic relationship initiation and commitment are higher based on gender and sexuality.
“In the past, researchers have spent a significant amount of time focusing on commitment timing in different-sex relationships. Until recently, we’ve lacked large-scale, representative, and longitudinal data on same-sex couples,” Orth tells INTO. “[This is] the first dataset that allows us the opportunity to do so. “
Orth and Rosenfeld found that the long-running assumption that female same-sex couples move quicker than others is false, at least when it came to the 471 same-sex couples (221 FF couples and 235 MM couples) out of 3,009 couples total surveyed over the six-year study period.
Most of the couples surveyed were made up of two white partners — 77 percent of FF and 79 percent of both MF and MM pairings. Only 14 percent of FF couples had one white partner, and 8 percent were both non-white. In MF couples, 10 percent had one non-white partner, and 11 percent were both non-white. For MM, the numbers were slightly different — 15 percent of them had one white partner, six percent with both partners non-white.
“In the couples we tracked, female same-sex couples either moved in together or married after an average of roughly 1.3 years, relative to different-sex couples who took roughly two years and male same-sex couples who took roughly 1.5 years,” Orth says.
That isn’t much of a difference — especially considering some other variables.
“When interpreting these raw differences, it’s important to consider and control for other demographic differences between couple types,” Orth says. “Once taking into account the fact that same-sex couples tend to meet and begin relationships at older ages, the gap in long-term commitment timing virtually disappears.”
Because heteronormative culture allows for straight men and women to start earlier courtships (even from childhood), meeting through family, church, or school, while same-sex couples tend to meet and establish long-term relationships at an older age, the latter therefore progress their relationship more quickly than a straight couple who met before they turned 18. The average age for female/female couples to meet is 33.9 with a relationship beginning at an average of 35.2, meaning the number of years between meeting and relationship formation is just over a year (1.35). Male/male couples first meet at an average age of 37.2 and begin a relationship at 37.7. So while gay men move in at a slightly slower pace than queer women, they tend to get into relationships quicker. (Heterosexual couples, by comparison, meet by 25.8 and begin a relationship at 27.4.)
Obviously, with marriage not available to American same-sex couples until 2015, FF and MM pairings didn’t always have an option to commit in the traditional way. The study considers all forms of unions — civil, domestic partnership, and cohabitation — as “increased commitment” and the transition that a couple makes toward intended longevity. Couples are defined by two individuals “openly acknowledging that their relationship is romantic and sexual nature and consider themselves to be in a relationship.”
Gender roles also play a factor. When considering that courtship has long been established as requiring a male pursuer and heavily indoctrination by the woman’s parents with marriage being the ultimate goal, the idea that two women move faster to cohabitate has to do with stereotypes not of lesbians, but women in general.
“More specifically the view that women tend to be more commitment-oriented than men,” Orth says. “The fact that we find little differences between couple types doesn’t necessarily dispel this, but leads us to question the extent to which commitment-orientation is an individual attribute of women rather than a result of their social positioning and historical lack of bargaining power relative to their male partners.”
She notes that a 2013 Pew Research Center study backs this idea — researchers there found that unmarried gay male and lesbian individuals express a similar desire to someday marry (56 percent vs. 58 percent).
Based on Orth’s findings, MM couples have shorter periods of acquaintance before entering into a relationship, meaning they actually move faster to get into a partnership. And FF couples have the fastest rate of transition from couplehood to cohabitation — just not significantly more than MM or MF couples. So why does this U-Haul stereotype pervade?
“There is a long history of pathologizing both female desire as well as same-sex relationships. This perspective is still evident in some of the terminology applied to women in same-sex relationships. The U-Haul myth is one instance of this,” Orth says.
Orth says other versions of this pathologizing are the ideas of Lesbian Fusion (“which has been used to refer to the presumed extreme emotional yet non-sexual closeness of lesbian relationships”) and Lesbian Bed Death (when long-term cohabitation “results in low sexual desire and infrequent sexual activity”). As Orth writes in the study: “Despite the fact that same-sex couples face different interactional opportunities and constraints, their patterns of relationship progression appear quite similar to different-sex couples, suggesting that gender and sexuality are perhaps less important to relationship transitions than has been previously suggested.”
So, truthfully, the idea of lesbians U-Hauling is based on misogyny — internal or otherwise.
“Women who stray too far from the baseline of what is perceived to be male desire can at times be viewed as deficient,” Orth says, “and have historically been seen as in need of clinical attention to correct for such unnatural deviations.”
Orth says she went into this project with an open mind and a familiarity with the notion of U-hauling, but wanted to study it scientifically.
“Given how widespread the U-Haul stereotype is, as well as other stereotypes about same-sex couples,” she says, “I’ve been somewhat surprised by how small such differences are when you actually start analyzing patterns of data.”
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