September 28, 2010

What Is “Sexual Identity”? Is It The Same As Sexual Orientation?

What is sexual identity? How is it related to sexual orientation, and how is it different from it? It is quite complex, multidimensional, and fluid.

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Here at Kinsey Confidential, we have received a number of questions from readers regarding sexual orientation and identity.  As a man, am I bisexual if I am sexually attracted to ciswomen (biological females) and transwomen (male-to-female transgender women)?  How do I know whether I am a lesbian or bisexual?  Indeed, sexual orientation is a complex matter that consists of multiple dimensions.  Following Brad’s (a fellow KCon blogger) lead, I would like to provide a bit of clarity about what we mean by “sexual identity.”

What Is Sexual Orientation?

More traditional scientific approaches to studying sexual orientation relied on sexual behavior and attraction to classify people.  In general, people were categorized as homosexual (sexually attracted to people of the same sex) or heterosexual (sexually attracted to people of the “opposite” sex).  Dr. Alfred Kinsey expanded our definition of sexual orientation to account for the people who fall between the strict heterosexual-or-homosexual binary.  In particular, he noted that there are people who are bisexual (sexually attracted to women and men) and those who are somewhat homosexual/heterosexual.

More recently, we define sexual orientation to include these aspects – sexual attraction and sexual behavior – as well as sexual identity, romantic attractions and behaviors, membership in sexual communities (e.g., lesbian, bisexual, gay, kink, BDSM), sexual fantasies.  In general, sexual orientation is seen as something that is lasting and enduring, but researchers are beginning to note greater sexual fluidity over one’s lifetime.

Is Sexual Identity The Same Thing?

In general, most people adopt a sexual identity that “matches” their sexual orientation: most heterosexually-oriented people identify as “heterosexual” or “straight”, most homosexually-oriented people identify as “lesbian” or “gay.”  However, there is a sizable number of people for whom sexual orientation does not coincide with their sexual identity.  We can define sexual identity as the label that people adopt to signify to others who they are as a sexual being, particularly regarding sexual orientation.

For some people, there is a political element to their sexual identity.  For example, rather than identifying as bisexual (“bi” = two), some people identify as pansexual (“pan” = multiple); this moves away from the implication that there are only two sexes (female and male) and two genders (women and men) in light of the growing visibility of intersexed and transgender people.  Others identify as queer to highlight the fluidity and diversity of gender and sexual orientation and, further, to reclaim the term “queer” which has historically been used as a derogatory term for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.  Finally, there is growing visibility of people who identify as asexual, that is, they do not experience sexual orientation to a particular group (i.e., gender) of people.

A More Complex Definition: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Social Class…

In large part, one’s sexual orientation, and, in turn one’s sexual identity, is based on one’s gender.  To be a woman who is attracted to other women is to be defined, most likely by oneself and others, as a lesbian (or maybe queer, or a woman-loving-woman).  But, what if you are transgender?  Or intersexed (born with an ambiguous sex in terms of hormones, anatomy, and chromosomes)?  Or, what if you are attracted to transgender people, and/or intersexed people?  Indeed this complicates our definitions of sexual identity and sexual orientation.  This, again, is why some people identify as queer, pansexual, or maybe just “sexual” – that there are more than two sexes and two genders.

Another component that is often missing from our definitions of sexual identity and sexual orientation are those other components of attraction other than sex and gender.  To be a heterosexual man does not mean you are attracted to every woman.  In particular, we find that, in addition to sex and gender, we are attracted to people (or not) on the basis of ethnicity, race, social class, religion, level of education, ability/disability, body shape and size, and age.  But, to be bisexual or to identify as heterosexual implies only the gender or sex of whom you find attractive.  While some people consider these aspects to be our “type,” just as we have tastes for boys in bands or athletic girls, these aspects are just as important as gender and sex in defining who we are attracted to and who we seek out for sex and relationships.

Is Sexuality Fluid?

There is increasing evidence that our sexualities are not fixed from birth to death – rather, they are fluid.  For example, a psychologist, Dr. Lisa Diamond’s recent research has looked at the fluidity of women’s sexualities.  Similarly, other aspects of who we are attracted to can change as well.  At 21, we may be attracted to others in the 18 to 25 year old range, but, by 50, we may find ourselves attracted to people in the 40 to 60 year old range.  This is partly due to changes in our lives and new experiences.  (After working for 30 years, a 50-year-old may find more in common with another 50-year-old than an 18-year-old.)

This is also due to changes in our social context.  At 18, many people are surrounded by other 18-22 year olds while they are in college; however, at 50, unless you work at a college, it is unlikely that you will be surrounded by 18-year-olds on a daily basis.  In addition, our social context changes because of social changes.  For example, a sociologists, Dr. Michael Rosenberg, has found an increasing number of same-sex and interracial couples since the 1960s, a change that reflects greater acceptance of such couples, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and improving race relations. All of this points to a complex, multidimensional, fluid, and contextual picture of sexual orientation and identity that reflects the complexity of our sexualities and our social world.