Opinion: We often hear that sexuality is on a spectrum. What does this mean exactly?
Finney is an associate marriage and family therapist living in University Heights.
You’ll hear it all the time: sexuality is on a spectrum. But what does that mean exactly? And how does that differ from checking off “straight, gay, or bisexual” on an admissions form?
In modern psychological research, “sexual orientation” is a term used to describe the set of human sexual preferences. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, sexual attraction, romantic attraction, sexual behavior and gender identity. For many people, these factors all line up: for example, a straight woman who is sexually and romantically attracted to men, with a history of sex with only men. However, these differences are not so clearly defined in many people’s experiences, which can lead to a lot of shame and confusion.
Sexual fluidity is the concept that sexual orientation can be context-dependent and change over time. You may have heard the term “gay for the living” to describe incarcerated people who engage in same-sex relationships in prison when they would otherwise engage in heterosexual relationships in their communities.
But this is not limited to people who are remote and isolated from mainstream society. Even “Saturday Night Live” comedy band The Lonely Island wrote the song “The Golden Rule” as a humorous defense of having a threeway with a member of the same sex. It is also common for people to engage in sex with one gender, but fantasize about or watch pornography focused on other genders. And we can’t forget those who identify as straight but have a history of kissing or engaging in other same-sex sexual behaviors when under the influence of alcohol. or other drugs. If sexual identity, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior were the same, how could we explain these differences in alignment?
That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the differences between gender identity and sexual attraction. A lesbian woman might have a satisfying sexual experience with a man, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to continue having sex with men, or that she wants to communicate to others that she is looking for a heterosexual partnership. Therefore, she might still identify as a lesbian in order to tell others that she is looking for a partnership with another woman.
Our sexual identities are labels we use to let ourselves and others know what kind of relationships we prefer. However, gender identity is not the alpha and omega of relationship preferences.
By labeling people’s sexual fluidity as “confusion,” we invalidate the very meaningful relationships that others engage in. As Carrie Bradshaw said in “Sex and the City,” “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a stopover on the way to Gaytown.
Although it was released in 2000, many people still struggle to understand anything outside of the gay-straight binary. We often receive cultural messages that bisexual men are actually gay people testing the waters, while bisexual women engage in gay relationships to get men’s attention.
What do these misconceptions have in common? They are both based on the idea that basically, given the choice, men are ultimately the most desired sex. This patriarchal idea functions to categorize people into neat and clean boxes as a means of oppressing. But, as psychology researchers keep telling us, humans are anything but easy to categorize.
Our rigid views on sexuality and gender identity are part of what fuels violence against transgender and non-binary people. If society didn’t expect us to “find” and fix our sexual preferences, there wouldn’t be so much pressure on people, especially straight people, to defend their sexuality. For example, someone may identify as straight or somewhat straight, but have a relationship with someone who is non-binary. This is the main difference between how we identify with and who attracts us. We should embrace these gray areas, rather than using shame to discourage exploration.
Sexuality is fluid and ever-changing – not something stagnant to be ‘discovered’. If we let go of the expectation that we need to be “sure” about our sexual preferences, we open the doors to more satisfying sexual and relationship experiences.