New Dimensions of Sexual Identity

Close up of young coupleEveryone has a sexual identity. This may sound like a simple and obvious thing to say, but I’ve found in my work as a therapist and an educator that people often only think of “gay” and “lesbian” when they hear the terms “sexual identity” or “sexual orientation.”  So, the first thing to know about sexual identity is that everybody has one. The next most important thing to know about is that one’s sexual identity is determined by that person alone, not by anyone else.

Popular culture often conflates sexual orientation and sexual identity. Sexual orientation describes who a person is attracted to. Are you attracted to men? Women? Both genders? All genders? This is your orientation. Sexual identity refers to the terms you can use to describe your sexual orientation. The most commonly used sexual identities are straight or heterosexual, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and queer. These are by no means all of the available sexual identities that people might use to describe themselves, but they are the most widely known.

Alfred Kinsey, a sexologist who conducted what many consider to be groundbreaking research on sexual behavior in the 1940s, developed the Kinsey scale, which provides one way of looking at sexual orientation and identity. The Kinsey scale is a continuum: Instead of placing sexual orientations into contained boxes, Kinsey placed them on a line that allowed for more flexibility in sexual attraction. The scale ranges from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual. A man who considers himself equally attracted to men and women, for example, may be a 3 on the Kinsey scale.  This scale changed the way sexual orientation was viewed, as it shows that attraction can be flexible.

For some people, sexual attraction, and therefore sexual identity, is simply not consistent. This does not mean that sexual orientation is a choice, but it does mean that sexual orientation is likely to be much more complex than Kinsey’s continuum implies.

Today, the use of terms such as heteroflexible and pansexual reflect the fact that it is now fairly common for people to think of sexual orientation in this way. However, many people still tend to think of sexual identity as set and consistent. The model of sexual orientation and identity that Kinsey popularized assumes that sexual attraction remains constant throughout the lifespan, that it does not shift and change.

Psychologist Lisa Diamond’s research, though it focuses on women’s sexuality, presents an alternative way to think about sexual identity for people of all genders. Diamond looked at sexual orientation and attraction from a multi-discipline approach without giving precedent to either cultural or biological influence. She found that for some people, sexual attraction, and therefore sexual identity, was simply not consistent. This does not mean that sexual orientation is a choice, but it does mean that sexual orientation is likely to be much more complex than Kinsey’s continuum implies.

Diamond offers an alternative way to look at sexual categories, suggesting that instead of focusing on the gender of attraction, sexual categories could focus on whether same-sex desire is exclusive or non-exclusive. This adds a new dimension to sexual identity, as it allows for the fact that sexual exclusivity or non-exclusivity can vary from high to low and be impacted by environmental factors, such as specific relationships. This additional dimension to sexual attraction reduces the impulse to define attraction as “authentic” or “inauthentic.” In other words, all attraction can be authentic. It just may not fit on a continuum in the way that it was previously thought to.

When an individual comes out as gay or lesbian later in life, perhaps while in a heterosexual marriage or partnership, there is often an assumption that the individual never really loved the partner, only “pretended” to be straight, or was using the marriage or partnership in order to have a family. These assumptions, however, are based on the premise that sexual attraction is consistent and that only some desires are authentic. When Diamond’s dimension to sexual orientation is considered, the story can be viewed in a different light. Instead of simply being viewed as gay or lesbian, the person can be described as nonexclusive gay or lesbian. The desire experienced was not inauthentic. Rather, a shift in sexual attraction was experienced, because sometimes sexual attraction shifts.

Sexual identity is only one part of a person’s whole identity, but it is an important part. It impacts relationships, how people see the world, and how people see themselves. Diamond’s findings suggest something that many people have discovered through their own experiences: sexual identity can be extremely complex, but it remains a person’s own to explore, describe, and define.

References:

  1. Diamond, L. M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Koch, P. B. & Weis, D. L. (Eds.). (1998) Sexuality in America: Understanding our sexual values and behavior. New York: Continuum.

© Copyright 2011 by Damon Constantinides. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • faye

    faye

    July 14th, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    i do not understand this need for labels- why do we always have to feel like we have to “be” something?

  • Gigi

    Gigi

    July 14th, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    “They did not experience inauthentic desire; instead they experienced a shift in their sexual attraction because sometimes sexual attraction shifts.” Which begs the question, how does sexual attraction shift? How can that happen, if you’ve been attracted to one sex all your life and suddenly find yourself looking at the other in a different light? What causes the shift? I’m confused.

  • Kiki

    Kiki

    July 15th, 2011 at 5:04 AM

    ” the women or man who comes out as lesbian or gay later in life while in a married heterosexual relationship.”

    I have always wondered about this and have thought that it’s not for nothing that a person is initially in a heterosexual relationship and later on realizes that he orahe is in fact attracted to the same gender,This theory of flexibility is definitely true and there are plenty of living examples to prove this.

  • CARL

    CARL

    July 15th, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    We sure are moving into a time where sexual identity takes on a whole new definition.There’s just so many changes.From having homosexual people keep their ‘secret’ to them being proud if it to these changing sexual preferences…It’s all changing and we know change is a good thing. It’s better if the populace understands all of this and discrimination based on a person’s sexual identity stops.

  • jade cortes

    jade cortes

    July 15th, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    You can’t really peg down someone’s orientation or gender identity with any level of accuracy in these modern times. Times have changed as has the society we live in. The traditional gender roles are so multifaceted now and there’s so much overlap that gender itself is pretty meaningless.

  • F.T.

    F.T.

    July 15th, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    @jade: You’ve hit the nail on the head there. I have friends that identify as a gender opposite their own, and more commonly, don’t identify with any particular gender at all.

    Although, I think that because of all the talk of gender equality, we’re actually throwing gender out the window and sending a new message: that what’s most important is to be yourself, whatever that may entail.

    I don’t see that as a negative.

  • BrandoNuke

    BrandoNuke

    July 17th, 2011 at 3:24 PM

    Homosexuality,shift in preference,bisexuality-all this has been existent like forever,Difference is that people have now started to come out with it. need not be a reason for shame for a person but that’s how they are made to feel.If this doesn’t change then we do not deserve to call ourselves a civic society whatsoever.

  • sean marshall

    sean marshall

    July 17th, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    I’ve read this twice and don’t get it. How can a man or woman identify with a gender that isn’t their own? That doesn’t make any sense to me. Penis and testicles, you’re male. Vagina, womb, and ovaries, you’re female. What’s complicated about that?

  • john edmond

    john edmond

    July 17th, 2011 at 4:58 PM

    @sean marshall-Here’s where I feel you’re going wrong. Your sex is biological, and your gender is psychological. You’re typically one of two sexes, male or female.

    However, your gender is flexible and can be easily changed or even be completely different from your biological makeup. Make sense?

  • Jason

    Jason

    July 17th, 2011 at 5:28 PM

    That makes sense. I have a question then. Does your gender have anything to do with your orientation? What I mean by that is is a male who identifies as female always attracted to men?

  • Audrey Day

    Audrey Day

    July 17th, 2011 at 8:37 PM

    @Jason: Not at all I’d say-your orientation is innate, but like gender, there is a degree of flexibility to it despite what Kinsey was saying. Your sexual preference is a very complicated thing, and it goes way beyond the simplistic boundaries of “I’m a man seeking a woman”.

  • Dr. Damon Constantinides

    Dr. Damon Constantinides

    July 19th, 2011 at 7:17 AM

    hey jason – great question. And it seems like the quick answer is – not necessarily. The long answer is that there isn’t enough research to say for sure. Trans folks who shift gender also use cross-sex hormones as part of the process as well, which can definitely impact sexual orientation and attraction.

  • Dr. Damon Constantinides

    Dr. Damon Constantinides

    July 19th, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    Hey Sean – I also think it’s helpful to remember that gender and sexual orientation are two different things. Our gender describes an innate feeling we have, as a man or a woman or with an alternative gender. Sexual orientation describes who we are attracted to. And lastly, sex, describes our chromosomal and biological body, or the package we are born into. These three things can line up in any way. For example a person can be born male, identify as a man, and be attracted to women (commonly called a “straight man”). Or he can be born male, identify as a man and be attracted to men (commonly called a “gay man”). Or someone can be born male, identify as a women, and be attracted to men (commonly called a transgender woman who is heterosexual).

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