Everyone 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.
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.
- Diamond, L. M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- 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.
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