Sex/Gender and Sexual Orientation

Myth-busting Monday: what we know about gender, sex, and sexual orientation is straightforward and well understood.

 

Nope.

 

And this idea is prevalent – that we have or should have gender and sexual orientation all figured out.  I have had several clients with questions or concerns about their own presentation secondary to the cultural impairment in understanding diversity around gender, sex, and sexual orientation.  Our culture often conflates the sex and gender. Further, visible and “acceptable” sexual orientations are limited in our culture, secondary to heteronormative/homophobic underpinnings and cultural hierarchies, and many only think of “straight”, gay, or “bi” coupledom (there’s so many more).

 

Sex vs Gender

Sex is often understood as a biological binary, male or female, and gender is how a person identifies, typically limited to the same male or female binary.  The sex and gender binaries are not an accurate representation of reality (ex. intersex individuals, a variation of sex, and individuals that identify as non-binary, a variation of gender), nor is the idea of gender or sex on a spectrum.  Spectrums create polarities and reinforce opposition (ex male vs female, on two oppositional ends of a spectrum). Recent attempts, such as with the Genderbread Person (https://www.genderbread.org/), are helpful by allowing individuals to select from isolated identities (spectrum of maleness for ex), but imperfect as they reinforce the existence of only 2 categories (male and female).  The Gender Unicorn (https://transstudent.org/gender/), however, allows for additional choices – gradients of male, female, and “other”.

 

What we need to understand is that sex and gender are separate but interconnected components.  “A person’s bodily sex, their psychological experience of gender, and the cultural norms and ideals of gender in the world around them, are so inextricably linked that it is impossible to tease them apart” (Barker MJ https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/5877/bacp-gender-sexual-relationship-diversity-gpacp001-april19.pdf).  Barker emphasizes this idea by referring to sex and gender as “sex/gender” to acknowledge the distinction but inability to fully separate the two.  In support of this phrasing, I utilize it in the remainder of the essay.

 

Sex/gender is a combination of nature and nurture, and the “nurture” is culturally-determined construct and essentially made up.  Take, for example, the ideas around “masculine” or “feminine” characteristics – these are culturally established and policed, such as masculinity being associated with logic and strength, while femininity is associated with receptivity and emotion.   Further, our culture is so heavily biased toward assuming and emphasizing differences between men and women, it appears that those differences are exaggerated even in research, further contributing to the enforcement of difference (for example, when considering why men and women have sex, see https://bookshop.org/books/not-always-in-the-mood-the-new-science-of-men-sex-and-relationships/9781538113936?aid=14115  ).  We all operate within social systems that are impossible to step out of fully, which makes examination of cultural influence and bias challenging, as we take much of how we think and operate as a culture for granted.

 

There are biological differences (“nature”) between men and women, such as genitals, hormones, chromosomes, but these differences are narrower than we commonly recognize as a culture.  Women have testosterone, men have estrogen; the presence of a Y-chromosome does not always determine maleness (many of us don’t know our chromosomal make up); brain and cognitive differences are not significant between sex/gender (see more here, in Barker’s GSRD document https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/5877/bacp-gender-sexual-relationship-diversity-gpacp001-april19.pdf).  Further, these biologically assumed differences are reductive – we are much more than our chromosomes or genitals.

 

Sex/gender is biopsychosocial – a complex, nature + nurture, and changeable component of who an individual senses themselves to be (gender identity), their anatomical sex (male, female, intersex), and gender expression.   Besides male and female, there are non-binary individuals, trans individuals, genderqueer individuals, demiboys, demigirls, omnigender, butch, two-spirit, genderfluid, etc. (more examples here: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/types-of-gender-identity#:~:text=What%20are%20some%20different%20gender%20identities%3F%201%20Agender.,10%20Masculine%20of%20center.%20…%20More%20items…%20 ).

 

There is not a standard measurement of sex/gender or a threshold of determining maleness or femalesness (ex. does a women become less of a women after she has a hysterectomy? Or a man become less of a man with a vasectomy?). An individual’s exploration, experience, and naming and defining of their gender is valid.  Sex/gender variation is not debatable – the existence of variations of these individuals is “proof”, for example, that trans people exist (an actual argument, which is ridiculous).  And we, as individuals and as a culture, are developing language around the sex/gender construct in real time.  The male vs female sex/gender binary normative is too simplistic and not accurate.  As Sam Kimmerman says, most of us are likely genderqueer, which defeats the intention of the name queer (ie not “normal”).

 

TLDR:  what we as a culture have been taught about sex and gender is way too simplistic and not accurate.

 

Sexual Orientation

Where sex/gender is “who you go to bed as”, sexual orientation is “who you go to bed with”. Often, our orientation revolves around the genitals of our partner/s – the same or different from our own.  This thinking is easy but outdated and reinforces problematic binaries (same/different).  Note, for example, that even though bisexuals (a both/and rather than same/different) make up the majority of individuals in the LGB community, there is significant bias against bisexuals.  For example, they are often left out of the gay/straight binary equation, as if their orientation is only a phase (see for ex. https://bisexualresearch.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/the-bisexualityreport.pdf ).

 

Alfred Kinsey developed a scale to “measure” sexual orientation based on sexual attraction, measured along a spectrum of “gayness” essentially from 0-6. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinsey_scale ) This scale is limiting, only giving the option gradations of homosexual or heterosexual with an X for asexual individuals (note that asexual orientation does not require the genitals of a partner for their identity).  The scale suggests that as attraction to one sex/gender increases, attraction to the other decreases, and this intuitively does not make sense, particularly when the experiences of bisexual individuals are considered. Interestingly, using the Kinsey scale, nearly half of young people (age 18-24) currently acknowledge that they are not 100% heterosexual (see https://yougov.co.uk/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2015/08/16/half-young-not-heterosexual)

 

Whereas the Kinsey scale only considered sexual attraction, a more nuanced approach to sexual orientation considers a person’s identity (how they identify), attraction, AND  behavior –  when these different components are measured, different statistics results.  So while nearly half of young adults do not identify as 100% heterosexual based on attraction, only 2-3% (data depending) identify as bisexual – a minority in identity but a majority essentially in attraction (which is accurate?, the reader might ask,  attraction or identity? This need for explicit categorization and naming is another mode of binary thinking and isn’t helpful.  More on binary thinking below)

 

 

Fritz Klein developed a sexual orientation grid that considers sexuality across different elements, such as attraction, behaviors, fantasy, emotional preference, social and political spheres, etc (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klein_Sexual_Orientation_Grid ).  Not only did Klein note that an individual could identify differently depending on the element considered, he also promoted the idea of fluidity  – how a person identifies can change over time (Lisa Diamond is another well-known researcher examining fluidity of sexual orientation, for ex. see https://psych.utah.edu/_resources/documents/people/diamond/Sexual%20Fluidity%20in%20Males%20and%20Females.pdf ).

 

There are updated terminologies around sexual orientation identities as another model: androsexual (male/masculinity attracted), gynesexual (female/femininity attracted), skoliosexual (genderqueer and transsexual attracted), pansexual (attracted to all), and asexual (no sexual attraction, but can include romantic or spiritual attraction) (see more in Sam Kimmerman’s book: A Guide to Gender).

 

Others have taken sexual orientation beyond the sex/gender of attraction to include physical and psychological characteristics such as age and experience of partner/s, number of participants, levels of kinky-ness/power dynamics (https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/08/is-kink-a-sexual-orientation.html ), specific activities, types of sensation, etc, to form Sexual Configurations Theory (SCT).  SCT is a way of envisioning how multifactorial and fluid sexuality and sexual orientation are (see https://www.queensu.ca/psychology/van-anders-lab/SCTzine.pdf ).

 

Another complimentary approach to examining sex/gender and sexual orientation is through the Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Diversity model (GSRD, see https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/5877/bacp-gender-sexual-relationship-diversity-gpacp001-april19.pdf ) The GSRD is a sex-positive, diversity-affirming model that considers a person’s sex/gender, sexual orientation, and relationship structure.  GSRD is all encompassing, even accounting for groups/identities that have not yet been named or fully recognized (vs the LGBTQIA+ acronym that continues to grow as additional groups rightly request/gain visibility, GSRD accounts for all, including those yet to be named).

 

As with sex/gender, we are developing language, measurements, and models of sexual orientation in real-time. It was only in the past 200 or so years that sexual orientation has been emphasized and the homosexual identity has been used (see Barker’s The Psychology of Sex).  The emphasis and limiting of sexual orientation to sex/gender is a newer phenomenon and is cultural.  Not only is this perspective newer in human history, the gay/straight binary narrative, like the male/female binary, is too simplistic to capture the full human sexual orientation experience.

 

TLDR: What we have been taught as a culture regarding sexual orientation is also too simplistic and not accurate.

 

Where does this leave us? Let’s take it further

Perhaps you as a reader feel overwhelmed by this information – it is certainly more complicated than we often acknowledge. So what does it all mean?

 

A couple key points:

  • Let people define themselves.
  • A person’s definition is valid and theirs alone – there is no “right” way to be lesbian or trans for example.  Further, people might choose language or words for themselves that are not commonly understood or utilized, that is fine too – their body, their choice, their words.  Just because their sex/gender, orientation, or words differ from what is commonly understood does not make them pathological; reminder that pathologizing people has often been a tool of control and gatekeeping through the moralization of behavior and social bias.
  • Conversations are needed – gender/sex and sexual orientation are much more nuanced than a checkbox choice and should involve more conversation, curiosity, and compassion with less assumptions (see #2).  Instead of checkboxes on a form, picture fill in the blank or short essay descriptions.
  • Consider intersectionality (deepest of bows to Kimberle Crenshaw https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination ) – the systems of oppression in which we all move will impact how and if a person labels themselves, secondary to their identities and privilege (or lack thereof).
  • Labels are limiting – they help us feel seen and less alone when we find others that are labeled the same; however labels can also limit. They won’t feel quite accurate for your specific lived experience (see bullet 4 for example) or people will gate-keep a definition (see  bullet 2).  Perhaps you sense you are beyond labels or too expansive to fit?, you are allowed to skip labels and resort to  bullet 3 – talk to people/partners/friends/communities about your needs, identity/s, pronouns, and desires. (The ability to choose a label or be openly non-normative is a privilege not afforded to all, see point above).
  • Eliminate binary thinking (see bullet points above) – many things in life are complicated and paradoxical and do not fit either/or thinking, but are better conceptualized as a both/and. Binaries often fail to accurately represent context and life experiences, including sex/gender and sexual orientation, and instead lend themselves to hierarchies as a way to  rank people (in/out groups, better/worse, etc; hierarchies are often harmful and a way to perpetuate bias, hate, etc).  For more info on non-binary thinking, see the works of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and MJ Barker.
  • With diversity comes conflict. When we are open to diversity, there will be differences of opinion and experiences, which is a good thing. Differences can create conflict when there is a rigidity in thinking.  However, leaning into difference, getting curious, remaining open, compassionate, and  non-attached to a particular perspective can help  create spaces of dialog, learning, and the ability to hold that tension.  Not all differences or disagreements need to be solved or corrected (another opportunity for a nonbinary, both/and approach).
  • With the unknown/lack of familiarity comes discomfort. Most of us want specific, binary answers or categorization of things to ease thinking and decision making.  Getting comfortable with the medial, in-between, liminal spaces of not-yet-knowing.  For writing that explores the ideas of liminality – see Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Sharon Blackie, Joan Halifax, and MJ Barker, as well as works from the buddhist and shamanic community (liminal spaces are a common theme in spiritual communities).  I see this unknown, medial space as being creative, gestational,  emergent (a nod to the picture associated with this essay), on-the-brink.of.becoming.something.new.  Instead of feeling discomfort or overwhelm, see if the potentiality of the space can be the focus.

 

 

Side Note For the Reader:

This is an essay, the meaning of that word means “to try”.  It will be imperfect, as my lived experience personally and professionally cannot possibility encompass all perspectives and understandings.  I’m trying though.  My effort here is to educate and expand our cultural acceptance of diversity.  My own experience of gender, sexual, and relationship diversity is private to me (I don’t owe you my story and you don’t owe me yours).

 

I work as a sexuality counselor and educator (in supervision).  As a sexologist and a sexual wellness provider, this is a legitimate professional consideration for me.   I see sex/gender as circular, even spherical – we are more similar than different and those differences are more cultural than biological.  I see sexual orientation as amoeba-like entity – a 3-dimensional, moving, biopsychosocial concept well beyond the outdated spectrum-based, linear thinking.  Our re-imaging of ideas around sex/gender, orientation and relationship is incredibly exciting to me.

 

I am writing this essay in June – pride month for LGBTQIA+ Identities and visibilities particularly for sexual diversity has been a hard fight (Gay Pride began with riots against police violence https://meaww.com/pride-month-2020-stonewall-inn-riots-lgbtq-movement-started-1969-new-york-city-police-raid#:~:text=The%20Stonewall%20Inn%20was%20the%20scene%20of%20riots,well%20as%20several%20other%20LGBTQ%2B%20civil%20rights%20organizations. ) My effort is not meant to dismiss someone else’s lived experience or intuitive understanding of their own sexuality or to dismiss the struggle involved with naming nonheteronormative sexualities, but to enhance understanding of all the possibilities out there. For my clients, for my own lived experience, for the reader, for social justice activists.  We all deserve a pleasurable, consensual, non-binary, expansive, loving world.  Happy Pride, Beloveds.

 

 

Resources for the reader

**Please also see the citations in text**

  • Barker MJ and Iantaffi A. Life Isn’t Binary.  (MJ Barker has many amazing books!, including The Psychology of Sex)
  • Killerman S. A Guide to Gender. The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook
  • Vaid-Menon A. Beyond The Gender Binary
  • Bernstein K. Gender Outlaw

Find these books and others here: https://bookshop.org/lists/sexuality-gender-health-wellness

Please note that the above is an essay and not meant to be exhaustive.  The reader is advised to begin exploring the subject on their own, using the suggested resources if they desire.  Speaking with a sexual health professional, such as an sexuality therapist, counselor, or educator may help as well (I do see clients as a sexuality counselor and assist them in exploring their gender and orientations). Wishing you, the reader, insight, love, and support, on your journey to You.

 

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The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT500, sexuality counselor and educator (in supervision); copyright protected, please cite accordingly.  The picture is from Pexels.

 

For more offerings that support sexual well-being, please see:   For more information, please email ignitewellbeing.naperville@gmail.com

 

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*Please note that none of the above information is specific medical advice, but is meant as educational information only.  If you have concerns about your health, please contact a trusted healthcare professional*