The Gaping Hole in Our Understanding of Sexuality
Talking to a room full of people about gender, sex, and sexuality has unearthed a staggering number of interesting questions and fascinating discussions through the years.
I’ll typically start a session by outlining the differences between what is meant by the terms “gender”, “biological sex”, and “sexual orientation”, and it gets murky pretty quickly, for two reasons in particular.
Firstly, as any sex-ed professional will hopefully tell you, there is really no such thing as a ‘definition’ of any of these things. At best, we can establish common understandings of how these concepts operate. Even the seemingly most rigid of these concepts, biological sex, has become a vast fluid landscape of varied experiences and bashed-down boxes.
Secondly, and often more confusing still, is the fact that though these terms are very different, we often use one concept to explain our understanding of another.
The most prevalent example of this is in how we will use gender — that of ourselves and of those to whom we are attracted — to describe our sexuality.
To use myself as an example, I am a man who has only ever been involved with women in my life, and thus typically describe my sexuality as “straight”. Seeking to only speak to my own experiences has led me to use my own sexuality as an example dozens and dozens of times in order to elucidate this very complication.
However, as time has worn on, I’ve begun to feel like our conceptualization of sexual orientation breaks down when we start to dig deeper into what gender is. In particular, let’s look at the experience of gender — both identity and expression — so I can show you where I believe things unravel.
Gender Identity vs. Gender Expression
When we talk about gender, it’s important to first separate it from biology. Gender is a socially constructed system of roles and scripts that people have continually identified with in different ways. For a long time, gender binary thinking orchestrated a totalitarian regime across every intersection of modern society, with man and woman being an exhaustive list of gender identities.
Though still governing how many people think about and see gender, and though still especially systemically prevalent in how many of our institutions are set up (and thus how these institutions police gender within their spaces), we have more or less evolved to see beyond binary thinking and have expanded our concept of gender. Ergo, today, people identify in thousands of different ways, and you’re more likely to see someone comfortable with that fact than, say, 15 years ago.
Gender is one’s innermost concept of self as it pertains, or doesn’t, to gender identities that exist in the world. When someone sees themselves reflected in a gender role (one of the many reasons why diversity of representation in popular culture is so vitally important… but we shall talk about that another time), they may start identifying with that gender. Gender is an internal understanding. It is not an external privilege granted by the fulfillment of criteria, and has nothing inherently to do with one’s physiological makeup.
To make it more plain, the presence of my penis between my legs, the presence of higher levels of testosterone in my body, and my chromosomal makeup don’t in any way mean I'm a man, even if society will categorize me as “biologically male” by virtue of those facts.
That I know myself to be a man, however, does.
Now, in the same way that gender identity is entirely internal, gender expression is a different thing. A change in one’s gender identity may or may not mean a single change in one’s appearance, clothing, or any other external markers that society associates with gender.
In other words, though I might use the agency I hold over the expression of my gender to represent my version and understanding of my gender identity, one doesn’t intrinsically have a proportional relationship to the other, just as there is no such thing as an “accurate” or “normal” presentation of any particular gender.
When we walk by someone on the street, in all likelihood, our brain will automatically gender that person. It’s not an ideal thing to have happen, as it can lead to harmful assumptions and violence if not checked, but it’s incredibly common and difficult to unlearn.
The important thing to recognize is that we aren’t gendering that person based on their identity; rather, our brains are taking in how that person presents to us (which in itself is wildly subjective, as we don’t experience the same things in the same way) before making a major assumption about what that person’s gender identity is.
Identity is internal. It doesn’t look or sound like anything in particular.
Until someone shares that part of themselves with us (an act that many feel entitled to, but is not information to which we actually have any claim), we have no idea about someone’s gender identity. When we look at, speak with, or engage with someone in any way, unless they explicitly say so, we don’t know what, if any, gender that person identifies with.
This key understanding leads me to a gaping hole I see in how we see sexual orientation. The details might seem small, but the implications are potentially revolutionary to how gender & sexual diversity is governed in our culture.
Attraction Often Has Nothing To Do With Gender Identity
There is a perpetual and massive conflation we collectively make between gender identity and gender expression, and therein lies the problem.
As I outlined earlier, we use gender identity to explain our sexuality. Typically, based on one’s gender and that of those to whom one is attracted, there exists a conception of sexuality that will lead someone to associate themselves with terms like “bi”, “pan”, or “straight”.
The problem is, that’s simply not how attraction works.
Think about it: gender identity is entirely internal, and the expectation of a gender identity based on someone’s presentation is entirely problematic. It’s a fallacy.
How can we be attracted to something that we cannot see? That we don't understand? For us to be attracted to a thing, it would follow that we’d need to know the thing exists. Here, the ‘thing’ is gender identity, and we seem set in assuming that it is the defining component of sexuality. I don’t think that’s the case.
Seeing as we almost always learn of someone’s gender identity after the point at which we feel or don’t feel an attraction to them, how can that be the thing we are attracted to? It simply doesn’t compute.
Now, it’s entirely possible that there are some out there who truly only experience attraction to another person once they learn about how that person identifies, and that the attraction they feel is fundamentally dependent on that aspect of identity; those whose attraction would go away if someone didn’t identify in a way they expected them to. Very often, however, it happens much differently.
Have you ever walked by someone on the street and been attracted to them? Yes? I ask groups of people this question all the time, and seldom does a hand remain down.
If the answer is yes, and you accept that you don’t know the gender identity of the person to whom you feel attraction, is that not proof that sexuality, which is otherwise described simply as attraction (in its many forms), has nothing to do with gender identity?
I talk about my own sexuality a ton, and this paradox makes me feel all kinds of uneasy. I feel pressure to identify as a straight person because I’ve never been made to deal with any of the discrimination and oppression faced by those in the Queer Community; because I’ve only ever been involved with those who did, in fact, identify as women.
But as I think of my life, and walking by strangers every day who I experience attraction to, I am comfortable with the fact that I’ll have felt attraction to those who don’t identify as women. I’ve felt attraction, without an inkling of doubt, to those who are non-binary, men, gender non-conforming, agender, and beyond. I might not have known that in real time, but it’s absolutely the truth.
I accept that even though my brain might automatically classify someone into a gendered box immediately upon meeting them, that this computation has no bearing on that person’s internal relationship to gender. To suggest otherwise feels absurd.
When we experience attraction to other people, it can be hard to pinpoint what it is about them that makes it so.
It’s often physical — someone’s body, smile, eyes, or hair — and society has established some strict, yet problematic standards that try to determine a gendered classification based on the nature of those physical traits.
Other times, perhaps it isn’t physical at all, but has more to do with someone’s personality, sense of humour, intellect, or tone.
Heck, I’d argue it’s most often a combination.
In reality, we can’t reasonably use gender identity to ‘define’ our sexuality. When we talk about being interested sexually, romantically, or otherwise in a particular gender identity, that statement simply doesn’t hold up to some pretty basic cross-examination. It would be far more accurate to say there is a particular presentation of personhood that we are drawn to, or disarmed by, or excited by.
I feel dishonest when I identify as straight for this reason, but I’m part of the problem when I continually conform to it. Until we change the language of the conversation, I don’t know if I will ever stop.
I have my reasons, and I believe them to be valid, but a broader conversation that unsettles our collective understanding of sexual orientation is well past due.