Sexuality is confusing. The fact that we are developing a whole new language for all forms of attraction, non-attraction, semi-attraction, and attraction for certain types of beings under particular circumstances shows that people are finding confidence in understanding their own preferences and looking for other people who align to them.
Sexuality certainly is a spectrum, and it always has been; we’ve just not always been open to that kind of acceptance. But on the other hand, using labels to define sexuality is actually a fairly modern phenomena. Hetro- and homosexuality as phrases don’t appear until the latter part of the 19th century, and don’t come into wide circulation until the 1960’s. They, however, are just two labels for sexualities that have existed throughout human history; it’s well-documented that we’ve been capable of both opposite- and same-sex attraction since we came into existence as a species millennia ago.
But I’m not writing this to give you a history lesson on sexuality in our species throughout the ages; we know this already. Stories abound of kings and queens with “special friends” of their own gender, and the love that dare not speak its name has always flirted around the edges of civilised society, much to the chagrin of a depressingly vocal minority.
Sexuality doesn’t neatly fall into gay or straight; we are a pattern-seeking species, and like to categorise ourselves into particular units that are clear-cut and measurable. That’s merely an observation of who we are; it’s a by-product of having a too-small pre-frontal cortext and an over-reliance on our adrenal glands and, when we don’t fit into those human-created contrivances, it causes some to feel amazing awkward or panicked.
Alfred Kinsey said it best; “We do not represent two discrete populations; heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats, and not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behaviour, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.” He knew what he was talking about, of course, having completed the earliest comprehensive study on sex at a time (in the 1950s) when sexuality really wasn’t talked about that widely, except in hushed and whispered circles and with accompanying red faces.
But times change, and we change with them. For the most part, sexuality has broken down into smaller and smaller fragments that open our minds to the wider ranger of sexual options that befall us. There are umbrella terms that cover the majority of desires – or lack thereof, but even these don’t cover everything; the categories are splitting even further down into sub-sets, enabling people to really understand where their comfort levels lie.
Why do we need such a diverse range of labels in the first place, however? Gay, straight, pan, bi, queer, asexual, demisexual, and so on. There might be a time in the future where these labels are genuinely unnecessary, because people are comfortable exploring their sexuality by seeing where their comfort levels are without any judgement from the other party.
We cannot simply say that “attitudes are becoming more permissive” when it comes to self-identification. Rather, it seems we are becoming more sophisticated in our collective attitude to sex. the LGBT movement is doing very well. Same sex marriage is now legal in the United States – despite Trump’s best efforts to set the clock back – Britain, and throughout much of continental Europe, and attitudes are becoming far more positive towards sexuality in general. There is a generation growing up now that doesn’t have any memory of when the rights they know as automatic weren’t in existence amongst the LGBT community. There’s a growing discussion around sexual fluidity rather than rigidly being focused on one particular type, and an optimistic tone that labels have become redundant now. The sentiment of an un-labelled society is one we should all be absolutely working towards, but are we quite at the point where we can shed these labels entirely? I’m not entirely convinced, although I wish it were true.
Labels help people come together and learn more about themselves. I’m asexual, and often wondered what was “wrong” with me; I only realised there wasn’t anything wrong when I discovered other people like me. It was – and is – a genuine pleasure, and at a time when asexuality is still massively misunderstood, it’s good to be able to stand together and try to change peoples’ minds about what we are.
In a sense, labelling ourselves now educates and teaches those around us, so that society becomes more understanding and therefore breaks down barriers. I’m not one to say that everyone needs to stand up and be publicly counted – that’s not necessary, and not everyone feels comfortable with that – but it does connect us to others. If that is just being a part of our community and accessing services in precisely the same way as everyone else, which can challenge perceptions, then do it; be a person who’s part of your local community, and don’t shut yourself away. You don’t need to label yourself as the gay customer or the asexual barman, but you can be seen as a representative of the community as well as being human.
On the flip side, we must make sure that these labels, for as long as they exist, don’t fall into the trap of generations before them; that you can only be one thing or the other, that you can only be gay or straight. Sexuality is fluid, and we need to be fluid with it – we should accept that people will have different perspectives and desires at different times in their lives.
A recent survey on sexual identities by YouGov, an internet-based research firm, had 31 percent of Millennials identifying as something “other” than straight as compared to only 10 percent of older generations. A report by trend-forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that only 48 percent of people ages 13 to 20 identify as exclusively heterosexual compared to 65 percent of Millennials ages 21 to 34.
This dismissal of a rigid orientation is a result of cultural changes, with a broader mindset than even twenty years ago. I was born in the very early 1980s, so can remember the AIDS epidemic and fear, Section 28, and Pride Marches being something to be afraid of – I mean, what if you actually met or touched a gay by shaking their hand? Wouldn’t that mean you’d turn into one as well? We’ve taken a journey, but we’re not there yet, and we need to help people trapped in misery to identify with hope and friendship.
Labels will cease to exist eventually, and I am very hopeful of that day coming, but it will only happen when society is educated and above such conceit as bigotry, thoughtlessness, and limited worldviews.