Sexuality is a spectrum. Sexuality is private. Sexuality should be sung from the rooftops. Sexuality just about covers being straight or gay; nothing else. Sexuality is so diverse that a person from fifty years ago wouldn’t even begin to recognise it. We should know; there are people still around from a time when anything other than hetrosexuality didn’t exist … except when it did, under the radar, and wasn’t talk about.
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 those who don’t seem to quite appreciate that, when an orientation has been around for as long as yours, it can be defined as equally normal and equally as valid.
You see, I’ve been somewhat innocuous so far, in that sexuality doesn’t fall very neatly into these two types; you don’t have to be entirely gay or entirely straight, or indeed anything like it. We are a pattern-seeking species, and like to categorise ourselves into particular units of measurement that are clear-cut and measurable. That’s not a criticism per se, but 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, but we crave categorisation by degrees, and when we don’t fit into those human-created contrivances, it causes something akin to panic – or, at least, a certain degree of awkwardness – amongst a certain degree of the population.
Alfred Kinsey said it best when he wrote that 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 behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.” Well said, that man. 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. The main categories, and I’m undoubtedly teaching you to suck eggs here, are;
We all know this one; It’s the most “accepted” form of sexuality. Hetero means “other” or “different,” so it classifies those who feel attraction to a sex different from their own.
Being gay has become far more accepted in the past fifty years since decriminalisation, but still has a way to go to be considered equal. Homo means “same,” so homosexual means liking someone of the same sex.
Bi means “two”. and bisexual individuals feel attraction to those of both genders. Just because a man has only had relationships with women does not negate the attraction he may have to other men. Bisexual people are commonly erased in society because they don’t fit into an either-or category. They are not 50% gay and 50% straight; they are bisexual.
Pan means “all,” so pansexual people are attracted to all genders. It’s similar to bisexual in that pansexual individuals are attracted to more than one gender; however, they can feel attraction to male, female, intersexual, gender-queer, transsexual, and other gender identities. For people who identify as pansexual, gender is not a limiting factor in attraction because they are attracted to people of any sex or gender. The term “pansexual” is often used interchangeably with “omnisexual.” This is the identity that I’ve had to spend some time understanding, as for a time I couldn’t appreciate the difference between pan- and bi-sexual. Perhaps I still don’t, but there is a general philosophy behind my current view; that I don’t have to understand, merely accept that there are people different to me, and their sexuality doesn’t actually affect me in the slightest – so live and let live. If this is a discrete sexuality that requires differentiation from bisexuality, then so be it; it’s part of the expanding criteria of sexuality that I wouldn’t presume to entirely understand, but who does understand all of it? We only really need to understand our own bit, and accept the rest.
Queer is a very ambiguous word, and one that still makes my toes curl slightly whenever I hear it. It’s used in multiple ways, of course; it used to just mean “odd” without any connection to sexuality at all, and some people still use it in that fashion. I don’t have a problem with people using it to mean that if they want – even if I half-suspect, on occasions, it’s used almost as an expression of protest, that it’s been “hijacked” to mean something different. Well, they’re quite right, of course; it was picked up and used as an insult – no-one can quite work out how the change happened – to mean anyone who was gay, in the same vein as faggot or other equally demeaning terms. However, queer was picked up by the gay community in an attempt to turn it into a positive work, and it is beginning to work in some quarters. We sometimes still hear it as an insult – some people still use it as such – but it’s taken on an intriguing double meaning that still catches us out from time to time. In its positive form, queer represents someone who doesn’t conform to traditional gender or sexuality norms; this in itself can be quite fluid and ever-changing, and doesn’t always remain static with a person’s identity throughout their life.
Asexual people experience no or little sexual attraction. Asexual individuals can, however, feel a romantic and emotional attraction to someone. Many (but not all) asexual people can experience arousal, but it is not directed at anyone in particular. They can still sometimes engage in sexual activity and go on to have successful and meaningful relationships while not feeling sexual attraction to their partner. Other times, many asexuals have absolutely no desire in taking part in sex at all, either by themselves or with others.
Asexuality is a banner orientation all by itself, and covers more than what I’ve already mentioned; you can also be graysexual, and only rarely feel sexual attraction, or demi-sexual, where you only feel sexual attraction with someone who you’ve formed an emotional bond with – although not all emotional bonds will automatically create sexual attraction.
Inevitably, my explanations will have missed out important sections of the spectrum – there are undoubtedly some I have missed, but I don’t do so to be awkward, annoying, or controversial. It’s just that I could continue with this post for a very long time if I was focusing on all the different sub-sets, and there are lot of analyses out there that discuss all of this in a lot more detail than I’ve covered here.
I want, however, to focus on something more broad; the need for these labels in the first place, and the positives and negatives of having them. There might be a time in the future where these labels are genuinely unnecessary, because people are comfortable exploring their sexuality by just meeting people and seeing where their comfort levels are without any judgement from the other party. Of course, as I’ve already said, labels such as the ones I’ve mentioned didn’t exist prior to 130 years ago (roughly speaking), but society was very different back then; sexuality wasn’t spoken about. Whilst “different” sexualities (that is, different to the heterosexual norm) were unofficially and very quietly tolerated in small pockets of society, there were still periodic crackdowns on perversions and differences.
Now, we live in a time where we have a huge split in global attitudes; western, more liberal, perspectives, where marriage is extended to all consenting adults and two people can publicly declare their love and, quite often, live comfortably (and yes, I’ve not even touched on the underbelly of homophobia that still exists in those self-same liberal democracies); and then there are other cultures, in places like Africa, Russia, and the former Soviet countries, where anything other than heterosexual love and sexuality is given very short shrift – concentration camps in Chechnya for gay people, imprisonment in many African countries, and strong anti-gay sentiments in other parts of the eastern bloc, really do define a country’s attitudes towards social issues. So much of government time in these parts of the word is taken up with tackling “bad” sexuality, because of their fear that differences will somehow cause the fall of their entire way of life. Mind you, if their way of life revolves around bigotry and disgust, then maybe it should fall.
An article in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour looked at changes in sexual attitudes between 1972 and 2012 using data from the nationally representative General Social Survey of US adults. By separating out the effects of time period, age, and generation, they were able to show how attitudes have changed – and that the change is mostly due to generational shifts. So – while young people’s attitudes may differ from their parents, the point is that their attitudes remain different over time, making the new generation different from the older generation even as they age. Take for example, acceptance of premarital sex. In the early 1970s, premarital sex was accepted by 29% of the population – this rose to 58% in the period between 2010 and 2012. Attitudes towards homosexual activity also changed: accepted by less than 20% before 1993, this figure rises to 44% in 2012, and 56% for the generation born after 1982.
We cannot simply say that “attitudes are becoming more permissive”. Rather, it seems we are becoming more sophisticated in our collective attitude to sex. We seem to be less worried about the behaviour of consenting adults, but continue to be concerned about situations that may involve deception (as in the case of extramarital sex) or where the participants are under the age of consent (as in the case of early teen sex).
These patterns of changing attitudes are not confined to the US. Similar patterns of changes over time in sexual attitudes are evident in both Australia and Britain. The three British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles which have taken place since 1990 have shown that attitudes have changed in the same way, with acceptance of same-sex partnerships and intolerance towards those who have extra-marital affairs increasing over time.
So 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, and so the question is becoming a lot more vocal; “We don’t need labels”. 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 I wasn’t when I discovered other people like me, and was able to meet those who had at least that one thing in common with me. It was a genuine pleasure, and at a time when asexuality is still massively understood, 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 in this generation and at this time 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 entirely necessary, as not everyone feels comfortable with that – but even in a small way to show that we are humans just as much as the next person is really key. 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 in one way or another that shows us all to be just human.
LGBT activism must evolve and continue. It can’t afford to stay silent and hope that the rest of the world will fend for themselves. Each voice is a vote and deserves it be used.
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, but you certainly can’t chop and change – otherwise, that would just be confusing and make people feel a bit weird. Well, that’s naturally a load of tosh, as sexuality is fluid, and we need to be fluid with it – we should be able to accept that people will have different perspectives at different times of their lives, and perhaps even different levels of desire to different genders at different times.
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 in – 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, I guess you could say, with the zeitgeist massively changing towards not being fixated towards one particular label throughout our lives, but recognising that right now, whilst there’s still parts of the world that doesn’t tolerate anything other than an outdated norm that was pernicious and insulting even when it was in the ascendant, 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.