January 11, 2009

Sexual Identity And Orientation

Now that I’m having to explain things to my friends (and perhaps eventually, my congregation), I’ve had to gather my thoughts well enough to teach. There’s no better way to learn than having to teach. The following expresses my understanding and observations on sexual identity, and frankly, this is greatly simplified. These are just my own thoughts and are subject to change as I learn more. You are welcome to chime in.

There are three aspects to human sexual identity: sex, gender, and orientation. Of these, sex and gender create one’s inward sense of self; orientation incorporates both of those directed outward. Rather than an either/or dynamic to any of these aspects, I believe that each of them exists in all of us on a continuum.

Sex is purely biological. It is everything from the neck down: genitalia and morphology. Most are born with one set of genitals which determines our sex. The body type also is an aspect of our sex. On this purely nonscientific continuum above, [0] represents male genitalia combined with strong masculine features: muscular, broad shoulders, small hips, body hair (maybe Chris Meloni). The far right end, [10], represents female genitalia combined with strong feminine features: large breasts and hips, soft non-muscular frame (like Marilyn Monroe). An individual born with both sets of genitals expressed must rely more on gender to establish a sense of self.

Gender is psychological. This concept sometimes has little to do with biological sex; it is the idea of self in terms of sex. In this continuum, the extremes represent both sexual and cultural perceptions of feminine or masculine. [0] marks the strongest masculine personality markers like dominance, competitiveness, and territoriality. [10] marks the strongest feminine personality features like submission, companionship, and nest-building. Clearly a great deal more is involved in gender, and it is affected by cultural norms. Problems occur when one’s gender does not align neatly with one’s sex. Even when it does, few perceive themselves at the extreme ends of the continuum. Although gender is not biological in the physical sense, it is hard-wired. Our culture can give us ways to label it.

Orientation is the most complex of the three aspects, and that’s saying something. Like gender, orientation is psychological and hard-wired. We discover our orientation as we are exposed to people, practices, and pictures. We are innately drawn to a given sex and a given gender (and they may not necessarily be the same). This complex aspect is better represented on an x/y axis. Finding the perfect combination of sex and gender may take many relationships as we learn more about ourselves. On this continuum, [0] represents complete attraction—emotionally, romantically, and sexually—to the same sex to the complete exclusion of the opposite sex. [10] represents exclusive attraction to the opposite sex, with no attraction whatsoever to the same sex. My personal belief is that the extremes are rare and that most of us fit somewhere on the less-rigid descriptors of the continuum, yet have a clear preference. Similarly, one’s attraction to gender may or may not coincide with the attraction to sex.

There are circumstances and objects that may draw us as well. I suspect many are surprised by their fetishes and embrace them only as they come to accept them, mostly in private.

Applying these measures to yourself, you might wonder how any of us finds a good partner. Well, it appears we’re not doing such a great job of it. The divorce rate alone tells us that we’re not very good at finding the right partner or keeping him/her. That’s another post book field of study. But looking at others’ practices and choices in light of these three aspects puts us all on the same playing field. We may be on different teams, but we’re all playing the same game. And it really does come down to that.


Roxrocks said...

Isn't this called the Kinsey Scale? It's totally true though, most people are not 100% one thing or the other, there are varying shades of grey when it comes to sexuality.

Birdie said...

Rox, the sliding scale for orientation is indeed rooted in Kinsey's research, of which I know only a little. I learned the distinction between sex and gender recently, but those scales and the x/y axis are my pitiful attempt to quantify some pretty imprecise data.

Bill said...

Gosh, no wonder I'm single.

Ur-spo said...

everybody is playing the game
but no one's rules are the same !

Monica said...

Hey! Interesting post. I've not though about the distinction between sex and gender again and I find this intriguing. As is the attraction to sex vs the attraction to gender. Huum - cause for some mulling.

However, I immediately took exception to this statement: "Sex is purely biological. It is everything from the neck down:"

I think there are huge sexual (note I nearly wrote gender) differences in male and female brains and their thought processes. Now that I've corrected myself on the sex/gender issue I find myself wondering the nature vs nurture aspect of these differences. But I do think there are biological differences...

alto said...

Hey birdie,

Just a question. When you say gender is hardwired, I believe you are you speaking of inherent differences in the way males and females perceive and react to their environment? In your opinion is that largely due to social construction, early childhood influences, the ability to exist comfortably in the gender role that would be culturally assigned, or is it more in line with gender being an essentialist attribute ie. strictly biological, or a bit of all of those?

Great topic and so many deviations to go with it as well. You seem to have a great handle on this.