Why the Spectrum of Sexuality Matters
Think sexuality is just a case of ‘one or the other’? Think again.
‘Heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are terms that have existed for a very long time, propped up by the gender binary (which assumes only two genders: male and female). However, as time has gone on researchers have found these two terms, and the linear thinking that goes along with it, to be inadequate.
Sexuality isn’t a case of ‘one or the other’, a seesaw, or anything of the sort. Instead, it’s much more productive to think of sexuality as existing on a spectrum.
Why? Read on to find out!
The Complexities of Sexuality
For those who are heterosexual, the idea that sexuality is not straightforward (pun intended) may be a bit surprising. Not out of any prejudice, per say, but rather through lacking the need to address or question one’s own sexuality.
But when your sexuality doesn’t fit the ‘norm’ then you’re practically forced to consider your sexuality with more scrutiny, because society certainly will too.
This is reflective of the way in which sexuality is experienced and presented in day-to-day life. The origins of one’s sexual preference are very rarely an issue. Instead, it is the way that society determines, shapes, and treats a person’s sexual identity which is often the main source of conflict.
While the jury is still out on what exactly determines someone’s sexuality, it is generally agreed that our understanding of sexuality is fluid and can vary drastically between different cultures and time periods. For example, up until very recently LGBTQ relationships were a criminal offence in many Western civilisations. Now gay marriage is gaining increasing legitimacy (rightly so) and people are generally more accepting of homosexual relationships.
But what about other sexualities? How can they even exist and why do they matter? It can be hard to ascertain at first, but knowing the significance of people’s sexual identity is very important. It can often be the difference between showing that person a base level of respect and disregarding them on a fundamental level.
The Sexual Spectrum
The idea that humans work on a spectrum of sexuality is something that was first explored by Alfred Kinsey, but Kinsey’s work was confined by the restrictions of heterosexuality and homosexuality being the two binaries on a sliding scale, whereas things have expanded now.
As we continue to realize that gender itself is just a construction and that masculine and feminine traits can equally exist on a spectrum, the criteria for sexual attraction has also rightly expanded.
Where once there were three main definitions for sexuality—heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality—there are now more nuanced terms such as pansexuality (an attraction to all genders or to people regardless of gender), demisexual (a person who is only attracted to someone they are strongly connected to first, with or without specific gender preferences included), and asexual (the near or total absence of attraction to any gender or group).
These are just a few examples, but they give a good indication of some of the criteria for different sexual identities (with ‘Queer’ often acting as a nice umbrella term).
It’s easy to question why so many different identities are needed when such terms could arguably be compacted in to a more recognised or general sexual identity but just think: how would you feel if someone told you that your sexual identity was no longer valid?
Words have meaning and humans have an inherent need to understand their identity and place in the world. Different sexual identities help people who may otherwise be struggling to find a term that feels right with them, a method through which to describe themselves, and a means through which to communicate with likeminded individuals.
This could literally be a lifeline for some individuals—as it validates emotions that they may have previously been struggling with. That is everything.
If there’s one thing we can say about sexuality for sure it’s that the notion of sexual identity is fluid, culturally and socially influenced, and as important as you perceive it to be.
If a person has a sexual identity that they place great value in that, then it’s common courtesy to respect their sexuality and acknowledge it as valid. We add new words and meaning to our linguistic lexicon every single day. I’m sure a few more won’t hurt.
For more information on sexuality please do consider Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction.