When my mother accepted that, John and I was a couple, she asked a burning question: “Who’s the wife?” Her question exposes the tangle of concepts about sexuality that become confused and conflated. I have found the following matrix helpful in untangling some of that confusion and increasing our understanding of human sexuality in its myriad forms.
Human Sexuality Matrix
First, there is sex, which is determined by biology. At birth the majority of us are obviously male or female, depending on our sex organs. But there is a minority of people who are hermaphrodites (the modern term is “intersexed”). They have sexual organs of both male and female, or some traits of both that are not fully developed. In some societies these children were abandoned; in others they were revered. Modern medicine has allowed doctors to pre-empt nature and “assign” one or the other sex at birth. Later on, however, when puberty comes and hormonal changes occur, the doctor may find she or he has made a mistake.
Parents are now counseled to let children grow and determine who they are for themselves (see “identity” below) and make any surgical changes if necessary.
Second is gender. Gender has its roots in social expectations. A boy should grow up to be a man and a girl should grow up to be a woman — whatever these mean in a given society. For the majority of people, conforming to the gender expectations of their biological sex is unquestioned. Some may even become hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine in order to enhance their gender assignment. However, social expectations are changing rapidly, so many of the old expectations are more fluid. For instance, some men enjoy cooking, nurturing their children, or take up pursuits like knitting or gardening. Obversely, many women now enjoy the role of breadwinners and have careers requiring physical strength and fortitude that were previously exclusively for men. So even for the majority of people the question of gender roles is changing. But for a minority their gender really doesn’t fit their biology. There are transvestites, men who dress and present as females and vice versa, although the latter is less controversial. Some do it more or less exclusively for performance purposes, e.g. drag queens. Some men find relief from anxiety or stress by wearing women’s clothes in the privacy of their own homes. Some go all out and present as “gender neutral” or “transgender” all the time in public and private because it feels right for them to do so.
Third is identity. Sexual identity is self-determined through experience. The majority of people identify with their biological sex and gender expectations unquestioningly. They go through life bewildered that anyone could feel or identify any differently; it never occurs to them that their lives might have taken a different turn. For a minority, however, their experience is that sex organs just don’t seem right — often expressed as disgust — and they continually run into gender expectations that don’t fit with “who they are.” In the past, this has resulted in a tormented life that was often cut short through self-destructive behaviors, including suicide. In recent decades, however, a protocol has been developed by psychologists, endocrinologists and surgeons that has offered a way for people to “change their sex”, literally. This is a long and expensive process, but one that many people of courage take on in order to create a sexual identity that conforms to their internal experience. We call this minority transsexual. Because the process takes time, with several surgical milestones along the way (not all are taken), persons in transition from one sex to another often present a confusing picture to those who don’t understand what they are going through.
Finally, there is sexual orientation. There is no scientific consensus about the roots of attraction and orientation, although some genetic, environmental and other theories have been suggested. The majority of people are heterosexual. Their hormonal urges, sexual attraction, bonding rituals, etc., are all oriented towards the opposite sex. It is assumed that this is biologically determined in order to pass on gene pools, preserve the race, and bind families and clans. It is celebrated and never questioned. But a minority of people are compelled differently. They find themselves attracted to their own sex (homosexual), both sexes equally (bisexual — a dilemma in a monogamist society) or asexual (having no sexual attraction to speak of, “just friends.”) These minority orientations seem to encompass a spectrum (Kinsey’s six-point scale of homosexuality) and while unspeakable just a few decades ago, are now accepted more and more as a simple deviation from the norm that neither threatens the family nor society.
There are other subsets of sexuality known as paraphilias, which include masochism, sadism, dominant/submissive, voyeurism, onanism — the variety is endless — which are about arousal patterns. These varieties seem to be the result of conditioning over time or perhaps the emotional and physical environment surrounding early sexual experience. But that is a big and complex subject better left for another time. Incredibly, beyond inserting tab A into slot B, sexual creativity appears to be limitless. As long as its expression is between consenting adults, many believe that if there is no harm, then no foul.
I hope this brief description will help to untangle some of the concepts around sexuality and promote a greater sympathy and understanding of sexual minorities of all types.
Bruce Robertson © 2017
Image courtesy: https://raynbowznstuff.deviantart.com/art/OCs-of-the-Raynbow-Sexuality-and-Gender-Identity-516991602