What Does It Mean to Have a Sexual Identity?

For all its ancient, primal beginnings, sexual orientation is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Perhaps “phenomenon” isn’t the right word. What I mean is, the concept of sexual orientation, as we understand it today, is relatively recent. The word “sex” was coined sometime in the sixteenth century, at which time the word was specific to male/female interactions, which were of course the norm. It wasn’t until 1868 that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were invented, by a group of Germans speaking out against a proposed “unnatural fornication” law which would prohibit any non-reproductive sexual act. If you’d like to read more about this, check out The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz. Or, for those of you with short attention spans, you can find a much briefer history here.

Now, obviously, for as long as there have been people, they’ve been populating the earth by having sex. But in different cultures and time periods, ideas about sex have varied wildly. Even within a single culture, there are plenty of groups of people with differing ideas—today, we have throwbacks to a more religious era believing that sex is wrong outside of marriage, as well as people who celebrate their freedom to have unattached sex. But the concept of sexuality, this idea that all one’s sexual deeds and desires and whatever else create a definable whole, some basic instinct to have sex with x kind of people from which so many other things sprout, has only been around for a little more than a century.

Sexuality is definitely not about action, although that is often a result and certainly desire and physical experience are intertwined. It’s more than that. It’s a mindset. It’s not the individual’s experience itself, it’s a way of thinking about and understanding that experience. And although there is some level of subjectivity involved, our concept of sexual identity, our way of rationalizing experience, is very much shaped by the culture in which we live.

Consider how you would think about your sexuality if you grew up in a culture in which there was no concept of sexual orientation. All humans are simply presumed to be able to be attracted to (and have sex with) other people of any gender. There are those who tend to prefer men, and those who tend to prefer women, but it’s not thought of as an identity. People are not bound to loving one or the other, and are free to dabble with whichever they choose without any contradiction to their sense of self. If a man were to sleep with another man, there would be no questions about whether he’s gay, since there is no concept of being gay, and no stigma attached to it. Without sexual identity and the politics that go along with it, it would be a very different culture, would it not?

To have a sexual identity is to go beyond identifying patterns of sexual attraction—it’s to claim those patterns, to claim one’s experience of them, as an intrinsic part of oneself. That can be a claim one only makes to oneself, or it can become a label that one adopts publicly, a social marker that might be dangerous to adopt among the wrong people.

The trouble with labels is, it’s possible to start matching one’s behavior to the label one has taken on, instead of letting one’s behavior develop organically and matching the label to fit oneself. It’s possible that a label may prove too rigid for future growth, or for someone to let the fact that they don’t fit a label 100% cause them anxiety. The trouble with taking on a sexual identity is, anything that seemingly contradicts that identity has the potential to create an identity crisis.

But there is also a sense of power that comes with taking on a sexual identity. Maybe not so much so for heterosexuals, because they’re the default, but for queer people, it can be empowering because you’re basically saying, “I know myself, and I accept myself for what I am.” In some cases that may be a grudging acceptance, but it is there, and that self-knowledge allows one to connect with other people like oneself. Forging those connections creates a group of people with potential to attain political power, which is the key to erasing stigma that plagues people of non-accepted sexual orientations.

In many ways, politics are key to understanding the formation of the concept of sexuality. Sexual identities were created by politics, and new sexual identities continue to emerge as politics shift, and begin to show their own force. Right now the big controversial issue in the arena of sexual politics is gay marriage, because it goes against traditional codes of morality. It was the people who fought to loosen those morals who first conceived of sexual identities, which has been the key point on which the battle has been waged. Slowly, progress is being made. We certainly live in a very different world from the one those German guys who invented heterosexuality lived in. Naturally, in a world that has become so charged with sexual identities, it makes sense that people who don’t much care about having sex themselves would begin to assert themselves, and take on their own identity to do it. Under other circumstances, most likely many asexuals would not identify in any way related to sex, because it’s not particularly important to us, personally. If we felt no pressure to identify as something sexual, why would we?

Yet we do, so here we are. It will probably be a while before the world really, truly takes notice, given that we sort of blend into the background with all that hetero vs. homo stuff going on, but eventually I think we will find our place, and find it recognized. It will be interesting to see what comes of that.

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