Sexual Identity, Orientation and Gender
The term sexual identity, is used by psychologists and some recent writers, in the general area of sexology to describe the gender or sex with which a person identifies or is identified.
Laymen tend to use sexual identity and sexual preference interchangeably but the latter refers to the object of one’s sexual attractions, rather than one’s self-concept.
A sexual identity is not the result of something that occurs at one point in time, although some scientists and many laymen seek “causes” of sexual identity.
It may be that not all factors relevant to the gradual determination of a sexual identity have yet been identified. The weights of the various factors that are now known or suspected have also not been clearly determined. There are several different groups of factors that need to be understood.
- Genetic factors – chromosomes play a large part in determining the sexual identity of a child.
- Pre-natal factors – the condition of the mother has an important influence on the health and development of the fetus.
- Post-natal factors – the later on in life the sex of an infant is reassigned from male to female and vice-versa the greater the confusion and turmoil that child will suffer.
When considering the case of transgender and transsexual individuals and their sexual identity, many specialists now agree that the greatest importance aught to be placed upon aligning internal gender identity with outward sexual physiology.
The understanding that a person has of his or her own sexual identify is perhaps never complete because that person may continue to grow and change psychologically – and learning involves physical changes in the brain. On the other hand, as learning and experience increase more of the original picture is filled out to show what that person is and can become. If a young person’s education has gone against the grain somehow, it may happen that a conflict breaks through to the surface and realignment follows, or that a person discovers things about himself or herself that may earlier have been hidden.
Sexual orientation refers to the sex or gender of people who are the focus of a person’s amorous or erotic desires, fantasies, and spontaneous feelings, the gender(s) toward which one is primarily “orientated.” The alternative terms sexual preferences and sexual inclination have similar meanings. Clinicians and those who believe sexuality is fixed early in life tend to use the former term; those believing sexuality is fluids and reflects the preference and choice tend towards the latter term.
Typically a person may be identified as primarily heterosexual (the focus is primarily people of the opposite sex), homosexual (people of the same sex), and bisexual (potentially both or either sexes), or asexual (no sexual attraction for either sex).
The term sexual orientation may also refer to the “identity” to which a person affiliates themselves, either by choice or as an expression of an inner attribute.
These categories are also used to describe sexual behavior, which may depart from an individual’s chosen identity or spontaneous desires.
Classification of individuals into these groups are controversial, and different observers may prefer orientation, behavior or self-identification as the sorting criterion, and make different judgments as to degree.
There is sometimes as overlap of opinion as to whether a person is straight/bisexual or gay/bisexual because such a person is technically bisexual (sexually attracted to both sexes/genders) but also fits a looser, un-official definition of homosexual (gay/lesbian) or straight/heterosexual as being primarily attracted to the same or opposite sex/gender.
However this simplistic categorization ignores many issues of individuality and culture, and sexuality itself has many different facets, and therefore even when it seems obvious, identifying sexual orientation is often not as simple as it seems.
Some samples may help clarify the distinctions between orientation or desire, identity and behavior:
- People of any sexual orientation may choose sexual abstinence, suppressing or ignoring any desires they may have.
- Some people who feel homosexual desires may engage in heterosexual behavior and even heterosexual marriage for a number of reasons.
- Some bisexual people have only one sexual or romantic partner at a time, and sometimes happened to have sexual and romantic partners from only one gender throughout their entire lives, despite attraction to some people of both sexes.
- People with heterosexual attractions may nonetheless have homosexual encounters whether by self-initiation, with initiation by the other party, with multiple simultaneous partners, through acts of deception, or due to absence of an available partner of the opposite gender or other unusual circumstances.
- A minority of people who self-identify as heterosexual or homosexual actually feel attracted to and engage in sexual behavior with people of both genders.
The multiple aspects of sexual orientation and the boundary-drawing problems create methodological challenges for the stuffy of the demographics of sexual orientation. Determining the frequency of various sexual orientations in real-world populations is difficult and controversial.
Considerable debate continues over what biological and/or physiological variables produce sexual orientation in humans, such as genes and the exposure of certain levels of hormones to fetuses. A much smaller dialog remains in progress on whether that orientation is discretionary, largely limited to a minority of Christians and many Muslims with its foundation rooted in theology and old scientific thinking.
Freud and many others, particularly in psychoanalytic traditions, speculate that formative childhood experiences help produced sexual orientation.
Clinically heterosexual acts are considered most common in today’s cultures but the concept of “normal” and “abnormal” with its connotations of sickness or moral judgment are no longer considered valid by most medical professions.
Gender is the perceived or projected (self-identifies) masculinity or femininity of a person. Gender associations are constantly changing as society progresses. For example, the color pink was considered masculine in the early 1900’s but has since long been viewed as feminine.
In sociology, gender identity describes the gender with which a person identifies (whether one perceives oneself to be a man, a woman, or describes oneself in some less conventional way) but can also be used to refer to the gender that other people attribute to the individual on the basis of what they know from gender role indications (clothing, hair style etc.)
In the overwhelming majority of cases there is no difficulty determining sex and gender. The overwhelming majority of humans are considered to be either men or women.
The most easily understood case in which it becomes necessary to distinguish between sex and gender is that in which the external genitalia are removed – when such a thing happens through accident or through deliberate intent, the libido and the ability to express oneself in sexual activity are changed, but the individual does not for that reason cease to regard himself as a boy or a man.
The formation of a gender identify is a complex process that starts with conception, but which involves critical growth processes during gestation and even learning experience after birth. There are points of differentiation all along the way, but language and tradition in most societies insists that every individual be categorized as either a man or woman.
The term gender role has two meanings that in individual cases may be divergent: First, people gender roles are the totality of the ways in which they express their gender identities. Second people’s gender roles may be defined as the kinds of activities that society determines to be appropriate for individuals possessing their kind of external genitalia.
By Meeka O’Brien