This article was originally published in Lot’s Wife Edition 5: Identity
A lot of the time, we tend to maintain an either/or mentality when it comes to sex related stuff. Male/Female, Straight/Gay, hell, even Virgin/Not Virgin. We think of people consisting of about two main features: sex (which we usually equate pretty quickly with gender) and sexual orientation. The truth though, like so much else in the world is never as simple and organised as we would like it to be, children – paragons of chaos that they are – typify this, boys in pink, girls cutting their own short hair and both walking into whichever bathroom they feel like. Rather than embrace this wonderful complexity though in our adult life, many just soldier on, pretending that girls want to marry boys and boys want to marry girls and that’s as far as it goes. Oh, how little they know.
While we are spending as issue talking about identity, I thought I would share with you a model that aims to both reveal how beautifully complex we humans are, while also helping you to understand yourself and your neighbour.
Firstly we start with one’s biological sex, the equipment between your legs. Usually this falls into two categories: bio-sex female, signified by the presence of a vulva on the outside and a vagina and uterus on the inside, and bio-sex male, which is a penis and scrotum on the outside and testies, vas- deferens and a prostate on the inside. This is biological sex at its most straight forward but there is a whole range of intersex conditions that mean people have either chromosomes or internal/external genitals that don’t fit neatly into either the male or female category. Very sadly, this can often mean that intersex infants undergo “correctional surgery” to pin them into a singular category when their perfectly healthy in the middle.
Secondly we have one’s gender identity, which is quite closely related but separate to sex. While sex is something you’re body physically has, your gender identity is far more abstract. Whether you feel like a man or a woman or both, or someone completely out of those concepts or you have no gender what so ever, all these genders (all, not both) can occur completely independently of your biological sex. While the female sex is usually linked to the ‘woman’ gender, this isn’t always the case. Men can have vulvas and women can have penises and that doesn’t make their gender any less real or legitimate.
Thirdly, there are the people that you’re attracted to, which is decided by your sexual orientation – the gender(s) of people you want to be sexual with (if any) and your romantic orientation – the gender of people you want to have romantic relationships with (if any). Yes, they can be totally different things and yes, just like gender identity, one’s sexual and romantic orientations can change and develop and evolve all throughout the lifespan.
Fourthly (we’re getting there, you’re doing well) we have one’s sexual behaviour, which relates to what genders you sexually and romantically interact with. While this is naturally informed by your orientation, it might not always match up. For example, someone who is bi-sexual might only have sex with someone of the same gender because they’re in a monogamous relationship or someone who is heterosexual who doesn’t have sex with anyone because they want to wait until marriage.
Finally, we have gender roles. Gender roles are decided by society and are a largely external force but they can help to inform what gender with which someone identifies or which genders they are attracted to. Gender identity and gender role can be easy to conflate, but gender identity relates more to who you are and gender role is more your behaviour; a man who likes to wear makeup and is very maternal or a woman who likes to tinker with cars and be emotionally distant.
Though many of these aspects commonly interact with each other, they can work completely independently as well. The most expected combination, for example, would a bio-sex female, who identifies as a women, who is hetero-romantic heterosexual that only has sex with men and feels comfortable in a feminine gender role. We’ve likely all met someone who fits that description. But you could also meet someone who is a bio-sex male, identifies as woman, is romantically attracted to men, sexually attracted to all genders but chooses not to have sex and feel more comfortable in a masculine gender role. Just because that isn’t the most common combination of traits doesn’t make that person weird or strange and it doesn’t make how they feel about themselves or anyone else any less legitimate than a cis-gendered woman.
We have a tendency to think of sex and gender markers as something definite and set, like little baskets where you have to choose the one that describes you best and sit down in it. The reality is that each one of these facts has a spectrum with an infinite number of points between one end and the other. Someone doesn’t have to be a man or a woman, they can be 37% man and 63% woman if that’s who they feel they are, they can just jump off the spectrum and have no gender at all, or they can take the whole thing ball it up and be both at the same time. And of course everyone can have a stroll along and try out different points to see where they fit and different times. I mean even the spectrum is sort of restrictive – it only shows two polar ends when there can be so much more than that.
The point is that sexual and gender identities are not only complicated, but for many people they’re also a fluid process where there is no big, final destination. Some people know who they are and who they like and what they want to do from the age of twelve and that is awesome for them. Some people take a while to work it out and some people change all the way throughout their lives – and so long as they are as honest as they can be with themselves and their partners, just because who they are changes doesn’t mean that whatever mix of adjectives or lack of adjectives they want to use to describe themselves isn’t as legitimate as someone who could fit neatly into a little box.
Of course, all this can (unsurprisingly) become even more complicated when we look at the intricate patterns of prejudice, privilege and society, and I by no means want to down play how difficult navigating your identity can be, especially when society wants to simplify, deny or even punish who you are, but I think, in the grand scheme of things, and in our everyday interactions, we can make life a bit easier by remembering that it’s ok not to know exactly who you are or who someone else is and to give everyone the time, space and respect to work it out or change as they need to. Thinking too small and too small and too simplistically is the problem, being complicated, unexpected and contradictory is being human.
This article is in no small part inspired and informed by the YouTube Video “Human Sexuality is Complicated” by Hank Green on the YouTube channel VlogBrothers. If you thought this was good and interesting I highly recommend checking it out!