Sexual Identities

When people think of sexual identities (sometimes called orientations), they often think first of those based around the gender of the people we are attracted to. It is often assumed that people are either heterosexual or gay/lesbian and that those are the only two possible sexual identities (it is better to use ‘gay/lesbian’ than ‘homosexual’ because in the past ‘homosexuality’ was used as a term for a psychological disorder).

However, many people are also bisexual. This means that they are attracted to more than one gender, or that gender isn’t particularly important in determining who they are attracted to. The ‘bi’ in bisexual is often used to mean being attracted to both people of the same gender and people of other genders. Some also use the words ‘queer’, ‘pansexual’ or ‘omnisexual’ to capture this idea. Because of the either/or understanding people have of sexuality, such people are often invisible and subject to biphobia[19].

Also, there are many different sexual identities within each of these big sexual identity categories. Think about all the different kinds of heterosexual men, for example, macho men, new men, old-fashioned gentlemen, geeks, hipsters, metrosexuals… Similarly there are different categories of lesbians, bisexual people, and gay men. For example, bears are burly and hairy, whilst twinks are young and slender. Some may have identities which capture some elements of both their sexual and gender identity, such as butch dyke, drag queen, androgynous bi. And there are women who identify based on enjoying the idea of men being sexual with each other and men who identify based on enjoying the idea of women being sexual together, for example, some of the authors of slash fiction[20].

There are also sexual identities around the roles or positions that people enjoy taking sexually, for example whether they prefer to be giving or receiving in sex. The giving person is generally the one doing the penetrating or providing more of the stimulation to the receiving person. For example, in anal sex between men the giving person may be called the ‘top’ and the receiving person the ‘bottom’, and the same words are often used for the one who takes control and the one who is controlled in a kinky scene. There are many people who enjoy both topping and bottoming in their preferred kind of sex, and they may be called ‘switch’ or ‘versatile’. Of course there are many kinds of sex where the giving/receiving distinction isn’t relevant because both people are equally giving/receiving, just as there are many types of sex where the gender of the people involved isn’t that important to what is happening.

There are other sexual identities for those who particularly enjoy power play in their sex (dominant and submissive or D/s), or sensations (sadist, masochist, or SM). Some identify as ‘kinky’ or ‘BDSM’ to demonstrate that they enjoy sex broadly which includes elements of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism. Some identify as ‘vanilla’ if they particularly don’t enjoy kinky sex. Others may use labels specific to a certain kind of kink (such as leather fetish or service sub)[21]. There are ‘furry’ and ‘otherkin’ identities for those who relate their sexuality to dressing up as – or being – an animal, although for some this identity is not related to sex[22]. There are also identities relating to having more than one sexual or love relationship (e.g. swinger or polyamorous)[23].

Finally, in recent years more and more people have identified as ‘asexual’ (ace) or non-sexual to indicate their lack of sexual attraction and desire[24]. Again it is important to be aware that not all people are sexual, that most people will have periods where they don’t experience sexual desire or choose not to act on it, and that some people never experience sexual attraction.

People may identify with more than one of these labels, they may stick to the same identities through their lives or they may change, or they may prefer not to label themselves in these ways.

Sexual practices

19. Barker, M., Richards, C., Jones, R., Bowes-Catton, H. & Plowman, T. (2012). The Bisexuality Report: Bisexual inclusion in LGBT equality and diversity. Milton Keynes: The Open University, Centre for Citizenship, Identity and Governance, http://www.open.ac.uk/ccig/files/ccig/The%20BisexualityReport%20Feb.2012.pdf
20. Hellekson, K. & Busse, K. (Eds.) (2006). Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the Internet: new essays. Jefferson NC: McFarland, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_fiction
21. Langdridge, D. & Barker, M. (Eds.) (2007). Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
22. Richards, C. & Barker, M. (2013). Sexuality and gender for mental health professionals: A practical guide. London: Sage.
23. Barker, M. & Langdridge, D. (Eds.) (2010). Understanding Non-monogamies. New York: Routledge.
24. Carrigan, M., Morrison, T. & Gupta, K. (2013). Asexuality. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(2).

Sexual practices