Respecting Sexual Identity

This is the second in a two-part essay, covering the need to respect sexual identity. The first essay, here, covered the creation of sexual identity and its modern repercussions.

Diagnosing Sexuality

As mentioned in the last essay, the history of sexuality has largely been a history of medicalization, where doctors would examine patients to determine their sexualities, and follow up any negative (that is, non-normative) diagnoses with “therapies” ranging from talk psychoanalysis up through electroshock therapy.

We are still stuck in this diagnostic/curative model today. While homosexuality has been removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and doctors have largely been deposed from from their former authoritative position of determining who is what sexuality, instead we have moved the diagnostic model into interpersonal interactions.

In other words, people tend to think they can judge the sexuality of others, even better than the people whose sexuality it is. On the face of it, this sounds ridiculous. After all, sexuality is alternately defined as attraction, as an inner feeling, as an orientation. How would any of these things be more visible to an outside person than to the person with the sexuality in question?

The problem is that we are still laboring under the “open secret” model of sexuality put forward by the early sexologists and psychoanalysts. They were attempting to bring sexuality under medical control, which meant that it was crucial for their purposes that some doctor or psychoanalyst would be a higher authority on a patient’s sexuality than the patient’s own statement or feelings. The “open secret” model of sexuality was one where the secret of the patient’s sexuality was really only a secret to the patient themselves, a secret that could easily be read by someone with the proper skills.

To perform this diagnosis, medical authorities would examine a patient’s behavior in numerous ways. Did they show particular outward signs associated with inversion or homosexuality? Who were their friends? When they were children, what was their relationship with their parents? The patient would of course be quizzed, but their answers were not necessarily taken at face value.

To this day we are still going through similar diagnostic steps, though we are doing it to each other instead of submitting to psychoanalysis. We neglect to just ask people about their sexuality, and instead try to “read” it through a number of cues. Mostly obviously of course, who have they had sex with? Though often people do not even trust this, and of course sex is usually in private and not discussed, so this turns out to not be the end of the matter. What outward signs do they have? Does he lisp, or dance well? Did she play with dolls as a child? Is there some sort of odd gender going on here? Have they been hanging out with queers? Who do they look at lustily?

And of course, our own personal concerns and strategies enter into the process of assigning sexuality to others. Any men threatened by their own bisexual possibilities will tell you that bi men do not exist, while straight men (often the same men) routinely make the claim that all women are bisexual, in pursuit of their own fantasies of access. Bi men fight back by making the politically problematic claim that everyone is secretly bisexual. Lesbian feminists claim that any “women-identified women” are actually lesbian. Queer folk of any stripe look for hints of their particular queer brand in straight celebrities. This is of course not confined to queer sexualities: polyamorous people make a habit of claiming any article on open relationships as progress, label swingers as really poly, claim someone doing poly differently is not actually poly, and so on. Some straight spanking aficionados claim that everyone likes spanking (well, men like spanking and women like to be spanked), they just have not figured it out yet. Assignment of BDSM orientations (top, bottom, switch) seems to most hinge on whether the assigning person wants to play with assigned person, and what that would take.

In other words, the assignment of sexuality started as operation of power, and it continues as such, somewhat more decentralized. There are definite winners and losers in this scheme, depending on the level to which one’s sexuality is accepted and whether or not one’s presentation matches it.

We are using what I call the “behavior model” of sexuality, where a person’s sexuality tends to be judged by their appearance and behavior. This is in fact how we define sexuality: gay men are “men who have sex with men but not women”, straight men are “men who have sex with women and not men”, and so on. This seems straightforward but is in fact inaccurate. Some lesbians have husbands. Some bisexuals have been sexually monogamous for the last decade. I know a straight woman who would get drunk and have sex with her woman roommate, on a weekly basis.

The behavior model is not just restricted to queer and straight categorizations, but is extended to all sorts of other sexual categorizations. This is how we get incorrect statements like “you are not poly if you are looking for casual sex” or the idea that submissive men must all want to be fucked or dressed in panties. We take behavior models, and extend those to all sorts of minor preferences or external cues, and it gets downright ridiculous. This is why I am read as a gay man in gay circles while I confuse straight people, and almost no one reads me as a top at BDSM events. “Reading” itself is messy and quite often incorrect, even though people often play to the external cues associated with their sexuality.

The idea of the closet has played a huge role in the formation of the behavior model of sexuality. Because society has been so virulently homophobic over the last century, people have plenty of motivation to hide their non-normative sexuality. Paradoxically, this has meant that protestations of heterosexuality are often not believed. Straight people are examined for hints of latent homosexuality. This serves a political purpose in enforcing gender norms, but overall the behavior model of sexuality is problematic for straight people as well as queers.

Also, behavior models for sexuality are based in an essentialist ideology. In other words, people believe that being a particular sexuality is a fundamental and unchangeable part of who they are, an inner essence. This inner essence supposedly shows up in a person’s behavior or appearance, and can therefore be judged externally without their consent. This is a bit paradoxical. After all, if sexuality is caused by some sort of inner intrinsic or biological quality, then why are we looking for external cues? Wouldn’t a person be the best judge of their own inner state? Despite this major logical fault, essentialism is very important to a behavioral model of sexuality. Assigning sexuality to a person’s very essence helps get away from the sexual act itself. Otherwise, we would be stuck at observing a person’s actual sexual acts, which are typically done in private between two people, and therefore not ripe for observation. By claiming that sexuality is somehow woven through a person’s whole being, we can speculate that sexuality should appear in ways that are not directly connected with sex, and then look for those hints.

We need to move away from behavior models. We need to stop assigning sexuality according to appearance and behavior. But then the question is, what model should we use instead? What model could we use so that people are actually believed when they state their sexuality?

Sexuality as Strategy

I was at the Creating Change conference in 2005, at a workshop on bisexual identity, and a man in the back asked a very good question. It went something like, “I an all my queer friends end up having sex with all kinds of genders in the queer community. Does this mean we are all necessarily bisexual, not gay or lesbian or queer?”

When a gay man tells me he’s gay, he could be telling me any number of things. Maybe he is gay because he is attracted to men. Maybe he identifies as gay because he only has sex with men. Maybe he identifies as gay because he has no attraction to women. Maybe he feels gay. Maybe he identifies with the gay community. Maybe he falls in love with men but not women. Maybe he is extremely effeminate, and other people continually identify him as gay, whatever his attractions. Usually, being gay is a combination of a number of these things.

My point here, is that when a person tells me he is gay, he actually has not told me any one specific thing. He has probably had sex with men, or is attracted to men, but not necessarily. He is likely bringing together a set of disparate elements into a gay identity, with certain ones taking precedence. But until I hear more, I do not know which elements we are talking about.

After hearing someone identify, people tend to make a series of assumptions based on whatever “gay” means to them, and are surprised if those assumptions do not match what the person does. For example, they may not believe he is gay if he acts very masculine. Or they may hear of him having sex with women, and then decide that he cannot be gay. Note that this judgement could easily be coming from other queers, or even other gay men. However, second-guessing a person’s sexuality like this is almost never a good idea. He has said he is gay, and presumably he has very good reasons for saying so (especially considering that saying so in our homophobic culture is an exercise in risk-taking). Instead of questioning his sexual identity, it is important to listen to whatever he is trying to say when he identifies. Sexuality is complex, and he is really in the best position to know himself, and we do ourselves a favor when we listen to him instead of second-guessing, because we stand to learn more about his particular sexuality.

Identity functions as a kind of personal strategy. This is most obvious in the social arena, where a person considers their position and weighs how to describe themselves. Identities tend not to match perfectly, so expressing a sexual identity often is an exercise in compromises. For example, say a man only falls in love with men, but has good sex with women on occasion. Should he identify as gay, bisexual, or queer? If he identifies as queer, will everyone just assume he is gay? If he identifies as gay, will women assume he does not want to have sex with them? If he identifies as bisexual, will everyone assume that he is mostly straight but does men on the side occasionally?

Sometimes identity strategy becomes a matter of politics. A large number of women identified as lesbian because they were “women-identified women”, whatever their attractions. The invert identity shifted to lesbian or homosexual depending on gender, and then homosexual became gay. Gay expanded to include lesbians, and then shrunk once lesbian visibility in queer organizations improved. Queer itself started as a flexible reclaiming project. A lot of people in the bi community have started identifying as pansexual instead of bisexual, because they are worried that “bi” encodes gender duality. Indeed, in bisexual and similar circles, identity-as-strategy becomes more clear, because bisexuality has never been stabilizing by consistent institutional support, and as a result we have a bewildering array of identities to choose from: for example bi, pansexual, queer, omnisexual, fluid, queersexual, heteroflexible, and polysexual (in an unfortunate collision with polyamory terminology).

Also, identity is sometimes (though not always) a strategy in a person’s internal understanding of themselves. A man may have a strong attraction to men, but may consciously or unconsciously decide not to think of himself as gay or bisexual. Indeed, growing up in a straight world, often people internally start with a straight default and then has to choose to understand themselves some other way, if their understanding of themselves as straight somehow fails them.

Strategy also becomes more clear if we consider sexual identities that are not as heavily essentialized as gay/lesbian/straight. A butch woman might identify as butch because she appears masculine, or because she behaves a certain way, or because she is attracted to femme women. At some points in history, identifying as butch or femme was mandatory in certain lesbian subcultures, so a butch choice might be the best of two poor identity matches.

Non-queer sexual identities are usually recognizable as strategies. A person who wants to identify with some kind of nonmonogamy can refer to their practice as nonmonogamy, swinging, polyamory, open relationships, friends with benefits, or “managed monogamy”, or they can choose to participate in any number of nonmonogamous subcultures that do not explicitly name their practice, like play parties. Similarly, people choose BDSM identities for various reasons, to the point where we are accustomed to adding qualifiers referring to specific practices, like “rope bottom” or “pain switch”.

However, you should not walk away from this essay thinking that sexual identity is always a matter of choice. Many of the things in the list above (say, being attracted to men, or only falling in love with men, or feeling gay) may in fact not be a choice for some people. Given homophobia, I would guess that a majority of queers had some sort of involuntary internal push towards an eventual queer identity. Also, sometimes involuntary sexual identity can come from external sources, such as when others consistently identify a person with a given sexuality, whatever their actual attractions.

The pieces of sexual identity that are involuntary are clearly not a matter of strategy, since strategy implies a choice. In these cases, strategy moves up a level to whatever wraps the involuntary identity piece. For example, an effeminate straight man may choose to wear certain clothes or cut his hair in order to minimize his effeminacy, or he may tell people he is straight frequently so they do not assume he is gay. A person in the closet who has certain sexual attractions may decide not to act on them. A bisexual woman may end up having more relationships with women than men because she prefers lesbian community over straight community. When we consider sexuality as expressed in the social milieu (as opposed to internal sexual identity), there is almost always some level of strategy going on.

(For those of you keeping up with my usual deconstructionist stance, I am not advocating that we essentialize internal sexual identity here. Rather, I am saying that it may well be involuntary, and therefore not a matter of personal strategy. Constructions can be involuntary. More on this in a future post on deconstruction.)

Also, it is important to understand that the strategies we are describing here are typically quite serious. In the case of closeting and coming out decisions, doing one or the other is often a matter of survival. Even when one is not worried about surviving, good identity strategies are fairly crucial to negotiating the social world. My point here is that people tend to have really powerful reasons for their particular identity strategies. These strategies are not frivolous. Given that identity is a matter of serious strategy, respecting people’s identities becomes doubly crucial. If we respect a person’s identity, we empower them in whatever strategies they are undertaking. If we fail to respect their identity, then we are attempting to take power away from them.

Respecting Sexual Identity

In certain trans/queer communities, we are starting to see a consent model for gender appearing. In other words, it has been recognized that identifying someone else as a particular gender is an act of power over them, and can be harmful if it is not done with their consent. And conversely, if a person is gendered according to their desires, it can be empowering. This is of course an imperfect process, and it is not like we have managed to fully escape the subconscious gendering that we are all trained to do. (In fact, I totally flubbed this a week ago when I met someone offline for the first time.) But it is a start.

We need a similar consent model for sexuality. In other words, we need to not judge a person’s sexuality before they have told us what it is, and then we need to respect whatever they say, whether or not it jibes with our own assumptions about them. This is already happening to some extent in the heavily bi social circles I move in. At a bi-centered event, you really do not know the sexuality of any particular person. Straight and queer folks of all stripes show at these events. And to confuse matters further, there are lots of different sorts of bisexuals or bi-like people, and there are no particular appearance cues for these identities that are widely recognized. The sheer difficulty of identifying a person in these circles tends to push people away from making assumptions about sexuality, though this has not been turned into any sort of formal practice.

We need to make it into a formal practice. Diagnosing someone’s sexual identity should be a faux pas, much like misdiagnosing someone’s gender is a faux pas. In some ways it should be easier to institute consent for sexuality diagnosis than it is for gender diagnosis, since identifying someone’s sexuality generally relies less on body parts and visual cues. But people apparently make up for this lack by intensifying their efforts, making wild speculative assumptions and then holding tight to those in the face of evidence to the contrary. Notably, we have no language around what it means to identify someone else’s sexuality.

Coming out has been an important first step in the process of moving to a consent model. It moved the authority for determining sexuality from medical institutions to the particular people who have the sexualities, at least for non-normative sexualities. The concept of coming out has extended, and now people use coming out as an analogy for taking this authority in any situation, or for any identity. This laid the groundwork for the creation of new identities, because once a person could say which sexuality they were, they could also say that they were none of the above and you should use this new word. Perhaps we could extend the coming out model further, to create a model where mis-identifying someone is seen as the opposite of coming out. Much like we say you can “out” someone, we could elucidate the concept of “mis-outing” someone, identifying them wrongly.

Moving away from diagnosis or behavioral models of sexuality will be difficult, because actually understanding and respecting the true complexity of other people’s sexuality tends to force people to give up their own sexual assumptions, which in turn can threaten their sexual identities, or at least their personal strategies around sexuality. There is a fair amount of insecurity built into our systems of sexuality, and attempts to actually celebrate diversity in sexuality tends to trigger these. This is a primary source of biphobia, for example. That said, moving to a system where one’s sexuality is actually respected would go very far towards addressing these insecurities directly, and moving people to a place where other sexualities do not threaten them.

This is especially crucial for those of us with sexual identities that are considered by the mainstream to be unstable, artificial, or behaviors instead of identities. (I get annoyed every time I hear the term “bisexual behavior”. Bisexual behavior is going to the local bi brunch on saturdays, not anything to do with sex. Referring to “bisexual behavior” instead of “bisexuals” is a convenient way to avoid admitting that bisexuals exist.) So long as the mainstream has the power to determine what sexualities are valid, and so long as that mainstream authority is respected even in sexual minority communities (which it currently is, mostly), our identities will remain slippery and difficult to use. This tends to create a devil’s bargain, where if you pick the invalidated identity, it is used to disempower you, but if you do not, then you do not get any of the benefits of identity, or you are identified as a validated (and incorrect) identity against your wishes. We need to recognize that the mainstream, and the medical authorities in the mainstream, only produce sexual identity for their own purposes, and the resulting taxonomy ranges from slightly to wildly incorrect. We need to value community-created identities at the same level as mainstream identities and educate ourselves on them.

Our culture is stuck in a bad cycle of diagnosing other’s sexualities based on one’s own personal agenda. This leads us into ongoing identity wars where gay men are dismissing bisexuals, bisexuals are claiming that everyone is just like them, straight researchers are publishing laughable conclusions, poly people are invalidating swinging, and doms are assuming that everyone they are attracted to is submissive. It is an ongoing and largely fruitless struggle, with everyone wading in to protect, expand, validate, or buttress their piece of the conceptual identity pie. We need to declare a truce. Next time you think you know someone’s sexual identity, just stop. Stop thinking about it. Wait, and ask them when it is appropriate.