Overall, there were about twenty questions, mostly just asking to tick boxes, although there were also text boxes for more detailed answers. I had been researching on those topics and used the survey to compile what I had learnt, share it on social media and get an idea of the diversity of the people around me. The forty-ish replies I received are obviously not statistically representative of anything, yet they surprised me and motivated me to write about them in here.
When we think on a spectrum, walls crumble down
On the survey I purposefully asked similar questions twice, only offering different means to answer.
I asked similar questions on sexual orientation, and both times the results from the “Black or White Questions” and the “Spectrum Questions” were quite different. Indeed, while 84% of the participants identified as either a male or a female and 50% as either heterosexual or homosexual, on a spectrum only 10% identified as totally masculine or feminine, and 15% as totally heterosexual or homosexual.
Such results showed that nuanced answers were largely preferred by the participants when given to choose on a spectrum. This confirms the importance of looking at identity questions in terms of a spectrum, as it has been widely promoted by gender and queer studies in the past decades. Participants seemed widely reluctant to identify categorically as homosexual, heterosexual, masculine or feminine, although they do ultimately identify with those terms, not choosing to say they are “bisexual” or “agender” when asked to define themselves in one word.
Identification tags such as “heterosexual” or “man” are at the same time needed, and needing to be nuanced. I might feel ultimately that I am a heterosexual man, and yet have a feminine side, or be “mostly straight” as many men in America identify themselves. Learning and thinking on orientation helps breaking the established walls on gender or sexuality, and visualizing identity with more fluidity, as a set of spectra (or scales) on which to situate.
Participants seemed widely reluctant to identify categorically as homosexual, heterosexual, masculine or feminine, although they do ultimately identify with those terms.
Asexuality and demisexuality: the new hot topics
Using a spectrum to determine one’s gender or sexual orientation is now a pretty well spread concept. The next big topic in queer studies might be the existence of many more spectra that can be used to understand our sexuality. Among them is allosexuality/asexuality, or the spectrum of sexual desire. It is also called the grey-sexual spectrum. While heterosexuality/homosexuality helps one understand which gender s/he feels attracted to, this other spectrum helps one understand how sexual s/he is.
Asexuality is defined as the absence of sexual attraction towards other people. It does not signify that the person does not have a libido or is unable to have sex, but rather that s/he does not feel interested by it. Asexuality is a fascinating topic which like any of the LGBTQ+ labels might be difficult to apprehend for people who do not feel the same. Estimates show that about 1% of the British population is asexual. The opposite term for asexuality, for the remaining 99%, is allosexuality, the presence of sexual attraction towards other people.
While bisexuality for example can be seen as the middle-way between homosexuality and heterosexuality, there is no middle-ground in the allosexual/asexual binary. If one feels comparatively low sexual desire, s/he is still allosexual. Still, one can imagine a spectrum to determine one’s sexual attraction level, from very high to absent (asexual).
Another term that was new to me until recently is demisexuality, a word that does not even exist yet according to my auto-correct. This word might deceitfully seem like a middle-ground to allosexuality/asexuality, yet in fact it should be seen on a different spectrum. Demisexuality means the absence of sexual attraction towards other people unless first developing a very strong emotional connection. Oftentimes, demisexual people might consider themselves asexual until they meet someone and develop sexual attraction for that person.
Discussions on those terms deserve of course much more consideration and time as they are complex labels encompassing different experiences with sexuality. In my survey, I intently tried to be as simple as possible just to introduce people to those terms. In terms of sexual desire, over 50% of the participants chose to answer ‘2’ or ‘3’ (most people avoiding the maximum choice ‘1’), thus indicating they had rather strong sexual desires towards other people. 2 participants declared themselves asexual. But it is in terms of demisexuality that I was the most surprised: nearly 20% of the people surveyed declared needing a very strong emotional connection to feel sexually attracted to someone (‘7’), and overall nearly 60% people answered from ‘5’ to ‘7,’ thus declaring needing a somewhat strong to a very strong emotional connection.
Is demisexuality a much more common occurrence then we might think? Or were participants of my survey exaggerating their need for emotional connection to feel sexually aroused by someone? I am not sure. Another interesting thing to note is that there seemed to be no correlation between gender, sexual orientation and demisexuality, as men and women, hetero, bi and gay people alike declared themselves demisexual.
Such result made me question a lot the contemporary approach to sexuality. With the flourishing spread of sexual freedom and of dating apps, having what I call “sex for fun,” a casual intercourse with someone just met, is now a fairly easy deal to settle. As a consequence, many people from their late 10s, 20s, 30s and beyond are conditioned to believe in the greatness of sex without feelings. Friends meet and talk about their hookups, about new matches and dates. The ones that do not feel this desire to have sex with a mere stranger or an acquaintance are made to think that there is something wrong with them. They may be told that they are being conservative, or immature, or conditioned by society. That there is something wrong with their body.
Religion, culture, family models, and other social factors might induce one’s disinterest towards sex for fun. In the case of demisexuality, it rather seems that the lack of sexual interest comes from an ensemble of environmental and biological factors which, as for sexual orientation or gender, we cannot quite explain yet. Therefore, a more inclusive society might be one where people interested in sex for fun and those who are not respect the decision of one another without pressuring one another to follow their own model.
To refrain from pressuring someone is different than to avoid discussing those topics. Indeed, discussion is on the contrary the key not just for raising mutual awareness, but also for questioning one’s own sexuality. Thus one might eventually become interested in sex for fun, or adversely give up on it after an inspiring discussion. As the other spectra of sexuality, desire and emotional need for desire are most likely fluid to a certain degree within each of us. Open discussion might thus be the best mean for self-actualization.
A more inclusive society might be one where people interested in sex for fun and those who are not respect the decisions of one another without pressuring one another to follow their own model.
Liquid love, sexual fluidity and determinism
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who passed away last year devoted much on his work to analyze the fluidity of human relations in our contemporary capitalist society. In his book Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds, he analyzes how love and sex now became objects of consumption, easy to get and easy to throw away. In his view, love is greatly influenced by social norms and expectations, and in a consumerist society love hardly lasts.
In our society where many intend to have many sexual partners and a few romantic partners throughout the course of their lives, is the way of selecting those partners fluid? In other words, is people’s taste for other people changing with time, or is it constant? Participants to the survey were pretty divided on that issue.
My question was “Do you think gender and sexuality are fixed, or fluid, changing with time?” and meant to be answered in a sentence or two. A non-absolute majority declared they saw gender and sexuality as fluid, but many expressed precaution to say so.
Other common answers were that gender and sexuality might be fix for some people and not for others. Some participants said that sexuality might be more likely to change than gender, or again that social norms played a big role in determining our identity. One of the participant answer was quite thought-provoking:
“The way we feel about labels and what they mean to us change with time, as we live and discover different things about ourselves. So no I don’t think gender or sexuality can really change, but the way we live with it does.”
Other participants seemed to consider their own sexuality and gender as constant or relatively constant, but their understanding of it changing, evolving closer towards finding their “real selves.”
I do not want to pretend having answer on those questions of fluid/fixed identity, of true self, but I do find the topic fascinating. More and more studies are released now to discuss whether sexuality is genetically determined. One that I found on Vice discussed the discovery of a correlation between genetic factors and homosexual men preference for being a bottom (the receptive partner of a sexual relationship). Such research suggests that there might be genetic predisposition for sexual preference even among homosexual men (and most likely other labels), although the actual proofs behind the statistical evidence are yet to be determined. Being a top, bottom or versatile gay cis-man thus also might have to do with our genes, to a certain extent yet very unclear.
With the advance in biology, neuroscience and social sciences, we now know with a fairly good certainty that sexuality is partly determined by our genes. Such discovery confirms that we are merely at the early stages of understanding the diversity of human sexuality. Behind the G (gay) of the LGBTQ+ umbrella, there are thus T (top), B (bottom), and V (versatile) labels which also seem to be partly determined through a set of genetic and environmental factors. One more spectrum to think sexuality through.
How much of gender and sexuality is possibly fluid? Is such fluidity also genetically-induced? Depending on changing norms? On life experiences? Or do we have any control over it? There are still many unanswered questions regarding sexual and gender fluidity.
We are merely at the early stages of understanding the diversity of human sexuality. Behind the G (gay) of the LGBTQ+ umbrella, there are thus T (top), B (bottom), and V (versatile) labels which also seem to be partly determined through a set of genetic and social factors.
Sexual vs Romantic: the complexity of attraction
On the first part of the survey, I asked four questions on attraction: Who are you attracted by sexually? romantically? emotionally? aesthetically? The participants could answer on a scale from one (people of the opposite gender) to five (people of the same gender). This time the results showed two clear trends: participants tended to have very diverse sexual and romantic interests although in majority it was towards people of the opposite gender, while emotional and aesthetic interests were mostly towards both genders, with a slight preference for people of the same gender. Indeed, the answers ‘3’ both genders and 4 ‘the same gender but not categorically’ won 66% of the votes in terms of emotional attraction, and 60% in terms of aesthetic attraction.
Then in the last part of the survey, I asked participants to define themselves using the words used throughout the questions (a picture of some of the results in the last section below). The word “panromantic” (romantically attracted by people regardless of their gender) came up two times in the answers, once from an asexual and agender person, and the other from a demisexual woman. Thinking of romantic attraction as detached from sexual attraction might seem odd for most allosexual people, as we often hear that sex is a major element of a relationship. For asexual people who are not interested in having sex or demisexual who need a close emotional bond to feel sexual desire, romantic attraction might be the one essential filter to choose a partner, along with the emotional and aesthetic dimensions.
Those three latter ways to look at attraction are very informative for the majority of the people who are allosexual. Indeed, they teach one to think of attraction as a set of spectra rather than a single or dual one, with at least two physical ones (sexual and aesthetic) and two spiritual ones (emotional and romantic), although all those forms of attraction are evidently mingled together and not purely physical or spiritual. Even a concept that seems as intuitive as attraction might be broken down and analyzed in its subtle complexity.
On attraction towards transgender people
Here I want to talk about what maybe will become irrelevant in the future, yet that is very much of an important talk now: attraction towards transgender people. On this broad topic I would like to focus on the people who have not undergone sex-reassignment surgery. I wondered for a while on how to ask in my survey, and finally came up with that chart.
My question thus does not take into consideration the gender of the person but his/her sexual orientation. Such question thus aimed to see whether there were a gap in interest towards cisgender (people whose gender corresponds with their birth sex) and transgender people (people whose gender does not correspond with their birth sex). More, my question also aimed to understand if people valued more the physical appearance (masculinity and feminity) or the sexual attributes (penis and vagina) when thinking of sexual attraction.
The results were of course quite difficult to analyse and very varied. In fact, quite a few participants skipped the question, as the chart was maybe confusing. Also, very few people replied “I prefer not to answer/I am not sure of my answer.” Most replies came from people who identified as pansexual, and they mostly indicated an interest for most types of transgender profiles I listed.
As for the people interested in men and/or women (in other words for whom gender is an important factor of attraction), their answers were quite hard to interpret as the numbers were insignificant (between 2 to 7 people answered each of the eight options). It seems however that gendered physical appearance seemed to matter slightly more than sexual attributes, and that androgynous-looking people with the biological sex that matches one’s sexual attraction were preferred over those of the other sex. Also, people interested in men seemed comparatively more attracted to people with a penis than people into women were attracted to people with a vagina.
While it was established for some time now that the sexual orientations of transgender people were as varied as the ones of cisgender people, more studies need to be made on attraction towards transgender people. There might be some cisgender, heterosexual men who are sexually attracted by transgender women, and some others who are not; more diversity within the established labels.
Such results (or lack of results) maybe shed the light on the fact that attraction towards transgender people does not seem to follow the exact same patterns as attraction towards cisgender people. The reason for the attraction (or lack, thereof) is likely to be just like for previous spectra: partly genetic, partly societal, potentially fluid. However, for now the lack of representation of the transgender community on the popular media prevent many people from thinking of transgender people as objects and subjects of desires. Transgender awareness tend to be less discussed than LGB awareness and as an outcome issues on transphobia are progressing arguably more slowly. As a vicious circle, this might prevent people for coming out or transitioning, and thus perpetuate the lack of representation not only in the media but also in our daily lives of trangender people.
A look at the final results
Here are some of the results to the final question asking the participants to summarize their sexual and gender identity:
The answers showed a great diversity, with in fact few repetitions of the same combinations. And most participants did not even comment on all the spectra discussed in this article, the diversity in homosexuality, in asexuality, diversity in non-binary gender… This lead me to think that at the end of the day, we are all part of a sexual minority. More, thinking about sexual and gender minorities we are not even part of still helps us think deeper about where to situate ourselves on all those spectra of identity.
Of course, those labels I have been discussing are tools to merely help up navigating around the complex meanders of identity. They cannot perfectly match our feelings or our experiences, as a participant nicely put it:
“I don’t hundred percent agree with labels because I do feel they restrict the view you and others have on yourself. Although I used them here for the sake of the survey, I personally prefer to not use fixed terminology cause I do believe people can have self-perception and/or attraction toward others outside of the label they identify with. They work as a framework, but I don’t think humans are as simple as that.”
It is important to note also that one should never assume things about someone’s personality based on the labels this person might identify with. The writer Jeff Leavell for example writes on the issues with toxic labels in the gay male community. To assume that someone should be like this or like that because s/he described her/himself with a particular label is to negate the singularity of each person’s personality and the fluidity of human feelings.
The preponderance in the survey of nuanced answers (mostly heterosexual rather than strictly heterosexual, rather feminine rather than strictly a woman) also shows how many people are rejecting the enclosing aspect of binary labels. One participant made a very interesting comment on why she chose a nuanced answer and the possible gaps between the manifestation of our desires, our interpretation of those desires and our terminological use.
“From a societal point of view, I would definitely be considered heterosexual but I didn’t put the most extreme answer and instead put the choice one degree lower cause of certain “signs” that I’ve felt throughout my life (e.g. I have had lesbian dreams or I can get turned on watching porn with only women in it etc). Comparing and contrasting people’s “signs” and their interpretations of them and how they end up identifying themselves as a result may be thought-provoking.”
While gender and sexual orientation might be mostly biologically/environmentally determined, eventually we are given the flexibility to choose how we want to identify and to act on our desires. This is where education and freedom play an important role. Indeed, by learning about gender and queer studies, we are given tools to conceptualize and vocalize our feelings. Then by creating a safe environment, where it is fine for people to be “out,” we are given a space to perform our gender and sexuality as it seems fit, without the pressure to fit into particular molds.
Happily, the internet has been in the past two decades a precious platform to cultivate such open and instructed minds. Many asexual persons on YouTube have been using the website to create awareness on asexuality and explain their personal experiences. Some mention how the website AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) has been a reassuring environment for them to learn about asexuality and realize that they were not the only ones feeling that way. Many people from the LGBTQ+ umbrella also found answers to their questions reading other people’s experiences on forums online, and support by sharing their own stories. The internet has been a very empowering tool to help one dealing with identity questioning and to relieve one from social pressure. I hope this article brings a small contribution to this great purpose.
By learning about gender and queer studies, we are given tools to conceptualize and vocalize our feelings. Then by creating a safe environment, where it is fine for people to be “out,” we are given a space to perform our gender and sexuality as it seems fit, without the pressure to fit into particular molds.
Small disclaimer: I by no mean consider myself an expert on LGBTQ+ issues. If there is something that feels incorrect in the things I wrote, I would be glad to hear about it in a comment or by private message. I am more than willing to keep learning about those topics and I intend to edit this article or write others based on feedback. Feel free to comment and criticize or dig further into the things I have mentioned!