Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sexual Identity/Sexual Orientation

Four components of Sexual Identity

It is important to review how your sexual identity relates to your sexual behavior. When we talk about sexual identity, we are actually talking about a complex topic. Four components of sexual identity that are important are: a) natal sex, b) gender identity, c) social sex role and d) sexual orientation. Each of the components may play a role in your sexual behavior.

a) Natal sex refers to the physical make-up at your birth. Often this refers to your sexual genitalia or your DNA make-up. Women have two X-X chromosomes, while men have X-Y chromosomes. Most often this correlates to vaginal or penis genitalia. (In a few rare circumstances, the external genitalia may be confusing; this will not be reviewed here. For more information, search out “intersex” on the internet.) Often, the answer to a person’s genital sex is as simple as when the baby is born, and the answer is: It’s a BOY/GIRL.

b) Gender identity is a bit more complicated. Gender Identity is the gender you feel you are. Often this is congruent with one’s natal sex. “I have the genitalia of a female, and I feel female.” Transgender expression can vary from cross-dressing to transsexualism. Cross-dressing is as simple as it sounds, dressing in gender of the opposite sex. (Men dressing as women; women dressing as men). Transsexualism is when an individual believes they are the opposite sex from their physical body. A person may often say that they feel "trapped in the wrong body." For example, a biological male believes he is actually a female or a biological female believes she is actually a male. Transsexualism is not a psychosis or neurosis.

c) Social sex roles are more complex. Social sex roles refer to socially defined behaviors in light of one’s gender. Typically, social sex roles are divided into masculine or feminine roles. Social sex roles also change over time, hence the confusion regarding social sex roles. Often, social sex roles are confused with sexual identity, for example, a “feminine” male is often labeled as having a same sex identity. In fact, there are three concepts involved in the preceding sentence. Natal sex, social sex roles, and sexual identity.

d) Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s attractions. This is most often described as a same sex attraction or a heterosexual attraction. Often this is simply reduced to a statement of “I’m a gay man,” or “I’m a lesbian women,” or “I’m a straight female.” Sexual identity, however, is more complex.

Sexual Orientation

One early attempt to understand sexual orientation was the development of a continuum to understand sexual orientation. The approach to understanding sexual orientation is to place one’s genital sexual behaviors on a continuum of exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. This continuum is often referred to as the “Kinsey Continuum.” Further adaptations of the continuum expanded the concept of a continuum regarding sexual behavior to also address fantasy content, emotional relationships, and, as before, genital expression.

Adapted Kinsey Continuum.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6

Exclusively Exclusively

Heterosexual Homosexual

In understanding the causes of sexual orientation, much research as occurred in the past. Generally, the final conclusion on the causes of sexual orientation is that science just doesn’t know. The best summary of the research is from SIECUS

“No single scientific theory about what causes sexual orientation has been suitably substantiated. Studies to associate sexual orientation with genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors have so far been inconclusive. Sexual orientation is no longer considered to be one’s conscious individual preference or choice, but is instead thought to be formed by a complicated network of social, cultural, biological, economic, and political factors.” Sex Information and Educational Council of the US (SIECUS), 1993

There are a number of myths regarding the cause of a same-sex attraction. In reviewing the research, it becomes clear that a history of sexual abuse does not a same-sex attraction. A same sex orientation is not a psycho-pathology. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental health disorders. They made this decision based on research showing no greater evidence of mental illness among individuals with same-sex attractions versus those with an opposite-sex attraction.

An individual’s sexual orientation also appears stable over time. What might change is one’s acceptance of, or the expression of one’s sexual orientation. All major health associations in America including, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association label as unethical the attempt to change one’s sexual orientation.

Stages of Identity Development

Researchers have also examined the Stages of Identity Development. One model of identity development that might be helpful in understanding a same-sex sexual identity is by Cass. She hypothesized six stages.

In Stage 1 - identity confusion - heterosexual identity is called into question with the person’s increasing awareness of feelings of intimate and physical attraction towards others of the same sex and the question "Could I be homosexual?" Gay and lesbian information or awareness becomes personally relevant, and the heterosexual assumption begins to be undermined. At this stage, confusion is great and denial is usually the primary coping strategy.

Stage 2 - Identity comparison - begins with accepting the potential that homosexual feelings are a part of the self. The realization that "I might be homosexual" may cross your mind. Alternately, a re-framing of same-gender sexual attractions as a special case (it just happens to be this one person I am attracted to and he/she happens to be the same sex) may occur. The idea that "I may be bisexual" (which permits the potential for heterosexuality) can also be a manifestation of Stage 2 identity development. It is also at this level that "This is a 'phase' I'm going through" may surface. These strategies are developed to reduce the incongruence between same-sex attractions and a view of one's self as heterosexual. The task at this stage of identity comparison, according to Cass, is to deal with social alienation as the individual becomes aware of his or her difference from larger society, experiences a sense of not belonging and the isolation of perceiving himself or herself as an isolated case; that is, the only one "like this."

Stage 3 - Identity tolerance - is marked by statements such as "I probably am homosexual." This movement helps dispel the sense of confusion and turmoil of prior stages, but creates a greater gulf in the comparison between self and others. For the individual who experiences a heightened need for peer approval and acceptance, this can be a dramatically trying period. During this period, the person often creates a well-developed capacity to “mask” on the part of the individual. Masking involves being able to convincingly come across to others as heterosexual despite grappling internally with ones identity. This ability often provides the individual with the personal space necessary for them to grapple with their sexual orientation but at the same time comes at high price. The individual is forced to be highly vigilant in maintaining this mask and must constantly work at separating the private and public self. A further consequence is that the value and sincerity of their intimate relationships with family and friends are, at least in the mind of the individual, undermined as they are based on a known deception or half-truth. Positive experiences are crucial to developing a degree of self-acceptance (vs. self-hatred) during this period. Contacting other gay, lesbian, and/or bisexual people becomes a more pressing issue to alleviate a sense of isolation and alienation and to provide the individual with the experience of being accepted for their whole being and not just for their “mask”.

Stage 4, identity acceptance, usually involves increasing contact with other gays and lesbians in developing a more clearly delineated homosexual identity. Finding other gay and lesbian persons is difficult at best for many individuals. Those in rural areas often find the social isolation nearly unbearable. Those individuals fortunate enough to have access to support groups and/or gay social events often experience a heightened sense of their dual lifestyle - being heterosexual publicly and bi- or homosexual privately. With this comes the fear of being "discovered" – a concern that often permeates their existence. The issues of "who am I?" and "how do I fit in?” however, have begun to be addressed.

Stages 5 and 6 - identity pride and identity synthesis - move the individual from a "them and us" mentality into a realization and acceptance of the similarities between the heterosexual and homosexual worlds. Strong identification with the gay subculture and devaluation of heterosexuality and many of its institutions (Stage 5) gives way to less rigid, polarizing views and more inclusive and cooperative behavior (Stage 6).

Sometimes individuals with a same-sex orientation encounter struggles that make it difficult to accept one’s sexual orientation. The biggest example of a barrier is heterosexism which is the bias that heterosexuality is superior to all other sexual orientations. An extreme example of heterosexism is the presence of hate crimes. One historical well known example is Matthew Shepard who was attacked and brutally beaten for having a same-sex attraction. He eventually died from the attack.

Other examples of barriers to a healthy sexual identity include structural barriers such as legal consequences (loss of custody of children), negative stereotypes, internalized shame, family rejection and a sense of fear.

Men who have sex with men: Not all “gay-sex-is-gay”

There is a recognition that not every man who has sex with men will identify as a gay man. For some of these men, they reason man not identify as gay is simply because they are “in the closest” and in denial about their sexual orientation. The are attempting to minimize, avoid, or deny their same sex attractions.

In some cases, men who have sex with men are truly not gay. For these individuals the acting out cycle is so powerful that the goal is to have sex with anyone, regardless of their gender. For these individuals who most often identify as straight males, the freedom they experience with another man minimizes guilt, or reflects the ease by which they can find sexual partners. In some situations (prison, military, religious settings), the only available sexual partner is someone of the same gender (aka situational homosexuality). For this person, when both genders are available, they would choose the opposite gender. And as a final example, the behavior may have occurred under the influence of alcohol or other chemicals.

A great resource on this issue can be found at written by Joe Kort. Joe is a colleague I respect who works in the same field. He’s identified 12 types of same-sex behavior that may not be the result of a “gay-identity.”

Questions for reflection:

1) How is your sexual behavior related to the components of sexual identity.

2) Regarding sexual orientation, review your sexual history and sexual timeline. How many partners were of the same sex?

3) Are you struggling with questions regarding your sexual identity? How is this expressed in your sexual behaviors and fantasies?

4) What messages have you heard about a same-sex identity?

5) Have these messages been positive? Negative? Shameful? How have you coped?

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