What is sexual identity?

What is sexual identity?

Identity is a complex issue. It involves recognizing oneself as a unique and differentiated being, which remains who one is despite the changes that occur with time and experience.

Identity also has an evident social nuance, and implies a certain degree of assimilation of the characteristics that define other groups, with which we feel identified. Moreover, it is a phenomenon composed of many dimensions, which become meaningful when they are brought together. Therefore, it cannot be understood only as character, orientation or behaviour; but as the more or less harmonic integration of all of them.

In this article we will deal with what sexual identity is and the emotional correlates that arise from it , as it is an essential element to understand the how and why of our most intimate relationships.

What is sexual identity

Identity, in absolute terms, includes the way in which human beings understand and think about themselves , attributing to themselves a myriad of properties through which they define their own individuality. It involves both the personal and the social; and it contemplates aspects as diverse as the religion one professes, the ethnic group one belongs to, the place in which one lives, and the relational aspects that arise in dealing with others (sexuality being erected as one more communicative function).

Sexual identity is a key concept for self-definition. An adequate approach requires that the physiological, psychological and social aspects be considered; aspects that may also be susceptible to change. The perception of what we are does not remain unchanged, despite the fact that the first years of life are the most relevant for building the foundations on which everything else will be erected.

In recent years we have witnessed a remarkable reinterpretation and revision of the traditional prism, breaking the dichotomy on which the understanding of the human being was built and unfolding very diverse shades in which the uniqueness of each one can find a better space of representation.

Next we propose concepts related to sexual identity , which are necessary to understand what it consists of.

Sexual identity: five related concepts

We will now define biological sex, sexual orientation, sexual behavior, gender orientation and gender expression.

Although they are relatively independent concepts, they all have some relation to sexual identity, so their knowledge is very important.

1. Biological sex

Sex is a construct through which the phenotypical differences of an animal are categorized, regarding its sexual dimorphism . In human beings, the dichotomy “man” or “woman” has always been assumed, which generally refers to anatomical, hormonal and physiological differences between them. Thus, it has been understood as a strictly biological variable, in which genetics attributed chromosomes XX for women and XY for men.

However, discrepancies in the basic chromosomal arrangement are now recognized; distinguishing XXX, XXY, XYY and even XO; as well as males with the XX pattern (Chapelle syndrome) and females with XY (Swyer syndrome). All this seems to suggest that sexual reality cannot be reduced to absolute and lapidary terms, but that there is a genotypical variety that forces us to rethink the usefulness of this duality.

Recently, the birth of a baby with undifferentiated sexual characteristics was almost immediately subject to surgery, in order to choose any of the categories that society could accept (male or female). Today, this practice is much less widespread, as the risk of psychological damage is recognized. In addition, many social movements advocate the explicit recognition of intersex status as a “third sex”.

2. Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is defined according to the sex of the people we are physically and/or romantically attracted to . In this sense, the most commonly used concepts today are heterosexuality (attraction to people of the opposite sex), homosexuality (attraction to people of the same sex) and bisexuality (attraction to people of both sexes). Nevertheless, it is very important to remember that orientation is a dimensional phenomenon, and not a category to which one can subscribe.

Thus, orientation takes the form of a continuum or spectrum whose extremes would be homosexuality and heterosexuality, and in which each person would be located at some relative point. There is, therefore, no possibility of classifying this question in absolute terms, but always from the perspective of relativity and attending to questions of degree. For this reason, no homogeneity can be assumed for people based on their identification as homo, hetero or bisexual.

There are also individuals who consider themselves asexual, in the sense that they do not perceive interest in either men or women. Although this orientation has been considered in some cases as an “absence of orientation”, in many classifications it is referred to as another form of sexuality, together with the classic ones that have already been cited in this text.

Finally, queer people would be attracted to others regardless of the sex or gender to which they are attached, considering that these dimensions imply an absurd reductionism. Rejection of these terms would also be accompanied by a certain social demand for the existence of patriarchal power structures that constrain the freedom to love and feel.

3. Sexual behavior

Sexual conduct describes the free choice of other people with whom one maintains intimate encounters , according to the interests and concrete circumstances of each one at each moment of their lives. Thus, there are people who consider themselves heterosexual but have occasional relationships with men, and vice versa. The same can be said in the opposite sense, that is, when someone who considers himself to be homosexual decides to sleep with an individual of the opposite sex.

Sexual behavior can assume an enormous diversity, and it is not always related to the orientation that each individual perceives for himself. Beyond the complexity of desire as a fundamental stage of human sexual response, and the infinite forms in which it can be expressed, the literature on the subject has pointed to a series of extraordinary conditions that precipitate sexual behaviour that is at odds with the orientation of those involved.

Thus, in physical contexts that are highly segregated by sex and/or involve a situation of prolonged isolation (prisons, for example), it is relatively common for encounters of this nature to occur between people of the same sex (without any of them being described as homosexual). However, it is not necessary that this fact unfolds in restricted contexts, but rather it is one more expression of the freedom with which human beings live their sexuality.

4. Gender identity

Gender is a reality conditioned by the historical and social moment, and therefore it cannot be assigned a set of defining and immovable characteristics. These are the roles that the environment attributes to people according to whether they are men or women, and which correspond to the conceptualization of masculinity and femininity. Traditionally, men were assigned a male role and women a female role, limiting their natural unique qualities not linked to the biological sex.

It is now recognised that sex and gender are independent , so each person can describe themselves as either male or female only, or refer to a combination of both to some degree. There are even people who flow within the spectrum, assuming a position in between or at one end of it at different times in their lives. All of this is independent of the sex that was assigned at birth.

In the event that there is a coincidence between the sex attributed at birth (based on the recognition of external genitalia) and the gender with which the person identifies, it would be said that the person is in the cisgender category. In the opposite case, the term that tends to be used is transgender.

However, studies have highlighted that the sex one is born with has a fundamental impact on attitudes and interests. Thus, it has been indicated that boys and girls show different attentional orientations from birth (they focus more on human faces and they focus on moving stimuli), and soon after that they choose toys differently (dolls for them and vehicles or construction devices for them).

Studies in later stages of development also show that girls, when presented with free drawing instruction, tend to represent natural motifs (such as flowers, landscapes, people, animals, etc.), while boys scribble war scenes or means of transportation (also using a less varied color palette). Although the authors postulate a differential effect of testosterone on the gestation process to explain this, after a certain age there may be a social conditioning that influences habits and behaviour.

5. Gender expression

The gender expression describes the behavioural aspects that the person abandons as one more element of his way of being . In the world there are countries where the divergence between sex and gender is penalized, so many may choose to behave in a socially accepted way to the detriment of their desires or natural tendencies.

Thus, men who feel identified with the female gender may decide to adopt attitudes and habits socially attributed to the male (and vice versa). This would avoid situations of conflict or even some risk to physical integrity or life. In other cases, social pressure or “what they will say” is a sufficient reason to inhibit what is felt, without the need to do so could pose an objective danger.

Impact of discrimination on the basis of sexual identity

Social pressure can mean that many people face a difficult time when they want to express their sexual or gender orientation, for fear that it may cause conflict for others or even lead to rejection by people they consider significant. For this reason, it is relatively common that this is a process that takes time, and that you are far from being aware of how you feel.

The literature on this topic is abundant, and studies can be found that highlight a higher prevalence of various related disorders: depression, anxiety problems, post-traumatic stress, etc. However, these findings do not suggest increased vulnerability, but rather are the result of losses that may occur during the process of “coming out”.

The integration of all sexual and gender orientations as a form of human expression that deserves recognition is absolutely necessary , since it is one of the bastions of freedom over one$0027s own body. Only in this way can love be expressed in a constructive way in the purpose that unites us all: the search for happiness.

Bibliographic references:

  • Castellanos, L. and Swaab, D. (2017). Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation. Hormones, Brain and Behavior, 5, 279-290.
  • Moleiro, C. and Pinto, N. (2015). Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Review of concepts, controversies and their relation to psychopathology classification systems. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, e1511.
  • Schnabel, L. (2018). Sexual Orientation and Social Attitudes. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 4, 1-18.

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