This entry is an attempt to share a cliff notes version of Sexuality 101, for those readers who may find themselves confused and uncomfortable with engaging in conversations about human sexuality as a result of lacking a basic capacity to navigate through terminology. The reason I’m writing this is partly because I was asked to, and partly because I once lacked the same terminology and understanding, and so I found it difficult to express myself or understand how to be a better ally. Anything that is missing from this page or is erroneously reported is due entirely to my own deficit in knowledge.
An ally is someone whose gender identity and/or sexual orientation is/are relatively socially privileged (such as someone who is heterosexual, and/or born in a body that reflects the gender they experience from within), but who prioritizes raising consciousness or debunking harmful stereotypes. There are good and bad allies: a good ally is motivated by an awareness of injustice and a drive to do their part to eliminate it; a bad ally is motivated by feelings of guilt for being in a relatively privileged position or by getting an ego-boost for trying.
LGBTQ is the short form of an acronym (i.e., lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans*/queer) that keeps getting longer and longer, and is sometimes playfully referred to as “alphabet soup” for this reason. More serious gestures include using the acronym “LGBTQ+” or the current full length acronym, which I’m sure will be missing at least one letter by the time I look it up for you.
Sexual orientation, it may seem obvious, is simply how an individual person expresses that the people they are most attracted to tend to embody and/or identify with one or more gender groups. A sexual orientation can be equally a political identity, as a sexual orientation towards one or more gender(s). It is is not always a conscious effort to align one’s politics with one’s sexual orientation, so much as an accident by virtue of being a member of a politically oppressed group of people, who are visibly discriminated against on the basis of their shared sexual orientation(s). Sexual orientation is often described rather simply, as who you are attracted to. My sexual orientation is queer, and queer is also an aspect of my political identity.
Sexual preference is distinguished from sexual orientation, in that sexual preference expresses how one wants to engage sexually with the people one is sexually attracted to. It is often described, rather simply, as what you want to do to who you are attracted to. My primary sexual preference concerns fellow vulva-bearing persons of nearly any gender identity. I enjoy giving and receiving particular kinds of sex, such as fisting and butt-fucking (I cannot say enough about how much I love fisting and teh butt secks), often as part of a sadomasochistic power exchange (I prefer the masochistic part). My less-critical sexual preferences (i.e., I can live without it even though I enjoy it) include things like mutual masturbation and voyeurism (note: not like the Peeping Tom one reads about in psychology textbooks; rather, with consenting exhibitionists).
Sexual objectification is distinguished from both sexual orientation and sexual preference, by the conscious or unconscious disregard for consent on the part of the objectified person. It is a behaviour of sexually fixating on another person, whether or not they find you sexually attractive (or are even aware that you are sexually fixating on them). Sexual objectification is characterized by engaging with one’s own sexuality, while failing to engage (consciously or unconsciously) with the fixated-upon person’s sexuality. The phenomenon referred to as the male gaze is an example of an unconscious sexually objectifying behaviour, which is internalized by all members of North American society, and is arguably embedded into the very structures of society. Therefore it is considered practically invisible because it is unconsciously operating and frequently normalized (many people actually defend this behaviour by arguing that men are “hard-wired” to stare at women they find sexually attractive). I recently became conscious that I, too, exhibit an objectifying gaze, but it is directed towards particular men.
Sexual attraction is distinguished from sexual objectification, in that it arises from a deep respect for the presence of mutually shared sexual preferences with the other person, who is consenting to being sexually engaged. Sexual attraction is primarily conscious, but often operates unconsciously (and/or preconsciously — simultaneously not-quite-conscious and not-quite-unconscious) at the same time. For many people, sexual attraction is based on multiple factors, including but not limited to body shape, gender embodiment/identity, political leanings, spiritual leanings, and mutual interests. I know. You’re thinking “Well DUHHH!” But many people conflate sexual attraction and sexual objectification, and as such, what feels like one can easily transform into the other.
Sexuality can be used as an umbrella term to describe our day to day experiences of sexual orientations, sexual preferences, sexual objectifications, and sexual attractions, that come from oneself or are perceived in/exhibited by others. While mainstream culture promotes a conception of sexuality that is fixed (i.e., immutable or unchanging), many argue that it is fluid (i.e., mutable or changing). When we start to unpack our ideas about sexuality, rather than unconsciously accepting the very narrow range of stereotypes that are most visible in the mainstream culture, we begin to see that sexuality really must be fluid. Sexuality simply isn’t an exclusively internal process, existing within a vacuum. For many people, sexuality is fluid, and changes over time — the fixed model of sexuality begins to fall apart as soon as we recognize this.
Human sexuality in mainstream society is constructed on the assumption that heterosexuality is the default value. This stereotype of human sexuality is so rigidly defined and pervasive throughout the dominant culture in North America, that we all internalize it as a part of our environment, and many people attempt (consciously or unconsciously) to enforce it on others. Compulsive heterosexuality plays a role in homophobic ideology, dialogue and behaviour, as well as in transphobia.
Human sexuality in mainstream society is constructed on the assumption that monogamy is the default value. This stereotype of human sexuality is so rigidly defined and pervasive throughout the dominant culture in North America, that we all internalize it as a part of our environment, and many people attempt (consciously or unconsciously) to enforce it on others. Compulsive monogamy plays a role in homophobia (even though many LGBTQs are also monogamous), biphobia (even though many bisexuals are monogamous), and discrimination against sex workers (even though many sex workers maintain monogamous relationships in their private lives).
Momentarily, just a few items that are of importance to virtually all LGBTQs in North America:
The hanky code is a system of non-verbal expression within the LGBTQ+ communities, for communicating one’s sexual preferences to other LGBTQs. It is largely considered to have originated in San Francisco’s gay community, whose pick-up bars were subjected to frequent police raids, making them unsafe locations for cruising. It has become syncretised as a part of many lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer communities throughout North America, especially where power exchange activities are prevalent. Quite simply, different coloured bandanas indicate different sexual preferences, and the side it is worn on indicates which role one prefers to take when engaging in said sexual activity. For those of you who love to exploit other people’s ignorance for shits and giggles (as I do), you’ll be delighted to know that a red bandana means you’re into (anal) fisting (on the right side, it means you like to be the recipient — I know I couldn’t resist telling a woman who was passing 24 Hours around at a train station, when I spotted a guy hanging a red hanky out of his right back pocket, acting like he was some sort of tough shit gang-banger).
Compton’s Cafeteria & Stonewall
Compton’s Cafeteria and The Stonewall Inn are businesses located in New York and San Francisco respectively, where gays, gender-variant persons, bisexuals, and some lesbians frequented (many of whom were also working class or poor, and of marginalized racialized/ethnic identities), especially during a time when the political atmosphere of the United States was aggressively oppressive towards all LGBTQs. In the year 1969, police raided both businesses (Compton’s Cafeteria first, and later Stonewall). The short version is that in 1969, riots broke out between police who were raiding these establishments, and LGBTQs who were sick and tired of the raids and inspired by the ongoing Civil Rights Movement to take a collective stand for their rights. These events are seen as landmark protests for LGBTQ+ rights, and the first LGBTQ+ pride marches in San Francisco took place on the one-year anniversary of Stonewall.
1973 & 1986
Until the year 1973 in North America, heterosexuality was considered the default experience of human sexuality. All other sexualities were systemically discriminated against (and many still are), especially within the field of psychology, which considered homosexuality a clinical problem. In the year 1973, homosexuality was removed as a clinical diagnosis from the Diagnostics & Statistics Manual. In the year 1986, the very controversial diagnosis of “ego-dystonic homosexuality”, which had rather “coincidentally” been introduced in 1973, was removed as well. These are considered landmark events in the progression of equal rights for many marginalized forms of human sexuality, as one is no longer subject to either being committed to a mental institution or being arrested for obscenity, simply because of who they love.
California Proposition 8 Vs. NOH8
The short version is that California Proposition 8 (referred to as “Prop H8” by its many critics) added a statement to the California Constitution in 2008 when it succeeded in being passed into law, that eliminates the right of same-sex couples to be legally married. Prop 8 is repeatedly referred to by many other states in the United States, as the grounds on which to deprive LGBTQs the right to same-sex marriage. The resulting uproar from LGBTQ+ rights advocates, allies, and protesters helped create and spread awareness of an ongoing silent protest called NOH8, which has become a global solidarity movement for LGBTQ+ rights (with many people all over the world creating their own NOH8 photos).
LGBTQ+ Pride Marches
LGBTQ+ Pride marches are an important form of peaceful protest, hosted annually by various organizations within most major cities across North America. Their intended purpose is to gain visibility for the LGBTQ+ community members present, who walk in celebration, solidarity, and remembrance with all past and present generations of LGBTQs who have at one time walked the very same streets (out-of-the-closet or otherwise) within a dramatically different political atmosphere. Allies are encouraged to respectfully take part, and to walk in solidarity or rally the march on as an observer, to promote political visibility of the many people who believe that LGBTQs deserve the same rights as everyone else. Many LGBTQ+ Pride marches are also followed by separate trans*-specific demonstrations and/or lesbian-community-specific demonstrations on the same day or the same weekend.
Lesbian is both a sexual orientation and a political identity/lifestyle, though not all lesbians identify with both. As a sexual orientation, lesbian implies both an internal experience of a binary feminine gender and a tendency to experience sexual attraction towards individuals who experience a binary feminine gender. As a political identity/lifestyle, which may be at the exclusion of a congruent sexual orientation, lesbian implies cultural segregation from male-centered (i.e., phallocentric, male-privileging) society. Thus, it is not necessarily an accurate way to identify for every woman, butch, femme, or dyke who feels sexually attracted to people of the binary feminine gender.
Gay is a sexual orientation, and though arguably less challenging due to male privilege, a political identity as well. As with lesbians, not all gays identify with both. As a sexual orientation, gay implies both an internal experience of a binary masculine gender and a tendency to experience sexual attraction towards individuals who experience a binary masculine gender. As a political identity, gay implies a conscious effort to be visible as a gay man (such as everyone’s favourite visibly gay man, Dan Savage). However, being a visibly gay man does not necessarily mean that one stands for the furthering of equal rights for the entire LGBTQ+ rights movement (how one acts on male privilege plays a critical role in distinguishing how one acts for everyone else’s rights — a criticism frequently levelled against Dan Savage).
Bisexual is a sexual orientation, and often though not always, a political identity as well. Not all bisexuals identify with both. As a sexual orientation, bisexual implies both an internal experience of a binary gender identity and a tendency to experience sexual attraction towards individuals of both binary gender groups. Many bisexuals experience sexual attraction to completely different gender embodiment in feminine individuals than in masculine individuals, and this is often poorly understood both within the LGBTQ+ movement and outside of it. Thus, many bisexuals experience marginalization in both directions, due to harmful stereotypes that cause individuals to perceive bisexuality as threatening for a number of reasons that are not grounded in respectful dialogue.
There is no simple way to tackle this matter, so I wrote #Gender101 to address it.
Queer is a sexual orientation, a verb, a relatively recent reclamation of what was once a homophobic slur, a field of academic theory (i.e., queer theory), and a political identity. Queer as a sexual orientation implies an internal experience of a non-binary gender and/or a tendency to experience sexual attraction that is inclusive of non-binary-gendered individuals. Thus, queer becomes a verb, indicating the active, ongoing interrogation of what sexuality and gender mean, both as an internal experience and a perception of others. Queer theory is largely grounded in this same thought process, which is extended to interpretation of existing philosophies, media, and feminisms. Therefore, queer as a political identity implies that one seeks to be both visible as a queer and visible as a queer academic/theorist/feminist. The process of reclaiming queer from its former status as a slur has become an important force in gaining visibility for marginalized lifestyles, sexual orientations, and genders, and generating dialogue from the criticisms that arise from these processes. I personally identify as queer for all of these reasons.
Pansexual and omnisexual are synonymous terms for a sexual orientation that implies a tendency to be sexually attracted to anyone, regardless of gender identity/embodiment. For someone who identifies as pansexual or omnisexual, sexual attraction occurs on the basis of what is between their ears — not what is between their legs. Some pansexual- or omnisexual-identifying individuals additionally claim that they are genderblind, or lacking perception of another person’s gender prior to establishing sexual attraction, but many will claim otherwise (i.e., that it has no bearing on whether or not one is sexually attracted to another person, does not mean that one does not perceive it at all prior to a particular event). Pansexual and omnisexual are terms that do not directly imply anything about the internal experience of gender on the part of the person who identifies with this sexual orientation. Pansexuality is misunderstood on the basis of the same principles, and is marginalized in the same ways, as bisexuality is both misunderstood and marginalized.
Asexual describes a sexual orientation characterized by a lack of the internal experience of sexual attraction. Asexuality is often understood as some sort of sexual dysfunction, but this attitude simply reflects both internalized compulsive heterosexuality/monogamy and unchecked ableism, and is therefore appropriately described as ignorant. Because asexuality is experienced by some asexuals as more of a spectrum than a distinguished and life-long persistent lack of externalized sexual attraction, Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) exists to share information, engage with others to spread awareness, and educate about the many different “flavours” of asexuality. Asexuals are stereotyped as anti-social and both sexually and romantically evasive/aversive. However, many asexuals still experience a desire for romantic relationships (thus, those who do not also identify as aromantic), and whether or not an individual simply does not experience sexual attraction to other people has no bearing on their capacity to enjoy fulfilling and meaningful social interactions. Thus, the common stereotype of asexuals is grossly erroneous. Asexual as a word makes no direct implications about one’s internal experience of gender or the gender(s) of individuals any particular asexual is attracted to (if they ever experience attraction).
Stone sexual is a term used to describe the sexual orientation of an individual whose sexual needs are fulfilled by entirely gratifying their sexual partner(s), without the need to experience reciprocation. It makes no implications about gender in either direction.
Transromantic is a term used to describe the sexual orientation of an individual who experiences a tendency to be romantically or sexually attracted to individuals they perceive as trans*, or who openly identify as trans*. It makes no implications about one’s internal experience of gender. Due to the clinical nature of the word transsexual, it is considered both super-icky and super-wtf-confusing to attempt to use “transsexual” to describe a tendency to experience attraction towards trans* people. Many trans* people remain skeptical of the validity of the transromantic sexual orientation, however, because of how trans* people are treated in disparaging ways: either by being objectified and fetishized, or by being subjected to transphobia. I personally experience sexual attraction towards trans* people who are out and visible, but not towards trans* people who wish to blend in with a binary gender identity (as a general rule, not a law). Primarily this is because I am an out and visible trans person, and I am conscious that this aspect of my identity will invite speculation upon my partner(s) concerning their gender, but this is also because trans* people are more likely to be able to wrap their heads around how I experience and embody my gender (relative to someone who has persistently experienced a binary gender identity).
Heteroflexible is a term that describes an individual whose primary sexual orientation is heterosexual, but who very occasionally experiences a sexual attraction towards a particular individual of the same sex (homoflexible implying the opposite relationship). Each term implies a cisgendered identity, both within and on the part of the exceptional individual. These are fairly new terms.
And because it’s pretty hard to talk about human sexuality without acknowledging the relationship styles in which it plays out:
Monogamy describes a relatively long-term relationship style in which each partner is fully satisfied without seeking additional romantic/sexual outlets. Many monogamous individuals experience a lack of romantic/sexual attraction to others while they are in a relationship, and as a result, would tend to experience a great deal of hurt feelings and/or jealousy in a destructive magnitude in any other relationship style.
A monogamous dynamic describes a relatively long-term closed sexual/romantic bond between two individuals, which may or may not exist simultaneously within other relationship dynamics (such as if one or both partners are sex workers, or if one or both partners is poly-friendly/polyamourous). It simply means that the dynamic between those two individuals is not open to the presence of additional parties.
Poly-friendly describes an approach to a relationship in which at least one partner is satisfied by being involved in a single monogamous dynamic, but sees no threat to the relationship if the other partner initiates another simultaneous monogamous dynamic with someone else.
Polyamoury describes a relationship style in which each partner (of which there may be more than two) negotiates a non-monogamous relationship in which their needs are fulfilled through multiple relationship dynamics, and the prospect of threatening feelings (such as jealousy) is actively minimized as much as possible. In many polyamourous dynamics, this means multiple simultaneous monogamous dynamics, rather than a simplified sharing/swapping of partners. In some polyamourous dynamics, there are just one or two monogamous dynamics within an open relationship. In all polyamourous dynamics, all parties are consenting to being a part of a polyamourous dynamic (whether temporary or prolonged). Thus, polyamoury requires a great deal of work from all partners within the various monogamous dynamics and open relationships that compose each polyamourous dynamic. Polyamoury is distinguished from polygamy in that there may be no formal legal bonds in recognition of individual monogamous dynamics therein, whereas polygamy is plural marriage.
An open relationship is an approach to a dedicated monogamous dynamic in which each partner is given the liberty to date additional people. Negotiation of open relationships often incorporates negotiation of boundaries such as the requirement for safer sex practices outside of the dedicated monogamous dynamic or the requirement that what happens outside the monogamous dynamic is neither solicited for nor freely disclosed.
A multi-partnership is an approach to relationships in which terms like polyamoury or open relationship are not preferred, due to the implication that one particular dynamic assumes highest rank over all others. Individuals engaged in multi-partnerships may identify with any of multiple different relationship styles. Multi-partnerships may describe either the intersection of two ore more polyamourous dynamics or a group of equitable romantic/sexual partners who live together as a collective (all of whom may have a different relationship dynamic with one another).
Swinging is a style of open relationship in which the primary partners enjoy watching each other pursue and engage with external casual sexual partners, who are typically also swingers (i.e., maximum pleasure for the maximum number of people).
And I can’t really keep dropping terms like “power exchange” or “power dynamic” without talking about that either, can I?
Power Exchange/Power Dynamic
Power exchange is the goal of any power dynamic: a person (referred to as the bottom) exchanges power over him/herself for the power to take it back again by using an agreed upon safeword. The person who wields this power over the bottom is referred to as the Top. The Top’s responsibility, while wielding that power, is to fulfill the specific desires the bottom has expressed (which are specific to when they are engaged in that role). Power exchange may be emotional/mental (i.e., dominance and submission, or D/s & protocol), physical (i.e., sadism and masochism, or S&M), and/or sexual (i.e., consensual sexual slavery/non-consent, role-playing, fetish, bondage, etc.). It may be a 24/7 lifestyle or something one only engages in on a date night.
A leather family is the result of multiple intersecting polyamourous power dynamics. Many people identify each other as siblings within leather families, and many leather families live as one or more multi-partnerships referred to as a leather household. A leather family becomes analogous to one’s biological family, gathering together to celebrate many of the same milestones (or analogous milestones) as one’s natal family did throughout childhood.
Old Guard Leather
Old Guard leather describes a strict set of protocol followed by entire communities of leather families within prior and present generations of gay and leather dyke communities. Protocol produced a hierarchical organization of community members, and restricted entry to new community members, who were required to start at the bottom in order to earn their place. This also produced and maintained safeguards against arrogant self-appointed experts or equally arrogant individuals who might try to disrupt long-standing power dynamics, thus discouraging dangerous influences within a community that was already at risk due to police raids at the time that Old Guard originated. Old Guard protocol (including the Hanky Code) has become incompletely syncretised into heterosexual kink culture in recent generations.