Exploring the Diversity of Sexual Orientation
After two years together Noah and Olivia were very much a couple. They had moved in together and both had said the L word. However, on the sex front, Olivia told Noah that she felt that their sex life lacked the passion and excitement of their early days.
They introduced in new types of sex toys into their lovemaking, which expanded their usual routine. One Friday night, Olivia told Noah that she enjoyed experimenting with the toys so much, she wanted to do it with another girl.
Noah was immediately keen. A threesome was at the top of his fantasy list, but he had never brought it up with Olivia, as he thought she might not like the idea of him with another girl.
Olivia said, “No, I didn’t mean a threesome. I meant that I want to have sex with a girl from my book club. Without you. If you don’t mind.”
Noah was taken aback.
“All this time I have known you, you have never mentioned you liked girls. So now you are saying you are bisexual? Or have you have become a lesbian and ditching me?”
“Neither. I just want to explore my sexuality. I think it is called bi-curious. Or maybe it is because I am just attracted to her intelligence. She is just so amazing when she is talking about books, that it turns me on. She says she is sapiosexual so maybe I am, too.”
“What? Is that someone who likes people who like books?” said Noah.
Olivia rolled her eyes.
“No. It is someone who is attracted to someone because of their intelligence. Regardless of gender. But I didn’t expect you to be so hung up on definitions like this. For me, sexuality is fluid. It’s not that I have changed or gone off you. I just want to try something new. I don’t know how to define it - why does everything have to have a label?”
Attitudes to gender and sexual diversity
Over the last years we have come to accept that gender is not about biology - that is whether you were born a man or a woman, but it’s a social construct. Gender is how you identify yourself independent of your physical body. Our sexuality is how a person identifies their gender as well as how they experience sexual attraction, and preferences around sexual relationships.
Who you are attracted to at a certain moment in time does not always define you forever. For some people, like Olivia, sexuality can be fluid, changing in different partnerships.
Confusion and lack of knowledge is not uncommon. The health website heathline.com defines no less than 46 terms to describe sexual orientation.
Noah admits he finds it a “minefield” but wants to understand the differences.
“Whichever way someone wants to be, that’s their business. I’d like to think I am accepting of all. But I guess I want to understand it, because I don’t want to offend anyone and it’s interesting. A guy at work is openly gay. But he introduces himself as ‘queer’ and that surprised me. I thought that was a derogatory term. This all seem to change every 5 minutes”.
Have that respectful conversation
The easy answer to this, is to ask someone how they would like to be described. Some people openly put this on their social media or bios, eg writing she/her or pronouns they would like to be used. Some add their gender or orientation, such as non- binary or pansexual.
But what do all those terms mean? Most people who are open about using a certain term and will be more than happy that someone is interested enough to find out more about it, as long as it is done in a respectful way.
Remember that people interpret terms differently. Having that respectful discussion helps you gain a deeper understanding of how they identify themselves.
Expanding your understanding of language around sexuality can help your own journey of sexual discovery too. We have rounded up some commonly used terms to help us get our heads around it.
The prefix “cis” means “on the same side as.” People who are cisgender remain the gender they were initially identified as at birth.
People who are transgender move “across” genders. They may or may not have had surgery to change sexual organs or hormones.
This sexual orientation category is commonly described as straight. The term describes people who experience sexual attraction to people of the “opposite” gender (e.g. male vs. female).
Both cisgender and transgender identified people can be heterosexual.
An acronym to describe individuals who don’t identify as exclusively heterosexual or exclusively cisgender.
The letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual.
The + symbol in LGBTQIA+ acknowledges that there are many sexual orientations and gender identities that are part of the LGBTQIA community but aren’t included as part of the acronym.
A sexual orientation that describes those who experience sexual attraction to people of more than one gender. Bi-curious is someone like Olivia, who is questioning or exploring her sexual attraction.
Individuals who don’t experience sexual attraction to others of any gender.
While this term did one previously have negative connotations, queer is now commonly used by some LGBTQIA+ individuals to refer to themselves and their community. Others may not like the terms so check an individual’s preference.
The term queer (the Q in LBGTQIA+), describes people who are not exclusively heterosexual. Like the term ‘fluid’ it considers that sexuality is a spectrum as opposed to a set of strict categories.
Individuals who experience sexual or emotional attraction to any person, regardless of the person’s gender, sex, or sexuality.
This term recognises that sexuality, sexual attraction, and sexual behaviour can change over time in different situations or throughout the course of their life.
A term that describes individuals who experience sexual, romantic, or emotional attraction to people of the same or a similar gender.
Some women who identify as gay may prefer the term lesbian, or queer or gay. While gay previously was described as homosexual, the latter term is now viewed as offensive.
- Never make assumptions about a person’s identity. You may make an assumption on how someone identifies based on how they look or present themselves, but unless you ask, you will not know their truth. Ask respectfully. For example, if a man is wearing a skirt, do not say something crass like ‘so are you a man or a woman?. He/she/they may be wearing a skirt as a fashion item or something reflecting their identity. Asking if he is a man or a woman is limiting and offensive.
- Ask a person’s name and pronouns or ask people close to them if you’re uncertain. Offer up your own pronouns when you do. Popular among millennials is including your preferred pronouns on your social media and email signatures.
- Avoid using gendered language, such as referring to a group of people as “ladies” or “guys,” or using “sir” or “ma’am” to refer to an individual.
As for Noah and Olivia, Noah did learn a lot by taking the initiative to broaden his understanding of terms used. It helped him understand Olivia’s desire to have sex with the smart woman from the book club.
One of the terms Noah had learned was polyamorous - ie being open to relationships with more than one person. He told Olivia he wasn’t polyamorous, so would prefer that they split up if she wanted to be with the woman.
“But how do you know you are not polyamorous unless you try?” Olivia asked him.
“Fair point” said Noah, who had only been in monogamous relationships today. “But I am not sure if I want to try.”
This couple is living apart for now. Olivia is dating her book club mate, and Noah is casually dating girls. He hasn’t ruled out the idea of getting back with Olivia, even if she is still having sex with the other woman.
“It’s okay to accept, and learning more about sexual terms definitely helps you explore your own ideas, and that’s a good thing,” Noah said.
For the list of the many ways people experience and identify their sexuality, see Healthline.com
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