Recent Research Adds Texture to our Understanding of Human Sexual Identities
Kevin William Grant
Published on
March 08, 2021

In Western culture, we are increasingly reached the point where there is widespread acceptance of, and rights for, people who are not heterosexual such as LGBT, bisexual, two-spirited.

These socio-cultural and legal battles are hard-fought and a struggle that is not over yet. The vast majority of Canadians now support gay marriage, and in the US, a small majority are also on board. Changing laws reflect this.

With increased acceptance comes more freedom to identify and act in ways that were previously judged very negatively. We know, based on research, that somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3-5% of men identify as LGBT.

We also know from past research that men's sexual preferences tend to be more specific than women's. That's to say, men are more exclusively focused on what turns them on and are less open to more diverse experiences that don't fall within the bounds of their preferences.

But, with increased acceptance of non-heterosexual identities and behaviours, it appears that more heterosexual-identified men are starting to explore sex with men.

This may challenge the assumption that men have exclusive sexual interests and only act if they align with those interests. It's also possible, though, that these men are actually bisexual but now have the freedom to have sex with men as well as women.

A recent article and interview with researcher Dr. Jane Ward in the NYMag's section 'Science of Us' addresses this issue. Here's her insightful article opening:

There's a pretty clear gender divide in how Americans deal with straight people who dabble in gay activity. When heterosexual women make out with one another at a bar or party, it's generally understood that they're simply playing around for attention or exploring the fluid space that is female sexuality. On the other hand, when heterosexual men hook up with each other, it's seen either as an act born of desperation — think men who are locked up — or an indication that while they may claim to be straight, they aren't — consider disgraced GOP members of Congress. When straight women hook up with other straight women, no real explanation is required; when straight men hook up with other straight men, it's a different story.

The gay rights' movement notwithstanding, the bulk of the public is still not ready to accept that people display a range of sexual and affectional proclivities, says Linda Garnets, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles. But there is irony in society's attempts to avoid sexual discomfort.

The latest research shows that people's erotic and affectional "personalities" are as varied and unique as a fingerprint or someone's voice and that no one person is, as she puts it, "100 percent heterosexual 100 percent of the time." People's erotic attractions can be surprisingly fluid when it comes to erotic attractions. Science fails to support the conventional wisdom that can neatly place people's sexuality in rigid categories, she said.

Emerging research from hundreds of studies debunks many notions about sexual orientation. One is that sexual orientation is dichotomous--that one is either exclusively non-heterosexual or heterosexual. Instead, new research finds that sexual orientations exist along a continuum, like colours in a rainbow spectrum. People can be sexually, affectionally or erotically attracted to people of the same gender, the other gender or both genders.

New research also challenges the idea that people's sexual behaviour defines sexual orientation. Sexual orientation has many dimensions related to their sexual orientation, including erotic and affectional fantasies, emotional attachments, self-identification and current relationship status.

The idea that people's sexual identities, behaviours and fantasies comprise a seamless whole is likewise disproven by research, Garnets added. Studies show a wide variety of overlapping possibilities--the woman who identifies herself as a bisexual but never develops a strong attraction to a man, for instance, or the heterosexual man who uses homoerotic fantasies when having sex with his female partner--that point to more complex realities.

New empirical findings also challenge the notion that sexual orientation begins at a young age and doesn't change, Garnets added. There's considerable evidence that some people's attractions toward both women and men can change over time. Both those who identify as bisexuals and those who don't can experience these changing gender attractions. Women who have had exclusively heterosexual experiences, for example, may develop attractions to women at any point in their lives.

Additionally, research shows, strictly biological, genetic, social or familial explanations rarely explain how each of us develops a particular sexual orientation. For instance, only four studies have examined brain differences between heterosexuals and non-heterosexual, and each has different results. There are gender differences in such findings as well. While some evidence points to a possible genetic link for homosexuality in men, no such evidence exists for women. Similarly, women appear to be more fluid in their propensity to change their feelings about which gender they're attracted to.

Bisexuality, which has come under increasing study recently, provides a fascinating new model that challenges rigid beliefs about sexuality, Garnets added. Bisexuals "challenge the either-or assumption that sexual orientation comes in only two mutually exclusive categories." In contrast to society's mandates, bisexuals tend to put someone's personal qualities before gender as the criteria for choosing a partner. As one bisexual woman put it, "'My sexual orientation is toward creative people of colour who can cook." Likewise, transgender individuals raise interesting questions for society. There is no clear relationship, for example, between cross-dressing and other cross-gender behaviours and sexual orientation.

When society condemns those of differing sexual orientations, it limits its expression, Garnets contended. People's condemnation of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people is mainly based on fear of being labelled gay themselves. In turn, this fear leads people to conform to gender roles to avoid being labelled "gay." Yet such restrictions limit the range of human potential, she believes

Other cultures provide kinder models for differing sexual orientations. Native American cultures, for example, view cross-gendered individuals as blessed, possessing both a male and a female spirit, as two-spirited, a latitude that may open up new doors for rich and creative expression.

Let's all work towards embracing the diversity of the human experience through acceptance rather than categorization.

Additional Reading

  • "Women's sexualities: perspectives on sexual orientation and gender" in the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 56, No. 2)