I have encountered definitions of human sexuality that embraced the whole person and described life as being lived out of our sexuality and specifically out of an energy of creative love. The definition of sexuality as love energy that contains the “spiritual, emotional, physical, psychological, social, and cultural aspects of relating to one another as embodied male and female persons” is very inclusive. However, when I approached my son, Colin, and engaged him in a discussion of what sexuality is and isn’t, the idea that sexuality is an overarching umbrella or container for our entire being and way of relating the world was rejected. Rejection did not come from a disturbance with the definition of sexuality, but came from attaching the word sexuality to that particular definition. This led to yet another discussion of the words we use around sexuality and gender. Our conclusion was and is that our language has not caught up with our ideas. We have come together here to express some of our ideas and why we think our current language is not working.
Human sexuality is very complex. It seems that a better word might be human relationality. Using the word sexuality, in our society, seems to put the very special love energy in the realm of sexual activity. Recdently, I worked as a Spiritual Director at the Strength for the Journey retreat for people living with HIV. I discussed the inclusive definition of human sexuality and to the last person, it was rejected. It made people feel like they were being defined in terms of sex. That is very difficult. Therefore, the first term up for renewal is what do we call this particular field? Human sexuality among those whose sexuality has been marginalized seems to be hard words to accept. Additionally, sexuality as we have been taught here is much more expansive than the socially understood definition. Is there a better term?
Colin: To me, sexuality is when you want to have a sexual relationship. A sexual relationship is a relationship you have sex or intercourse in. Sexuality for me and some of my peers is strictly related to intercourse. I will never have a sexual relationship because I am asexual.
Within human sexuality, there are many aspects that make up the person and their lived expression of human relatedness / love energy. There is their biology, sexual orientation, sexual expression, gender identity, gender expression, and romantic attraction. All of these things get so tangled up in our social discussions that mainly center on sexual identity. Am I missing anything?
Colin: Not that I can see. It feels like something is missing, but I can’t put my finger on it right now.
I am tempted to call these categories of human relationality or human sexuality. However, borrowing a slang term, I think the word scattegories might be more appropriate. It is nice to think that we are all on a continuum from one polarity to the other (masculine to feminine, for example); however, it carries a richer dimension that a simple continuum would suggest. How we interact with people is situational. We may act differently among different people. Additionally, each component overlaps messily into the other components. Separating out the components that make up human sexuality is nearly impossible. It seems more like buckshot being scattered all over a target—hence, scattegories.
Colin: Generally, I like defining these things separate and like to keep them separate. Though I can experience them together, I generally experience them separately. That is part of the reason I have the romantic attraction identities that I have.
In the video series, “Voices of Witness: Out of the Box,” James Walton, lists the questions that society expects easy answers to. The first question anybody asks of a new parent is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” He then lists biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as the things society are concerned with.
Colin: These are the questions that society expects, but I also think they are really ridiculous questions. The important questions are:
- Will you love this child no matter who or what they are?
- Will you see the goodness in each person around you?
- Will you see that everybody has an important point of view?
- Will you pay more attention to who the person is inside and less to temporary things like money, sex, and looks?
What Dr. Walton describes as biological sex, Colin and I often call primary sex characteristics in our conversations. It has also been described as genitality, I suppose. However, none of these definitions really seem to capture our bodies. Biology seems to be the best word I can think of. Who are we biologically? That becomes bigger than primary sex characteristics and captures our hormonal and genetic selves also. Is there a better word? This embodied being that we are is the container for everything that comes after, so it would seem that getting this word correct would be helpful! Traditionally, this is written on birth certificates as sex. And the answer is girl or boy. It is more complex than that.
Colin: Yes! It is more complex than that. First off, people who are born intersex do not always have the same genitalia that would be categorized as male or female. Secondly, if we want to think of it entirely from biology, biologically, I am male even though I was female assigned at birth (FAAB-female assigned at birth). My brain which is part of my biology says that I am male. Biologically, then I am both male and female. Though, I would put those terms as FAAB and male because I don’t identify with the gender or sex of female. I think you’re missing something here. Biologically though I am both male and female, what of those two is more valid? I don’t identify as female; I don’t even really identify as FAAB. I prefer to be just male or, if anything, a transman. Because I identify with the neurological side of my gender, is that more valid because I identify with it or does it have the same validity as my female genitalia? This is why we need two terms around this and not just our biology. It could be physical sex characteristics vs. neurological sex characteristics.
Gender is generally thought of as a social construct that expresses where someone lies on the scale of masculinity to femininity. However, it is much more complex than that. Colin and I have discussed ad nauseum. Gender identity is different than gender expression.
Colin: Gender identity is not easy to explain. It’s not just identifying this way or that way, it is knowing or being this way or that way or all ways or no ways. That’s why somebody’s gender identity could be tree. It’s not that the person is identifying as a tree or with a tree, that is how their gender feels to them through the language we have to express ourselves with currently. My gender is male, regardless of how I express myself. I could use stereotypically female pronouns one day and my gender would still be male. Gender expression is how you outwardly show your gender to the world. That can be via personality, clothing choice, and other observable factors. Gender identity comes from deep within and does not always match your neurological or physical sex characteristics.
Sexual orientation or sexual identity is who you are attracted to. I am enthralled with the idea of the possibilities of multiple sexual orientations above and beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality. I can think of pansexual, bisexual, and sapiosexual. I would personally think there is a sexual orientation that focuses on humor.
Colin: In my school’s social justice group for gender and sexuality, Action Faction, last year we discussed the lack of orientations for things we thought there should be orientations for. Such as a person who is seeking a Prince Charming or somebody who is attracted to humor. That’s part of the reason I like the term sapiosexual so much. It is defining what you’re attracted to and not specifics about their physical sex characteristics. The terms androsexual and gynosexual refer to the gender identity of the person you are attracted to, not yours or their physical sex characteristics. Sexual orientation is like a compass, it is what you are pointing to and drawn to. You’re drawn to your Prince Charming whether that person happens to be male or female or otherwise.
Sexual expression, on the other hand, is what you do with your body. This has been called genitality. However, there is plenty that is done with our bodies that is an expression of sexuality that does not include what is done with our reproductive organs. Reflecting on the words or idea of expressing ourselves sexually, there seems to be additional categories. I can think of monosexual to polysexual and hypersexual to asexual. I have no idea what the correct terms would be for those two scattergories. I am also given to understand that asexuality is not co-identified with a lack of sexual arousal. It is very complex and very confusing to me.
Colin: I think that the term that needs to be used here is physical expression, not sexual expression. Not everything here is a sexual activity, but it is all physical activity. Hypersexual and asexual are accurate terms and are basically an expression of how easily you get turned on. Monosexual and polysexual are a bit more complicated. Both are terms that are used, however, words that are “something”-sexual are used as an identity like heterosexual. Monosexual and polysexual are ways of explaining how many people you are comfortable having a sexual relationship with. Monosexual comes from monogamous while polysexual comes from polyamorous. Personally, I think that monosexual and polysexual should not be terms. It should simply be monogamous and polyamorous. However, there needs to be something and this is something I don’t currently have words for.
Asexuality is your attraction to other people sexually. It has nothing to do with sexual arousal, though many people who are ace (asexual) don’t experience sexual arousal. It is for this reason that there are people who are identified this way that masturbate even though they never want to have sex with someone else.
Last, there is romantic attraction. It is here that I get very confused. Romantic attraction is not the same as sexual attraction as far as I understand the youth talking to me. Perhaps romantic attraction is related to sexual arousal?
Colin: I adamantly refer to romantic attraction as non-sexual attraction. No, romantic attraction is not related to sexual arousal. I divide non-sexual attraction into four scattergories. They are romantic attraction, romantic desire, aesthetic appeal, and mental appeal. Romantic attraction is like the butterflies you get when you get a crush on someone. Romantic desire is the want to date or be stereotypically romantic with someone. However, you don’t have to feel romantic attraction to feel romantic desire. Aesthetic appeal is what someone has physically appealing to your taste and mental appeal is what someone has mentally appealing to your taste. You can have any of these attractions for anybody mixed in any combination and it is the reason why I have four non-sexual attractions I identify with. I identify as panromantic, platonicromantic, lithromantic, and sapioromantic. Panromantic means I am attracted to people regardless of what their gender is. Platonicromantic means I want to date that person or be stereotypically romantic with them but I don’t have romantic attraction for them. Lithromantic is the opposite. I have a romantic attraction for them but I don’t want to date them. Sapioromantic means that I am attracted to people for their intelligence. Any one of these can be operating at a certain time depending on the person—or none of them!
Sometimes it feels as if I am Alice and have been dropped down the rabbit hole when it comes to talking to my particular child about matters of sexual identity, et al. Together, Colin and I have learned a lot. It is our hope that we can help others learn and that the conversation keeps on going.
And Colin, I want to let you know that I am privileged to be your mom.