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Sexual identity is a term that, like sex, has two distinctively different meanings. One describes an identity roughly based on sexual orientation, the other an identity based on sexual characteristics, a concept related to, but different from, gender identity
In this usage, sexual identity describes how a person identifies related to their sexual orientation. Hence a man who exclusively prefers women will usually have a straight or heterosexual sexual identity, and a woman who exclusively prefers women usually a lesbian or homosexual sexual identity.
However, not every person will identify with their technical sexual orientation, and many use sexual identity as a somewhat more specific term. Some examples:
- A married man occasionally wants to have sex with men. He may or may not act out those wishes. Technically, that would make him bisexual. Nevertheless, he may still identify as a straight man.
- A woman in a lesbian relationship wants to have sex with men. She may act out those wishes, or she may not, maybe based on the prejudices against bisexual people in her community. Technically, she is bisexual. Nevertheless, she may still identify as a lesbian woman.
- An otherwise conservative exclusively homosexual man has objections against what he considers "gay identity politics". He considers himself homosexual, but does not identify as gay.
- Two asexual people marry. They never have sex, nor want it, but still want the relationship. They may identify as asexual, or they may identify as straight.
- An ex-gay woman is in an exclusive relationship with a man. Although she still has fantasies and thoughts about being with a woman, she now identifies as heterosexual.
- A transman considers his relationship to a cis-man as technically heterosexual, but still both identify as gay. (Compare Homosexuality and transgender)
- People may identify as pansexual, queer or similar, despite having a sexual orientation that could just as well be described with straight, gay or lesbian, or hetero- or homo- or bisexual.
Sexual identity, therefore, is not simply synonymous with sexual orientation or sexual preferences, but describes how social or political influences make people identify (or not) with those.
Identity based on sexual characteristics
Scientists such as John Money, Milton Diamond, and Anne Fausto-Sterling have sought to discover and describe the biological processes involved in the formation of sexual identities. A large array of factors have been hypothesized as being determinative, but there is as yet no settled view on these matters.
Formation of sexual identity
One's sexual identity is not likely to be the result of any single factor, although some scientists and many laymen seek "causes" of sexual identity.
It is possible that some factors relevant to the gradual determination of a sexual identity have yet to be identified. The weights of the various factors that are now known or suspected have also not been clearly determined. That being said, there are several different groups of factors that need to be understood:
Genetic factors: Chromosomes play a large part in determining the sexual identity of a child. Normally for humans, the configurations are XX and XY for female and male respectively, but this is not always the case. There can also be chromosomal abnormalities which may result in karyotypes such as XXY, XYY, etc. as well. Some chromosomal abnormalities may have no outward manifestations at birth, but may have internal repercussions; however, some chromosomal abnormalities may affect the genitalia and result in conditions known as intersex.
Some people believe that there is a "gay gene." Although substantial evidence suggests that biological factors contribute to homosexuality, that view may be too simplistic. On the other hand, the genotype of an individual may make his or her sensitivities to various sex hormones different from the sensitivities of other people. One's genetic constitution largely determines how one will react to environmental factors, especially in the womb.
Pre-natal factors: The fetus is nurtured within the mother's womb, and the condition of the mother has significant influence on the health and development of that fetus. If, for instance, a tumor in the mother's body leads to an abnormally high level of testosterone in her blood stream, the testosterone level in the fetus can be raised and that change can significantly influence its development. For instance, an XX fetus can develop into a baby with a strong resemblance to a normally developed XY boy.
Post-natal factors: Some groups maintain that the socialization of an infant begins almost at birth, and that sexual identity problems may trace back to difficulties in ascertaining whether an intersex infant is a male, a female, or actually has both male and female genitalia, and, probably more importantly, whether that infant's brain has developed as would a male's or a female's. It appears that, in general, the later on in life the sex of an infant is reassigned from male to female or vice-versa, the greater the confusion and turmoil that child will suffer. Much criticism has been raised against surgical reassignment until the individual is able to make an autonomous decision because the gender identity of the individual is generally more important to the individual than the technicalities of chromosomal sex, and even genitalia. This is important in considering the case involving John Money's theory about the gender socialization of children, in which he argued that there was a specific timeframe in a child's development where a boy could be brought up as a girl, and vice versa. This theory was applied to a boy named Bruce, known to the public as David Reimer: his penis was severely damaged due to a botched circumcision, and the decision was made for Bruce to undergo sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) and be brought up as a girl, "Brenda". However, the end result was far from successful -- Brenda never acted like a girl, eventually underwent SRS again to return to a male physiology, and ultimately committed suicide. Money began to downplay the success of Bruce's case, and argued that this failure was due to the change being done too late, past the aforementioned timeframe (See the Colapinto item in the Bibliography for further details). Money's theories in regard to gender identity plasticity are no longer regarded as favorably due to this concrete experience.
When considering the cases of transgender and transsexual individuals and their sexual identity, many specialists now agree that the greatest importance ought to be placed upon coming to terms with one's internal gender identity. Many non-operative transgender and transsexual people live happily as members of their chosen gender, and yet do not obtain SRS for a multitude of reasons. The causes of transgender and transsexuality are not well known, but preliminary evidence suggests biological causes.
The understanding that a person has of his or her own sexual identity is perhaps never complete because that person may continue to grow and change psychologically -- and learning involves physical changes in the brain. On the other hand, as learning and experience increase, more of the original picture is filled out to show what that person is and can become. If a young person's education has gone against the grain somehow, it may happen that a conflict breaks through to the surface and realignment follows, or that a person discovers things about himself or herself that may have previously been hidden.
Criticism of "sexual identity" as based on sexual characteristics
It is unclear how this concept is different from gender identity, or how it relates to it. The usage of gender instead of sex when speaking about social or psychological characteristics dates back to 1955 when John Money first used the term gender role:
- "The term gender role is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but is not restricted to, sexuality in the sense of eroticism." (Hermaphroditism, gender and precocity in hyperadrenocorticism: Psychologic findings (Money, 1955))
From there, gender identity was coined analogously. Gender identity is usually seen as independent from sexual characteristics; while it matches them in most cases, it does not do so in both many intersexual and all transgender people. However, when it does not match, there usually is no "sexual identity" different from "gender identity"; the whole point of the concept of gender identity as independent from sexual characteristics being that the former is not (necessarily) related to the latter.
- John Colapinto As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl; Harper Collins; ISBN 0-06-019211-9
- Anne Fausto-Sterling; Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and The Construction of Sexuality; Basic Books; ISBN 0-465-07713-7
- Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach; Patterns of Sexual Behavior; Ace Books, 1951
- Francis Mark Mondimore; A Natural History of Homosexuality; Johns Hopkins University Press; ISBN 0-8018-5440-7
- John Money; Gay, Straight, and In-between: The Sexology of Erotic Orientation; Oxford University Press, 1988; ISBN 0-19-506331-7
- Haig, D. (2004). "The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: social change in academic titles, 1945-2001." Archives of Sexual Behavior 33: 87-96. PDF document
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