I am thinking today about sexual identity.
But first, a short introduction to the concept of sexual identity. Essentially, our identity on any given topic answers the question ‘Who am I?’ So in regards to a sexual identity, the question becomes, ‘Who am I, sexually? What do I like, dislike, how do I approach sexuality, what are my personal sexuality characteristics?’ and more along these lines. Sexual orientation falls clearly into this category, but so does so much else. Here are some examples:
- I know a woman who was recently grappling with her sexual identity. She thought she was very interested in tantric sex. But very quickly during a class on the subject, she realized she really wasn’t interested in it at all.
- I know another woman who thought she was strait for most of her life, and then realized she wasn’t. Or maybe she is some mixture. She was married for years and had two children, but when her husband left her, she ended up with a woman, and she’s very happy now.
- Another woman decided, after engaging in a lot of sex with a lot of different people, to simply stop. She figures that she will probably have sex again at some point – but for right now, she’d just rather be celibate.
These are all examples of adult women who are still discovering new and surprising facets to their sexuality. Our society often thinks of sexual identity as something that develops and makes itself clear during adolescence and then stays essentially unchanged for the rest of someone’s life. But this is far from the truth.
Brain development starts very early on and continues well into adulthood – recent research suggests well into the 40’s. Similarly, sexual identity continues to develop – to expand and contract, to reorient, to respond to and interact with the different hormone levels and capacities of our aging bodies. We are not, and never have been, static sexual beings.
But for some young people, there can be a sense of urgency that they need to hurry up and get their sexuality figured out so that they can move into those life-long relationships so they can move on to have children and meet their other goals. Decreasing this sense of urgency can have a dramatically calming effect on teenagers.
But, rather than talking in the terms of an every-changing, dynamic sexual identity, we can talk with young people about there being lots of time to understand themselves better (both sexually and in other ways), lots of time to understand what they want and don’t want in their sexual and romantic relationships. Life is a learning process, in sexual identity as in most things, will continue to be a learning process.
Rather than asking teenagers to answer the question, “Who I will I be/who will I be with/what do I want for the rest of my life?” we should be asking them “Who am I/who do I want to be with/what do I want today?” The first set of questions is just far too big for any of us to answer with any certainty, regardless of our age.
I can see how the idea of evolving sexual identity could be both incredibly liberating and unnervingly disconcerting. But on the whole I think people could benefit from thinking of sexual identity not as a statement, but more as a conversation – one you are having with yourself, your partners and the world.
Hear, Hear… And we should not underestimate how foreign this notion of “sexual identity” — and its plasticity — is to the mainstream culture, which still largely buys into “all guys are one way” and “all girls are another way” and each of those “ways” tends to be fairly limited, constrained, and vanilla. And if a particular person is not vanilla, they’re totally weird and probably creepy or sick. As I contemplate getting ready to teach another group of Sr. Hi OWL students next year, I think getting across to them the wide range of what it means to be a sexual person, of any gender and any orientation, may be the most challenging assignment of all…
Good luck DSD. Hopefully your high school students will be open to some good discussion. I keep hoping that with each generation we make a little more progress.
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