Friday, June 29, 2012

Sex, Gender, Sexual Orientation

There is quite possibly nothing more confusing, and yet so many people think they know all there is to know, as the topic of sex. Much like the human brain, sex is something that is relatively simple, at yet extremely complex at the same time, especially when you through a psychologist at the subject. Let's start by taking apart some of the terms, and then perhaps complicating the issue slowly. This may end up being the beginning of a series of blog posts, or just a REALLY long one. Either way, it's time to begin.

Sex: from a relationship perspective, this is an activity that takes place between, usually, two, preferably consenting, adults. Many people hear the word sex and envision some act of copulation that runs the gamut from mundane missionary coitus to kinky to erotica and any point in between. Sex in this respect is one of those topics that we try the hardest in many modern societies, despite many movements to the contrary, to keep hidden and mysterious from the "innocents" (mostly children). but "sex" also has another meaning.

Sex: the biological characteristics of being male or female. The genotypes XX (female) and XY (male). The physical appearances of primary and secondary sex characteristics that tells the rest of the world what Nature decided you were supposed to be. When you fill out a demographic survey and they ask for "sex," they are asking about this feature, not whether you've been recently active in the boudoir.

Gender: the psychological and social properties of being male or female. On the surface, sex and gender seem to be the exact same thing. For the majority of the population, they are the same. Most individuals classify themselves as either male or female and this personal classification matches with societal expectations and the person's biological make-up. For a small percentage, however, their sex and gender are not aligned. There are cases in which a person feels they were "born into the wrong body" or that "nature made a mistake" when it assigned their sex. These individuals have the potential to become transgender.

Transgender: an individual whose biological sex does not coincide with their psychological gender and who subsequently, through medical therapies and/or surgery, corrects this miss-match  by changing the physical biological sex to the gender. In other words, a biological male becoming a biological female to match her gender identity as a female or a biological female becoming a biological male to match his gender identity as a male. A transgender should not be confused with a transvestite, however.

Transvestite: an individual who becomes aroused and/or can only achieve orgasm when wearing clothing intended for the opposite sex. Most transvestites are well aware and comfortable with their gender identity as male or female. They simply show a preference for masculine (if they are a female) or feminine (if they are a male) clothing when involved in sex. This should not be confused with a cross-dresser.

Cross-dresser: an individual who wears the clothes of the opposite sex for, primarily, comfort reasons. Some males simply feel that female clothing is more comfortable and they would much rather wear a skirt than a pair of pants. Our society, unfortunately, shuns this form of fashion and many cross-dressers feel the need to hide their preference because it is considered abnormal. Unless there is any sexual arousal involved with the cross-dressing, that's all it is--dressing across gender lines. In modern society, primarily western and American culture (these are what I am most familiar with), it is more acceptable for a woman to cross-dress in male clothing than for a man to cross-dress in female clothing. Personally, I could be considered the occasional cross-dresser, as I find some of my husband's shirts to be more comfortable than the tighter, form-fitting styles meant for most women. I even had a few pairs of "boys" jeans and jean shorts when I was younger because I liked the fit better than the "girl" equivalents. Cross-dressing does not usually lead to transvestism or transgendered individuals, although it could be a precursor.

Now, here's where things can start to get confusing. So many people start to mix gender with sexual orientation. Sexual orientation relates to one's attraction, physically and romantically and erotically, to an individual based on that other individual's gender/sex. Labeling of one's sexual orientation is partially dependent upon one's own gender and the gender of one's love interest.

Heterosexual: being attracted (emotionally, romantically, physically, erotically, sexually, etc.) to someone of the opposite sex/gender. That means that if your sex is male and your gender is male and you are attracted to primarily females, then you are a heterosexual male. If your sex is female and your gender is female and you are attracted to primarily males, then you are a heterosexual female. [Note: I use the word "primarily" in deference to the ideas of Kinsey, who postulated that very rarely is an individual exclusively heterosexual or homosexual.]

Homosexual: being attracted (etc. as stated above) to someone of the same sex/gender. That means that if your sex is male and your gender is male and you are primarily attracted to males, then you are a homosexual male. If your sex is female and your gender is female and you are primarily attracted to females, then you are a homosexual female.

Bisexual: being attracted (as stated above in the etc.) to someone regardless of gender/sex. A bisexual tends to be pulled, throughout their lives, almost equally by both males and females. In this case, one's own gender and sex does not particularly affect the classification, as there is mutual attraction to both sexes anyway.

Now, it is possible to have an individual's gender and sexual orientation to require a more complex examination in order to determine actual sexual orientation. Consider the case of the "male lesbian," for example. This would be an individual whose sex (biology) is male, but whose gender (psychological identification) is female, who is attracted to females. On the surface, this individual might be considered a heterosexual male. However, because one's gender is more important to psychologists in determining how one is identified, the homosexual orientation is actually more accurate. In true technicalities, this person is not actually a "male lesbian," but rather a (potential) transgender homosexual female.

If you've come this far and your head has not exploded, then I congratulate you for your efforts to understand. I will leave you here, hopefully with much food for thought and a little more understanding of what I did warn you was an incredibly complex topic. I will continue this topic, in a subsequent blog post, with the concepts of one's personality as defined along gender lines (masculine, feminine, androgynous, undifferentiated). Needless to say, any time we talk about one's gender or sex it conjures up a world of complexity that is too often muddled via attempts to oversimplify and stereotype things.