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60 Sex-Relevant Terms You May Not Know — and Why You Should

As sex-relevant words proliferate, so do our ways of living and loving.

Matters of sex, relationships, sexual orientation, and gender identity all used to seem much simpler than they are now — even if they really weren’t. Now, the list of letters that used to be limited to LGBT never stops growing.

The additions to all the sexual orientations include some non-sexual, or not very sexual, orientations. We’ve also learned to appreciate orientations other than sexual ones, such as orientations toward relationships. A binary that once seemed utterly self-evident, male vs. female, is now routinely questioned.

Reading a terrific thesis, “Party of One,” by Kristen Bernhardt, woke me up to the proliferation of new concepts relevant to relationships, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more. (Thank you, Kristen.) So I set out to spend an evening gathering some relevant definitions.

Many days later, I was still at it. I admit to shaking my head in exasperation a few times along the way. Ultimately, though, I ended up feeling enormously optimistic. No longer is there just one way to approach sex, love, or relationships that is valued and appreciated.

People who, not so very long ago, may have wondered what was wrong with them now have a new answer: Nothing. People who secretly wondered why romantic relationships were valued above all others can now find validation for their perspective. Maybe they aren’t oddballs, but forward-looking, open-minded, democratic thinkers.

I’ll share definitions for 60 terms — just a sampling of the universe of possibilities that are out there. One of the most comprehensive sources I found was a glossary provided by the University of California at Davis. Unless I specifically mention one of the other sources I drew from, my definitions are from that glossary.

To try to make sense of the 60 terms, I’ve organized them into five sections. Other categorizations would have been possible.

  1. Sex vs. gender: What’s the difference? And what about sexual orientation vs. gender identity?
  2. What is your sexual orientation?
  3. What kind of attraction do you feel toward other people?
  4. What is your orientation toward relationships?
  5. How do you value different relationships?

I. Sex vs. gender: what’s the difference? And what about sexual orientation vs. gender identity?

“Sex” and “gender” aren’t the same.

  • Sex (1) is “a medically constructed category often assigned based on the appearance of the genitalia, either in ultrasound or at birth.”
  • Gender (2) is “a social construct used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity.”

Remember when we thought there were just two sexes, male and female, and everyone just assumed that anyone born male or female was, in fact, a male or a female? Now it is much more complicated. Here are some of the concepts that challenge those notions:

  • Non-binary (3): “A gender identity and experience that embraces a full universe of expressions and ways of being that resonate for an individual. It may be an active resistance to binary gender expectations and/or an intentional creation of new unbounded ideas of self within the world. For some people who identify as non-binary there may be overlap with other concepts and identities like gender expansive and gender non-conforming.”
  • Gender expansive (4): “An umbrella term used for individuals who broaden their own culture’s commonly held definitions of gender, including expectations for its expression, identities, roles, and/or other perceived gender norms. Gender expansive individuals include those who identify as transgender, as well as anyone else whose gender in some way is seen to be stretching the surrounding society’s notion of gender.”
  • Gender non-conforming (5): “People who do not subscribe to gender expressions or roles expected of them by society.”
  • Gender fluid (6): “A person whose gender identification and presentation shifts, whether within or outside of societal, gender-based expectations. Being fluid in motion between two or more genders.”
  • Bigender (7): “Having two genders, exhibiting cultural characteristics of masculine and feminine roles.”
  • Gender queer (8): “A person whose gender identity and/or gender expression falls outside of the dominant societal norm for their assigned sex, is beyond genders, or is some combination of them.”
  • Polygender (9) or Pangender (10): “Exhibiting characteristics of multiple genders, deliberately refuting the concept of only two genders.”
  • Neutrois (11): “A non-binary gender identity that falls under the genderqueer or transgender umbrellas. There is no one definition of Neutrois, since each person that self-identifies as such experiences their gender differently. The most common ones are: Neutral-gender (12), Null-gender (13), Neither male nor female (14), Genderless (15) and/or Agender (16).”

At Aeon, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper challenged the notion that gender is a spectrum. At Vox, 12 people explained why the male/female binary doesn’t work for them.

Sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t the same.

  • Gender identity (17): When you say that you are a man or a woman, you are describing your gender identity. Gender identity is “a sense of one’s self as trans,* genderqueer, woman, man, or some other identity, which may or may not correspond with the sex and gender one is assigned at birth.” (For more on trans* and genderqueer, see the section below, “What is your sexual orientation?”) Transgender is a gender orientation; it is also included in the list of letters referring to sexual orientations.
  • Sexual orientation (18): “an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectional attraction or non-attraction to other people.”

II. What is your sexual orientation?

If you are old enough, you may remember a time when “straight” and “gay” (or heterosexual and homosexual) covered all the sexual orientations that got any attention. Gay people were often described as queer (and worse) when the word was still solely a pejorative.

The terms then expanded to include LGBT: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. A lesbian (19) is “a woman whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same gender.” Although “gay” (20) has often been used to refer to men who are attracted to other men, it is also used more broadly to refer to anyone attracted to someone of the same sex. Bisexuals (21) are attracted to both men and women, though not always to the same degree. Transgender (22) people are also called “trans” (23) or “trans*” (24) (the asterisk “indicates the option to fill in the appropriate label, i.e., Trans man”). The term “describes a wide range of identities and experiences of people whose gender identity and/or expression differs from conventional expectations based on their assigned sex at birth.”

Trans Man and Trans Woman are further explained by the Resource Center at the University of California at San Diego:

  • Trans Man/Trans Male (25): “A female-to-male (FTM) transgender person who was assigned female at birth, but whose gender identity is that of a man.” FTM is sometimes expressed as F2M.
  • Trans Woman/Trans Female (26): “A male-to-female (MTF) transgender person who was assigned male at birth, but whose gender identity is that of a woman.” MTF is sometimes expressed as M2F.

If you are not transgender, you may think that you don’t need a special term. But you have one. You are cisgender (28): “a gender identity, or performance in a gender role, that society deems to match the person’s assigned sex at birth. The prefix cis- means ‘on this side of’ or ‘not across’.”

The list of letters has continued to expand. The letters added most often are QIA, giving us LGBTQIA.

  • Q stands for Queer or for Questioning.
  • Queer (29) is a broad label, which can refer to “people whose gender, gender expression and/or sexuality do not conform to dominant expectations.” It is sometimes used even more broadly to refer to “not fitting into norms” of all sorts, including size, physical abilities, and more.
  • Questioning (30) is “the process of exploring one’s own gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation.”
  • I is for Intersex (31): “People who naturally (that is, without any medical intervention) develop primary or secondary sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into society's definitions of male or female…Hermaphrodite (32) is an outdated and inaccurate term that has been used to describe intersex people in the past.”
  • A is for Asexual (33): “A sexual orientation generally characterized by not feeling sexual attraction or a desire for partnered sexuality. Asexuality is distinct from celibacy (34), which is the deliberate abstention from sexual activity. Some asexual people do have sex. There are many diverse ways of being asexual.” Colloquially, the word Ace (35) is sometimes used instead of Asexual. (AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, is a great source of information.)

    [Another A word is Allosexual, which is very different from Asexual. Allosexual (36) is “a sexual orientation generally characterized by feeling sexual attraction or a desire for partnered sexuality.”]

    [Still another A word — one that does not describe a sexual orientation — is ally. Allyship (37) is “the action of working to end oppression through support of, and as an advocate with and for, a group other than one’s own.”]

There’s more. Among the other letters sometimes added to the list are P and K, giving us LGBTQIAPK.

  • P can refer to Pansexual (or Omnisexual) or Polyamorous.
  • Pansexual (38) and Omnisexual (39) are “terms used to describe people who have romantic, sexual or affectionate desire for people of all genders and sexes.”
  • Polyamory (40) “denotes consensually being in/open to multiple loving relationships at the same time. Some polyamorists (polyamorous people) consider ‘poly’ to be a relationship orientation. Sometimes used as an umbrella term for all forms of ethical, consensual, and loving non-monogamy.”
  • K stands for Kink (41). According to Role/Reboot, “‘K’ would cover those who practice bondage and discipline, dominance-submission and/or sado-masochism, as well as those with an incredibly diverse set of fetishes and preferences.” If you are rolling your eyes, consider this: “According to survey data, around 15% of adults engage in some form of consensual sexual activity along the ‘kink’ spectrum. This is a higher percentage than those who identify as gay or lesbian.”

Not everyone identifies as either sexual or asexual. Some consider asexuality as a spectrum that includes, for example, demisexuals and greysexuals. These definitions are from AVEN:

  • Demisexual (42): “Someone who can only experience sexual attraction after an emotional bond has been formed. This bond does not have to be romantic in nature.”
  • Gray-asexual (gray-a) (43) or gray-sexual (44): “Someone who identifies with the area between asexuality and sexuality, for example because they experience sexual attraction very rarely, only under specific circumstances, or of an intensity so low that it's ignorable.” (Colloquially, sometimes called grey-ace (45).)

There is also more than one variety of polyamory. An important example is solo polyamory. At Solopoly, Amy Gahran describes it this way:

  • Solo polyamory (46): “What distinguishes solo poly people is that we generally do not have intimate relationships which involve (or are heading toward) primary-style merging of life infrastructure or identity along the lines of the traditional social relationship escalator. For instance, we generally don’t share a home or finances with any intimate partners. Similarly, solo poly people generally don’t identify very strongly as part of a couple (or triad etc.); we prefer to operate and present ourselves as individuals.” As Kristen Bernhardt pointed out in her thesis, solo poly people often say: “I am my own primary partner.”

(For a definition of “relationship elevator,” see the section below, “What is your orientation toward relationships?”)

III. What kind of attraction do you feel toward other people?

Interpersonal attraction is not just sexual. AVEN lists these different kinds of attraction (47) (“emotional force that draws people together”):

  • Aesthetic attraction (48): “Attraction to someone’s appearance, without it being romantic or sexual.”
  • Romantic attraction (49): “Desire of being romantically involved with another person.”
  • Sensual attraction (50): “Desire to have physical non-sexual contact with someone else, like affectionate touching.”
  • Sexual attraction (51): “Desire to have sexual contact with someone else, to share our sexuality with them.”

Asexual is the term used for people who do not feel sexual attraction. Another term, aromantic, describes something different. According to the AVEN wiki:

  • Aromantic (52): “A person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others. Where romantic people have an emotional need to be with another person in a romantic relationship, aromantics are often satisfied with friendships and other non-romantic relationships.” (Want to know more? Check out these five myths about aromanticism from Buzzfeed.)

People who experience romantic attraction have crushes. Aromantics have squishes. Again, from the AVEN wiki:

  • Squish (53): “Strong desire for some kind of platonic (nonsexual, nonromantic) connection to another person. The concept of a squish is similar in nature to the idea of a ‘friend crush.’ A squish can be towards anyone of any gender and a person may also have many squishes, all of which may be active.”

IV. What is your orientation toward relationships? (For example, do you prefer monogamy? Do you think your relationships should progress in a certain way?)

Many of the alternatives to monogamy fit under the umbrella term of “ethical non-monogamy.”

  • Monogamy (54): “Having only one intimate partner at a time.”
  • Consensual non-monogamy (or ethical non-monogamy) (55): “all the ways that you can consciously, with agreement and consent from all involved, explore love and sex with multiple people.” (The definition is from Gracie X, who explores six varieties here. Polyamory is just one of them.)

According to the conventional wisdom, romantic relationships are expected to progress in a certain way. That’s called the “relationship escalator.” Amy Gahran describes it this way:

  • Relationship escalator (56): “The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal. The goal at the top of the Escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive between two people), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the Escalator until death. The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, ‘serious,’ good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.”

V. How do you value different relationships?

Do you think that everyone should be in a romantic relationship, that everyone wants to be in a romantic relationship, and that such a relationship is more important than any other? Thanks to the philosopher Elizabeth Brake, there’s a name for that assumption, amatonormativity. Importantly, amatonormativity is an assumption, not a fact. A related concept is mononormativity. (The definition below is Robin Bauer’s, as described in Kristen Bernhardt’s thesis.) In the same family of concepts is heteronormativity. (Definition below is from Miriam-Webster.) An entirely different way of thinking about relationships has been described by Andie Nordgren in her concept of “relationship anarchy.”

  • Amatonormativity (57): “The assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.” (Drake Baer’s discussion of the concept in New York magazine is excellent.)
  • Mononormativity (58): “Based on the taken for granted allegation that monogamy and couple-shaped arranged relationships are the principle of social relations per se, an essential foundation of human existence and the elementary, almost natural pattern of living together.”
  • Heteronormative (59): “Of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.”
  • Relationship anarchy (60): “Relationship anarchists are often highly critical of conventional standards that prioritize romantic and sex-based relationships over non-sexual or non-romantic relationships. Instead, RA seeks to eliminate specific distinctions between or hierarchical valuations of friendship versus love-based relationships, so that love-based relationships are no more valuable than are platonic friendships.”