Sex

Spectrum of Sexuality and Romance

Believing in a sexual and romantic spectrum might reduce anti-gay violence.

Posted Jun 24, 2016

Last time I made the point without ample elaboration that sexual and romantic orientations are a spectrum, existing along a continuum rather than comprising two or three categories (straight, gay, and, perhaps, bisexual). For example, in a recent study I found that about 3% of straight young adult men reported sexual attractions, erotic fantasies, and/or infatuations with a guy. The proportion of young adult women was higher, especially in terms of becoming infatuated with another woman. How can you call these young adults totally straight? Might they share something very important with those we label as gay/lesbian? Certainly these not totally straight young adults do not appear to be what most of us assume characterize bisexuals, which is about equal attractions to females and males.

My sense is that this spectrum perspective is, on average, shared:

1. By millennial youth, but not by adult baby boomers

2. By developmental and clinical psychologists, but not by biologically oriented scientists

3. By “bisexuals,” but not by straights, gays, and lesbians

4. By those with direct experience with youth, but not by those who study them from a distance

This last might well be the best predictor. Those most likely to interact with the millennial generation know that youth tend not to see themselves as either/or in sexual and gender terms. They’re not totally gay or totally straight. They’re not totally feminine or totally masculine. They might fall in love with a guy or a girl or both or neither. They blend sexuality, romance, and gender into unique mosaics.

It is not necessarily the case that the fundamental nature of this young generation has changed but that we live in a culture and during a time in which diversity in sexuality, romance, and gender expression is recognized and, at times, encouraged and celebrated, especially among teenagers and young adults.

Of course, as recent events too vividly demonstrate, acceptance from others is far from universal, but it is improving, by any measure. I could list many examples from multiple segments of our lives (e.g., the considerable support throughout the nation for Pulse in Orlando), but what I want to emphasize here is that a continuum perspective counters the “us versus them” perception that the haters and the deniers have. That is, it’s not just gays and lesbians who have same-sex sexual and romantic attractions or who have sex with others of their same sex, as many straight people do as well. It is not just sexual and gender minorities who have gender expressions more typical of the opposite biological sex, as many straight people do as well. As research referenced below demonstrates and reviews, more straight-identified than gay-identified people have “gay sex.” More straight-identified than gay-identified people are “gender nonconforming.”

You might say, “Well, of course. There are numerically more straight than gay people.” I would agree with you, which simply means that on average your gaydar might work, but be prepared to be wrong because straight people also want to have sexually diverse pleasure, maintain eye contact, and play softball or field hockey. And, if more straight people were to be freed from their sexual and gender straightjackets then “Gaydar, look out!” I believe Millennials are doing just that. For evidence of this trend, see the burst of young people who now identify as “mostly straight” (identify as primarily straight but with a little bit of gayness) and as “mostly gay” (identify as primarily gay but with a little bit of straightness). These in between individuals are on the spectrum and will be discussed in future posts.

Li, G., & Hines, M. (online). In search of emerging same-sex sexuality: Romantic attractions at age 13 years. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi: 10.1007/s10508-016-0726-2

Savin-Williams, R. C. (2014). An exploratory study of the categorical versus spectrum nature of sexual orientation. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 446–453. doi: 10.1007/s10508-013-0219-5