Who You Love Does Not Determine Who You Are: Sexual Orientation & Identity
Brittany is attracted to both men & women, has participated in sexual behavior with only women, and identifies as bisexual.
Many people would argue that this is an inaccurate statement. How can Brittany identify as bisexual if she has never had sex with men? Shouldn’t Brittany identify as a lesbian? The argument against the statement comes from the belief that sexual orientation, sexual behavior & sexual identity are all the same. Or in other words, who Brittany has had sex with, determines who she is. Would you believe me if I said that sexual orientation, behavior & identity are different & distinct aspects of our sexuality? What if I tell you that recent sexuality research has proven that who you love, what you do sexually has no connection with who you are?
Still not convinced?
Let’s start by defining sexual orientation, behavior & identity in the context of the OBI Model developed by Dr. Don Dyson & Dr. Brent Satterly in 2010. (I had the privilege of being taught by both Dr. Dyson & Dr. Satterly at Widener University, from where I received my doctorate in human sexuality. Widener University is the only school in the U.S. to house a research based doctoral program in human sexuality, at a fully accredited university.)
Our sexual orientation is determined by the gender(s) of the people we are attracted to and/or fall in love with. It is important to note that sexual orientation consists of romantic love as well as physical attraction and is inclusive of the idea that we can be attracted to and fall in love with people of any & more than one gender. In Brittany’s example, she is attracted to both men & women.
Our sexual behavior is determined by with whom we are participating in sex. In the example listed above, Brittany has participated in sex with only women.
Our sexual identity is what we call ourselves or how we identify. Brittany identifies as a lesbian. The important thing to note here is that sexual identity is ALWAYS determined by the individual in question. It is not a label or a category given to the individual from the outside. An individual’s sexual identity should never be assumed, it is always best to ask an individual how they choose to identify themselves. There are several categories of sexual identity, too many to list for this blog post but the commonly used ones are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, queer & many others.
Now that you have a better understanding of how sexual orientation is different from sexual behavior which in turn is different from sexual identity, let’s look at Ben’s example. He is attracted to women, has a female partner but occasionally has sex with other men and identifies has heterosexual. Similarly, some men who are incarcerated, engage in sex with other men, but identify as heterosexual and are attracted to only women.
Sexual identity is more important than sexual orientation or sexual behavior.
Sexual identity comes from within the individual as opposed to an external label.
Who we are is not determined by who we love or who we have sex with.
We are who we think we are and that trumps everything else!
Written by: Nagma V. Clark, Ph.D., L.P.C.C. specializing in sex therapy, couples therapy & marriage counseling, premarital counseling, individual relationship therapy & LGBTQQI couples counseling at Tri-Valley Relationship Therapy, Inc. in the East Bay, in Dublin & Oakland.
Tri-Valley Relationship Therapy, Inc. is a queer friendly & trans-informed practice. LGBTQ counseling is offered to individuals & couples residing all over the East Bay, South Bay & Central Valley. Dr. Clark is especially trained in treating the emotional & mental health issues impacting the LGBTQ community. In her practice, she works with LGBTQ individuals, couples & poly couples.
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