In honor of Pride month, I wanted to share some knowledge about human sexuality that can be quite confusing. Although some of these Frequently Asked Questions may seem obvious to some, I think most people would be surprised at how little they really understand about the differences between these words and phrases.
Q: What is the difference between sex and gender?
A: Sex is defined by our biological position on the spectrum of femaleness and maleness. Gender is defined by our psychological and sociocultural attributes that are associated with being female or male.
Q: What does gender identity mean?
A: Gender identity is defined by one’s personal, subjective sense of their gender, which is different from our biological sex.
Q: What is sexual orientation?
A: Sexual orientation is the unique pattern of sexual and romantic desire, behavior, and identity that each person experiences.
Q: Doesn’t sexual orientation consist of just three categories, heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual?
A: No it does not. After several studies, Alfred Kinsey discovered that sexual orientation is more of a continuum so he developed the Kinsey Scale. On the Kinsey Scale, 0 represents exclusive patterns of heterosexual behavior and attraction, and 6 represent an exclusive pattern of homosexual behavior and attraction. The numbers in between the two represent varying levels of bisexuality.
Many people use sex and gender interchangeably without realizing the difference. While sex refers to our biology, gender defines our expectations about what makes us feminine or masculine and is determined by psychological, social, and cultural characteristics. Knowing the difference is not only important in order to fully understand what someone is talking about but also important in order to inform someone who may be confused about this. Additionally, many people believe that our sex should determine our gender. This is where understanding sexual identity comes into play. Sexual identity refers to a person’s individual perception of being female or male. A person could have an outward appearance of a male but have female sex organs and instead of identifying as female, identify as male, which is a form of transgenderism. Sexual orientation is often lumped into three categories such as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. However, thanks to Alfred Kinsey, we now know that sexual orientation is much more complex than this and should be described as being a continuum as shown below.
New research has shown that sexual minorities such as bisexual, gay, transgender, and lesbian individuals are at a higher risk for depression than heterosexual individuals. The reason being that they are (for varied reasons) less open about their sexual orientation. Knowing this can help aid people in their journey to discover their sexual orientation and become more comfortable and supported in being open about it. It can also help you to be more aware of things to be looking for like signs of depression, anxiety, suicide, and stress in a friend, family member, co-worker, etc. who may be exploring their sexual orientation.
With more support and acceptance of the LGBTQ community in this day and age, brings about those who have been hiding their true gender identity or sexual orientation. Now more than ever, it is important to understand important terms and meanings of these terms in order to better serve this community and also family members and friends of the LGBTQ community who may not understand the research behind these terms and the importance of supporting them despite their beliefs. By sharing our knowledge of sexual orientation, we can work together to end hate and discrimination.
Crooks, R., & Baur, K. (2017). Our sexuality, thirteenth edition. Cengage Learning. Boston, MA.
Lehmiller, J. J. (2013). The psychology of human sexuality. Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
van der Star, A., Pachankis, J. E., & Bränström, R. (2019). Sexual orientation openness and depression symptoms: A population-based study. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1037/sgd0000335