Sexual Orientation: Identity, Fantasy, and Behavior

With the premiere of “The L Word,” Showtime’s answer to the great success of HBO’s primarily heterosexual “Sex in the City,” there is bound to be more talk around the water cooler about sexual orientation. When it comes to same-sex relationships, reactions from those who are unfamiliar with what it means to be anything other than heterosexual range from confused to curious to aroused. That’s to be expected when we live in a world that sees complex issues as black and white.

Confusion and questioning start off because of this “black and white” or binary thinking – we are male or female; gay or straight. Bisexual people are often seen as “confused.” People in different-sex relationships who have a same-sex experience or are just attracted to people of the same sex are labeled bisexual or gay, even if they don’t identify that way themselves. Anything except gay or straight is difficult to understand, and more difficult to accept.

The main reason why sexual orientation is a difficult concept for many to get their arms around is because the answer to “what is sexual orientation?” is a fluid one. Many people who consider themselves heterosexual or straight may fantasize, think, or have dreams during sleep about having sex with someone of the same gender. People who identify as gay or lesbian may fantasize about having sex with someone of a different gender. These feelings can be confusing, yielding questions like, “But I thought you said you were…?” This confusion is natural, especially given that we have all been brought up in a world that values labels, boxes, and categories. Flexibility and fluidity, therefore, are often misunderstood and even feared.

In the 1950s, sexologist Alfred Kinsey devised a seven-point scale to describe the continuum of sexual orientation. The scale was based on interviews of thousands of people and their answers to questions regarding their sexual behavior, fantasies, dream content, degree of response to seeing the same sex both clothed and nude, seeing genitalia, and thinking about the same sex (e.g., “Are you sexually aroused by thinking about men or some particular man?”).

Zero on the Kinsey Scale represented a person who identified as heterosexual at the time of the interview and reported no same-sex behavior, no masturbation fantasy about someone of the same sex, no dreams, no responses to visuals depicting people of the same sex, and no response to thinking about the same sex. Six represented a person who identified as homosexual and reported no heterosexual behavior, fantasies, and so on.

What Kinsey and his associates found was that some people’s ratings on the scale fluctuated throughout their lives. According to one researcher, a person could be a “Kinsey zero” from puberty to fifteen, then a “one” from 16 to 17, dropping back to a “zero” from age 18 to 29, and then be a “two” at ages 30 to 37. People have a tendency to fluctuate more from puberty until their early 20s but some “come out” with a different sexual identity after many years living a different one that they and others may have thought was set.

  • So remember these points the next time you are chatting with your friends about an episode of “The L Word:”
  • When it comes to sexual orientation, identity, fantasy, and behavior are not always in sync.
  • Confusion about irreconcilable differences among these components of orientation arises when we expect the nature of sexual orientation to be fixed.
  • Arousal doesn’t dictate identity but may influence fantasy or behavior.
  • Worries about our own sexual orientation or that of others usually result from messages we hear that value one way of sexual loving over another.
  • Variety is the spice of life!

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