Exploring the fluidity of sexual identity in a world that wants us static

There are normative assumptions about sexual identity that lead us to perceive it as something binary, strict and unmoving. But that's not always the case.

This article is about the fluidity of sexual identity. In the picture, two arms intertwining with a rainbow.
Image: Via Pexels - cottonbro studio

I have thought long and hard about how to start this article and I couldn’t come up with anything appropriate or powerful enough. So I decided to start it like it is going to continue: doubting and overthinking. I do a lot of both when I think about my sexual identity. I do a lot of that too. Thinking about it, I mean.

Mostly because, I believe, for a very long time I didn’t do it at all. My queerness still feels new to me. And if I really think about it – I did say that I do that a lot – I can come up with many instances from my past that should have made it apparent that it’s not new at all. But they didn’t. Not at the time.

I believe a big part of why I didn’t question my sexuality for a long time was played by the place where I grew up. A small town in the middle of Italy where everyone seems to strive towards the same type of life. Find a girlfriend or a boyfriend, marry (I will specify here that marriage equality is not a thing in Italy in case you thought the gender of the partner you’re supposed to find did not matter in this equation), have kids. That’s it.

Everyone assumes that’s what you want. Everyone assumes that’s what will ultimately make you happy. A steady, unchanging heterosexual relationship. Everyone resembles each other, in my hometown. And the pressure. The pressure to conform to that is almost tangible. So much pressure that, for a long time, I thought that was what I also wanted. What I was.

People who know much more about this stuff than I do would call it “compulsory heterosexuality” or “heteronormativity”. It’s defined as the hegemonic social system that imposes the boundaries of what is considered the only acceptable sexual orientation, namely heterosexuality. A system that constructs heterosexuality as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’, rendering all other alternatives inaccessible.

It’s what produces social stigma towards LGBTQ+ people. Heteronormativity also penetrates into social institutions, such as marriage and family, and dictates what forms of them are to be considered legitimate. The resistance that is placed towards any form of family other than that derived from a heterosexual marriage is clear proof of how pervasive heteronormativity can be.

You can see how I’ve now launched into the more technical and analytical part of this article. Bear with me. Because compulsory heterosexuality is not the only form of “normativity” that dictates what are the acceptable forms of sexuality. There’s more, there are way too many.

In recent years, we have heard a lot of talk about the gender binary and the limits that it imposes on individuals. We are instead less used to talking about how society also conceives of sexual orientation in binary terms. This is called monosexism and it’s a form of oppression that promotes exclusive heterosexuality or homosexuality as the only legitimate alternatives. It does not leave room for other possibilities that might fall outside this binary, de facto discounting the plurality and complexity of sexuality.

Ultimately, it leads to the denial of the existence of non-monosexual people, AKA people who are attracted to more than one gender. Monosexist pressures push people to perceive non-monosexual individuals as immature, unstable or dishonest about their sexual orientation. These pressures also work on non-monosexual people, impacting their identity development and disclosure and bringing them to continuously question if their identities are valid. It’s what is more commonly known as ‘biphobia’.

You still there? Because we’re not done. Another form of normativity that impacts our perceptions of sexuality is allonormativity. Sometimes also called ‘compulsory sexuality’, it is a worldview that assumes that all people experience sexual and romantic attraction. The word comes from the term ‘allosexual’, which defines people who experience sexual attraction and do not identify with an asexual-spectrum identity.

Some ideas and expectations that emanate from allonormativity are: that sexual behaviour is necessary to demonstrate love; that sexual intimacy is the defining feature of intimate relationships; that people who don’t have intimate relationships are lonely or flawed. Its negative influences against asexual people manifest in multiple ways, like inducing pathologisation, isolation, unwanted relationship conflict and inhibiting asexual individuals from self-identifying.

We’re almost there, I promise. There’s only one more type of normativity that we’re going to consider in this article and it’s mononormativity. This is the dominant assumption about how monogamy is ‘natural’ and how sexually exclusive couples are the optimal model of ‘normal’ and healthy relationships. Mononormativity also leads to the assumption that monogamy is morally superior to all other relationship forms and that non-monogamous alternatives are unnatural, dysfunctional or even perverse.

The point of this analysis? It’s that these forms of oppression all work in conjunction to produce a social system that assumes that what everyone wants is a heterosexual stable and monogamous relationship. Now that I’ve read so much about it, I can see clearly how all of this worked in the place where I grew up. My hometown is definitely a very ‘normative’ environment. Almost everyone adhered to the paradigm. And for most of my childhood and adolescence, queer people were an incomprehensible rarity.

Queerness was portrayed as something other than myself, something that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with me. The difference between queer people and me was made crystal clear and reinforced by the fact that all the people in my life resembled each other in that way. So I didn’t question. For a very long time, I just accepted.

It took me a long time to realise that there were alternatives available to me. I had to get out of the place where I grew up to find them. This is where the importance of finding community emerges. Because it doesn’t only mean finding people who understand and support you – though that’s vital. Finding community also means finding yourself. Because through the experiences of others you can better understand your own, by talking and sharing and witnessing, you can find the alternatives.

That’s something that I often think about. How many of the people from my hometown, how many of my old friends are living the lives they’re living because they haven’t found the alternatives? Because they’re just giving in to the pressure?

Every time I go back to my hometown, I feel that pressure. To conform to the norm. It often manifests itself in the form of unprompted thoughts that, even though I consciously strongly reject at this point, I still get. Of things I should do, and believe, and want.

And it’s not only there, I’ve seen all these forms of oppression work in many of the places where I went after leaving home. Because everything, be it family, peers, the media, education, the law, everything perpetuates these normative assumptions about sexuality and it all has consequences on the way we perceive sexual identity: as something binary, strict and unmoving. Static.

Here’s another technical and analytical bit. When we are talking about sexual identity, we are talking about the way an individual understands themselves as a sexual being. It involves various aspects, one of which is sexual orientation, which designates to whom a person is attracted. Already the first aspect of sexual identity brings us face to face with its complexity, as the progress in understanding how attraction works now indicates that attraction can be distinguished by:

  • the gender or plurality of genders to whom a person is attracted to, making them heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual…
  • the type of attraction, including sexual, romantic and aesthetic (some speak about even more types)
  • and the level, which may include demi- or gray-, terms that are typically used to refer to identities on the asexual spectrum.

In addition to sexual orientation, sexual behaviour, sexual fantasy and sexual feelings also play a part in shaping a person’s sexual identity. Studies have found that a person’s sexual identity is also heavily influenced by their social and cultural context and that for this reason, it is subject to changes and fluctuations.

So here we go, back to the title and the core topic of this article. How can we understand sexual fluidity in a world that leads us to believe that our sexual identity is set in stone?

Now, I’ve known that my sexuality is somewhat fluid since I started to identify as bisexual a few years ago. It took me a lot of doubting and overthinking to get there, too. In the process of writing this article, I’ve read that feelings of confusion and conflict are an integral part of internalised biphobia. It’s something that I already knew, but it’s funny – ‘funny’ – how relieved I felt reading that. Because it made it all feel valid.

I had my aha moment about bisexuality when I first read the following definition by activist Robyn Ochs: “The potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

This is when I finally got past the 50% straight, 50% gay stereotype and understood that it was okay that I would sometimes go through periods where I was almost exclusively attracted to men or others when all I could focus on was girls.

That it was okay that my attraction to other genders or my own was shifting in time. See, that’s the power of a label and its definition. It may seem at times that there are too many nowadays and that we’re trying too hard. But these labels are so important. Because the fact that there’s a name for something means that someone else had the same – or a very similar – experience and tried to make sense of it. And that’s what I’m left with. A word in which I might find part of myself and finally understand it.

Allowing myself to identify as bisexual felt incredibly liberating, though the doubting and overthinking were always there. And the confusion was bound to increase.

Because while I was doubting and overthinking, I also found myself going through periods of time where my attraction was directed to no gender at all. And that didn’t fit the label I had given myself. I spent so much time trying to understand if it was really happening or if there was a reason, a sort of other explanation for it. And I researched.

Here’s a lesser-known label for you: abrosexual. The label defines a person whose sexuality is changing or fluid. There’s no fixed timeframe to the changes in an abrosexual person’s sexual orientation and there’s also no limit on the number of genders the attraction can shift to. And while in some cases, different circumstances can trigger the shift, it can also be unpredictable. Quite free of restrictions, no?

I’ve thought about whether I fit into this label or not, but I’m not sure. And there are others I at times thought I might fit. Pomosexuality, for example, is an identity category that indicates people who do not well fit into other orientations. Aceflux? Demisexual? Pansexual? Aegosexual? Questioning? Definitely questioning.

I believe in the power of labels, I firmly do. But I also recognise their limits. Because a short and concise definition cannot possibly encompass the complexity that human sexuality holds. I fit more than one label and at the same time, I don’t fit perfectly in any of them. And as much as some of them resonate with me, I’m still trying to figure it out.

But that’s okay. I’ll understand it, eventually. Or I’ll stop obsessing over it so much and decide that I don’t have to label it at all. Why are we so obsessed with stability anyway? Maybe I’ll decide that I’m fine with being unstable and that’s also okay. Or I’ll finally identify as abrosexual and then, later on, decide that it’s not the label for me anymore and change again.

For now, I’ll try to convince myself that I can just be.

This article originally featured in the 374 October 2022 issue of GCN.

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 374 (October 21, 2022). Click here to read it now.

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Change Maker

Issue 374 October 21, 2022

Change-maker Michael Barron on the cover of GCN Magazine Issue 374
October 21, 2022

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 374 (October 21, 2022).

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