Sexual identity

Sexual identity is a term that, like sex, has two distinctively different meanings. One describes an identity roughly based on sexual orientation, the other an identity based on sexual characteristics, a concept related to, but different from, gender identity.

Sexual Identity related to sexual orientation

In this usage, sexual identity describes how persons identify their own sexuality. This may or may not relate to their actual sexual orientation. In a 1990 study by the Social Organization of Sexuality, only 16% of women and 36% of men who reported some level of same-sex attraction had a homosexual or bisexual identity.

Sexual identity is more closely related to sexual behavior than sexual orientation is. The same survey found that 96% of women and 87% of men with a homosexual or bisexual identity had participated in gay sex, as opposed to 32% of women and 43% of men who had same-sex attractions. Upon reviewing the results, the organization commented "Development of self-identification as homosexual or gay is a pyschological and socially complex state, something which, in this society, is achieved only over time, often with considerable personal struggle and self-doubt, not to mention social discomfort."

Here are some examples of people with a different sexual orientation than sexual identity:

Sexual identity, therefore, is not simply synonymous with sexual orientation or sexual preferences, but describes how social or political influences make people identify (or not) with those. In addition, sexual identity is different from gender identity.

Identity based on sexual characteristics

The term sexual identity is used by psychologists and some recent writers in the general area of sexology to describe the sex with which a person identifies, or is identified.

Scientists such as John Money, Milton Diamond, and Anne Fausto-Sterling have sought to discover and describe the biological processes involved in the formation of sexual identities. A large array of factors have been hypothesized as being determinative, but there is as yet no settled view on these matters.

Formation of sexual identity

One's sexual identity is not likely to be the result of any single factor, although some scientists and many laymen seek "causes" of sexual identity.

It is possible that some factors relevant to the gradual determination of a sexual identity have yet to be identified. The weights of the various factors that are now known or suspected have also not been clearly determined. That being said, there are several different groups of factors that need to be understood:

Genetic factors: Chromosomes play an important part in determining the sexual identity of a child. Normally for humans, the configurations are XX and XY for female and male respectively, but this is not always the case. There can also be chromosomal abnormalities which may result in karyotypes such as XXY, XYY, etc. as well. Some chromosomal abnormalities may have no outward manifestations at birth, but may have internal repercussions; however, some chromosomal abnormalities may affect the genitalia and result in conditions known as intersex.

Some people believe that there is a "gay gene." Although evidence suggests that biological factors contribute to homosexuality, that view may be too simplistic. On the other hand, the genotype of an individual may make his or her sensitivities to various sex hormones different from the sensitivities of other people. One's genetic constitution largely determines how one will react to environmental factors, especially in the womb.

Pre-natal factors: The fetus is nurtured within the mother's womb, and the condition of the mother has significant influence on the health and development of that fetus. If, for instance, a tumor in the mother's body leads to an abnormally high level of testosterone in her blood stream, the testosterone level in the fetus can be raised and that change can significantly influence its development. For instance, an XX fetus can develop into a baby with a strong resemblance to a normally developed XY boy.

Post-natal factors: Some groups maintain that the socialization of an infant begins almost at birth, and that sexual identity problems may trace back to difficulties in ascertaining whether an intersex infant is a male, a female, or actually has both male and female genitalia, and, probably more importantly, whether that infant's brain has developed as would a male's or a female's. It appears that, in general, the later on in life the sex of an infant is reassigned from male to female or vice-versa, the greater the confusion and turmoil that child will suffer. Much criticism has been raised against surgical reassignment until the individual is able to make an autonomous decision because the gender identity of the individual is generally more important to the individual than the technicalities of chromosomal sex, and even genitalia. This is important in considering the case involving John Money's theory about the gender socialization of children, in which he argued that there was a specific timeframe in a child's development where a boy could be brought up as a girl, and vice versa. This theory was applied to a boy named Bruce, known to the public as David Reimer: his penis was severely damaged due to a botched circumcision, and the decision was made for Bruce to undergo sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) and be brought up as a girl, "Brenda". However, the end result was far from successful -- Brenda never acted like a girl, eventually underwent SRS again to return to a male physiology, and ultimately committed suicide. Money began to downplay the success of Bruce's case, and argued that this failure was due to the change being done too late, past the aforementioned timeframe (See the Colapinto item in the Bibliography for further details). Money's theories in regard to gender identity plasticity are no longer regarded as favorably due to this concrete experience.

When considering the cases of transgender and transsexual individuals and their sexual identity, many specialists now agree that the greatest importance ought to be placed upon coming to terms with one's internal gender identity. Many non-operative transgender and transsexual people live happily as members of their chosen gender, and yet do not obtain SRS for a multitude of reasons. The causes of transgender and transsexuality are not well known, but preliminary evidence suggests biological causes.

The understanding that a person has of his or her own sexual identity is perhaps never complete because that person may continue to grow and change psychologically -- and learning involves physical changes in the brain. On the other hand, as learning and experience increase, more of the original picture is filled out to show what that person is and can become. If a young person's education has gone against the grain somehow, it may happen that a conflict breaks through to the surface and realignment follows, or that a person discovers things about himself or herself that may have previously been hidden.

Criticism of "sexual identity" as based on sexual characteristics

It is unclear how this concept is different from gender identity, or how it relates to it. The usage of gender instead of sex when speaking about social or psychological characteristics dates back to 1955 when John Money first used the term gender role:

"The term gender role is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but is not restricted to, sexuality in the sense of eroticism." (Hermaphroditism, gender and precocity in hyperadrenocorticism: Psychologic findings (Money, 1955))
From there, gender identity was coined analogously. Gender identity is usually seen as independent from sexual characteristics; while it matches them in most cases, it does not do so in both many intersexual and all transgender people. However, when it does not match, there usually is no "sexual identity" different from "gender identity"; the whole point of the concept of gender identity as independent from sexual characteristics being that the former is not (necessarily) related to the latter.


See also

Index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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