Sexual Identity and Sexuality, How Do They Fit Together?

Sexual Identity and Sexuality, How Do They Fit Together?

Confused about what sexual identity means? Curious to learn if there's something that resonates with you and your sexuality? Read our article to learn all about gender, sexual and romantic orientation.

By: Alex Shea

The world as we know it is shaping itself into a ball of sexual inclusivity. Bathrooms are unisex. Terminology is budding in new, exciting ways. So much is happening in sexual health and wellness, it’s tricky to keep up. Sometimes memorizing these terms is confusing and discouraging. 

In honor of this year's National Coming Out Day, we want to talk about how sexual identity fits into the grand scheme of your sexuality. Your sexuality involves more than the gender you identify with and who you’re sexually attracted to.  

The three components of sexual identity

Think of your sexual identity as the pieces of the sexual and sensual being puzzle that make you who you are. The three elements of sexual identity: gender identity, sexual orientation, and romantic orientation exist independently but are ultimately “part of sexual identity as a larger construct.” 2

Gender identity

Gender identity is the gender you internally identify with, regardless of the sex you're assigned at birth. Male, female, a blend of both, or neither— gender identity is up to the person on an individual level. 3

Gender is a spectrum, and on that spectrum includes:

  • Cis-gendered (your birth sex matches your gender identity)
  • Transgender (your birth sex doesn’t match your gender identity)
  • Agender (you don’t identify with a gender at all)
  • Nonbinary (you don’t identify with any gender exclusively)

*Agender and nonbinary go together like a Russian doll, where identifying as agender fits snuggly into the nonbinary identification. By not identifying as any gender, you are rejecting the notion of binary genders of male and female. This doesn’t mean that every person who identifies as nonbinary is also agender. 4

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is who we are sexually, physically, and emotionally attracted to. A lot of confusion surrounds what sexual identity is and if it’s the same thing as sexual orientation. Imagine sexual orientation as the tree in the forest of sexual identity. 5

Sexual orientation can include:

  • Heterosexual (sexual attraction to a different gender)
  • Homosexual (sexual attraction to the same gender)
  • Bisexual (sexual attraction to both male and female gender identities) 
  • Pansexual (sexual attraction across gender identities)

*Pansexuality and bisexuality are often mixed up because there’s a lot of overlap. Think of it this way— pansexuality focuses more on your attraction to a person than their gender identity or biological sex, whereas bisexuality may have limitations on the gender and sexes they’re attracted to.

  • Queer/Questioning (unsure about sexual orientation)
  • Asexual (absence of sexual attraction)
  • Demisexual (sexual attraction after romantic attraction)

Romantic orientation

Romantic orientation is who we are emotionally and romantically attracted to but not sexually attracted to. It’s about who we feel we could have a relationship with. Your sexual orientation and your romantic orientation can either align or divide. 6

Romantic orientation can include:

  • Heteromantic (romantic attraction to a different gender)
  • Homoromantic (romantic attraction to the same gender)
  • Aromantic (no romantic attraction to any gender)
  • Biromantic (romantic attraction to male and female gender identities)
  • Panromantic (romantic attraction across gender identities)
  • Polyromantic (romantic attraction to multiple people but not multiple genders)

Asking someone how they identify is important because, with so many moving parts in sexual identity, “orientation and attraction do not necessarily define or predict behavior.” Try not to assume anyone's sexual identity based on how they dress or act in public. You won’t know for sure until you ask.

Sexual identity and the circles of sexuality

Five components of sexuality include sexual identity, sensuality, intimacy, sexualizations, and sexual health— according to the circles of sexuality model created by Dennis Daily in the 1980s. 

Each circle influences your sexuality in a different way. Sexuality is as fluid as it is complex. This model creates a foundation for us to build on as a society. 8

  • Sexual Identity— Sexual identity is how you see yourself and who you’re attracted to in every way, shape, and form. It’s how we see ourselves as a sexual being.

  • Sensuality— Sensuality is your awareness, acceptance, and appreciation of your body and pleasure as well as the body and pleasure of others.

  • Intimacy— Intimacy is your need for and expression of closeness to another person.

  • Sexualization— Sexualization is how you use your sexuality when you interact with others. 

  • Sexual health— Sexual health is your attitude and behavior towards sexual health and wellbeing. It’s how we perceive sex and its consequences.

  • Finding ways to express our sexuality is still tough despite the progress we've made as a society. The key is understanding how each of these elements flows into the greater essence of our sexuality. Familiarizing ourselves with our individual essence can help us find comfort in our skin and learn how to express who we are.

    To help you on your journey of expression, here are a few tips: 

    • Do things that make you feel good. Whether that be strolling in a field of flowers, taking a warm bath with the lights down low, or listening to erotic audio as you unwind at the end of the day. Doing things that make you feel good engages your sensuality.
    • Keep track of what you like. The only way to know what you like is to experiment, which can be a whole lot of fun with or without an intimate partner. It’s easier to communicate what you want when you’ve been there, done that, and enjoy it.
    • Encourage sex-positivity. It's easier to overcome societal pressure when we know anyone is capable of anything. Phrases that include everyone and refrain from yucking anyone’s yum make sex easier for everyone to talk about. 
    • Let go of attachments to your sexual identity. Remember that sexuality is fluid, meaning it will change with your life experiences. What you might have been really into in your 20s might not be interesting in your 30s. You might love BDSM with one partner but prefer "vanilla sex" with another. Releasing attachment to any strict labels of sexual identity allows for more self-acceptance and a lot more fun!

     Your sexuality isn’t something that you fall into, it’s something you grow with. Sexuality and thus sexual identity is fluid and can change throughout your lifetime. 

    When asked what sexuality means to them, a few of our friends shared their insights with us:

    Gabriel, a cis-panromantic influencer in his mid-20s — “Sexuality is a mix of passion and love that you have for another human.”

    Clarissa, a cis-female nyc millenial —  “Sexuality is what attracts you to make you feel liberated and pleased.”

    Emily, a non-monogamous cis-female in her mid-30s — “Sexual identity is an expresion of the connection I have with my soul. Fluid and ever-evolving in the context of my environment and choices.”

    Erik, a cis-gay creator in his mid-20s — “Sexuality is rooted in the feeling of attraction to a certain someone or something.”

    If you’re interested in sharing facets of your journey with sexuality, we invite you to share your stories with us. We love hearing from you and growing with you.

    Sources:

    1. https://www.shadygrove.umd.edu/sites/default/files/u436/Sexual%20Identity%20as%20a%20Universal%20Process.pdf
    2. https://www.utdallas.edu/counseling/sexualidentity/
    3. https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity-terminology-and-definitions
    4. https://www.asexuality.org/en/topic/175305-is-there-a-difference-between-agender-and-non-binary/
    5. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/sexual-orientation/sexual-orientation
    6. https://www.usd.edu/diversity-and-inclusiveness/office-for-diversity/safe-zone-training/sexual-orientation-versus-romantic-orientation#:~:text=While%20sexual%20orientation%20is%20the,of%20particular%20genders%20or%20sexes.
    7. https://lgbtq.unc.edu/resources/exploring-identities/asexuality-attraction-and-romantic-orientation
    8. https://www.ncmedicaljournal.com/content/ncm/77/6/430.full.pdf