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Quaint Little Categories

Let’s play a game. I’m gonna erase everyone’s sexual orientation and kink identity for a second. Just for a minute. You’re not straight, you’re not gay, you’re not dominant, you’re not submissive. If you were at a party, you could look around and see lots of other people. You’d be attracted to some of them, probably barely register most, maybe see a few that actively repulse you. Your reaction could be based on physical attraction, demeanor, intellect, humor, political views, anything. Doesn’t matter. The point is, patterns emerge. Maybe all or most of the folks who catch your eye are male-bodied. If you female-identify, you’re likely to phrase this pattern as “I’m straight.” If you male-identify, you’ll say “I’m gay.”

Socially, it’s acceptable to rebuff advances by saying “sorry, I’m straight” or “actually, I’m gay.” And I agree with this. No one is obligated to be attracted to anyone else. Being able to say “no” is incredibly important.


What if we imagine the same scenario again, only this time the person who’s attracted to you is of your preferred sex and/or gender. You’re still not interested. So you say “I’m flattered, but…” and what comes next? “I only date people of my own race”? “I’m just not attracted to people who are taller than me”? “I really can’t see myself with a disabled person”?

I’m guessing those all sound a little more uncomfortable. Definitely more polite to just say “no, thank you,” right?

I’m not going to start a rant about racism or sexism or perceived norms regarding what makes a person attractive. That’s not the point here. Let’s just go back to the party and take a look at the patterns again. (you can have your sexual identity back now, by the way. I’m done with it.) If you’re straight or gay you’ve already established that all (or almost all) of the people you’re attracted to are of a specific sex. There are probably other patterns, too: gregariousness, hair color, humor, height, weight, fashion, attitude, interests and competencies. If you’re kinky, you may look for specific behaviors that indicate a certain style of dominance or submission. This is not an attack. These patterns are not a bad thing. If anything, being aware of them shows that you know what you like. Go you!

What confuses me is that biological sex is somehow the one unimpeachable determinant of attraction for so many people. Somehow only liking men or only liking women is (1) normative and (2) treated as the sole basis for sexual identity. Imagine any other trait–let’s say hair color. If someone says “I only like redheads” she’s not a gingersexual, she’s a straight or gay or bisexual person with a fetish for redheads. Or we can pick on me for a moment: I hate having partners who are taller than I am. If I have to look up to meet someone’s eyes when we’re both standing together, I’m going to be irrationally annoyed to the point of distraction. Men, women, intersex, cis-, trans-, or genderfluid; doesn’t matter, there are people I’d be attracted to somewhere in all these groups. As long as they’re not too tall*. But if you ask my sexual orientation I’ll still say “bisexual**”

Same deal with D/s. When I say I switch, it’s almost never taken at face value. Sometimes I’m brushed off as a submissive with too much pride, which I at least understand: I am far more comfortable bottoming than topping in public scenes and most of my kinky social circle is male doms. Sometimes it’s statements that I was a “real brat” in an impact scene with zero D/s involved, or Fetmail from a submissive man reassuring me that I don’t have to pretend to be a switch to get male attention: there are men like him who love dominant women (Gee, thanks, stranger on the Internet. I never knew dominant females were in high demand. Guess I can quit this silly charade now).

I’m not trying to say everyone’s bisexual or a switch or that labels aren’t useful or any of that nonsense. Cisgendered heterosexual male dominant is a perfectly valid identity. The point is that when someone identifies that way, challenges to that identity are going to be pretty rare. Gender-not-quite-conforming bisexual female switch is just as valid. It would be nice to not have it challenged quite so often, especially in a theoretically pansexual open-to-all-orientations kink group.


*Even that’s not a total dealbreaker. The Fireman (whom I rarely see these days) is 6’2″. It drives me nuts, but not to the point that he isn’t worth playing with. I always pick really tall shoes when he’s going to be around, though.

**Not wholly accurate. Bisexual implies attraction to two binary sexes/genders, and I’m perfectly happy with anyone anywhere on the spectrum of either sex or gender. But it’s the word I’ve used since age fifteen, so I’m kind of attached.

  1. Ewen McNeill
    October 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    This may well just be verbosely agreeing with you.

    There’s a saying that “a language is a dialect with an army”. Which approximately means that it’s common enough that there are enough people to band together and support (or be!) the army. I suspect something similar has gone on, historically, over various sexual preferences: “a sexual orientation is a fetsish/kink with an army”. If enough people are recognised as sharing that preference, then it’s an orientation — and considered “normal” (at least in the statistical sense of being the mode, but probably also in the sociological sense).

    “Attracted to the ‘opposite’ sex”, for instance, has a lot of historical recognition as a common pattern for a lot of people (possibly not the only thing those people were attracted to, but the thing that was noted). By contrast there’s a fair bit of historical recognition that eg, “attracted to hair colour X” is pretty varied, both for “colour X” (red, blonde, brunette, etc) and for “doesn’t really matter”. So “attracted to the ‘opposite’ sex” gets perceived as “normal” — enough people to have an army — and “attracted to hair colour X” is perceived as a fetish/kink/etc. From outside this looks pretty random. But from inside this historical perspective it’s susceptible to a “just so” story.

    From there it’s a pretty small jump to assuming “oh, almost everyone is attracted to the ‘opposite’ sex, so that’s the most obvious first categorisation”. You can address that cultural assumption somewhat by, eg, demonstrating it’s by no means universal — and I think the last 40 years have gone a fair distance in demonstrating that. But the combination of historical recognition and “number of people for whom it’s true” is likely to mean that it’ll always be seen as a “more obvious first category” than, eg, hair colour.

    FWIW, I suspect something different is going on with “bisexual” and “switch”. Because both of them are used by some people to mean “don’t just pigeonhole me in the category consistent with (your perception of) my gender”, even if they don’t feel equal attraction in both directions. And because the statistical “normal” (ie, mode) is, at least perceived to be, picking one or the other. So (some) people discount the “oh I like both” part into “I’m hearing that you like the one that isn’t received-gender-appropriate for you”. Another side effect of not being a big enough group to have an army!

    In theory that “I’m hearing that you like…” reading ought to go away given more general acceptance of people making other choices and voicing them. So it’s a bit sad to hear it’s still cropping up in pansexual circles, where you’d hope people would expect others to speak their truth.


    • gingernic
      October 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      “a language is a dialect with an army”–good saying. I don’t necessarily disagree with the terms as used–they are very useful for a lot of people. I do wonder whether the way language surrounding sexual orientation (and sex generally) in turn affects behaviors and attitudes. If there’s an expectation that one will begin to notice girls or boys sexually in formative years, we think of sex/gender as the defining characteristic of that attraction, and either conform to or reject that expectation. (As teenagers we lamented not having a boyfriend or a girlfriend, rather than a neutral term e.g. Partner or a term denoting any other characteristic.)

      I tend to attribute at least a small portion of my facility with language to the fact that things like this never worked for my internal monologue. I didn’t want a boyfriend or a girlfriend, I wanted someone to make out on the beach with. The inadequacy of the general term possibly contributed to the rather detailed thinking about the qualities that were desirable in a partner where some of my friends were willing to leave things at single=unfulfilled .•. partnered must be better. Well, that and writing a ton of porn probably didn’t hurt.

      • Ewen McNeill
        October 11, 2013 at 2:45 pm

        I’m sure that the language surrounding sexual orientation affects people’s behaviours and attitudes: the open question is “how much.” As one example from just a couple of generations ago, homosexual made the transition from “kink” (or mental illness, depending on who you asked) to being recognised as a sexual orientation. I think part of the reason for some people’s fear about people talking about homosexuality as legitimate is precisely _because_ they think discussing it that neutral/positive manner will be an influence.

        I suspect the biggest influence is on those who feel a smaller pull in one direction and a larger pull in another direction. If the culture surrounding them is such that only one of those is presented as legitimate, they’ll probably pay much more attention to the “socially acceptable” one, and less (or none) to the other one. Possibly irrespective of whether it’s the “smaller pull” or the “larger pull” direction which is socially acceptable: I think for some they’d follow the path of least resistance in the socially acceptable direction either way.

        In that sort of context possibly only those for whom they feel that the “received narrative” really doesn’t fit will notice that the outside world is “wrong” and look for a different frame. IME often people who’ve been through that internal exploration tend to end up with, eg, more recognition of the range of other people’s choices, neutral terms (“partner”) irrespective of what works for them, etc. In an ideal dream world, it’d be nice if that were the surrounding culture for everyone.


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