In public, most people present themselves as having a single sexual orientation. Society, families, our closest friends, and partners put a lot of pressure on us to choose one sexual orientation and stick with it. But privately, many of us have questions and some confusion about our own sexual orientation — and not just when we’re younger.
How Is Sexual Orientation Determined?
There are many theories about how sexual orientation is determined. The theory someone offers will say as much about the person giving it as it does about the research or thought that went into developing the theory.
Those who subscribe to the theory of genetic determinism believe we’ll find a single “gay gene” or marker that determines or controls our sexual orientation. Another theory is that no single factor will be found that accounts for our sexual orientation, because no single factor exists. Yet another theory is that the problem is in thinking about sexual orientation as something fixed in the first place.
Some theorize that sexual orientation is a more or less fluid depending on the individual, and that it changes based on a combination of nature, nurture, and personal interactions.
Different groups also debate the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. This is related to the debate about whether or how much sexual orientation is genetic, and like that discussion, this one has no single answer and will likely never end.
How Do You Determine Sexual Orientation?
Research is great, but on an individual level, if you think of sexual orientation as only a matter of genes or only a matter of your upbringing, you’re shutting down a line of questioning that you should be opening up. Both of those options take the agency away from you. Instead, it can be very helpful to ask yourself questions about your sexual feelings and choices. If the goal is to be happy and healthy, and you already understand that people of all sexual orientations can be happy and healthy, then your goal should be to get closer to your own truth, not to figure out which of societies expectations you can most easily meet. All of this is to say that there isn’t one way for you to figure this out for yourself. It’s a process that takes time and guts.
One of the reasons why a lot of people can get confused and lost when trying to “figure out” their orientation is that sexual orientation relies on the idea of a gender binary. In order to find the orientation that is “you” you need to fit comfortably into either male or female gender categories. Not all of us do, and often our problems with orientation are really problems with the way society offers us only two options for gender, when in fact there are far more than two.
Asking the Right Questions
Sometimes confusion about sexual orientation is actually confusion about something else entirely. For example, I get emails from people who have always called themselves heterosexual, who are in happy and loving relationships and enjoy the sex they have, AND who sometimes fantasize about having sex with people of the same gender. Usually they email to ask if this means they are gay.
It’s a legitimate question, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the question that will get at the issues they are describing. Another way to think about this question is to start by, temporarily, distinguishing the terms sexual behavior (the things we do sexually), sexual orientation (who we do them with), and sexual identity (how we feel about ourselves and define ourselves to the world). In our lives, these three things are related, but the relationship isn’t one-way. So what we do never fully defines who we are, and the people we have sex with doesn’t always explain what kinds of sex we like, or how we feel about ourselves. To get back to the email example above, it can be helpful to understand that just because you fantasize about, or even occasionally have, sex with someone of the same gender, it doesn’t mean you “are” a specific sexual orientation or you need to affiliate yourself with a specific sexual identity. Such simple answers might be good for scientists and politicians, but for the rest of us trying to lead our lives, things are almost never that simple.
What Do I Do If I’m Confused About My Orientation?
Because sexuality touches all parts of our lives, this is a very difficult question to answer for someone else. As a sex educator I would encourage you to do a few things:
Start on your own. Don’t think about sexual orientation not as an either/or option, and don’t worry about finding the right label. Instead try to describe yourself to yourself including contradictions (e.g. you like women and you like men; you like one gender mostly but another gender sometimes; when you look around at straight people you think you’re more like them, except sometimes you feel gay). You might find it helpful to write your own sexual history.
Look for some support. Because of social pressures, not everyone in your life is going to be open to hearing your questions. And it can actually be unsafe for you to talk to the wrong person about sexual orientation. If you have someone in your life you are sure would be safe to talk to, see if you can make time with them. Otherwise online forums which allow some anonymity can be a good place to start (be sure to use an anonymous email address and avoid giving identifying information). If you have a sexual health clinic near you they may offer counseling. Finally, a qualified sex therapist can help talk through these issues in a way that wouldn’t guide you to one answer or another, but support you in finding your own truth.
Acknowledge your courage. There is very little support in our society to think for yourself when it comes to sex or sexual orientation. When you ask these questions of yourself, you are also making the statement that you want to be happy and you are worthy of happiness. These are bold statements that are hard to make, and when you can, it would be nice if you can feel good about the fact that you’re taking care of yourself in a way that not everyone does, and against many forces that simply want you to conform to their preferences and prejudices.