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Big questions about gender identity, sexual orientation and sexual fantasy

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Charlene asks:

(Firstly, let me compliment you on your wonderful site: though most people in my life are quite open and accepting, I have NEVER talked to anyone about sex or sexuality--except for the few conversations I've initiated. Information that is accurate, candid, and not colored with shame or guilt is completely refreshing.)

I'm 18, and have never had anything approaching sex--I've never even dated. I am a late-to-mature sort of person anyway, and though I have researched and read up on sexuality (like I do for, er, everything), I'm not overtly sexual or want to be at this point in my life. Plus, from the moment I learned what the word meant, I have identified as a lesbian: so the dating pool ain't big in high school.

Heather Corinna replies:

(Charleten's question continued)

Last summer, I came out as a lesbian to my family and friends, because after about a year and half of questioning and soul-searching and doubting and ALL that fun stuff, I concluded that I was romantically and emotionally (and sexually, though again I just am not particularly sexual yet) attracted to women: I'd never had a crush on a boy; I did indeed have crushes on girls; I was uncomfortable with my gender role; and...well, I dunno, it just FIT. I'd always felt so different, and this seemed right. I took as long as I could to be sure--but once I felt I'd figured it out, I wasn't going to hide it. So I didn't.

There's one anomaly, though: I fantasize very regularly (about every night; fantasizing/masturbation is the only thing that helps my insomnia), and have been since I was about 9-10. These fantasies may or may not include actual sex, and they didn't when I was younger, but they have always included strong BDSM elements--I just consider that a part of my sexuality (one I'm less likely to announce, but *I'm* cool with it, which is the important thing, I figure.) However, lately, perhaps for the past year, these fantasies have exclusively featured gay men, in the vein of "slash" fanfiction and erotica, etc.

I've never been into straight male-female fantasies or erotica--I find it "icky" in the way perhaps some heterosexuals find gay sex unappealing--but I'm quite confused as to why I should find gay male ones interesting. Admittedly, I have read and found and liked a fair bit of erotica intended for a female audience about two males, but I would assume that's directed at straight females. I often find myself identifying with, or taking the role of one of the males; but I've never identified as the opposite sex--I am fairly sure I'm a girl, through and through. And in general, male anatomy or male movie stars do nothing for me. Unless, of course, I can imagine them gay!

Was perhaps my identification as a lesbian too hasty? Should I reconsider whether I'm predominantly bisexual, or even transgendered or genderqueer? I derive a great deal of comfort and confidence from being "sure" about myself and my sexuality, and from categorizing myself a lesbian, but I also don't want to be narrowminded in any direction, if I can avoid it. Again, I've never had a sexual experience: is that the only way to be sure?

Perhaps it's all ridiculous squabbling over semantics, but I'm just unsure. A boy who is a close friend asked me on a date once; I told him I'd gladly go do something with him, because I enjoyed his company, but that I just wasn't into guys, romantically. However, any time I have a crush on a girl, it starts in a similar close friendship (unless, of course, she's amazingly cute in which case the friendship comes afterward); was I closing a door there too rapidly?

I'm just getting ready to start dating in college; the school I'm going to is about 7 males to every 3 females. (Saw this as more of a challenge than a disadvantage, 'specially since my major is about 9-to-1; didn't think about dating, eep!) So...just wondering and wishing I could figure this out.

Thanks for the thanks! I'm glad you've been able to find what you need here.

You've got a lot of questions, but I think they seem to boil down to two central queries. How much stock do we put into our fantasies, or into what kind of erotica appeals to us when it comes to our sexual orientation? How can I be sure of what my orientation is, especially when I don't feel like I entirely fit in one clear box?

Certainly, fantasy is one part of how we can determine sexual orientation, and one part of our sexuality. But only one, and one of many. In addition, where sexual orientation gets more complex than it already is is when we also have to figure our own gender identity into the equation. It'd sure be a lot simpler to figure out of we were heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual if gender were as simple a binary as those terms tend to imply it is, and we just picked our one of two, and then figured out which one of those two -- or both of those two -- we were attracted to.

But just like sexual orientation isn't a simple binary, neither is gender identity. We live in a world which divides gender by male or female (and, sometimes, that also includes consideration for those who are biologically one or the other, but feel more like the opposite sex -- but there's still an "opposite" in that equation, and thus, still a binary). So, with those two divisions, there aren't two sets of simple roles. The woman that I am may well be vastly different than the woman you are, and what 'woman" means to both of us probably varies, too. How we experience what it is to be woman likely differs, and how we identify who or what a woman is probably varies, too. I think "genderqueer" has valid uses, and so by all means does "transgender," but I also think it can give the false impression that if any one of us varies from a very limited set of roles, appearances or behaviours when it comes to gender that somehow our gender isn't "right," or isn't as it should be, when, in fact, gender identity varies very widely: it's people's ideas about gender, and gender constructs under a binary system that are limited.

I think we also need to be very careful when it comes to confusing sexual orientation and our own gender identity, even though they obviously have something to do with each other. In other words, if we're biologically female, and identify as lesbian but then also find men have sexual appeal in some contexts, to consider that might be because we're not really female strikes me as an odd conclusion. What I'd consider first is that very, very few people are 100%, exclusively -- in action and in thought -- homosexual or heterosexual. The vast majority of us, instead, fall somewhere inside the poles of that spectrum.

So, many lesbians either will have partnered with a male at some point, or may find men sexually interesting at one time or another. What defines a lesbian is a woman whose sexual and emotional attraction to women is either exclusive or primary. When we veer closer to bisexual, then we're talking about someone whose emotional and sexual attractions are a little more split down the middle: a person may still have stronger attraction to a given sex or gender, but for the most part, a bisexual is far more fluid in that respect than someone who is heterosexual or homosexual.

Sexuality -- including sexual orientation -- is, to some degree, fluid, and really something it's not so smart to invest energy in thinking we can have some permanent definitive answer to. It's normal and human for many aspects of our sexuality to change some over time, especially since so much of sexuality is interpersonal, and who those other people in it are, what they're like, and what our dynamic with them is like are all serious wild cards. So, how you're most comfortable identifying now is what's important: start there, stay there, and don't worry about what will be best for you way down the road -- you'll find that out over time, at different times, and you can always make any adjustments that you need to.

In terms of the fantasy and erotics, you also have to bear in mind that one of the central issues with fantasy IS that it is fantasy. In other words: that it is not reality. What makes fantasy so fantastic for a lot of people is that we can think about something that we might not do in actuality, or even want to do in actuality, for any number of reasons. We also, when using external things to fuel fantasy, will alter them a good deal by projecting our own thoughts, ideas and feelings unto them. Perhaps you're exploring butch/femme through the gay male fantasy you're having, perhaps you're exploring some gender identity issues, and/or perhaps you're simply enjoying what you're seeing or picturing when it comes to men having sex together. (And understand that sexual orientation is defined by attraction, not aversion: so, if you're thinking lesbians must feel aversion to men as much as attraction to women, that's not sound.) Maybe you are, instead, bisexual, or maybe you're lesbian just as you think now. But all of these things usually just take time to become clear, and take having a lot of other factors to consider in the mix, not just porn or fantasy.

Too, when we're talking about pornography, we have to remember that it's often so unrealistic, and that in many ways, gay male porn is about the only porn out there that is NOT heteronormative. There is some dyke pornography out there, but it's very rare: most "lesbian" porn out in the mainstream isn't lesbian at all: it's made for men to be watching, and usually doesn't involve sex that looks very much like a lot of actual lesbian sex does. (Which is why I've had more than one lesbian woman report preferring gay male porn when they use porn at all: I've discussed myself, way back when in another venue, how it's struck me that in some strange ways, gay male porn often looks more like dyke sex in terms of its vibe than "girl-girl" porn for men does.) Same goes for male-female pornography: it's primarily made for men, and not made to be a realistic representation. So, again, trying to base your reality on mass-produced fantasy is pretty iffy.

Certainly, having actual romantic or sexual relationships does usually help us figure all of this out, but it's not required, either. It can also be tricky: if you have a sexual relationship with one man or woman and it doesn't feel right, that may be because of their gender, but it may just as likely be because you two particular individuals -- gender aside -- were not a good match. However, this, again, is one of those things that we just feel out over time: through those relationships, through our solo sexuality, personal identity and gender identity development, the works.

So, what I'd suggest is a solid reminder to yourself that even if you WANT a definitive answer right now, you likely can't have one, and to some degree, sexuality is always a bit of a question, for everyone. And that's okay: really, it's part of what's so cool about it, and if you think about it, it's sensible. We don't expect to be the exact same person in other respects at 40 that we were at 14, so to expect that with our sexuality wouldn't make a lot of sense. When you start school, you get to date whomever you want to date, and you also get to just spend time around the people you want to and feel things out without dating at all. You also get to start exploring who YOU are in an independent way, and that exploration alone will probably start to answer more of these questions for you -- about both your gender identity and your sexual orientation -- even without dating at all. You express concerns about being closed-minded -- though you don't strike me that way -- and so this is the way I'd encourage you to be open: to be open to finding out who you are, calling yourself whatever you want and need to that feels right for now, but being open to also finding out what the best fit for you will be as you mature and expand your horizons, understanding that any answer that feels right to you -- now and/or later, even if they differ -- IS the right answer.

I hope that helped you out, and hope that you can enter this new phase of your life feeling excited about finding out who you are, in all respects, including your sexuality, rather than worried or anxious. Enjoy yourself!

written 26 Aug 2007 . updated 22 Jan 2014

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