What defines your sexual orientation? For years of my life, this was a simple question. Sexual orientation is who you’re attracted to. “Do you like boys or do you like girls?” However, when I reached adulthood, I found that this question became vastly more complicated. I learned that gender was not a binary, and that there were options beyond “gay or straight.” By the time I started formally studying gender and sexuality, the idea of “sexual orientation” became less and less like a demographic multiple-choice question and more like a huge, unanswered dissertation.
I denied my queerness for years. Not out of shame, but simply because I knew I wasn’t a lesbian and I knew I wasn’t bisexual. I found myself out of options and unconcerned with finding a suitable alternative at the time. When I entered college, I found a group of LGBT students who showed me the options beyond my high school vocabulary. I met trans people, queer people, pansexual people, asexuals, graysexuals, and demisexuals. I accepted these terms and officially came out to the world as queer in 2009. Shortly after, I exchanged this primary identity for the word pansexual, which I identify as today.
For years to come, I tacked on new words to describe my evolving sexuality as I saw fit. I was pansexual, but also panromantic. I learned about BDSM and I became a kinkster. A bottom. A slave? No, definitely not a slave. A submissive. Who was…also a masochist. A sadomasochist. Who happened to be dating a married man with kids and a long-distance girlfriend. But not polyamorous. Open relationships are fine, I guess. Okay…maybe I am polyamorous. It is all subject to change.
These labels aren’t necessary things I share with everyone who comes into my life, but they are equally important in truly explaining my sexual orientation as a whole to potential partners. Saying I’m pansexual isn’t enough to explain all the things I look for in a sexual relationship. Gender doesn’t matter to me, but lots of other things do. There are several factors that go into defining one’s sexual identity and these factors may have different weights depending on the person.
Sexual vs. Romantic Orientation
First things first: the who. Who are you attracted to? People of the same gender? People of another gender? Multiple genders? Are you sexually attracted to anyone at all? These are the questions people usually tackle first when trying to define their sexuality. Most of us start piecing it together during or right after puberty, but it may continue to change well into adulthood for some people.
The “who” may also change depending on what kind of attraction we’re talking about. Someone may be sexually attracted to men and women, but only romantically attracted to women. Some people (asexuals) aren’t necessarily sexually attracted to anyone, but may have romantic attractions. Others (aromantics) may be sexually attracted to people, but don’t have romantic attractions to anyone. Asexual and aromantic people are valid and can still maintain meaningful relationships with others based on their personal needs and desires. As in any relationship, communication is key in making sure everyone’s needs are being met.
To further explore the concept of sexual versus romantic attractions, consider graysexuality and demisexuality. Graysexuality is defined as fitting somewhere on the spectrum between asexuality and sexuality–someone who feels sexual attraction some of the time, though it may be rarely felt. On the other hand, demisexuality brings social and emotional aspects into consideration for sexual attraction. A demisexual might not be sexually attracted to someone until they establish an important relationship or special bond with that person first. This supports the idea that sexual orientation definitely goes beyond a simple binary question.
For most people, sexual and romantic attractions are parallel. However, for some people, they aren’t always that simple. When defining one’s sexual identity, most people assume that romantic attractions are the same as sexual ones, but in order to get a clearer understanding of someone’s sexuality, both types of attraction should be established. Even this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to defining one’s complete sexual orientation.
Unless you are involved in the BDSM community, you may not even consider kink a part of your sexual identity. However, for many people who practice kink, it is as important as their sexual orientation label. That being said, it is not an identity for everyone. While some people consider BDSM to be part of their lifestyle, others practice it casually, for the sake of a partner, or only during a special occasion. There is a significant difference between someone who doesn’t consider themselves in the kink community, who only dabbles with fuzzy handcuffs on Valentine’s Day, and someone who is a lifestyle kinkster in a 24/7 dynamic. Of course, there is a full spectrum of people in between these extremes.
For me, it’s a lifestyle–and it’s no more a choice than my being pansexual is. Sure, I choose to indulge in kink and identify proudly as a submissive, but I would not be fulfilled in a strictly vanilla sexual relationship. If you’ve only ever know vanilla sex and don’t have a kink orientation, that may be difficult to understand, but BDSM very much plays into my sexual identity and I wouldn’t be who I am without it.
I recently ran a poll on Twitter, asking if kink should be considered part of someone’s sexual orientation. I made no comments about my personal viewpoint before prompting this. In one week, I collected just over 200 opinions on this topic and received several messages about this question.
[Image: A Twitter poll by @SubFeminist on Apr 2. “Do you consider kink/BDSM to be part of someone’s sexual orientation (meaning it isn’t something they choose to do so much as is an integral part of them)?” 10% Yes, for everyone, 71% It can be but not for all, 14% No, for everyone, 5% Not sure. 203 votes.]
71% of those who answered agreed with my original view on orientation: that kink can be an integral part of someone’s sexual identity, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone. While kink is a big aspect of my sexual orientation, I believe the concept is broader and more inclusive than that, as well.
While we can consider kink an orientation in itself, that can also be broken down into several identities: Dominants, submissives, switches, masochists, sadists, littles, Caregivers, pets, Owners, Masters, slaves, Predator, prey, fetishists. The list goes on and on. And these identities can affect one’s attraction to someone.
Two people who are sexually attracted to each other both might identify as Dominant. This may cause issues in the relationship if the needs of both parties aren’t being met (either by switching for the sake of each other or by having additional partners, etc.). Even if they’re sexually attracted to each other and romantically attracted to each other, they may not want to commit to a partner who wouldn’t fit their lifestyle in their desired way.
Consider, instead, someone with a specific fetish–a sexual focus that means a lot to them. If they’re sexually and romantically attracted to someone who maybe has a limit within that fetish, it may affect the strength of their attraction to that person. The driving force for fetishists is their ability to indulge in that fetish, and if their partner is unwilling or unable, it can be an important factor to consider for that person.
BDSM and kink are part of my sexual orientation. There is no doubt in my mind that my kink alignment and identities within the BDSM community are important factors in determining my partners because I’ve been in incompatible relationships. It’s unfair for the 14% of Twitter responders to say that no one can use kink as an identifier for sexual orientation, because even if it doesn’t weigh much in their sexual identity, it does for some of us.
Another aspect of sexual identity not often discussed is the relationship structure types. Monogamy is very much the normal in the United States, but in certain communities (including LGBT and BDSM sub-cultures), polyamory is an increasingly popular concept. Polyamory is the practice of being in multiple meaningful relationships, whether they’re sexual, romantic, or both. Someone who is monogamous will be happy with one partner at a time, but people who practice polyamory can be dating multiple people at once.
The same idea as the kink identity applies here: some people may dabble in polyamory or practice it without considering it an important identity for themselves. Maybe you’re in a long-distance relationship, so you want to practice polyamory to have all your needs met, even though you wouldn’t do that in most cases. Maybe your partner is polyamorous so you practice it to fulfill their needs, but don’t have a driving force to look elsewhere in your relationship. That’s fine! You can be in a polyamorous relationship without defining that as an important aspect of your sexuality.
That being said, just like BDSM is important to some people, polyamory isn’t really a choice for others. Some people will never be satisfied in a monogamous relationship and would feel tied down and unhappy without polyamory. Some people could never consider polyamory and need a monogamous partner. Both are valid identities if they’re important to you.
Again, polyamory can even be broken down into specific relationship types. There are hierarchical dynamics, concepts like “relationship anarchy,” triads, quads, friends with benefits, and open relationships (not necessarily identifying as polyamorous). People may have specific relationship-type needs and that’s okay. Preferences differ, and if someone feels more fulfilled in a triad or open relationship and wants to consider that part of their orientation, that’s their right.
The idea of sexual identity or sexual orientation is so broad that it’s unfair to restrict it simply to the question of, “What gender are you sexually attracted to?” Many others things go into defining sexuality for some people and that’s a valid concept for them. How someone chooses to identify their orientation is up to them and them alone. No one else should dictate what is or isn’t important enough to be considered part of your personal orientation.
I would argue with anyone who says that one aspect definitely is or isn’t part of your sexual orientation simply because people aren’t built the same. Not everyone is going to consider the same concept to be as important as another. Sexual orientation and identity are such personal constructs that there is no way one person can define it for another. Your sexual orientation may simply be “straight” or “gay,” but for others there can be a host of labels they use to make sure they find the ideal partner(s). I’m not saying cisgender heterosexual people who are involved in kink or polyamory should be included in LGBT spaces or have access to LGBT resources. However, using multiple terms to define yourself is a valid way to easily express to potential partners what you’re looking for in a relationship. In the end, it really shouldn’t matter to anyone else how you define your own orientation.