De-mystifying terminology around sexuality
By Miranda Christophers
"Sexual Orientation or the more commonly used term ‘sexuality’ describes the sexual, romantic or emotional attraction that we feel towards others."
What do we mean by sexual identitiy?
We are continually developing our understanding of humans in relation to sexuality and gender. As with anything progressive, the terminology and understanding of how we recognise different sexual identities has developed over the years. They are a natural progression in recognition and acceptance that as humans we are not one-dimensional and our sexual identity and preferences vary.
Understanding the meaning of the terms used can help you understand and navigate your own sexual identity and that of others, including family and friends. Here is a breakdown of some commonly used terms. It is important to remember that the following terminology is not rigid and how someone identifies is the sense they make of themselves, and so there may be variances to the terminology explained here. Terminology will continue to evolve as humankind recognises and embraces gender and sexuality differences.
Making sense of terminology
In order to help make sense of the terminology around sexuality, it may be helpful to understand a brief description of some common terminology around gender identity. There are in fact considerably more terms that describe gender identity. Again, it is always best to ask someone how they identify rather than assume.
This describes a person whose gender and identity correspond with their birth sex. Eg. A cis-male would identify as a male and would have been born with a penis.
This is a commonly used term to describe someone who does not identify with having a fixed gender.
Transgender E.g. trans male, trans female
People that are trans do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. They may or may not have had hormonal or surgical interventions however live and identify as the gender they have transitioned to. Someone who was born with a vagina (the gender defined as female at birth) but who now identifies as male would be a trans male as they have transitioned to identify as a male.
These are terms to describe those that don’t identify with one particular gender. How they identify can vary from person to person so it’s always worth finding out how they see their gender. The terms can describe those that feel they are neither male nor female, those that feel they are some degree of both male and female, those that feel they do not have a gender and those that feel their gender differs over time.
Someone who is inter-sex is born with internal and external sex and reproductive organs/genitalia, chromosones and hormone production capability that are not typically consistent with either male or female sexual organs/genitalia. It is not necessarily recognised at birth or during childhood – some people discover they are intersex during puberty or when experiencing fertility issues as an adult.
Terminology relating to sexual identity
This describes someone who does not experience sexual attraction to others. Although someone who is aseuxal will not identify as experiencing sexual attraction, they may experience romantic and emotional attraction to others. Identifying as asexual does not necessarily exclude enjoying self-pleasure as this may be purely sensation focussed – the key to the terminology is the lack of sexual attraction or desire towards others. Someone who is Demisexual will experience sexual attraction when particular circumstances trigger it for them. E.g. when a romantic or emotional relationship has been established.
This term describes a person who does not experience romantic attraction to others. The person may feel a sexual attraction and enjoy sexual experiences however has little or no romantic or emotional attraction.
Someone who is autosexual will be sexually attracted or aroused by themselves. They will enjoy self-pleasure while observing, fantasizing or thinking about themselves. Someone who is autoromantic will identify as being romantically attracted to or loving themselves. Being autosexual or autoromantic does not necessarily mean that the person does not have relationships or sexual intimacy with others.
This term is used to describe a person who is exploring or questioning whether they are bisexual – which is a term commonly used to describe those who are attracted to the same and different genders.
Someone who is bisexual will have sexual, romantic and emotional attraction to the same and different genders. This used to refer to someone who was attracted to both males and females but now there are many more gender identities so it has evolved to mean being attracted to two or more.
This describes someone who has a romantic but not a sexual attraction to more than one gender.
This term may be used to describe a person who only experiences sexual attraction when an emotional or romantic bond has been established.
Fluidity describes movement of someone’s sexuality or preference. This may change for a person based on being in different situations or vary at different stages in their life.
This term describes same/similar-sex attraction. There are other terms, including queer, but this is the most commonly used one to describe male same-sex sexual or romantic attraction. Females of same-sex attraction often identify themselves with the terms gay or lesbian but it’s worth asking someone how they identify and using the wording they use.
Often referred to as ‘straight’, heterosexuality is the sexual, romantic and emotional attraction to someone of a different gender. Both Cisgender and transgender can identify as heterosexual as the key factor is that the other person differs in gender.
This is an outdated term describing same-sex romantic, emotional and sexual attraction (gay).
This word describes female (cis and transgendered) same/similar-sex romantic, emotional and sexual attraction.
An acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans, and queer.
This expanded, more inclusive acronym describes a wider group of sexual and gender identities including lesbian, gay,bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual. The + represents that there are more sexual and gender identities that are included beyond the letters listed.
This term describes someone who is not sexually attracted to one specific gender or sexual orientation. However, it differs from pansexuality in that gender does have a relevance to the attraction.
This describes a sexual, romantic or emotional attraction to people regardless of sex or gender identity.
This is an umbrella term describing attraction to varying genders. It encompasses bisexuality, pansexuality, omnisexuality and queer.
Queer is often used as an umbrella term by someone who is not heterosexual or cisgender (identifying as the gender assigned to them at birth), it is also used as a term by those who reject sexual, gender or other labels. Historically, it was a derogatory term, however, it has now been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community. For some, it is still deemed offensive which reiterates the need to allow someone to define and term their own identity.
This term may be used when someone is questioning or exploring their sexual or gender identity.
Someone who is sex-averse is asexual with a strong dislike or aversion to sex. They may experience a repulsion to it.
This is a term for sexual, romantic and emotional attraction to people who are not cis-gendered. It would include attraction to trans or non-binary genders.
This is a commonly used word to describe someone who identifies as heterosexual – where they experience sexual, emotional and romantic attraction to those of a gender opposite to theirs.
The terms are continuously evolving
As mentioned, there are many more terms and these are evolving continuously. No matter your own sexual (and gender) identity, understanding that of others by continuing to educate ourselves, and talk to people so we understand their perspective and identity is the most progressive approach to inclusivity and acceptance of difference. What matters most is that people are able to be true to themselves and embrace their lives as the person they are.
Miranda Christophers: Sex & Relationship Therapist / Contributing Editor
Miranda is a COSRT Accredited Sex and Relationship Therapist and a regular media contributor who promotes a sex positive attitude with a philosophy that sex is the most natural source of pleasure which should be enjoyed healthily by all no matter gender, age, ethnicity or relationship status. Her views are embedded in social and sexual equality and the liberation of people to have choice.