MEG-JOHN BARKER - Author of "Life Isn't Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between"
Thanks to Paisley Gilmour for including me in this nice netdoctor overview about figuring out your sexuality: Am I gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual or LGBTQ+? This came at a great time for me as Alex Iantaffi and I were just working up a proposal for a new book on How to Understand Your Sexuality, to follow up our book How to Understand Your Gender. Hopefully we’ll get that written next year. In the meantime, here are my thoughts in response to Paisley’s questions.
Is it common for people to question their sexuality?
It’s actually really common. Although many people assume that we’re born with a fixed sexual orientation, actually recent research has found that most people’s sexuality is fluid, meaning that it changes over the course of their lives. For example, we might have been attracted to one gender for our whole lives but experience an attraction to somebody of another gender. This might start us questioning how we identify our sexuality going forward.
It’s also important to remember that sexuality isn’t just about what gender or genders we’re attracted to. It’s also about the amount of sexual attraction we experience (from none to high), the kinds of sex we enjoy, the types of people we find attractive, the roles we like to take sexually (more active or passive, submissive or dominant), and many other things. All of these aspects of our sexuality can change over time meaning that we might start to question what our sexuality is, or how we identify it.
Can this happen at any time in your life?
Absolutely. Most people experience some changes in their sexuality over the course of their lives, for example in the age of the people they’re attracted to, the amount of sex they want to have, or the types of things that turn them on. Our sexuality can be impacted by our physical and mental health, the amount of energy we have, the people we hang out with, who we’re in relationships with, and the messages about sex that are around us in our communities and cultures. All of those things change over time as well.
Why might someone question their sexuality?
Some common reasons for questioning our sexuality include:
Finding that we’re attracted to someone who is quite different to our usual attractions (e.g. a different gender, physical appearance, or background)
A friend, colleague or family member coming out as a different sexuality which can make us realise that it might apply to us too
Learning about a sexuality we were previously unfamiliar with in the media or from a friend. This can give us a sudden sense of realisation: ‘oh maybe I could be that,’ ‘that label might apply to me.’
Watching porn, reading erotica, or having a fantasy and realising we’re turned on by something that we didn’t used to be turned on by, or which we just hadn’t thought about before.
What should you do if you think you might be gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer etc?
First of all it’s really important to remember that whatever your sexuality is – and however you decide to label it – is absolutely fine. Sadly we live in a culture which gives us the idea that it’s more ‘normal’ or ‘better’ to be straight than it is to be gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, etc. Actually, recent research suggests that at least as many young people are on the spectrum from ‘exclusively heterosexual’ to ‘exclusively homosexual’ than are at the ‘exclusive heterosexual’ end of that spectrum. Also more people have some kind of kinky sexual desires than don’t. And many people are on the asexual spectrum. Even if your sexuality is very rare or unusual, it’s still completely legitimate, so long as you only act on it consensually (that’s also true for common sexualities too of course!)
If you think you might be a different sexuality than the one you thought you were then it’s a great idea to do some self-exploration. Give yourself time to reflect on your sexuality and how you might like to label it, if at all. Journalling, engaging with ethical porn (and paying for it!), reading erotica, and fantasising are all great ways to do self-exploration.
It can also be really helpful to get support from other people who are in these sexual communities. There are online groups, meet-up groups, and community resources for all of these sexualities, as well as books and videos online. Check this stuff out but do remember that nobody should be pressurising you to label yourself in any way, or to come out unless that feels good to you. Go gently and take your time.
Is there a way to know?
Sexuality is a complex, constantly changing and evolving, thing so there’s no way to be sure whether you are ‘really’ straight, gay, bi, pansexual, asexual, demisexual, submissive, etc. It’s much more about whether those words – or others – feel like a good fit for you. It’s fine to just call yourself ‘questioning’ for as long as that feels right, or simply not to label yourself. It’s also fine to use one label for a while, and then change it if it stops feeling like such a good fit.
The main thing to remember is that it is perfectly legitimate to have whatever attractions and desires you have sexually, so long as you only act upon them consensually. If that feels like a struggle for you – or if these questions are causing you distress – then it’s worth getting some professional help from a therapist or counsellor. The Pink Therapy list in the UK is a good one for therapists who specialise in this area. The Kink Aware Professionals and Poly Friendly Professionals lists online are also useful international resources.
What would you recommend for people who think they might be but aren’t sure – any resources, books, practical tips?
I’m writing a book called How To Understand Your Sexuality next year which will hopefully be helpful! Meanwhile BishUK and Scarleteen are excellent resources for younger people questioning their sexuality, and contain useful material for people of all ages too.
You might also find these zines helpful to work through:
Mapping Your Sexuality
Make Your Own Sex Manual