Christians in the United States continue to write and speak about sexual orientation and same-sex relationships as if condoning or condemning same-sex relationships were the keys to Christian identity.
The terms referring to human sexuality can interfere with communication when people use the terms inconsistently or imprecisely. In addition, new research changes our understanding of human sexuality such that older terms may carry meanings that are no longer substantiated by evidence.
I take a look at some terms and cite a study to illustrate the complexity of sexuality. Given the confusion and misinformation, I hope to return to the topic in other posts.
In the context of identity, sex refers to a person’s biological status as male, female, or intersex. Intersex is a biological state that includes an infrequent set of features linked to being male or female. The common indicators of biological sex include external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, sex chromosomes, and gonads.
People commonly use the words sex and gender interchangeably. Scientists use gender to refer to a culturally defined set of attitudes, feelings, and behavior linked to biological sex. Thus there are expectations about what it means to be a girl or boy, woman or man. Clearly, in some cases, it will be important to clarify if a person is referring to sex or gender.
Gender Identity is the personal sense of being male, female, or transgender. A person’s gender identity may or may not match their biological sex.
A consensus has developed that the construct, sexual orientation, is multidimensional. Scientists argue about the dimensions that compose the construct.
Three dimensions were proposed by Laumann, Gagnon, Michael and Michaels (1994). Each of the three can be viewed in terms of a range of values rather than in terms of categories. The three dimensions are Sexual Identity, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Behavior.
Some people speak about sexual orientation as if there are firm categories. Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, and Gebhard (1953) referred to four types of sexual orientation. These terms are in common use (homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, and asexual), although our understanding of sexuality has advanced in the last few decades.
Sexual orientation varies overtime
As youth gain an understanding of their sexuality, they respond to questions suggesting that some of them change their appraisal of their sexuality. Recent findings from a longitudinal study by Rosaro, Schrimshaw, Hunter, and Braun (2006) are helpful.
90% of students identifying as gay or lesbian continued to report that identity
The identification rate was lower for bisexual identity- 60 to 70% continued with that identity.
Research problems that affect our understanding of sexuality
The way questions are phrased can make a difference in how youth respond.
Youth respond based on their personal experience and understanding, which can vary.
Some youth are unable or unwilling to respond for different reasons including a lack of being sure about their identity.
Some researchers include only limited aspects of sexuality e.g., identity as gay or lesbian, which may not yield accurate data when other relevant aspects of sexuality such as attraction and sexual activity or behavior are ignored.
A Survey of Three Dimensions
2013 by Gisela Priebe and Carl Goran Svedin.
I included this survey because the researchers looked at three dimensions of sexual identity in a large sample of 3,432 Swedish High School seniors. The measurements help identify current thinking about sexual orientation and related concepts.
1. Sexual identity. The available choices included heterosexual, homosexual (lesbian, gay) bisexual, unsure and None of these
2. Sexual attraction was assessed in two ways. Emotional Attraction was assessed by asking students to use a 5-point scale rating their attraction to other and same sex persons from No attraction = 1 to Strong attraction = 5.
The other aspect of sexual attraction was Romantic Attraction. This was phrased by asking if the students had ever been in love with a man/boy or woman/girl.
3. Sexual behavior. The researchers asked 6 questions to identify actual behavior of the students. They were asked about oral and anal sex and vaginal intercourse. As you can see, the researchers were able to classify type of sexual experience and relate that to other aspects of sexuality.
Selected Survey Results
Most students responded to the items.
The results are complex because many options were available to understand human sexuality. Overall, 24 categories could be formed.
Those who identified as biologically male or female were different in their responses. As in previous studies, female sexuality was more complex. They varied more on the three dimensions than did male students.
The researchers note that a number of the students had not yet been in love (8%) or had sex (26%). This can influence how students answer questions about sexuality.
Heterosexual identity was most closely linked to romantic attraction and sexual behavior.
Homosexual or bisexual identity was most closely linked to emotional attraction.
An unsure identity was linked to different types of emotional attraction. Most of those reporting “unsure” reported bisexual emotional attraction.
Those reporting an asexual identity were 1.4 % of the sample. As the authors note, the number may not be stable given the life experience of the youth.
See the article if you are interested in more details (reference below).
Thinking about Sexual Orientation, Sexual Identity and Sexual Attraction
People who work with youth will do well to better understand the complexity of human sexuality—especially developmental aspects of sexuality.
How people ask questions about sexuality can make a difference in the answers given. Consider consulting with an expert if you are using or developing questionnaires.
Youth may answer the same question in different ways over time because experience and understanding can make a difference. Different answers may reflect confusion or an actual change.
There are variations in sexuality among those we perceive to be in the majority— that is, those with a heterosexual identity.
Sexual minorities are a diverse group of persons. Relying on stereotypes will interfere with understanding a person’s sexual identity.
People refer to sexual orientation, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior in different ways. It’s important to clarify what people mean.
As the study authors note, they did not ask about kissing and sexual touch as a part of sexual behavior. However, these sexual activities are a part of sexual identity formation.
Sexual abuse is common and it is also linked to sexual identity formation. But sexual abuse cannot be identified as a cause in a strict cause-effect relationship.
The way in which people express their sexuality and gender identity depends on a complex interplay between genetic factors, biological status, and life experiences. Research does not offer sufficient evidence to explain the variations in human sexuality. The extant evidence does not support an exclusive role for biology or environmental factors, or personal choice when it comes to variations in human sexuality.
To read more about sexuality and morality in Christian cultures, see A House Divided.
For a related but different focus on morality and Christian cultures see
A House Divided.
A House Divided.
Also, A House Divided Website
For additional free book reviews and articles
Priebe, G., & Svedin, C. (2013). Operationalization of Three Dimensions of Sexual Orientation in a National Survey of Late Adolescents. Journal of Sex Research, 50(8), 727-738. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.713147
Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E. W., Hunter, J., & Braun, L. (2006). Sexual identity development among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths: Consistency and change over time. Journal of Sex Research, 43(1), 46-58. doi:10.1080/00224490609552298