Beyond Sexual Orientation: Integrating Gender/Sex and Diverse Sexualities via Sexual Configurations Theory

Abstract

Sexual orientation typically describes people’s sexual attractions or desires based on their sex relative to that of a target. Despite its utility, it has been critiqued in part because it fails to account for non-biological gender-related factors, partnered sexualities unrelated to gender or sex, or potential divergences between love and lust. In this article, I propose Sexual Configurations Theory (SCT) as a testable, empirically grounded framework for understanding diverse partnered sexualities, separate from solitary sexualities. I focus on and provide models of two parameters of partnered sexuality—gender/sex and partner number. SCT also delineates individual gender/sex. I discuss a sexual diversity lens as a way to study the particularities and generalities of diverse sexualities without privileging either. I also discuss how sexual identities, orientations, and statuses that are typically seen as misaligned or aligned are more meaningfully conceptualized as branched or co-incident. I map out some existing identities using SCT and detail its applied implications for health and counseling work. I highlight its importance for sexuality in terms of measurement and social neuroendocrinology, and the ways it may be useful for self-knowledge and feminist and queer empowerment and alliance building. I also make a case that SCT changes existing understandings and conceptualizations of sexuality in constructive and generative ways informed by both biology and culture, and that it is a potential starting point for sexual diversity studies and research.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Lived experience refers to stories and accounts of what it means to live as a specific person within a specific set of social contexts. Lived experience also conveys the notion that group members have valuable knowledge about their group and social location, and that this insider knowledge is an important resource for scholars and others (van Manen, 2004). Social location refers to the place a specific person occupies along multiple axes of identity, reflecting intersectional thinking (Anderson, 2012; Crenshaw, 1991).

  2. 2.

    Scholars have argued the same for sex as characterizing individuals, i.e., that it is not a priori the one overarching defining difference feature of humans (Butler, 1990; Crenshaw, 1991; Markowitz, 2001; Spelman, 1988).

  3. 3.

    I explain my reasoning for employing the term “sexual orientation,” despite its limitations, in the section ““Sexual Orientation” as a Term and Concept: A Claim for Retention/Reclamation”.

  4. 4.

    Freund (1974, p. 68) actually used the term “erotic preference,” which he defined as “…relative sexual arousal value of male and female body shape”.

  5. 5.

    Some scholars use androphilic/gynephilic or gynoerotic/androerotic, which mean love of (or attraction to) men and women, respectively (e.g., Freund, 1974; Storms, 1980; Vasey & VanderLaan, 2012). These terms are useful for describing people’s sexual interests regardless of their own gender/sex, but still rely on targets having a discrete binaristic gender/sex and thus do not fit the purposes of this article.

  6. 6.

    With the exception of some who are minoritized on the basis of gender/sex and/or sexuality or those who are specifically interested in engaging with these constructs (e.g., some feminists and gender/sex/sexuality scholars).

  7. 7.

    Money noted that sexual preference, implying voluntary choice, was a politically dangerous term.

  8. 8.

    That is, evolution is not the only or primary arbiter of meaning even as it is useful and relevant for this discussion.

  9. 9.

    Biological reductionism is the belief that social processes can be best understood by studying underlying biological substrates or systems and the more reducible the biology the more informative (e.g., genetics are uniformly more informative than hormones, hormones are always more informative than cognition, genital responses are universally more informative than self-report). Biological essentialism is the belief that groups are unitary and have an underlying biological essence (e.g., homosexual men are all homosexual in the same way, for the same reason, and thus have the same biology). Biological determinism is the belief that biology causes a specific behavior universally, sometimes with allowances for cultural “nudges” (e.g., sexual outcomes are really caused by biological factors that culture only masks, dampens, or amplifies).

  10. 10.

    What is the line between solitary and dyadic sexuality? There is little empirical research on this point but could be. For example, if one masturbates in the presence of another person with no contact, is that solitary or dyadic? If one is using someone else for sexual gratification and not actually engaging with that person’s subjectivities, is that somewhat solitary? Is phone or internet sex solitary because one is alone or dyadic because another person is involved? If a person masturbates while watching sexual media, is there a dyadic element to that? If the presence of partners impacts sexual arousal while watching visual sexual material (van Lankveld et al., 2014), is that dyadic or solitary? Finally, if someone is aroused by the thought of being arousing to others (e.g., Bogaert & Brotto, 2013) is that solitary or dyadic?

  11. 11.

    There is a medical consensus statement supporting the use of disorders of sex development (Hughes, Houk, Ahmed, & Lee, 2006), but a number of people have argued for other terms, like difference of sex development (Diamond, 2009).

  12. 12.

    Is nongender/sexed another word for androgyny? Androgyny could actually be the opposite; it could be seen as strongly but ambivalently gendered/sexed rather than not at all gendered/sexed (Bem, 1974; Lorber, 1996). Androgyny might be better conceptualized as existing as a specific form of gender/sex challenge (perhaps at its midpoint).

  13. 13.

    I see this warp as a sort of space tunnel where one is instantly positioned at two locations that occupy the same space.

  14. 14.

    An identity organized in part around wanting and/or having multiple sex partners for reasons of sexual pleasure, usually used by women who take this identity as part of a reclamation project (i.e., using it positively in ways that challenge its oppressive uses) (Easton & Liszt, 1997).

  15. 15.

    I am not necessarily satisfied with using a scale that marks the absence/presence of allosexuality, as if 0 % was a lack of something, but I have not figured out another approach. So, in short, absence is not meant to imply lack.

  16. 16.

    I use the term trans to include people who are trans-identified, transgender, transsexual, and/or individuals who have experienced gender/sex transition, as well as any other groups for whom this identity is meaningful. It can be contrasted with “cis,” which is used to mean gender/sex assigned at birth that coincides with felt gender/sex.

  17. 17.

    I have not used the term queer in the actual models from Sexual Configuration Theory even though it obviously echoes much of what I mean to convey with challenge. One reason is that many see queer as representing a specific set of politics that people may not relate to for a variety of reasons (the politics might be seen as White, as Western, as radical, as not radical enough, etc.). In addition, it is often used synonymously with minority sexualities as an identity label and it seems problematic for someone to have to self-locate as queer who does not identify as queer. And, it seems problematic for someone to have to not self-locate as queer who does identify as queer. But the term is still useful as a frequently employed identity category/label (e.g., see Serano, 2013).

  18. 18.

    Bisexuality is often positioned as somehow more problematically reifying gender/sex binaries than other sexualities because it involves attraction to “both” genders/sexes (Rust, 2001). I find this mystifying given that heterosexual, gay, and lesbian identities are also understood to inhere attractions to one and not “the other” gender/sex in a way that could be interpreted as providing the same support for a gender binary. Perhaps this is because some people see bisexuality as attempting to transgress sexuality and gender norms but somehow not going far enough. This is similar to hurtful critiques of some trans individuals who identify as men or women rather than an identity outside gender/sex binaries (i.e., that they should identify as genderqueer, Serano, 2013). However, it is not clear why monosexual or cisgender individuals should get to dictate that trans and bi identities should leave binaries behind when cisgender, heterosexual, and lesbian/gay individuals don’t, or why doing so should be a precondition for progressive politics and/or worldviews that allow for nonbinaristic identities. Accordingly, a more generous (and accurate) positioning is that some people’s orientations inhere some form of a binary in a way that is not indicative of their worldview. See also Serano (2013) for useful extended discussion on these points.

  19. 19.

    It seems worth noting that someone who has strong interests in sexually coercing others or who does sexually coerce others might locate as highly alloerotic because eroticism does not necessarily denote positive, wanted, or consensual phenomena. The same activity may be erotic for one person and traumatic for another.

  20. 20.

    Individuals strongly interested in consensual sexual dominance and/or who do engage in it might also be represented here. Given that detailed consent is a major feature of dominance/submission kink-related sexualities, I do not at all mean to conflate these with sexual coercion (hence separate footnotes).

  21. 21.

    Not to minimize interest in penises.

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Acknowledgments

The author is also affiliated with the Program in Neuroscience, the Reproductive Sciences Program, the Science, Technology, and Society Program, and the Biosocial Methods Collaborative at the University of Michigan. I count myself fortunate to be part of a vibrant community of sexuality scholars and thinkers. This article grew in part out of the 2012 International Academy of Sex Research conference in Estoril, Portugal, with the juxtaposition of two panels that brought ideas from very different scholarships into the same thought-space for me: the asexuality panel (with Lori Brotto, Paul Enzlin, Nicole Prause, and Ela Przybylo) and the polyamory panel (with Daniel Cardoso, Alex Iantaffi, and myself). I am thankful to Marc Breedlove for inviting me to speak in the 2012 “Whom You Love” series at Michigan State University where I discussed some very early ideas that grew, in part, into this article. I am deeply grateful to Lisa Diamond, who enthusiastically supported this work and provided valuable feedback on many drafts. I am truly indebted to Janine Farrell and Meredith Chivers for extended discussion, comments on drafts, and transformative insights. I am very thankful to Daniel Cardoso, Terri Conley, Devon Grayson, and Eli Sheff for their deep engagement with early drafts, as well as Zena Sharman who also spent considerable time discussing several points with me. A number of students in my lab, from 2012 to 2014, were generous with their time and thoughts in discussion and commenting on early drafts, including most prominently Katherine Goldey and Gayatri Jainagaraj. My partner, Greg van Anders, was critical to this article in several ways: sharing more heavily in co-parenting at times so I could finish yet another draft, reading early drafts and discussing ideas throughout, teaching me a new graphics program and being on-call for advice, listening to me map out ideas and asking crucial questions, and encouraging me and this article at every chance. I am also thankful to Meg John Barker, Aaron Devor, Sara McClelland, and Abigail Stewart for reading early drafts, and to Stephanie Preston and Stacey Ritz for helpful discussion. Christopher Burke of http://www.burkevisuals.com asked key questions that helped me think through visualizations for some figures in new ways and provided an early concept diagram that was critical and foundational to the final versions I developed of these figures. And, I am grateful to the Editor and anonymous reviewers for their very detailed, generous, thoughtful, and transformative feedback.

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van Anders, S.M. Beyond Sexual Orientation: Integrating Gender/Sex and Diverse Sexualities via Sexual Configurations Theory. Arch Sex Behav 44, 1177–1213 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0490-8

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Keywords

  • Sexuality
  • Intimacy
  • Gender/sex
  • Polyamory
  • Asexuality
  • Sexual orientation