Together with the fabulous Sanna Spišák, we coined this short invited contribution for the 20th anniversary issue of Sexualities on a topic close to our hearts. And here’s the manuscript version:
Malleable identities, leaky taxonomies: The matter of sexual flexibility
In a survey conducted by Sanna Spišák on Finnish adolescents’ approaches to and relations with pornography, the 98 research participants were given the task of defining their own sexual identifications rather than ticking an existing box of one’s choice. The open-ended answers resulted in nine different categorizations: heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, asexual, polysexual and non-defined. Despite the care that some respondents took in defining their orientations, they did not necessarily express much affective attachment to the sexual markers used:
I’m straight, or at least I have been so far! (‘Anna’, 15)
I can’t really tell so I keep my options open. I might consider both women and men attractive but I don’t count myself as bisexual. (‘Nora’, 17)
I haven’t actually defined my sexual identity yet, but I guess the most fitting term would be pansexual. (‘Julia’, 13)
I think I’m demisexual. (‘Maria’, 16)
Setting aside the possible interpretation that such a range of definitions owes to the fact that these young people are still in the midst of their identity formation, and hence ‘works in progress’, we would like to take seriously the openness and diversity that they suggest. In what follows, we ask what such a multifaceted range of sexual self-identifications implies about the role and force of sexual norms in the lives of young people, as well as how this flexibility could be accounted for. Rather than presuming for their self-definitions to become at some point fixed along the binary categories of straight versus lesbian/gay/queer, we suggest that the openness evident in the responses disrupts the sense of identity categories that scholars and educators operate with.
Given both its small sample and cultural specificity, the survey affords no generalization. Yet similar findings have recently emerged also elsewhere. In the 2017 nationally representative Finnish school health survey, over 10 per cent of sixth form and vocational school students identified as other than heterosexual (from the available choices of ‘bi,’ ‘gay or lesbian’ and ‘none of the above fits to describe me’). The figures were systematically higher in urban areas and among respondents identifying as female – although closer to 5 per cent identified as non-binary (National Institute for Health and Welfare, 2017). In a 2015 American trend forecast 48 percent of the respondents aged 14 to 20 identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual, compared to the 65 percent in the age group of 21 to 34 (e.g., the ‘Millennials’). Summing up the survey results, journalist Zing Tsjeng (2016) points out that, ‘On a scale of zero to six, where zero signified “completely straight” and six meant “completely homosexual,” more than a third of the young demographic chose a number between one and five’.
Flexibility in perceiving one’s sexual identity and the acts that one may enjoy engaging in has been explored within sex research already for some time. In her extensive analysis of sexual fluidity among women, Lisa M. Diamond (2009) argues that common understandings of sexual identity based on fixity are derived from considerations of male sexuality whereas female sexuality is characterized by fluidity in terms of sexual desires, partners and identifications. It can nevertheless be asked whether the gender binary through which Diamond’s study operates speaks less of what people identifying as men and women do than of how they disclose and describe their sexual acts and attachments. For, as Jane Ward (2015: 7) points out, ‘white straight-identifying men manufacture opportunities for sexual contact with other men in a remarkably wide range of setting’. Such exchanges would be defined as ‘experimentation’, ‘accident’, ‘joke’ and ‘game’, rather than issues of identity (Ward, 2015: 27). Furthermore, as Mark McCormack (2018: 13) points out in his introduction to the recent Sexualities special issue on ‘mostly straights’ and heteroflexibility, ‘heterosexuality is changing, particularly in youth cultures, new ways are needed to understand the diversification of heterosexuality and sexuality more broadly’.
There would be nothing particularly novel to the flexibility of sexual practices or interests as such, yet there seems to be newness to how younger people approach and disclose their non-binary palates outside the framings of either humour or shame (also Ward, 2015: 10–12). What might then be the cause for young people in different Western countries defining their sexual selves in diverse ways, and by emphasizing contingency and openness in how their preferences may evolve or play out in the future? It would hardly be apt to claim that heteronormativity has suddenly lost its firm grip as an organizing principle of intimacies and social arrangements, yet it seems that its coercive appeal as the default choice that young people should accommodate to is not altogether overpowering. In other words, the young people responding to the surveys addressed above did not seem to coherently register heterosexuality – or normative heterosexuality in particular (Rossi, 2011) – as the compulsory framework for their ways of being and engaging with other people.
Possible reasons for this are multiple, and open to speculation. There have clearly been notable transformations in sexual publics, namely in the general increased visibility of all kinds of sexual orientations, attachments and cultures, as well as in the broad availability of media narratives covering them. Queer and trans YouTube vloggers, sexually experimental Instagram celebrities and confessional autobiographers all expand the sexual mediasphere in the images that they show and the stories they tell (Duguay, 2015; Hall, 2016; McAlister, 2017; Raun, 2016). Online pornography, catered in carefully indexed subcategories and with a plethora of tags indicating distinctions between different preferences and styles, would be only one example of the easily available resources, albeit a vast one, for testing out the possible range of sexual tastes and interests.
Feona Attwood (2011: 86–87) identifies the contemporary flexibility and playfulnesss of sexual identities with how sex as such is increasingly framed as a leisure activity and an arena of consumption accommodating ‘hedonistic lads and ladettes, bi-curious girls and just-gay-enough boys, characterised by “heteroflexibility” … and “metrosexuality”, a term coined by Mark Simpson … to describe the emergence of a figure for whom sexual identity is forged, not through sex acts or sexual orientation, but through mediation, consumerism and the development of lifestyle.’ These leisure markets figure sex in terms of taste cultures, which, similarly to taste more generally, develop and vary across people’s lifespans (Attwood, 2007). Figured in terms of constant accumulation of experiences, commodities and pleasures, sexuality, like any other taste or preference, entails the perpetual promise of novel sensations and experiences. One’s horizons of possibility in terms of sexual likes and bents remain perpetually open, as one can always feel like shopping for something different. (Attwood and Smith, 2013: 326.)
An understanding of the sexual self as a work in progress that may be fickle or even unpredictable in its desires implies something of a profound shift in the notion of identity. Rather than figuring sexual identity as a firm sense of who one is that people come to understand and know as they age, the survey responses point to identity categories as working definitions that are descriptive of the present moment, and possibly something of the recent past, yet remain detached from the aim of pinning or closing down the possibilities that tomorrow may bring. Such malleable understanding of the sexual self is at odds with the framing of identity through mutually exclusive or opposing categories, given the default space left for figuring things out in an alternative way. It would equally be at odds with identity politics that allow for personal trajectories of desire and attachment to be ‘wedded to the public construction of a group identity and to a political strategy for social change’ (Epstein, 1994: 192).
Yet rather than eroding the premises of LGBTQI activism as such, the redefinition that the survey responses gesture toward would primarily seem to involve an unravelling of heterosexuality as a clear orientation excluding other attachments. For some young people, heterosexuality is something that one may do exclusively, or then not, move in and out from, and perform with all sorts of trimmings and flexibilities. This may be seen as one more example of the privileges that heteronormativity allows for subjects considered appropriately straight to negotiate its boundaries while nevertheless reaping the benefits of their privileged location within the sexual hierarchy. Those whose preferences are situated at the hierarchy’s outer edges may find more purpose in sticking to, and articulating their specific identifications for political ends. In other words, the malleability and flexibility of the sexual self across pre-given categories is connected to the operations of the sexual norm as that which does not need to define itself, and that therefore offers the privilege of accommodating degrees of unruliness without becoming ruptured or undone.
Considered from yet another angle, the issue of malleability can be connected to conceptualizing sexuality less as differences in kind than those in degree – that is, as variations, or as diverse patterns within a broader fabric (Bergson, 2007: 299). When conceptualizing differences in kind in the realm of sexuality, the task becomes one of charting out taxonomies, be these binary ones, such as queer versus straight; broad ones, such as those separating the heterosexual from the homosexual, bisexual or asexual; or much more nuanced ones, such as the categories of abrosexuality based on fluidity, ceterosexuality involving attraction to nonbinary people, placiosexuality centred on performing rather than being the recipient of sexual acts or quoisexuality averse to any extant labels. As a strategy of classification, sexual taxonomy functions through distinctions drawn between separate categories. Alternatively, if one approaches the spectrum of sexual fantasies, desires and orientations in terms of differences in degree, the issue is one of intensities and gradations that necessitate no pigeonholes to separate them, to turn towards or away from. Contra the taxonomical principles of sexual normativity, desire, as fields of variation, remains resistant to such forms of capture.
What, then, follows from all this? One obvious implication is a need to allow for openness in how both gender and sexual identities are mapped out, not least when working with young people. If the familiar and ubiquitous binary framing of sexuality fails to capture the experiences and self-understandings of young people, then scholars and educators should not start from such models, operate within them, or try to mould people’s sexual selves into fitting them. A focus on variation – on differences in degree – makes it possible to consider how individual sexual tastes shift and alter, as well as to conceptualize sexuality less in terms of taxonomies than becomings through which bodies and selves move from one state to another and become altered in the process.
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