KeywordsGender Identity Sexual Minority Sexual Identity Sexual Attraction Lesbian Woman
A sexual identity is the social label one adopts to describe their sexual and romantic attractions. A sexual identity may refer to both how one thinks about oneself and how one describes themselves to other people (Bailey et al. 2016). Sexual identity is distinguished from gender identity, which is a social label one adopts in regard to their own gender (e.g., man, woman).
As a social label, a sexual identity indicates membership in a social group that shares common traits. Sexual identity is considered one indicator of sexual orientation, in addition to sexual attraction (i.e., what partners an individual finds arousing or fantasizes about) and sexual behavior (i.e., what partners an individual engages in sexual activities with). Although there is considerable overlap between sexual identity, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior, they do not necessarily coincide (Bailey et al. 2016; Savin-Williams 2006). For example, some men who have sex with men identify as heterosexual, and homosexual behavior may occur in sex-segregated environments (e.g., prisons) despite both sexual partners possessing heterosexual attractions and heterosexual identities (Bailey et al. 2016).
Sexual identities can potentially be complex, for several reasons. Sexual identities are both an internal psychological trait (i.e., how one thinks about oneself) and an external trait (i.e., how one describes oneself to others); these may differ, particularly if one is not open to others about one’s sexual identity. In addition, sexual identity is inherently subjective because identities are determined by an individual, are socially constructed, and are dependent on historical and cultural context (Alderson 2003; Savin-Williams 2006). Thus, two people with the same sexual identity may have different interpretations of what the label means, and two individuals with similar sexual attractions and behaviors may have distinct sexual identities. Moreover, although sexual identities are often relatively stable, sexual identities may shift throughout the lifespan (Diamond 2014). In addition, there are several components of potential sexual and romantic attractions (e.g., sex, gender, number of partners preferred), and sexual identities reflect the diversity of sexual attractions.
Diversity of Sexual Identities
There are a wide variety of sexual identities. The four sexual identities mostly commonly described in the psychological literature are heterosexual, gay or lesbian, bisexual, and asexual. The majority of people identify as heterosexual or straight, that is, exclusively attracted to the other sex (Bailey et al. 2016). Those who do not identify as heterosexual (e.g., gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and asexuals) make up a relatively smaller proportion of the population and are therefore considered sexual minorities. The term heterosexual is used when referring to sexual identity, attraction, or behavior. In contrast, the term homosexuality refers to same-sex sexual attraction and behavior, whereas the terms gay men and lesbian women refer to an exclusively same-sex attracted sexual identity. That is, the term “homosexual” is not typically used to describe a sexual identity (American Psychological Association 2010). A bisexual identity indicates sexual attractions to both men and women. A bisexual person may have the same level of attractions to both men and women equally or may be attracted more strongly to one sex than the other. An asexual identity indicates a lack of sexual attraction. Although asexuals may experience sexual arousal and typically do not have physiological difficulties in sexual functioning, asexuals do not experience attractions aimed at any potential sexual target (Bogaert 2012). Within the identity of asexual, there is also an asexual spectrum that indicates levels of sexual and romantic attraction to different potential partners, as well as attitudes toward sexual and romantic behavior (see Bogaert 2012; Robbins et al. 2016).
There also exists a range of sexual minority identities that fit under the umbrella term of non-binary sexual identities, which includes any sexual minority identities that do not fit under any of the four more commonly described sexual identities. Non-binary sexual identities are generally considered distinct sexual identities that communicate social or cultural meaning, rather than as subsets or combinations of other sexual identities. A pansexual (i.e., “all” or “any” sexual) sexual identity indicates sexual attractions that disregard sex and gender and explicitly includes potential sexual and romantic attraction to those with a minority gender identity (e.g., transgender and gender queer individuals). Individuals may also identify as sexually fluid, which indicates that one’s sexual identity shifts over time rather than being stable over a long period of time. In addition, whereas a bisexual sexual identity typically indicates that one commonly experiences sexual attraction to both men and women, those who are predominantly attracted to one sex but are occasionally attracted to the other sex may identify as mostly heterosexual or mostly gay/lesbian (Vrangalova and Savin-Williams 2012). Finally, some individuals with non-binary same-sex attractions prefer not to identify with any particular sexual label or may identify with the umbrella term queer, which refers to any sexual and/or gender minority identity.
There is also a range of sexual identities that encompass aspects of relationships beyond the sex or gender one is attracted to. Although there is overlap between sexual and romantic attraction, sexual attraction is distinguishable from romantic attraction (i.e., the sex or gender one finds romantically attractive; Diamond 2014). Likewise, one may have different identities in terms of romantic and sexual attractions (e.g., an asexual person with same-sex romantic attractions may identify as a homoromantic asexual). Many individuals prefer to have one committed sexual and romantic partner to the exclusion of other sexual and romantic partners and thus would be labeled as having a monogamous sexual identity. In contrast, some individuals are open to more than one committed romantic and/or sexual relationship simultaneously and may identify as polyamorous (Robinson 2013).
There are important gender differences in terms of what sexual identities are adopted. Most research suggests that most men who identify as a sexual minority identify as gay (Savin-Williams and Diamond 2000). In contrast, most women who identify as a sexual minority do not identify as lesbian. A notably higher percentage of women either identify as bisexual or identify with a non-binary sexual identity (Rust 1993; see Diamond 2014, for a review). In addition, a higher percentage of women (vs. men) identify as asexual (Bogaert 2012).
There is also considerable cross-cultural variability in sexual identities. The existence of same-sex attractions that most Western cultures would describe as “homosexual” (i.e., between two people with the same genetic sex) is nearly universal across cultures (Bailey et al. 2016). However, sexual identities such as “gay” or “lesbian” that are used to indicate same-sex attraction in most Western cultures are either very uncommon or nonexistent in several non-Western cultures (Bailey et al. 2016). Rather, some cultures have widely recognized gender identities other than male and female, commonly referred to as a third gender. A notable example is the fa’afafine of Samoa, who are genetically male, adopt predominantly feminine gender roles, and have romantic relationships with men. In Samoa, both fa’afafine and men who have sex with (and attractions to) fa’afafine would be culturally labeled as heterosexual, not “gay” (Bartlett and Vasey 2006). Gay male identities have not been reported in this culture (Bartlett and Vasey 2006). Most cultures have either the presence of gay and lesbian identities or the presence of more than two gender identities, although gay and lesbian identities may coexist with third genders in some cultures. Overall, there are a variety of culturally constructed sets of sexual identities and gender identities within each culture which may not generalize to other cultures (see Bailey et al. 2016, for a review).
A considerable amount of research has examined the sexual identity formation process among sexual minorities, commonly referred to as “coming out.” Foundational research on sexual identity formation (e.g., Cass 1984) proposed developmental stage models of sexual identity formation. A sexual identity was thought to begin development after initial awareness of one’s sexual attractions during adolescence, followed by exploration of one’s sexual attractions and identity spanning from adolescence to early adulthood, then the adoption of a stable sexual identity in early adulthood, and finally disclosing this identity to others (i.e., “coming out”). Several contemporary critiques of these stage models (e.g., Rust 1993; Savin-Williams and Diamond 2000) have demonstrated that there is considerable and systematic variability in the sexual identity formation process that stage models may not account for.
For instance, the LGBTI (i.e., Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex) model of identity formation (Alderson 2003, 2013) proposes that sexual identity formation varies as a function of psychological, social, and cultural factors. In contrast to stage models, the LGBTI model does not assume a typical or normative trajectory. Moreover, whereas stage models of coming out may explain the coming out process of many gay men (see Savin-Williams 1996), the sexual identity process of bisexuals (Rust 1993) and lesbians (Diamond 2014) is highly variable and may be more “fluid” than the sexual identity process of gay men. That is, these sexual identities are more prone to shifting over time rather than being stable throughout the lifespan, and there is not a typical order in which the “stages” of sexual identity occur. In addition, the process of sexual identity formation may be more variable now than in the past because of greater social acceptance of sexual minority status (Floyd and Bakeman 2006). The sexual identity process of asexuals is relatively understudied, though preliminary research suggests that asexuals experience a sexual identity process that is in many ways comparable to other sexual minorities (Robbins et al. 2016).
Alderson (2003) argues that there is considerable variability in the sexual identity process, characterized by catalysts that encourage the adoption of sexual minority identities (e.g., desire for romantic partners) and hindrances that discourage the adoption of sexual minority identities (e.g., fear of social rejection). In order for one to adopt a sexual minority identity, they must engage in a form of “cost-benefit analysis,” particularly when choosing to publicly disclose one’s sexual identity. Ultimately, whether and when one adopts a particular sexual minority identity is determined by whether the catalysts encouraging adoption of a particular identity outweigh the hindrances against adopting that identity. There is also systematic variability in the sexual identity process. For instance, women tend to come out later than men on average, which can largely be attributed to greater variability in the coming out process of women (Diamond 2014). For instance, a subset of women only adopts a sexual minority identity after experiencing their first same-sex attractions in middle or later adulthood, whereas this pattern is considered relatively uncommon for same-sex attracted men. Sexual minorities also appear to be coming out at an earlier age than in the past (Floyd and Bakeman 2006; Grov et al. 2006), with sexual identities sometimes now adopted in late childhood or early adolescence. The most likely explanation for this shift is that hindrances to coming out have decreased along with greater social tolerance of homosexuality. Additional research is consistent with this proposition, in that publicly identifying as a sexual minority is less common in several contexts which are less safe or welcoming to sexual minorities. For instance, sexual minorities are less likely to come out to family members who hold more traditional conservative values (Newman and Muzzonigro 1993) or members of their religious community (Lassiter 2016; Wolff et al. 2016), and members of ethnic minorities may have greater difficulty coming out due in part to more traditional values about gender and religion in ethnic minority communities (Dubé and Savin-Williams 1999).
Experiencing sexual attractions and desires but not publicly identifying as a sexual minority (colloquially referred to as being “in the closet”) can lead to intrapsychic conflict (Alderson 2003). There are several negative physical and mental health outcomes associated with not adopting a sexual minority identity, including depression, isolation, and low self-esteem (Halpin and Allen 2004). The highest levels of stress and negative mental health outcomes are commonly reported during the initial formation of a sexual minority identity (Halpin and Allen 2004), particularly when one’s environment is intolerant toward sexual minorities (Alderson 2003). However, same-sex individuals with a positive sexual identity tend to have many positive psychological outcomes as compared to same-sex attracted individuals who have not adopted a sexual minority identity, including higher happiness, higher self-esteem, lower emotional distress, and lower loneliness (e.g., Floyd and Stein 2002; Halpin and Allen 2004). Sexual minority members with a coherent sexual identity tend to have the most positive psychological outcomes (Alderson 2013; Halpin and Allen 2004). These findings are consistent with Social Identity Theory, in that social identities are thought to provide self-esteem and a sense of belonging (Alderson 2003).
Prejudice, Discrimination, and Minority Stress
Although there are many potential benefits to adopting a sexual identity, there are also potential risks. Those who identify with a nonheterosexual sexual orientation face prejudice and discrimination based on their status as a stigmatized sexual minority, referred to as sexual prejudice (Herek and McLemore 2013). Sexual prejudice can lead to many forms of discrimination, including social rejection, housing and workplace discrimination, bullying, and assault (Bailey et al. 2016; Herek and McLemore 2013). The “differences as deficits” model of sexual prejudice proposes that nonheterosexual sexual orientations are viewed as inferior to heterosexuality, coupled with traditional views that heterosexuality is normal and preferable (Herek 2010). Given that many religions consider homosexuality a sin, greater religiosity is typically associated with greater sexual prejudice (Herek and McLemore 2013). Endorsement of traditional value systems (i.e., politically right-wing ideologies) is also associated with greater sexual prejudice (Herek and McLemore 2013; Hoffarth and Hodson 2014). In addition, sexual minorities are often viewed as violating gender roles, and thus endorsement of traditional gender roles is strongly associated with sexual prejudice (Herek and McLemore 2013). Despite not identifying as having same-sex attractions, asexuals can also face prejudice and discrimination (MacInnis and Hodson 2012), which is linked to endorsement of traditional gender roles and right-wing ideologies (Hoffarth et al. 2016).
In most Western societies, norms have shifted dramatically, such that blatant forms of antigay prejudice and discrimination which were commonplace a few decades ago are now generally socially unacceptable (Herek and McLemore 2013). Despite this shift, discrimination against sexual minorities still occurs, although expressions of sexual prejudice are now less blatant (Herek and McLemore 2013; Hoffarth and Hodson 2014). In contrast to other forms of prejudice (e.g., racism), sexual prejudice is still openly endorsed in some domains of Western societies (Herek and McLemore 2013). In addition, blatant prejudice and even extreme discrimination against sexual minorities (including imprisonment and the death penalty) still exist in many countries (Bailey et al. 2016; Herek and McLemore 2013).
Prejudice and discrimination negatively impact sexual minorities, which is referred to as minority stress (Alderson 2013). As a result, sexual minorities are more likely than heterosexuals to experience a range of negative outcomes, particularly if experiencing discrimination or social rejection (Legate et al. 2013). Moreover, simultaneously adopting a sexual minority identity and yet being a member of a group that condemns homosexuality may lead to identity conflict, with one’s sexual identity perceived as in conflict with other social identities. For instance, sexual minorities may view their sexual identity as incompatible with their race/ethnicity (Dubé and Savin-Williams 1999; Parks et al. 2004) or religious orientation (Lassiter 2016). In addition, ethnic minorities may experience prejudice and discrimination from both their racial group (based on their sexual identity) and from other sexual minorities (based on their racial/ethnic identity; Parks et al. 2004). Sexual minorities may also experience self-stigma (also referred to as internalized homophobia in the context of same-sex attracted identities). Self-stigma involves negative attitudes toward one’s own sexual minority identity or sexual attractions, which stems from internalizing society’s negative views toward homosexuality (Herek and McLemore 2013).
Many topics involving sexual identity are currently understudied. First, most research has focused on the sexual identities of gay men and, to some extent, lesbian women. More research is needed on other sexual identities, particularly non-binary sexual identities and asexual identities. In addition, although models of coming out assume that internal psychological processes play an important role in sexual minority identity formation, the role of personality and individual differences in the formation of sexual minority identities is presently understudied. A limitation of much of the research on sexual identity is that data are cross-sectional and based on retrospective reports. Such retrospective reports may be biased by participants’ motivations to portray a cohesive “master narrative” of their life (Savin-Williams 1996). Although some research has utilized longitudinal designs, more longitudinal research is needed to capture developmental processes. In addition, most sexual identity research is based in Western cultures. More research on sexual identity is needed in non-Western cultures. Similarly, most research on sexual prejudice is based in Western cultures, and more research is needed in non-Western cultures, particularly where there are high levels of blatant sexual prejudice.
Sexual identity, like most social identities, is a complex phenomenon. One’s sexual identity is not only determined by one’s sexual attractions and behaviors but is subjectively determined and influenced by a range of psychological and sociocultural factors. In particular, sexual minorities develop sexual identities across social and political contexts that vary dramatically in acceptance of sexual minorities. Thus, an understanding of sexual identity cannot necessarily be generalized cross-culturally. In addition, the labels used to describe sexual identities are historically and culturally bound. Many Western cultures have experienced a dramatic shift in views of homosexuality in recent history, and the range of sexual identities have become increasingly nuanced and complex. We can expect that sexual identities will continue to shift as a function of cultural processes.
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