Why Sexual Orientation Labels Aren't For Me — And You Don't Have To Use Them, Either
As someone who speaks openly and boldly about sex and relationships, I often feel pressure to know exactly who I am in this regard — which I used to think meant labeling my sexual orientation. But after a lot of confusion and a lot of contemplation, I’ve decided I don’t need to, and you don’t need to either. While our attractions are not always a choice, how we choose to label ourselves is, and that includes the choice not to label ourselves at all.
"Labeling your sexual orientation is by no means a requirement," sex educator Anne Hodder-Shipp, ACS, tells Bustle. "And, for some of us, the idea of finding a name or category that fits how we feel can feel burdensome — even impossible. Sometimes, there just isn't a word that accurately describes the way we experience attraction to others, and if that's the case for you, then let go of the label and instead focus on your feelings and whom they're directed toward. What matters more than anything else is how connected you feel to yourself and your sense of identity, and there's no word, label, or category that can do that for you."
These are the reasons why I don’t label my sexual orientation — and why nobody actually has to.
1. Sexual Orientation Is A Social Construct
Certain people are innately attracted to certain people, but the idea of labeling people based on these attractions is cultural. There have been cultures throughout history that did not even have a concept of sexual orientation.
The decision of how to classify people is somewhat arbitrary. We don’t label people based on their favorite hobbies or favorite colors, for example. Refusing to label sexual orientation isn't like refusing to label your height or age or something else that can be measured objectively. It's not denying a biological reality; it's declining to participate in a cultural convention.
2. Sexual Orientation Is Not Clear-Cut
The first time I began to question whether I was straight was when a partner who previously identified as male began identifying as non-binary. Did this make me not straight anymore? Not necessarily — as I said, how we label ourselves is our choice. But it did make me realize that the definition of who is straight, who is gay, and who is something else is not straightforward.
There are a lot of blurry situations like this that make it difficult to label yourself. As we accept that gender and genitals do not always “match” and some people have genitals that cannot even be classified as male or female, we’ll have to reconsider whether the concept of sexual orientation will resonate with everyone.
3. These Labels Are Hard To Apply To Me As A Non-Binary Person
Most popular conceptions of sexual orientation seem to assume that everybody is attracted either to people who have penises and identify as men or people who have vaginas and identify as women. But trans and non-binary people call these assumptions into question: should sexual orientation be defined by your partners’ identities or body parts? If your partner is non-binary, what orientation is that?
As a non-binary person, it’s impossible to say if I like the “same” or “opposite” gender. Would “straight” for me mean only sleeping with non-binary people? The whole concept becomes almost nonsensical after a certain point. It just doesn’t make sense to try to squeeze myself into this limiting definition.
4. You Never Know Who You’ll Be Attracted To
People change throughout their lives, and sexual preferences often change along with that. And even if my general inclinations don’t change, I don’t feel I can say with certainty that I will not be surprised by who comes along and catches my interest.
I’m not saying that nobody should label their sexual orientation, nor am I saying that those who do are ignoring the complexities of gender and sexuality. Some people acknowledge them but still feel that a label encapsulates some aspect of their identity, and they should feel free to embrace that label. But we aren’t obligated to do so. Sexual freedom means being able to identify however you choose, even if that means identifying with nothing at all.