Math and Sexual Identity
This post only gives brief definitions, if any, of the terms used within. You may want to read up on gender identity and sexual orientation before reading.
I’ve been thinking recently about how we categorize sexual orientation and gender identities; we have a large collection of words that describe us. So many, in fact, that often I have to look some up, and I consider myself pretty well educated in this area. Often, I’m even confused about which words I should use to describe myself—so sometimes I think it might be easier if we had a simple, mathematical scale that we can use to quantify sexual identity. But wait, you say, Sexual Identity can’t be represented by a number! Why not? We use other mathematical systems for other mental features; from personality to intelligence. Maybe those numbers aren’t perfectly accurate, though they are pretty good. Then again, it’s hard to assess intelligence. Everyone says they’re intelligent, which is why we need complicated tests for it. Most of the time, though, people do know what their sexual identity is.
In 1948, Alfred Kinsey realized that separating people into two groups, homosexual and heterosexual, was inaccurate, and he proposed a new scale, ranging from zero, representing people who are exclusively heterosexual, to six, representing people who are exclusively homosexual, and with other numbers in between representing variable types of bisexuality.
His scale has been used by sexologists in many contexts, though often being expanded to a ten point scale, even though it has some very obvious flaws. The first of which being that it supposes that people can only identify as a single gender; the terms homosexual and heterosexual are practically useless once you start to allow for people who identify as a third gender, no gender, or some combination of genders. The second of which is that it supposes that everyone experiences attraction, sexual and romantic, at the same level, even though plenty of people experience lessened-to-zero sexual attraction, romantic attraction, or both. In short; the Kinsey scale erases people who identify as genderqueer or on the asexual spectrum.
In 1980, Michael Storms created an alternate scale, this time separating the heterosexuality and homosexuality into separate axis, which creates a two dimensional scale to represent gender.
This graph doesn’t erase people who identify as part of the asexual spectrum, but it continues to ignore people who are genderqueer. However, what is interesting about this graph is that it contains the Kinsey Scale; it’s trivial to take your score on the Storms Sexuality Axis, and convert it into a score on the Kinsey Scale. Below, I’ve taken some black points, representing people’s scores on the Storms Sexuality Axis, and by drawing a line from the center of the graph through the point, I’ve converted those points into their respective Kinsey Scale score.
This is, without a doubt, an improvement over the Kinsey Scale, though. Because it is on two axes instead of one, it contains more information about each person, enough to distinguish asexuality. And one more improvement can be made, extremely quickly, that both improves the Storms Sexuality Axis and is necessary for us to begin to include people who are genderqueer.
Why is this such an improvement on the original Storm Sexuality Axis? Well, for one, it allows some people who identify as genderqueer to use the scale, as it doesn’t use words that imply two genders such as heterosexual and homosexual. For example, while it is still impossible to use this chart to imply attraction to someone who identifies as third gender, someone who is third gender can express the fact that they are attracted to men, without the confusion over whether that counts as heterosexual or not. Or as another example, someone who identifies as bigender or agender can express a sole attraction to women, despite the fact that it is impossible for them to identify as heterosexual or homosexual. The most important part of this scale, though, is that it clarifies how we can improve this to fully include those who lie outside the gender binary. Try and see if you can guess it before moving on to the next section.
The answer is to add another axis. This is where it gets confusing, because we’re entering three dimensional space, and possibly beyond. Let’s extend our last graph, in two dimensions, to three dimensions.
This third axis can represent another gender identity—Let’s make it, for example, the third gender I’ve spoken about above. Suddenly, we have representation for these people. Someone who is attracted to those who identify as third gender can now plot a point that floats above the graph I showed above, to represent their attraction to people of a third gender.
Now, what about other gender identities? How do we add them? Well, the answer is simple, but it’s also the answer that makes this whole problem impossible. You need to add an axis for each gender identity. There’s no way to be thorough with this unless you do that, but working with a system that has 4 or more axis is impossible unless you’re a mathematician or physicist. This system, unlike the Kinsey Scale, is completely useless to psychologists, the people who probably use these systems the most.
There is an argument to be made that the set of people who are attracted to one nonbinary gender are attracted to all nonbinary genders. Maybe most of the people who are attracted to one nonbinary gender are pansexual, or at least, are attracted to all nonbinary genders equally. That may be true, and if it is, then for 99.99% of the population, we only need three axis; male, female, and nonbinary. But it’s also true that for 99% of the population, we only need two axis, male and female.
The problems are not over yet, and this is a problem that resides in all of the systems that I’ve talked about above. Some people have different levels of romantic and sexual attraction. This is a fairly simple problem to solve. All we need to do is make it so that a person can use two different points, one to represent sexual attraction, and one to represent romantic attraction. However, once again we’ve made the system more complicated.
And there are still more problems. Some people have sexual orientations that are not entirely based on gender. The major one that feminist circles commonly recognize is demisexuality, so I’ll focus on that. Demisexuality is a orientation where the person who identifies as demisexual doesn’t form sexual attractions without having already established a strong emotional connection. This is another problem that is solvable, but that makes the system far more complicated. Ready to hear the solution? (If you don’t want to do some math, skip to section IV)
Write a function, in terms of the strength of the emotional connection (we’ll call it s), that describes how sexual attraction works as the emotional connection gets stronger. This is going to look familiar to a parametric function, and I’ll use the variables y and x to represent attraction to women and men, as it appears above. I’m sorry that I’m using the two dimensional version, but I hope you’ll forgive me; it’s an attempt to make this slightly simpler.
The above set of parametric equations describes someone who, as they form a stronger emotional connection, they approach bisexuality.
The above set also describes someone who approaches bisexuality, but at a much slower rate. Whereas the person mentioned first expresses full allosexuality towards the people they have reached an emotional connection of, say, 10, the second person doesn’t reach that level until they reach an emotional connection of strength one hundred.
This is an interesting example of demisexuality. In this case, the person is always attracted to men, but they only are attracted to women after a strong emotional connection is formed.
I just want to be clear, this is a joke. I highly doubt anyone expresses this sort of sexuality. (Though if you do, please let me know.)
Before I talk more about this problem, I’d like to address how this system can also be used to describe gender identity as well as sexual orientation. It is probably obvious to most of you by now, but the exact same system can be used to represent gender identity by simply changing each of the axis from “Attraction to _____” to “Identification as ______”
The area marked “Bisexual” can be replaced by “Bigender,” and the area marked “Asexual” can be replaced with “Agender.” And this system has the same problems, too, that you need an arbitrarily large number of axis to truly represent 100% of the population.
This doesn’t have the problem of demisexuality, but it does have some other problems. Gender is fluid in some people, and they identify as genderfluid. We can compromise, and put a point at the average (geometric? arithmetic? I don’t know) gender they identify as, or we could draw a boundary around everywhere where they have identified, or perhaps we just show a density graph, of where, at any given time, they are most likely to identify. Once again, this is really complex, to the point where it stops becoming useable.
In my experience, thinking of gender identity and sexual orientation this way has been really helpful to me, in my process of self discovery. I hope that reading this post has helped some people think about their own identity in new ways. I even think that the two dimensional versions are significant improvements over anything else I’ve been able to find.
I also think the problems listed above aren’t huge deal breakers. Yeah, it’s erasing for people who fall outside of the gender binary to not be expressed on the simplified scale. But a lot of people identify as heterosexual or homosexual, despite not really having any experience with attraction or a lack of attraction to those outside of the gender binary, and it’s not that simple. Often, real life is even more complicated than the mathematical models above; however, in real life, the solutions to these problems are a lot easier.
An example from my life. I’m currently dating a woman who identifies as straight—that is, attracted to men—and I identify as genderfluid. When I asked her how she felt to be dating someone who didn’t identify as a gender she was attracted to half of the time, and she said that unlike most relationships, we don’t have a good model of how this should work. But if we both like each other, and both respect each other, we can figure it out as we go.
So to any of you out there who feel like they can’t have a normal romantic or sexual relationship with someone—maybe you can’t. And that’s okay, because if you and someone else both like each other, and have some mutual respect, you can still build a loving relationship that is outside the norm. Just because it’s complicated to represent mathematically, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.