Sexual Orientation Isn’t A Thing

by Izaak

This post may make a whole lot more sense if you read this post, but I’ll try to summarize it in the first paragraph.


What is the temperature of the air around you? Opening up a tab to a random weather service tells me that it’s 44.1 degrees fahrenheit outside right now; it’s probably warmer because I’m inside (though I’m wearing a sweater and have a window open, so probably not that much warmer).

But air doesn’t really have a temperature. Temperature isn’t a thing; it’s a useful tool when talking about physical and chemical systems, and it has really important implications on the macro scale! Health depends on temperature, safety depends on temperature, cooking depends on temperature, etc. But temperature is nothing more than a statistical measure of the average kinetic energy of a whole bunch of atoms and molecules.

In the essay I linked above, Scott Alexander writes:

Almost everyone would say blood pressure is “real”. For goodness sakes, it’s measured directly! Using machines! Called sphygmomanometers, which are clearly very important given the number of complicated Greek-sounding letter combinations in their name!

On the other hand, we do not measure blood pressure directly. We have a good proxy for blood pressure in the form of certain sounds made by blood when cuffs are contracted to certain levels. This is only moderately accurate – everyone in health care knows that the doctor is always going to get a different blood pressure reading than the nurse and neither of them is going to get anywhere near what the automated machine detects.

Blood pressureis caused by multiple different factors. The two most important are heart rate and vascular caliber. A blood pressure reading of 50/30 could mean your heart isn’t beating much. Or it could just mean your vessels are super dilated for some reason. Or it could mean a lot of other things.

Blood pressure is used to predict outcomes of interest. There are calculators that will tell you your likelihood of getting a heart attack or a stroke at certain blood pressure levels.

And blood pressure is kind of fuzzy. Your blood pressure in your legs and lower body may be completely different from your blood pressure in your arms (medical students reading this blog to procrastinate studying for your USMLEs: what condition does this classically imply?) In fact, your blood pressure in your right arm may be completely different from your blood pressure in your left arm. Your blood pressure may vary wildly over the course of the day, and it may vary between sitting and standing.

And, as commenters in the last post pointed out, pressure is an abstraction over millions of different blood cells doing their own thing.

(I’ve made some small cuts here and there, but I promise the integrity of the quote remains valid.)

And this is really important, because a lot of time, people will unquestioningly accept statistical abstractions of many different variables for things like temperature and pressure, they will also ignore the abstractions within other categories, and either reject these other categories based on this argument, or enforce the unanimity of anything that is abstracted.

The post above argues this about IQ points. A lot of people say things like “Intelligence isn’t one factor; people can have different types of intelligence and some people have very good intelligence in some areas and crap intelligence in other areas,” which is kinda like saying “Blood pressure isn’t one factor; people can have different intelligence in different parts of their body, some people have very good blood pressure in their arms and crap blood pressure in their legs.”

But I think I’ve noticed an opposite but equal argument. Oftentimes, people will try to lump humans into various categories, and then be mad when people don’t perfectly conform to these categories. Something like, “You’re an INTP but you say that you recharge your energy by hanging out with people? That can’t be right.” (Note for the pedants; while you may use introvert to refer to people who recharge by being alone, and extrovert to refer to people who recharge by being with others, and while this may be the common usage of the words, the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator system has a very specific definition which overlaps with, but is not identical to, the common usage.) More troublingly, some people say things like, “You identify as male, and have male genitalia and XY chromosomes, but you like to wear dresses? That can’t be right, you must be wrong.”

Which seems kinda like saying “You say it’s 44.1 degrees fahrenheit out? That means every molecule in the gas must be moving at 499.18 m/s!”


Sexual orientations are kinda like this. If you made a list of every single person in the world, you could conceivably make a list of every single person at  single moment, and pause time, and show one person every single person in the world and tell them things about each and every person, and maybe have a five minute conversation with that person, and you could put a checkmark next to every name that your test subject was attracted to, and then you would have the person’s exact sexual orientation.

For a second, until a new person was born, or one of the people aged a little and either fell out of the “barely attracted to this person” or fell into the “barely attracted to this person”, or someone’s personality changed, or even worse, until the test subject’s personality changed.

This is somewhat akin to measure the exact speed (shut up quantum physics, this is an analogy) of every particle in a gas, and then waiting a second. In this second, thousands of collisions have taken place, and your list is mostly useless.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use words like “gay” or “asexual” or “pansexual” to describe sexual orientations; going up to someone and saying “I’m gay” is a lot more useful than saying “Here’s a list of people I’m attracted to and the people I’m not, yes this is all 7 billion people,” or even, “Statistically speaking the average person I’m attracted to is male, with a 95% confidence level.”

What I am saying is that at the edge of every case, there are little weird things. The reason I wrote this blog post is that, in a discussion, someone brought up the idea that if you say that you are attracted to women, and you’re not attracted to every woman, that’s being discriminatory. And a day before that, someone brought up their uncle, who was happily married to their aunt for some number of years, but besides that one specific woman, he was completely uninterested in women and sexually attracted to men.

Some people like to joke about things like this, like “She turned him gay!” or maybe “She must be flattered that she’s the only girl that can turn him straight.” But I think this is a much more common thing than most people think.


But since this is a complicated subject, we’re going to reduce the dating population of the world down to 30 people. I’ve colored these people by gender identity, and of course, the colors are fluid. It also doesn’t really matter what colors you use for which gender identities, though we’ll assume that, as is conventional, Red (Pink) is for women, and Blue is for men. There’s some greens and yellows and grays, which can be anything you want – the point is, however, that they are genders that do not fall on the male – female spectrum.


Now we’ll look at a hypothetical member of the community; Todd. We’ll mark Todd, and draw a boundary around the people Todd is sexually attracted to.


Todd, the blue dot on the right with the crown on his head, is attracted to the people in the black squiggly shape. We can see that Todd is primarily attracted to red or pink dots – people that identify as female. But we’ve also got a blue dot and a purple dot – men – and a grey and green dot. There are also a bunch of pink and red dots that are outside the circle – that Todd isn’t attracted to.

Todd may identify as straight (he is a blue dot, and therefore identifies as male), but that is an abstraction of his real preferences. This doesn’t mean, however that he can’t be attracted to blue dots, nor does it mean he has to be attracted to all the red dots.

Let’s look at someone different; Mary.


Woah! That’s certainly more complicated than Todd. Let’s see – two blue, two pink, two gray, two green. Mary may identify as pansexual, or possibly some other orientation, but once again, whatever she uses is merely a label. Pansexual doesn’t mean that she is attracted to all people – perhaps merely that gender is not a primary factor in who she is attracted to.

In fact, Todd might also identify as pansexual, it just may happen that in this specific population of people, the women are more attractive to him than men. Maybe Todd only likes blonde people, but his attraction has nothing to do with gender, and more of the women had blonde hair.

We can also imagine populations where no boundary is drawn, indicating asexuality, or where there is a boundary but it includes no one.

For some more accuracy, we would require gifs, with changing color (for changing gender identity, as with genderfluidity) or with changing borders (for demisexuality, perhaps, or someone with a changing gender who also identifies as straight. That is, they are only attracted to the opposite gender when they identify as a certain gender, but their gender changes).

But since gifs are hard to make, I’ll leave those in your imagination.


The takeaway here is not to go up to gay people (or straight people) and try to become an exception to their sexuality.

The takeaway is that while sexuality has a lot to do with gender, it’s not always limited by it. People can be straight, and still have moments of sexual attraction to members of the same sex. People can be gay, but not be attracted to every person of the same sex.

And I’m going to end this with the ending from the last post I made about sexual identity.

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.

Remember that we are humans, and there are exceptions to almost every rule. Don’t feel pigeonholed by how you previously identified. And most importantly,

Love As Thou Wilt.