Sex and gender beyond the binary

Sex and gender beyond the binary

This week Ladybeard magazine published a piece that a wrote for them on thinking in non-binary ways about sex, sexuality and gender.

This seems particularly relevant this week given that the papers have been full of the YouGov survey findings that nearly half of 18-24 years-olds consider themselves as something other than straight or gay.

For more on this topic, check out my books How to Understand Your Gender and The Psychology of Sex.

Here’s the Ladybeard article

Why are trans and bi generally so invisible in mainstream media, and so problematic when they are represented? One major reason is that they trouble the binary ways in which we are encouraged to see the world: people are male or female, straight or gay. They are born that way, and they stay that way. So we are told.

Of course bi and trans experiences differ greatly. However, research in these areas has highlighted the common ways in which these groups suffer in light of a mainstream binary perspective. There is the consistent media erasure of each experience, and the suspicion (‘you must really be X’, ‘you can’t really be Y’), and double discrimination from either side of the binary toward such groups that can mean they have no real sense of community.

Turning our attention to sex, two key binaries in play are sexuality and gender. These are inextricably linked: sexuality is defined as attraction to either the same, or the opposite, gender. Binary genders, binary sexualities. Man or woman, straight or gay.

Despite efforts to deny their existence, bisexual folk have long insisted on their experience of being attracted to ‘both genders’, or – more commonly now – ‘more than one gender’. Back in the fifties, the Kinsey report suggested a spectrum of sexuality, rather than a binary, with at least as many people somewhere in the middle as at either extreme. More recently, researchers like Lisa Diamond have shown that gendered sexual attractions and identities are fluid and flexible, often changing over the course of a lifetime.

Turning to gender, while many people – cis and trans – certainly experience themselves within the binary (as men or women), increasing numbers of us identify as, in some way, non-binary: NB, enby, or genderqueer. The recent Facebook proliferation of gender terms and addition of the ‘they’ pronoun, shows heightened awareness of the fact that gender, like sexuality, isn’t binary. Many experience it, too, as a spectrum, changing over time. One recent study found that over a third of people felt in some way both genders, neither gender, or beyond the gender binary.

Putting this all together we can see that there is a swirling multitude of ever-changing sexualities and genders which makes a nonsense of the assumption that sex is all about attraction to people of the same, or opposite, gender. Several sexualities directly challenge this focus. For many bi-, pan-, omnisexual and queer people, gender of attraction is just one aspect of sexuality, and often not a particularly important one. Just think about the kinds of appearances you’re attracted to, the types of people, and personalities. Consider the roles you enjoy taking sexually, and the particular activities, sensations, and fantasies that turn you on. Our sexualities are about so much more than gender: each of them is made up of a constellation of features unique to us, given our own specific bodies, experiences and stories.

There are other sex binaries that are also worth breaking down. Mainstream sex therapy has long rested on the assumption that people can be divided into functional and dysfunctional, normal and abnormal, when it comes to sex. But with half of all people reporting a sexual problem in the last national survey of sexual attitudes (NATSAL), how much are these divisions causing the very problems they seek to address? Our model of sex still rests on erect penises penetrating vaginas and coming to orgasm. If we could expand our erotic imaginations to include all the kinds of sex people actually enjoy (mutual masturbation, group sex, dry-humping, cybersex, solosex, fantasies, sensation play…) the functional/dysfunctional binary could disappear. The popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011, and the like, make a mockery of attempts to delineate normal from abnormal sex. Despite this, kinky practices are still listed as ‘paraphilias’ in psychiatric manuals.

The increasingly vocal asexual (ace) communities are also helping to break down the asexual/sexual binary. People can be demisexual or grey-A, aromantic or queerplatonic – they can experience no attraction, specific attractions, or fluid attractions that vary across time. Instead of fixing on a certain type of sex considered ‘normal’, and trying to fit ourselves to that, perhaps we could all usefully embrace a model – alone and in our relationships – of diverse and fluid sexual desire.

Helen Bowes-Catton writes that bisexual people are tricksters. In occupying a place beyond the binary they reveal the instability of that binary, encouraging others to question static thinking about sexuality. Perhaps we could regard all sexuality and gender warriors in this way. It’s certainly not easy to occupy the liminal spaces between and beyond the binaries that are laid out for us. But it is vital that some people do if we are to find our way towards greater acceptance of ourselves and others, and towards forms of sex that prioritise pleasure and connection over conforming to some arbitrary binary.

For more on this topic, check out my books How to Understand Your Gender and The Psychology of Sex.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).