One typical way of fighting heteronormativity is to answer the question "When did you decide you were gay/lesbian/bisexual/asexual?" with "When did you decide you were straight?" It turns the question on its head and gives the straight person a new perspective from which to evaluate their sexual identity.
However, the fact that a straight identity is most often assumed, unless otherwise specified, tells us a lot about the power heteronormativity still holds in our North American culture. The only identities that are questioned and challenged are non-heterosexual.
The state of our culture, however, hides a different reality at the psychological level. Research into the development of heterosexual identity in young adults shows that the most secure and happiest heterosexual individuals actually came to adopt this identity through exploration and experimentation.
One particular study by Sally L. Archer and Jeremy A. Gray, published in the journal Identity in January 2009, showed that heterosexual people with the highest sexual satisfaction and happiness were those who had consciously explored their sexuality.
In other words, the most sexually satisfied straight people are those who took the time to explore different sexual identities before settling on heterosexuality.
How Do We Find Our Sexual Identity?
To understand what this study means, we first need to explain a few concepts. The first one is that of identity development.
The usual time for exploring and trying out new identities is in our teenage years. We grow into adults and have to find our own identity, separate from that of our parents. That also includes our sexual identity.
However, a scientific review on sexuality development by Tolman and McClelland in 2013 was quick to highlight that although the teenage years may can be qualified as the "normal" time for many to begin discovering their sexuality identity, there is no ideal or best time to begin sexual activity or exploration.
Psychologists measure the achievement of identity in many ways. Identity achievement means the level at which you identify as something.
In Archer and Gray's study, the Ego Identity Interview was used. This interview divides identity achievement into four categories based on two criteria: commitment and exploration.
- Diffusion: Diffusion means that a person has neither done any exploration, nor have they committed to a certain identity. This is the stage where you basically have no idea what your identity is.
- Foreclosure: Foreclosure is when a person commits to an identity, but without having done any exploration. It means, for example, assuming a heterosexual identity without having ever considered other options.
- Moratorium: This stage happens when someone has explored different options, and plans to commit to one in the near future.
- Identity achievement: People in the identity achievement stage have committed to an identity that feels right to them after having explored different options.
This particular study wanted to answer the following question: does identity achievement predict sexual maturity, positive sexual self-concepts, and effective sexual decision-making?
The answer was yes.
Why Is Exploration Important?
With this knowledge, we can come to a few conclusions about what it means to have a healthy sexuality.
The first: sexual exploration is healthy. The participants who had explored different options for their sexual identity scored the highest on sexual health measures. It means that taking an active part in determining your own sexual identity is a good way to help your future self have a happy sexual life.
How you choose to explore your sexual identity is up to you. You may be more comfortable starting your sexual exploration via sex toys. Finding a company with a wide range of diverse toys, such as those made by LELO, that suit all kinds of pleasure triggers can help us discover what we like and don't like. Moreover, self-discovery in the for of sexual pleasure can potentially make us more open to sexual exploration in general.
This is where the problem with foreclosure comes to the forefront. Remember: foreclosure means that we've chosen a sexual identity (for example, heterosexuality) without having done any active exploration.
In other words, we assume an identity without having tested it for ourselves first. People in the foreclosure stage scored lower on the sexual health measures used by the researchers.
The study did not look at why some people were in the foreclosure stage. However, common sense tells us it could be one of many reasons: social and family pressure, religious beliefs, worries about status or perception, or simply not having been aware of other possibilities. No matter the reason, the issue remains: those who haven't actively explored their sexuality are more likely to be unhappy in their sex lives.
Another conclusion coming from this study and others is that there is very little difference in gender when it comes to identity achievement and foreclosure. In other words, everyone is very much the same when it comes to exploration and committing to an identity. Whereas men were more likely to be in foreclosure in the 1960s and '70s, things have changed enough that sexual exploration is as common in men as in women.
This is good news. It means that for men, exploring sexual identities is more acceptable than it used to be. There is much less stigma attached to men trying on and exploring sexual identities; the heterosexual identity is not as widely assumed as it used to be.
The third and last thing I want to note from the Archer and Gray study is that sexual exploration leads to better sexual decisions.
From the study, "among those who endorsed sexual identity achievement statements were those who demonstrated Sexual Vigilance with regard to sexual decision making. They perceived their coping style as adaptive, weighing the pros and cons of various alternatives, taking the time to find objective solutions."
In other words, someone who has come to a decision about their sexual identity through exploration is able to make healthy, well thought out choices when it comes to their sex life.
Your Sexuality Is Not Built All at Once
When you think about it, the results of these studies make sense. Glover, Galliher and Lamere sum up the studies rather simply:
"Desire, behavior, and sexual orientation do not combine in a unitary construct; on the contrary, there is much fluidity in attraction, behavior, and self-identification."
A unitary construct is something that is built all at once; constructed as one unit. Our desires, behaviors and sexual orientation come together as we grow, explore and discover.
It makes sense that those that go through this period of discovery have more fulfilling sex lives since they are the ones that are no longer questioning who they are or what they like.
You owe it to your future self (and your current self) to find out who you are. Take the time to explore! Play with yourself, play with toys, play with others.
But, most importantly, remember that you no matter what you decide to call your sexuality, you are magnificent and amazing, exactly as you are.
What Would You Tell Your Younger Queer Self?
When you look back on your adolescence do you have some burning wisdom or advice you wish you could give your younger self? Share your pride in LELO's "Dear Younger Queer Self" Volonte Contest! Check it out here for more details!
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