What Is Sexuality?
Sexuality is a concept that has infinite definitions and forms. Its meaning is abundant, but is often defined by society as something extremely clear-cut and particular. For example, the dictionary defines sexuality as a “person's identity in relation to the gender or genders to which they are typically attracted to.” Sexuality goes much deeper than attraction though.
The Deep Dive
The RecWell webpage “The Facts About Sexual Health,” explores the differences between sexual health, sexuality and sex according to the World Health Organization. “Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships.” While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed at the same time. Sexuality is HUGE and we all have sexuality. You do not need to be in a relationship or engaging in sexual activity to have sexuality, because it is such a broad and fluid concept (remember, your values/beliefs around sex are part of your particular sexuality, too). Sexuality includes our bodies, our hormones, our feelings, our values, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our relationships, and our culture. (Check out Scarleteen's great blog post that really dives deep into sexuality)! Let's talk about just some of these aspects:
Feelings: Feelings and our emotions have an influence on everything we do in our lives. How you feel about an experience can change future decisions as well as perceptions on the things around you. So naturally, when it comes to sexuality, feelings play a large role. They can make you happy, excited, embarrassed, nervous, eager, anxious, giddy and so much more. It’s important to be in tune with and take care of our emotions (positive and negative!), recognizing them and honoring them when it comes to our sexuality and sexual health.
Hormones: When it comes to hormones, the pituitary gland releases estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These hormones affect sex drive in different ways depending on the amount of each hormone. Libido, meaning sexual appetite or sex drive, is affected by these hormones. For example, estrogen has a major role in increasing libido, while an imbalance of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone can decrease libido.
Gender Identity: Gender Identity is how you feel on the inside and how you express your gender to others through clothing, behaviors, and personal appearance. Gender identity shapes a person’s sexuality because who we are influences our own unique sexuality. For example, a person who identifies as a woman may feel confident in their sexuality when they dress feminine, while a different person who identifies as a woman may feel confident in their sexuality when they wear masculine clothing. Even though some people may share certain identities, their sexuality is unique to them.
Sexual Orientation: You may already be familiar with the acronym LGBTQIA+ when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation, but the two concepts are distinct and different.. Planned Parenthood uses the acronym LGBQQAS (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, asexual, and straight), which specifically highlights sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is who you are attracted to and want to have relationships with. Want to learn more about each of these sexual orientations? Check out this Planned Parenthood article.
Culture: Simply put, culture is the ways or norms of life in a particular population, that are typically passed down from generation to generation. These can be based on geography, nationality, religion, political affiliation and so much more. Sexuality can be influenced by culture because a person may be raised to express their sexuality in specific ways. Culture can also highly influence a person’s specific values and beliefs about sex and sexuality. Being aware of society’s (or your particular cultural) influence can help you understand what your own feelings are compared to what the world is telling you to feel.
How Can I Explore My Sexuality?
It can be easy to find yourself lost in it all, and if you “stray” from what society sees as the “norm,” it is common to feel that something is wrong. Who you love, how you love, as well as a relationship with yourself, can seem all mapped out by the world around us; in reality, the only person able to navigate this journey is you! Like any self exploration, there is not one way to figure out what you like or dislike. A good place to start is by writing down what comes to mind when you think of your own sexuality. Remember, sexuality is more than just sexual attraction - it involves our emotions, hormones, relationships, identity, culture and more. From there, you could talk to a trusted friend or do some research online. There are many books and podcasts that delve into all things sexuality. An insightful podcast that explores pleasure, identity, sexuality, and healing is, The Sensual Self Podcast with Ev’Yan Whitney. Ev’Yan Whitney is a sexuality doula who helps people explore their sexuality! Another way to explore your sexuality is to experiment with self love. This can come in many forms and is not strictly sexual for every person. For example, a person may feel physical attraction and enjoy holding hands, hugs, or cuddling. This is a good way to find what feels good to you, so you not only learn what you like, but communicate that with future partners if you wish. There are many more ways to explore, so make it your own and do what works best for you! Grand Valley also offers many resources. The Milton E. Ford LGBTQ+ Resource Center, located in Kirkhof, has many programs and events regarding all things sexuality. There are always new events coming up, which you can find on their website or in person at their office.The Gayle R. Davis Center for Women and Gender Equity has lots of programming around healthy relationships and preventing gender-based violence. And, Recreation & Wellness has lots of information on our website - WIT peer educators can answer questions and we have lots of resources for safer sexual health, no matter your sexuality!
Sexuality and exploration can feel daunting at times, but know you are not alone. Discovering the things you enjoy, the way you like to be loved, and the way you love others can take some time. The journey is for you and each path is individually beautiful and unique. You got this!
By: Annie Seeber, WIT Peer Educator