We should pay attention to how people actually define themselvesby Julian Baggini / January 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Not so long ago, received opinion was that men were from Mars, women from Venus, boys would be boys and girls would be girls. It’s a simple message that proved resistant to protests that gender is largely a social construct. In recent decades, gender essentialism even became intellectually respectable again, boosted by dubious interpretations of findings from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. There was to be no arguing with the scientific discovery of the “male brain.”
Now, it is increasingly accepted that binary distinctions are out and we are all not only on a spectrum, but free to wander up and down it as we please. This is even more evident with sexuality than it is with gender. It is now widely believed that you don’t have to choose between being heterosexual or homosexual. We’re all more complicated than that.
A 2015 YouGov survey showed that half of young people aged 16-24 did not identify as 100 per cent heterosexual. Only 27 per cent of the population insisted that “there is no middle ground—you are either heterosexual or you are not.
To borrow the terminology of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, it seems we live in an age of “liquid” gender and sexuality. Solid, stable identities have dissolved, replaced by ever-changing, fluid ones.
Look behind the headlines, however, and it’s clear that the break with absolutes has not led to an abandonment of the old binary categories. That same YouGov survey showed that 89 per cent of the population still identifies as heterosexual, even as 60 per cent of these support the idea that sexual orientation exists along a spectrum. Only 17 per cent have ever had a homosexual experience.
If gender and sexuality are so fluid, why don’t we see more actual flow? The answer is that they are not so much fluid as viscous. Both sexuality and gender are not absolutes set in stone but they are generally more sticky than liquid. They have soft edges but tend to keep their shape.
This means the old binary distinctions still work well enough most of the time. Even if no-one is 100 per cent heterosexual, most people are stable enough in their sexual orientation to be accurately described…