Chapter 1: Community Agreements and Terminology
- Distinguish between terms related to sex, sexual behavior, gender, sexual orientation and other basic terms for this course
- Understand how the media can shape peoples’ perception
- Explore the role of intersecting identities and culture in shaping peoples’ perceptions and experiences of the world, including their perspective on sexuality and gender specifically
- Analyze the impacts of microaggressions and discuss ways to combat them
Human sexuality is a broad and complex topic that we are still in the early stages of understanding. Language to describe the experiences of people continues to be developed, and the nature of society is to change with time. Sexuality is often not stagnant as well and individuals may experience shifts in identity across their lifespan. Labels can be freeing in some ways yet they can also place barriers around what is believed to be possible. Binary systems and oversimplifying humanity prevent the full story from being told. Gender and sexuality are separate yet interconnected with other identities we hold and are influenced by the concert that exists when all parts of ourselves mix together. The society in which we live, our family backgrounds, the education we have access to, and our own mental processes and behaviors lay the foundation to analyzing sexuality. Allyship and community uplifting occurs as we critically explore sexuality from a biopsychosocial perspective and are humble and curious about what we do not know rather than making assumptions without all the information. Within this chapter, we will go over community agreements and explore some basic terminology that we will continue to expand upon or refer back to throughout this course.
A Case for Learning About Sexuality
Do you remember how you first learned about sex and/or reproduction? About gender? Perhaps you were one of the many American students who received information about puberty sometime around 5th to 8th grade. Or you may have been a student who attended a school who refused to teach anything health/sexuality related. In many cases, folks have found their education about sex and sexuality to be more experiential versus formal. No matter where you land in terms of education and experience, it can be a useful process to reflect on the ways in which your learning has occurred. In the Unites States, we have a ways to go in terms of pervasive, comprehensive sex education.
In a recent meta-analysis of sexuality education research, Goldfarb and Lieberman (2020) concluded: “Review of the literature of the past three decades provides strong support for comprehensive sex education across a range of topics and grade levels. Results provide evidence for the effectiveness of approaches that address a broad definition of sexual health and take positive, affirming, inclusive approaches to human sexuality. Findings strengthen justification for the widespread adoption of the National Sex Education Standards.”
There is much to do when it comes to building a national response for sexuality education. In some ways, you are becoming a default ambassador of the benefits just in taking this class. From this course, you are combining your previous knowledge, skills, and experiences with additional academic information that will build your sexual intelligence in critical ways. Thank you!
An Important Start: Community Agreements
Community Agreements are used in many settings to clarify boundaries and set expectations for communications amongst participants in a group dynamic, whether that be in the classroom, in a therapy group, education committee, etc. This is a living document that can be further developed with specific groups and catered to what will make the participants feel most comfortable. Here are some agreements that past students have found to be most helpful:
- Confidentiality/Vegas Rule–what happens in this class stays here; we are not to share what other students share outside of this class without their direct prior approval
- Check your assumptions–everything is actually much more complex than what we may realize at first
- Utilize curiosity–ask questions of yourself and about the world around you
- Lean into discomfort–some topics may make you feel uncomfortable and it can be helpful to further analyze this; be open to new perspectives even if they seem different from your own previous understandings
- Respect personal boundaries–treat others how they’d like to be treated; ask, don’t assume!
- Be open to feedback; check your defensiveness
- Be open to others’ questions and mistakes–we are all coming into this class with different understandings and levels of comfort regarding these topics
- Approach topics with an open mind
- Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements–refrain from offering advice and speak from your own perspective instead
- Respecting disagreement/respectfully disagreeing
- Be encouraging and offer words of affirmation and validation in your communications (fully online, in-person, or remote) with others
- No outing of others–people may share their identities in this course but it is inappropriate, and in some cases even dangerous, for us to tell others about their identity; let people share their own stories on their own terms
- Don’t yuck my yum–if I were to say, “I really love chocolate!” and someone responded, “Yuck! Chocolate is gross,” I would feel very upset and looked down upon for this. People have a broad range of likes in terms of sexuality and it is not our place to judge others. We will not disparage the likes or perspectives of others.
- Make space, take space; be mindful to not monopolize and invite in others to share their experiences
As we explore these topics, keep these questions in mind:
- For the purpose of this course, what two ways might the term “sex” be used and how is “sex” (in terms of sexual anatomy) different than “gender”?
- How might the media influence peoples’ views about sexuality?
- How might someone’s particular intersecting identities influence their perspective on gender or sexuality?
- What are microaggressions, and, in the video by Derald Wing Sue, what are some ways we can combat them?
- What are some terms within the 2SMLGBTQIA+ umbrella that relate to gender identity and some that relate to sexual orientation?
What Does “Sex” Even Mean?
Sex can mean sexual anatomy and sexual behavior
To further complicate matters: Some people argue that certain sexual behaviors do not count as sex, such as oral sex.
President Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
To avoid this obstacle in terminology, sexual behavior for the sake of this course will be defined as “behavior that produces arousal and increases the chance of orgasm” (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017, p. 3). To be clear- that doesn’t mean orgasm needs to happen- the focus is really on behavior that causes sensory arousal.
Sex and gender are also often used interchangeably; however, they mean very different things.
Sex refers to anatomical and genetic characteristics, such as genitals, sex chromosomes, bodyweight distributions, hormones, etc., and sex is often assigned to individuals by doctors at birth based on the way their genitals look.
Gender is a social construct that includes certain expectations of gender roles and gendered behaviors based on a given society. Each individual person has their own understanding of gender based on other factors as well such as family upbringing, peers, media, religion, personal preferences, etc.
- Gender expression is the way that people dress, walk, talk, alter their natural physical appearance (i.e. shave, wear makeup, etc.), and more to fit in with stereotypical or traditional perspectives on how men or women are meant to present themselves based on a given dominant culture within a society. Individuals may also challenge these dominant cultural norms by aligning more closely with subcultures or marginalized communities who develop alternative norms or flexibility around the way that gender is expressed. In what ways do you perform your gender by the clothing you wear, the way you cut your hair, the mannerisms you use, the way you talk, etc.? People are constantly altering themselves to fit in with these social constructs. Pay attention to this as we are all playing a part based on the safety we feel in our communities to either conform to tradition or move toward more flexibility.
- Gender perception–how other people perceive our gender regardless of the way we identify. This is often a huge cause of dysphoria, not just for transgender or gender-expansive individuals, making people feel like others are judging or viewing them poorly based on how well they are able to conform to the stereotypes and cultural traditions within a society.
- Gender identity is the way individuals make sense of gender for themselves. This a personal exploration which may fit in with traditional perspectives on maleness/masculinity or femaleness/femininity, combinations of these, something else entirely, additional options outside a gender binary system based on one’s culture, none of these, etc. Since gender is a social construct, stereotypes and early learning often influence the way people think about their gender and those of others subconsciously even when they themselves do not fit perfectly into one gender category. People tend to overestimate how much they fit in with a given gender and ignore information that does not align with this internalized narrative.
- Gender binary–the idea that there are only two genders-male and female.
- Gender spectrum–researchers studying human sexuality are moving more toward the belief that gender exists on a continuum with an endless range of personal possibilities.
Throughout previous terms, students have continued to confuse sex and gender, so make sure you understand the difference.
More on this as we go through the term!
In many instances, the media impacts our understanding of sexuality more than scientific research. On the positive side, when information is accurate and up-to-date, this can be a useful mechanism to share information. Unfortunately, widespread consumption of media also means that misinformation can run rampant. In a recent analysis, researchers found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the disposition to spread false information or rumors is directly linked to the development of anxiety in a variety of of different age populations (Rocha, de Moura, Desidério, et al., 2021).
People begin to think what they see in the media reflects mainstream cultural views on sexuality.
News broadcasting companies, such as MSNBC, Fox, etc. choose what news to report on and what to ignore, which shapes what we view as important. Certainly an issue of our time is polarized content and exposure to fake news (and misinformation more broadly). Importantly misinformation is not equally distributed across all users (Pennycook & Rand, 2021).
Behavior is learned through reinforcement, punishment, and imitation. Subconsciously we can start to imitate what we see in the media.
How would you define culture?
Common Culture Definition
- Where you’re from
- A group of people with a standard way of thinking amongst each other
- Ritual or practices you partake in
- Ideas or values passed down from generation to generation
- Current times
Dominant Cultures and Co-cultures/Subcultures
- Operate off of power and privilege (dominant cultures) or oppression and marginalization (subcultures or co-cultures) based on the structure of society.
Intersectional View of Culture
Intersecting identities–race, ethnicity, age, health status and/or disability (neurological, mental and/or physical), gender, sexuality, spirituality/religion, body size/body image, education, family wealth/resources, family background, geographical location, immigration status, marital status, parenthood, language, and MORE come together to form our cultural identities. Some of these identities may be privileged within society while others may be oppressed or marginalized. Understanding our totality and the combinations of privilege and marginalization help us to understand the ways these may show up in our interactions with others and create specific power dynamics (Bolding, 2020).
Intersectionality–Term developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the ways that systems of marginalization interconnect to create particular compounding barriers within society. Originally developed to address the ways that race, gender and class intersect in historical and structural ways to impact the lives of Black cisgender women with less access to financial resources in particular, this term has now been expanded to address many forms of interpersonal and systemic oppressions based on the way that society has marginalized certain identities (Bolding, 2020; CTLT Indigenous Initiatives, 2018).
Positionality–The way that privileged identities can lead to unintentional (and in some cases intentional) othering of people with marginalized identities. Oftentimes, our oppressed identities are more present in our mind because of the discriminations we face; however, understanding the ways in which we are privileged are necessary to call out our biases and prevent harms from occurring (CTLT Indigenous Initiatives, 2018).
Culture is also constantly changing and evolving, so it is important to remain culturally humble–recognize that it is not possible to know everything about every identity, but we can work to center the experiences of others rather than making assumptions about their experiences from our own outside perspective.
Ethnocentrism–viewing our own cultural backgrounds as superior to others’ and from which others should be viewed and judged; an automatic way of thinking in many situations and something to be aware of.
Ethnorelativism–understanding that many perspectives exist and that everything is relative depending on peoples’ unique cultural backgrounds; this is thoughtful and reflective which is the better way.
Microaggressions are subtle insults often done unconsciously that are directed at minorities, such as people of color, women, people who are LGBTQIA+, people who are differently-abled (or disabled), etc.
Watch the following video by Derald Wing Sue who is the leading researcher studying cross-cultural issues in our society and their psychological implications:
Make sure to reflect on the ways we can combat these microaggressions.
Check out this article by the American Psychological Association (APA) on ways to confront microaggressions: Clay (2017): Did you really just say that? Here’s advice on how to confront microaggressions, whether you’re a target, bystander or perpetrator.
Many of you have probably heard of LGBT, LGBTQ, or even LGBTQIA+. These are actually a shortened version of a much longer acronym that is constantly expanding as new terms are developed to more accurately represent how people feel about their gender and sexuality. An issue with this acronym is that people often start to confuse gender identity with sexual orientation because terms relating to both are added together here. To help clarify this confusion, an expanded view of this acronym will be explored and the different terms will be sorted based on how they relate to either gender identity or sexual orientation. One term will also relate specifically to biological sex.
Expanded Acronym: 2SMLGGBBTQQIAAPF
While this is an expanded acronym, remember this still does not include all the possible identities.
Terms Relating to Sexual Orientation
- lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, asexual, pansexual and fluid
Terms Relating to Gender Identity
- two-spirit, māhū, genderqueer, bigender, transgender, queer, and questioning
- transgender is often used as unmbrella term that contains other terms like genderqueer, nonbinary, gendernonconforming, gender expansive, etc. (APA, 2022)
Term Relating to Sex (Anatomy, Chromosomes, Genitals, etc.)
Queer and Questioning
Queer and questioning are the only repeat terms for both sexual orientation and gender identity because queer is an umbrella term that can be used for sexuality and/or gender. Also, people can question either their sexuality and gender identity at times.
Why is knowing this important? In order to be inclusive of individuals within human sexuality research, we need to know these terms in order to not accidentally leave people out through the use of non-inclusive language on surveys, forms collecting demographic information, etc. The next section will expand upon terminology further to reflect the most current and respectful terms.
2SMLGBTQIA+ will be used for this text because it centers the experiences of indigenous communities by listing them first–two-spirit (recognized as an umbrella term for those who are members of Alaska Native and Native American communities) and māhū (Native Hawaiian). A common misconception is that gender and sexual fluidity are new when, in reality, this perspective predates binary and rigid views.
Changing Societies, Changing Perspectives
“Homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “transsexual,” and “hermaphrodite” are viewed by some as outdated and especially the last two are viewed as derogatory and offensive by many (APA, 2022). Terms such as “gay”/”lesbian,” “straight,” “transgender”/”gender nonbinary”/”gender expansive,” and “intersex” are viewed now as the more respectful terms (APA, 2022). There may be a generational divide, however, with people who are a part of the older generations still preferring the terms first mentioned (APA, 2022).
Make sure to use the language a person uses to describe themselves or ask what terms they would like you to use to clarify. Some researchers may also use these terms first mentioned in the medical field (i.e. transsexual or hermaphrodite), but the use of such terms may indicate that the study was conducted by people who are not aware of the more respectful language (APA, 2022; Intersex Society of North America, 2008). The most used medical term now to refer to an intersex person’s medical diagnosis is disorder/differences of sex development (DSD) (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015).
Remember, our language to describe human experience is constantly evolving. An example is how some people within younger generations are reclaiming the word “queer”. Queer means strange, odd, different and was used as an insult toward people in the LGBTQ community from older generations, which may result in them not feeling as comfortable to use this terminology (APA, 2022). Many younger people now use this to identify themselves because they view being different in the eyes of society to be a good thing and are proud of their minoritized identity.
Some people of color may not feel as comfortable using the terms “gay” or “lesbian” because the gay and lesbian liberation movements were often led by white individuals who purposefully excluded people of color. For instance, the early feminists were often white and were specifically fighting for white women’s equality to white men, excluding black women in particular. Thus, QPOC (queer person of color), same gender loving, down low (DL), etc. are some terms that might be used instead (Inman, 2019; Bufanda, n.d.).
Additionally, social movements change our society and lead to progressions over time. For example, the #MeToo Movement is changing how sexual assault and harassment are being discussed compared to the past. This collective discourse around what is considered normative and permissable behavior is shifting from a rape culture more toward a consent culture. The media can be used for good in this way to spread messages and to take a stand against problematic and hurtful behaviors that have long been normalized and accepted.
Consent will be a central topic of discussion throughout this textbook because we cannot engage in healthy sexual behaviors without consent.
FRIES–freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, specific (Planned Parenthood, 2022)
Watch the video provided on the Planned Parenthood website to be able to identify what consent looks like within relationships. If you were presented with different scenarios between people, would you be able to determine if consent is present or not?
Circles of Sexuality
Sexuality is the total expression of who we are as human beings. It is the most complex human attribute and encompasses our whole psychosocial development—our values, attitudes, physical appearance, beliefs, emotions, attractions, our likes/dislikes, our spiritual selves. This is all influenced by our values, culture, socialization, politics, and laws. One conceptual model of sexuality as developed by Dennis Daily is the “Circles of Sexuality” model.
Often represented as the “top circle” is sensuality, which covers the ways our bodies feel pleasure through all of our senses. Sensuality also includes the need we humans have for touch, otherwise referred to as skin hunger. As we age, our desire for sex may diminish, but our need for caring, comforting and intimate touch is as strong as ever. There are incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch, suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. Even if you (or your partner) are ill or have physical disabilities, you can engage in touch and/or intimate acts and thereby benefit from closeness with another person. The sensuality circle tends to represent closeness in physiological terms.
Next to sensuality, is the circle of intimacy, which encompasses our emotional behaviors and needs, such as trust, respect, and loving or liking someone. The need for intimacy is ageless. We never outgrow our need for affection, emotional closeness and intimacy though aging does change our perspectives on sex and sexuality. Intimacy tends to represent closeness in emotional and affectionate terms and for seniors can mean companionship, affection and enduring tenderness and concern.
A third circle is titled sexual identity, which contains gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation. At the very heart of the search for sexual identity is the more general but profound question of, “Who Am I?” Also included in this circle is sexual orientation—who we are attracted to…physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually.
Then is the sexual health and reproduction circle, which many people think of as “sex”. Indeed it is important to address our sex behaviors and to talk about risk reduction messages such as using condoms, not forgetting the lube, body positioning, playing with sex toys, etc., which are important to STI/HIV prevention.
Finally, there is the circle of sexualization. Sexualization includes things like harassment, rape, misuse of power, and withholding sex. It can include unrealistic portrayals of sexuality in order to sell products, including movies and TV shows.
In summary, the ability to express and enjoy one’s sexuality leads to feelings of pleasure and well being, feelings that are essential at any age if our human needs for intimacy and belonging are to be satisfied, and we are to age successfully (think Maslow and his hierarchy of human needs).
Instead of asking others to “come out” and share parts of themselves when they may not feel comfortable or safe to do so, what can we do to create a more accepting and affirming environment for others to be able to be themselves? The responsibility lies on the shoulders of each one of us to indicate that we are supportive and that we value equity and inclusion. “Invite in” others to be their full selves in the way that you express yourself and create spaces that are safe havens from hatred and shame.
Licenses and Attribution
The Circles of Sexuality section is from Cooper, S. (2019). The circles of sexuality and aging. Hostos Community College. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Adaptations: Reformatted. Modified content for language, application to subject and cohesion.
The following videos are Licensed: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.
Last Week Tonight. (2015). Sex education: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0jQz6jqQS0
TED. (2016). The urgency of intersectionality | Kimberlé Crenshaw. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o
Hopkins, P. (2018). What is intersectionality? Newcastle University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1islM0ytkE
The Root. (2020). Why some Black LGBTQIA+ folks are done ‘coming out.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdCKe0QBuwQ&t=1s
Wiley. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJL2P0JsAS4
hashtagNYU. (2014). Let’s talk about consent. New York University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBFCeGDVAdQ&t=1s
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Explaining disorders of sex development & intersexuality. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/genitourinary-tract/Pages/Explaining-Disorders-of-Sex-Development-Intersexuality.aspx
American Psychological Association. (2022). Bias-free language. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language
Bolding, P. (2020). Intersectionality vs. intersecting identities. https://www.oregon.gov/deiconference/Documents/Pharoah%20Bolding%20-%20Intersectionality%20vs.%20Intersecting%20Identities.pdf
Bufanda, J. (n.d.). Beyond GLBT: Same-gender loving. Pennsylvania College of Technology. https://www.pct.edu/student-life/student-activities/glbt-services/glbt-issues-unique-to-people-of-color
CTLT Indigenous Initiatives. (2018). Positionality & intersectionality. The University of British Columbia. https://indigenousinitiatives.ctlt.ubc.ca/classroom-climate/positionality-and-intersectionality/
Cooper, S. (2019). The circles of sexuality and aging. Hostos Community College. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Goldfarb, E. S., & Lieberman, L. D. (2020). Three decades of research: The case for comprehensive sex education. Journal of Adolescent Health. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X20304560
Hyde, J. S., & DeLamater, J. D. (2017). Understanding human sexuality. McGraw-Hill.
Inman, K. (2019). Common history, shared liberation: Understanding Black LGBTQ history. GLAAD. https://www.glaad.org/amp/understanding-black-lgbtq-history-liberation
Intersex Society of North America. (2008). On the word hermaphrodite. https://isna.org/node/16/#on-the-word-hermaphrodite
Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2021). The psychology of fake news. Trends in cognitive sciences, 25(5), 388-402. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661321000516
Planned Parenthood. (2022). Sexual consent. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent
Rocha, Y. M., de Moura, G. A., Desidério, G. A., de Oliveira, C. H., Lourenço, F. D., & de Figueiredo Nicolete, L. D. (2021). The impact of fake news on social media and its influence on health during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review. Journal of Public Health, 1-10. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10389-021-01658-z#citeas
Introduction to Human Sexuality by Ericka Goerling & Emerson Wolfe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.