By Terri Clark
We love our binaries: Democrat or Republican; male or female; chocolate or vanilla; gay or straight. For many of us, our first concept of sexual orientation was that everyone was either heterosexual or gay … some of us used the “h” word—homosexual. Those who were attracted to and had sex with people of the opposite sex were deemed heterosexual, or “straight.” Those attracted to people of the same sex were gay. For the Baby Boomer generation, it was assumed, and often still is, that you could tell a person’s sexual orientation by the apparent gender of their partner.
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2015 Aging in America Conference
Join Terri Clark and Cathy Croghan at ASA’s 2015 Aging in America Conference March 23–27 in Chicago to learn more about the KSOG and have an opportunity to complete the grid. Participants will be able to ask questions and discuss the variance and fluidity of sexual orientation.
In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the waters were muddied when people began to acknowledge bisexuality, defined as the ability to be attracted to and have sex with people across the gender spectrum. The popular belief was, and still is in many cases, that bisexuals were confused: either they were closeted gays or lesbians or curious straight people. Or bisexual individuals could not maintain monogamous relationships. Some believe that there is no such thing as a bisexual person.
Although such myths persist, many people are beginning to see bisexuality as akin to lesbian, gay and straight. More recently, we are hearing from people who identify as asexual—they are not sexually or romantically attracted to anyone. Attraction, feelings, identity and behaviors are complex parts of our humanness.
In the late 1940s, sexologist and researcher Alfred Kinsey proposed a way to define a person’s sexual orientation by using a scale from 0 to 6. If someone had sexual experiences primarily with people of another gender, that individual was considered a heterosexual, and was rated 0 on the scale. If a person has sex primarily with people of his or her own gender, that person was considered gay (Kinsey used the word homosexual) and rated a 5 or 6 on the scale.
Kinsey’s model is useful in some ways but limited in others because it considers only behavior, not feelings. People can have sexual and erotic feelings and not act on them, or they can participate in sexual behaviors without accompanying erotic feelings. Also Kinsey’s scale did not measure attraction over time. Plus behavior alone is not a good indicator of sexual orientation, especially in any one moment.
A more recent way of assessing the fluidity of sexual orientation is the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid (KSOG), developed by Dr. Fritz Klein and first introduced in his 1987 book, “The Bisexual Option.” Klein thought sexual orientation was a dynamic, multi-variable process. He thought that an individual’s sexual orientation was composed of sexual and non-sexual variables that differed over time, and with age.
Klein’s model also considered how these aspects of a person’s life could change as we age. In the Klein model, sexual orientation is defined as a more fluid aspect of a person’s personality that may change during a person’s lifetime, but that is not controlled or determined by a person’s will. Feelings of attraction are not necessarily a choice.
The KSOG consists of three variables that describe the sexual self (attraction, fantasy and behavior) and three that describe aspects of sexual orientation (emotional preference, social preference, heterosexual or homosexual lifestyle). Klein also included the variable of self-identification.
By completing the KSOG, individuals can ponder the spectrum of complex, interacting and fluid factors that make up our sexual orientation.
The truth is, desire and behavior, orientation and identity do not always line up neatly. This does not mean that we all experience a degree of fluidity, but for many of us, as we age, we experience shifts in desire, behavior or identity (i.e., I used to use the word lesbian but now use bisexual to identify my orientation). A recent survey of LGBT adults conducted by the Pew Research Center found that people who identify as bisexual made up 40 percent of survey respondents.
Individuals want to determine the words and labels that accurately reflect themselves. There is power in identity, language and a sense of community. Evolving language and the words we use to identify our sexual orientation can also offer an understanding of sexual fluidity as a valid experience that challenges traditional concepts of sexuality and sexual identity. It is a personal process, and we need to be respected as we are—it’s all about the art of being human and aging.
Terri Clark, MPH, CHES, is prevention coordinator at ActionAIDS in Philadelphia, PA. Terri is a member of Widener University’s Sexuality and Aging Consortium and an adjunct faculty at Arcadia University. Terri can be reached at email@example.com.
This article was brought to you by the editorial committee of ASA’s LGBT Aging Issues Network (LAIN).
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