Heteroflexibility and Sexual Orientations

A Brief History of Sexual Orientations

Five men of different nationalities at a pride parade

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Heteroflexibility is a term used to describe sexual behavior where someone is usually straight but sometimes has sex with people of the same gender. According to some research, as much as 15% of the U.S. population identifies as heteroflexible. In order to understand what this label means, it can be helpful to understand its history.

This article discusses what heteroflexibility means, how the term emerged, and some of the reasons why the term has been considered controversial.

Hetero- and Queer Orientations

From the late 19th century to recently, American culture only recognized two possible sexual orientations: straight and gay/lesbian. This also held true for the man/woman gender binary, aside from the idea of Two Spirits from Indigenous cultures and other cultures where gender fluidity was more accepted.

Visibility and representation of bisexuality, pansexuality, and other queer orientations have expanded the range of sexual orientation identities acknowledged in "mainstream" American culture.

However, our society still expects people to be heterosexual as the default—a phenomenon known as heteronormativity.

What Is Heteronormativity?

In short, society treats heterosexuals as normal and unworthy of notice, while people who are not heterosexual face extra scrutiny, sexualization, and stigma.

The term heteroflexible has recently emerged to describe people who have same-sex desires but still identify as primarily heterosexual.

The History of Heteroflexibility

Sexual orientation categories appeared in the late 19th century, with the invention of the words "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality." Before the invention of these words, homosexual "acts" were outlawed, but there was no one widely-accepted word for identifying as a person who had sex with people of the same gender.

In his famous book "Gay New York," historian George Chauncey described how New York men in the early 20th century could have sexual relationships with other men without losing their identity as "men" (which at the time, was synonymous with heterosexual).

As long as a man dressed and acted in masculine ways and was the penetrating partner, it was acceptable to have intercourse with other men. Men who acted in feminine ways and were the receiving partner were called "fairies" rather than gay. It was all about gender performance, rather than attraction.

As the 20th century moved on, however, ideas of heterosexuality and homosexuality took hold as identities.

In other words, having sex with people of the same gender became more than an act; it was something someone was, rather than something someone just did—an identity over an activity.

These categories have been more or less flexible throughout the last hundred years. The 1960s and 70s were looser in terms of sexual experimentation and identity, while the 80s and 90s saw a return of clear, rigid boundaries around the actions that were acceptable from heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Heteroflexibility Today

In the past few years, social scientists have seen a return to flexible notions of what it means to be heterosexual. Research from 2018 by social scientists Carillo and Hoffman suggests that men who have an occasional attraction to and/or sex with other men are able to expand the category of "heterosexuality" to include their behavior.

Mostly, they do this in terms of denying their attraction to men and talking about sex with men as only for pleasure, when women are unavailable, or as a "perversion."

This research concluded that instead of switching to a bisexual identity, these men change the definition of heterosexual to include occasional attraction or sexual acts with men—something that sounds a lot like the early 20th century New Yorkers that Chauncey studied.

As long as these men maintain that they are not inherently attracted to men and behave in typically masculine ways, they mentally retain their heterosexuality—and privilege.

Heteroflexibility as an Orientation

Heteroflexibility as an orientation is akin to categories 1 and 2 on the Kinsey scale, with 0 being "exclusively heterosexual" and 6 being "exclusively homosexual." However, because it involves attraction and/or acts with people of the same sex, some critics have argued that heteroflexible is just another word for bisexuality.

Some suggest that some people might choose heteroflexibility as a label as a way to minimize stigma.

Though research by Carillo and Hoffman highlights a key difference between bisexual and heteroflexibility for some people, which is that heteroflexible people sometimes claim that they are not usually attracted to people of the same gender. This raises interesting questions.

Having Sex Without Attraction

Many people have sex with people they are not attracted to and have even enjoyed that sex. It could be for many reasons: They hired a sex worker, or they had sex with an available partner exclusively for their own pleasure, for example.

This means that heteroflexible men don't have to be attracted to men to be willing to have sex with them. But, in some cases, they could also be denying their attraction to avoid the label of homosexual or bisexual. It is difficult for scientists to separate the two, as that would require access to a person's most private thoughts.

What Makes Someone Homosexual?

Some people think that one instance of same-gender attraction or sex makes someone homosexual automatically. This is obviously not the case. Bisexual people have sex with people of the same gender without being homosexual. The boundaries between heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality are often subjective, leaving people lots of leeway in how they can identify.

Therefore, one can choose to identify as predominantly heterosexual even after having sex with people of the same gender. This is why social scientists have created the following categories for talking about sexuality:

  • Sexual orientation identity (what you call yourself)
  • Sexual behavior (what you do)
  • Sexual attraction (who you are attracted to)

These three things can (and often do) show different patterns among individuals and throughout each person's life course.

Ethical Questions

Some critics question whether it is OK for people who have sex with people of the same gender to still claim to be heterosexual.

One common criticism of the term heteroflexibility is that it perpetuates bi-erasure and bi-invisibility. Such criticism suggests that people are identifying as heteroflexible because they are uncomfortable being called bisexual or pansexual.

Some suggest that the label of heteroflexibility can give people the comfort to explore same-sex attractions. This, however, can leave those who describe themselves as heteroflexible feeling that their identity is less valid and only a stopping ground on the journey toward embracing another queer label. 

It is important to remember that people self-define and choose their own labels. Some people may feel that heteroflexible best describes how they feel, while others may feel that a different label such as bisexual, pansexual, or fluid better reflects their sexual identity.

Summary

Heteroflexibility emerged as a term to describe people who identify as predominantly straight (and do not identify as gay, bisexual, pansexual, or another queer label) but sometimes have sex with people of the same gender. The term can be controversial, as some suggest that it contributes to bi-erasure and bi-invisibility. Others suggest that such claims minimize the identities of those who use the heteroflexible label.

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, heteroflexible is just one way to describe someone who does not identify as entirely heterosexual. Labels can be helpful in some ways. They may help people learn to embrace their own identity and find a community of support, for example.

Recent polls suggest that the younger generation may be more comfortable not identifying by a rigid sexuality dichotomy; one recent survey found that among Americans between the ages of 13 and 20, only 48% identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual.

Rather than stress about the labels that people choose, the most important thing is to support all people in the LTBTQ+ community to ensure everyone feels safe, accepted, and supported.

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7 Sources
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