Heteroflexibility and Sexual Orientations

A Brief History of Sexual Orientations

Five men of different nationalities at a pride parade

Photo by Diego Duarte Cereceda on Unsplash

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 male/female gender binary, aside from the idea of Two Spirits from indigenous cultures and other cultures where gender fluidity was more accepted. Bisexuality, pansexuality, and other queer orientations have recently expanded the range of sexual orientation identities acknowledged in mainstream culture.

However, our society still expects people to be heterosexual—a phenomenon called heteronormativity. In short, society treats heterosexuals as normal and unworthy of notice, while people who are not heterosexual face extra scrutiny, sexualization, and stigma.

Thus, it's predictable that people with same-sex desires and behaviors might still want to be seen as heterosexual, if only to avoid all the negative consequences of "coming out" as non-hetero. What is this new category of heteroflexibility, and what does it mean?

The History

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—there was no 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 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 concludes 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—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.

The benefit of calling yourself heteroflexible instead of bisexual, of course, is the lack of stigma.

Though research by Carillo and Hoffman highlights the main difference between bisexual and heteroflexibility: 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. However, 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 an individual's most private thoughts.

What Makes Someone Homosexual?

Some people think that one instance of same-gender attraction or sex makes someone a homosexual automatically—this is obviously not the case. Bisexuals 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 after having sex with people of the same gender. This is why social scientists have created three different categories:

  • 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 individual's life course.

Ethical Questions

The research on heteroflexibility raises a third question—this one ethical. Is it okay for people who have sex with others 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. 

The struggle for non-heterosexual people to be recognized and embraced as full human beings is still ongoing. Many around the world are still unable to marry, are imprisoned, or even killed for their sexual orientation. Being able to engage sexually with people of the same gender while avoiding all of these negative consequences feels like a betrayal to those who have fought discrimination and stigma their whole lives.

While it's easy to see why someone would want to stay safe and avoid violence by keeping his/her non-heterosexuality a secret, it's more difficult to accept someone who wants the freedom to have sex with people of the same gender without having to deal with all the stigma.

Of course, if we lived in a society that accepted non-heterosexual orientations as fully as they do heterosexuality, we wouldn't have this problem. People would be free to pursue sex and relationships with anybody they want without stigma or violence. However, we are far short of this ideal. Heteroflexibility, in a way, makes it more difficult for non-heterosexuals to protect their human rights and remain safe.

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, heteroflexible is just one way to describe someone who identifies as non-heterosexual. Labels can be helpful in some ways—they may help people learn to embrace their own identity and find a community of support. Recent polls suggest that the younger generation may 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 individuals in the LTBTQ+ community to ensure everyone feels safe, accepted, and supported.

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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