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Sexual identity

This article refers to sexual identity as used by sexologists, rather than to sexual orientation, sexual behaviour, gender identity, gender role or sex.

The term sexual identity is used by psychologists and some recent writers in the general area of sexology to describe the gender or sex with which a person identifies, or is identified.

Laymen tend to use sexual identity and sexual preference interchangeably, but this encyclopedia distinguishes between the two concepts: the latter refers to the object of one’s sexual attractions, rather than one’s self-concept.

Scientists such as John Money, Milton Diamond, and Anne Fausto-Sterling have sought to discover and describe the biological processes involved in the formation of sexual identities. A large array of factors have been hypothesized as being determinative, but there is as yet no settled view on these matters.

Formation of sexual identity

A sexual identity is not the result of something that occurs at one point in time, although some scientists and many laymen seek “causes” of sexual identity.

It may be that not all factors relevant to the gradual determination of a sexual identity have yet been identified. The weights of the various factors that are now known or suspected have also not been clearly determined. That being said, there are several different groups of factors that need to be understood:

Genetic factors: Chromosomes play a large part in determining the sexual identity of a child. Normally for humans the configurations are XX and XY for female- and male-bodied people respectively, but this is not always the case to determine completely a sexual identity. Also there can be chromosomal abnormalities and there may end up being XYX, XYY (etc.) configurations as well. Some chromosomal abnormalities may have no outward differences at birth, but may have internal repercussions, however some chromosomal abnormalities may affect the genitalia — these people are known as intersex.

Some people believe that there is a “gay gene.” That view may well turn out to be too simplistic. On the other hand, the genotype of an individual may make his or her sensitivities to various sex hormones different from the sensitivities of other people. One’s genetic constitution has a great deal to say about how one will react to environmental factors, especially in the womb.

Pre-natal factors: The foetus is nurtured within the mother’s womb, and the condition of the mother has an important influence on the health and development of that foetus. If, for instance, a tumour in the mother’s body leads to an abnormally high level of testosterone in her blood stream, the testosterone level in the foetus can be raised and that change can significantly influence its development. For instance, an XX fetus can develop into a baby with a strong resemblance to a normally developed XY boy.

Post-natal factors: Some groups maintain that the socialisation of an infant begins almost at birth, and that sexual identity problems may trace back to difficulties in ascertaining whether an intersex infant is a male, a female, or actually has both male and female genitalia, and, probably more importantly, whether that infant’s brain has developed as would a male’s or a female’s. It appears that, in general, the later on in life the sex of an infant is reassigned from male to female or vice-versa, the greater the confusion and turmoil that child will suffer.

Much criticism has been raised against surgical reassignment until the individual is able to make an autonomous decision because the gender identity of the individual is generally more important to the individual than the technicalities of chromosomal sex, and even genitalia. This is important in considering the case involving John Money’s theory about the gender socialisation of children, in which he argued that there was a specific timeframe in a child’s development where a boy could be brought up as a girl, and vice versa.

This theory was applied to a boy named Bruce: his penis was severely damaged due to a botched circumcision, and the decision was made for Bruce to undergo sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) and be brought up as a girl, “Brenda”. However the end result was far from successful — Brenda never acted like a girl, and eventually underwent SRS again to return to a male physiology. Money began to downplay the success of Bruce’s case, and argued that this failure was due to the change being done too late, past the aforementioned timeframe (See the Colapinto item in the Bibliography for further details). Money’s theories in regard to gender identity plasticity are now no longer regarded as favourably due to this concrete experience.

When considering the case of transgender and transsexual individuals and their sexual identity, many specialists now agree that the greatest importance ought to be placed upon aligning internal gender identity with outward sexual physiology. Many non-operative transgender and transsexual people can and are usually happy with living as their chosen gender, and yet do not obtain SRS for a multitude of reasons. The causes of transgender and transsexuality are not well known, but preliminary evidence may have been found in areas of the brain’s structure and size, i.e., on issues of sexual identity that go beyond the status of the genitalia.

The understanding that a person has of his or her own sexual identity is perhaps never complete because that person may continue to grow and change psychologically — and learning involves physical changes in the brain. On the other hand, as learning and experience increase more of the original picture is filled out to show what that person is and can become. If a young person’s education has gone against the grain somehow, it may happen that a conflict breaks through to the surface and realignment follows, or that a person discovers things about himself or herself that may earlier have been hidden.


The following list is not complete, but it should get the general reader started.

  • John Colapinto As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl; Harper Collins; ISBN 0-06-019211-9
  • Anne Fausto-Sterling; Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and The Construction of Sexuality; Basic Books; ISBN 0465077137
  • Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach; Patterns of Sexual Behavior; Ace Books, 1951
  • Francis Mark Mondimore; A Natural History of Homosexuality; Johns Hopkins University Press; ISBN 0-8018-5440-7
  • John Money; Gay, Straight, and In-between: The Sexology of Erotic Orientation; Oxford University Press, 1988; ISBN 0-19-506331-7

See Also