In a recent Dear Abi column over at, someone asked me if I thought kink and poly were “sexual orientation labels”. It’s such a complex question that I thought it was worth looking at in a little more depth. (For another voice on the topic, I wholeheartedly recommend this lovely vlogbrothers video from 2012.)

As a note, I’m not going to talk much here about gender identity but sexual orientation. Everyone has a gender orientation of some sort: how they define their own gender, how they feel and behave as a result of that definition, and how those things leave them feeling about their own body. The trans* umbrella is massively important and a huge topic, but most of it is a separate issue and I’m not sure this article could do it justice.

I’m quite fond of the dictionary definition of ‘orientation’, which looks quite simple on the face of it: ‘a person's basic attitude, beliefs, or feelings in relation to a particular subject or issue’. The more you think about it, though, the more you realise that simplicity is kind of...deceptive.

A Beginner’s Guide to Sexual Orientation Labels

Most people have a sexual orientation: which genders of other people you’d like to have sexual and/or romantic relationships with. This is probably best expressed as a spectrum that has homosexuality at one end and heterosexuality at the other, with bisexuality and pansexuality in the middle.

The Y-axis of that spectrum is your romantic orientation. This is about who you actually fall in love with and want to have romantic relationships with, and while it’s often the same as your sexual orientation it’s certainly not universally so. I’m sure that heterosexual homoromantics exist, but the more common example is someone who is bisexual or pansexual while also being homoromantic or heteroromantic.

Except really it’s a three-dimensional graph with a Z-axis, because we’re also all on a spectrum that describes how sexual we are. Asexual people don’t feel sexual attraction to anybody, regardless of gender, and may or may not experience romantic attraction; demisexual people only feel sexual attraction to those with whom they are already in an established romantic relationship.

Taking Sexual Orientation Labels to The Next Level

the problem with orientationOnce you’ve figured out all that stuff - which can take a lifetime, incidentally, particularly as it doesn’t always stay the same for everyone all the time - the next step is to think about how you would like your relationships to function in practice. All relationships have rules and boundaries of some sort, whether they’re made explicit or not; one couple might have a rule that says “don’t fantasize sexually about anyone who isn’t the other partner”, while another might have “send me a text if you’re going to fuck someone at a party”. People group these rules into broad categories (monogamy, polyamory, swinging, Relationship Anarchy, etc) but really they’re all individual not just to people but also to relationships themselves - what matters is the list of rules you and your partners have come up with, and how good you all are at living by them.

Then, of course, there’s what kind of sex you want to have. For a lot of people it seems like this is innate, but ‘kinky’ and ‘vanilla’ are a bit overly simplistic. What about people who get really into tantra, or are devoted to the idea of the Freudian pleasure principle, for example? Then you’ve got people who enjoy some of the things we’d call fetish, kink or BDSM, but don’t feel like they’re necessary - as contrasted to the people who just can’t seem to get into vanilla sex at all and just end up a little bored by it.

Besides, the whole thing is just too huge to contemplate. There are thousands of different kinds of kinks and fetishes, as well as a zillion versions of BDSM relationships. I’m wary of labeling polyamory as a sexual orientation because it’s just an umbrella term for a sub-set of something that is universal to relationships. With kink, I’m wary of it because I think there are simply too many individual options. If “what kind of sex you like to have” is an orientation spectrum, it’s so vast that it is rendered essentially meaningless - it must have approximately 7.3 billion individual points on it.

The Bottom Line of Sexual Orientation

This all seems incredibly complicated, and there are lots of people who react to it all by just going “why do we need all these definitions? Why can’t we just get on with it?” I can see their point, but it’s important that we think and talk about this stuff: there isn’t a person on this planet who wouldn’t ultimately benefit from living in a world where the full spectrum of human experience was better tolerated and understood, after all.

There are a lot of terms and words and spectrums involved, because to a certain extent what we’re doing here is battling hypocognition. Most of the time, people can only fully understand an idea for which they have both language and a framework; it seems that better-read and more highly educated people can grasp a wider range of ideas and concepts regardless of their so-called “base intelligence”. These are complex ideas, and relatively new ones at that - and it is our community leading the effort to give people the language and the framework that they need to understand them.

Just to make everything even more complicated: the extreme ends of this spectrum are sometimes described collectively as “monosexuality”, meaning ‘someone who is attracted exclusively to one gender’. Monosexual privilege kind of is actually a thing, and I should write about that sometime as well.

There is some debate about use of the terms ‘bi’ and ‘pan’. I myself fit the “criteria” for pansexuality but have always identified as bisexual, which is yet again another topic for another day.

I assume that aromantic and demiromantic people who are not also asexual or demisexual exist, because...well, everyone exists. It’s not something I’ve ever come across discussion of, however.

My best friend has a story about a terrible one night stand that I feel might be relevant here. Take it from her: a slavish devotion to hedonism can lead to some mind-numbingly boring sex.

Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to genre fiction, social justice and M.A.C lipstick. Follow her on her website or @see_abi_write.

© daniel0 / Dollar Photo Club and W. bootz B. Photography via Flickr with CC BY 2.0 license



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