When 33-year-old Payal’s (name changed) friend called her a demisexual recently, she had to Google the word for its meaning. “He was confiding in me about his own sexual orientation and then he said it was strange that I hadn’t realised before that he was gay. I told him that maybe it was because my own sexual awakening had happened late. He agreed and said he had always suspected that I was demisexual [someone capable of feeling sexual attraction only when he or she has formed a strong emotional bond with the person] ,” says Payal, adding with a laugh, “I had always used the word romantic for myself before.”
A Word Of One’s Own
The vocabulary of sexual orientations is expanding to suit individual emotions and desires that are beyond not just the heterosexual majority, but also that of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Sure there’s queer – anyone who doesn’t confirm to dominant expressions of gender and sexuality – but it is not enough, as an increasing number of people look for words that express their diverse experiences.
A 2017 article published in Time magazine uses the example of students in a high school in Utah to look at the “changing meaning of gender and sexuality” and how students are using words beyond the LGBT umbrella to identify themselves. A glossary on the website of the LGBTQIA (the last two letters represent Intersex and Asexual) Resource Centre, University of California, Davis, lists more than 10 different sexual orientations, including allosexual, asexual, demisexual and pansexual. There are many more labels out there on the internet, many of which also bridge the homo-hetero divide and can be used by people of either orientation to convey their more specific identities. As the LGBTQIA Resource Centre glossary explains the terms and definitions “are always evolving and changing and often mean different things to different people”. Spellings of the labels also often vary.
It is not just the physical act of sex, but how someone expresses himself/herself as a sexual person, with all the emotions associated with it, including attraction, jealousy and concern., among others.
An enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectional attraction, or non-attraction, to other people. Sexual orientation can be fluid and people use a variety of labels to describe theirs.
It is how one labels oneself; how one thinks of oneself in terms of to whom one is romantically, emotionally and/or sexually attracted. The most common sexual identities are homosexual, or bisexual or straight
It is different from sexual identity. Identity is the core of one’s being. It is unchangeable, like gay or straight. Preferences can change – one can sexually prefer tall or short people (which can be changeable)
The Indian Experience
The use of these words is not restricted to the West. Delhi-based NGO, Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI), explains the meaning of some of these terms on its Facebook page. LGBTQ rights activist, counsellor and author Vinay Chandran also agrees that “there are more and more people seeking help and explicitly identifying themselves outside of the hetero-homo or man-woman dyad.” While the English-speaking, urban youth are more familiar with the terms, “even those who do not know the labels, like it when I am able to give them a word that represents their feelings. It helps them ‘fit in’,” explains says Megha Sheth, a psychologist working with the Mumbai-based Humsafar Trust. “I am getting an increasing number of people who identify as pansexual or asexual.”
Sheth, 36, who identifies as demisexual, says she had to experience years of confusion before, three years ago, she came across the word that she felt was right for her. “When I was 19-20, the only other sexual identities I was aware of, apart from heterosexuality were LGBT. ‘Q’ was added to that umbrella when I was about 24,” she recalls. “In school, others around me were dating and I would feel confused about why I was not interested. Sometimes, people called me a prude,” she recalls. “For a while, I even thought I could be bisexual and hung out with the community, but it didn’t work. I even consulted psychologists but neither did that help,” she adds.
In comparison, awareness came early to 19-year-old Bharati (name changed on request), probably because the discourse on sexual rights and identities had already gained volume by the time she reached puberty. “I was in Class 9,” says Bharati, “when I started identifying as pansexual. I had known prior to this that I was not straight and not exclusively attracted to men. I knew about bisexuality, but I came across the concept of pansexual online and felt it fit me and my worldview better.”
Of course, it is never easy to accept that you are different in any way than the majority around you. “I did experience some confusion [before I started identifying as pansexual],” agrees Bharati. “I didn’t know anyone in my school who identified as queer. In fact, the closest thing I had to a ‘real’ queer person was like a gossip I’d heard through a friend, who told me of this boy who’d come out as gay and was bullied so much that he left school.” Some of the new and evolving labels are even more difficult for families and friends to understand than the by now familiar LGBTQ. “My parents were more understanding of bisexual, than they were of demisexual. They just want to see me with someone,” admits Sheth.
Simply having a label to identify oneself by may not make it easier for one to assert oneself or get accepted by those around, agrees writer R Raj Rao, “but these terms help people in understanding themselves better.”
Of course, in a country like ours which only made peace with its LGBTQ population as recently as last year with the striking down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which criminalised sex against the order of nature or non-peno-vaginal sex, it will take time for these terms to find place in popular parlance.
Rooted In LGBTQ Rights
The expanding vocabulary of sexual orientations, many feel, owes its roots to the movement for LGBTQ rights. “There were always people who had no sexual desire (asexuals today), had sexual desire for any gender (pansexual) etc. They just never found representation anywhere in society until recently,” says Chandran. “The LGBTQ movement helped give voice to these identities and more identities like these are likely to emerge.”
Also, as Rao puts it, awareness of and acceptance of LGBTQ rights “made people look for terms for sexual orientations that are descriptive rather than prescriptive. Many of the earlier words were abusive.” For him it is the natural creative progress of a language.
Asexual: A person who feels no sexual attraction or doesn’t have desire for sex
Demisexual: Someone who is sexually attracted only to people with whom s/he has formed an emotional attachment
Monosexual: Those attracted to people of only one gender
Polysexual: People who are attracted to more than one gender
Pansexual, Omnisexual: Those who have romantic and sexual desire for others irrespective of their genders
Androsexual: Those who are attracted to men and masculinity
Gynesexual: Those who are attracted to woman and femininity
Autosexual: A person who is aroused by his or her own body and prefers to be intimate with himself/herself
Spectrasexual: The attraction to a wide range of sexes and gender identities
Androgynosexual: Those attracted to androgynous people
Menosexual: A little-known orientation; a person who is attracted to those who are menstruating
Sapiosexual: Many don’t consider this a sexual orientation; someone sexually attracted to intelligence in others
Pomosexual: A person who doesn’t accept or doesn’t fit into any label. Some also consider it an alternative to queer
The new, evolving vocabulary might be mind-boggling for the layman. But Chandran says “the confusion is only for people who believe that everyone should fall into one or two categories”. Love may bloom at first sight and desire be spontaneous, but different experiences of attraction need to thought about, voiced and accommodated to stop oppression of sexual minorities, say queer rights activists.
Not everyone, though, is happy with the fixation with labels. “We are brought up to expect that desire will be heterosexual. Which of course it isn’t. All such labels of identity [whether it be heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual or other such identities] are massively constraining,” says Madhavi Menon, director, Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University. “Desires can’t be categorised. Desires are queer because they tend to be unpredictable, unreliable and surprising. But by embracing labels, we are indulging in a kind of self policing, telling ourselves that we are this and nothing else,” she explains. For those who feel like Menon, the label to go for may be pomosexual – a person who doesn’t accept or doesn’t fit into any sexual orientation label! Some sites, though, say it as an alternative for queer.