Problems with Sexuality: Questioning Sexual Orders
Presented at Sexual Disorders, a conference for healthcare professionals
9 July 2004

Jamie Heckert
Department of Sociology
University of Edinburgh

Coming from a sociology department, I will be taking a very different approach from many of the other speakers. Rather than looking at sexual disorders, my research highlights the problems caused by sexual orders. By that, I mean the ways in which we relate to each other that produce boxes and hierarchies.

What is ‘Sexual Orientation’?

My research suggests that one of the key ways this happens is through the concept of sexual orientation. Supposedly, we all fit within one of three sexual orientation boxes. These boxes are arranged in hierarchies. In most situations, it is considered better to be heterosexual. At the same time, there are hierarchies within each of these boxes. Is he acting heterosexual enough? Is she really bisexual?

My experience working in sexual health, as well as in-depth conversations with friends and strangers, indicated to me that real lives did not always fit into these boxes. Also, a lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about how well they fit into the boxes. They worry about whether or not they are normal.

So, I organised this research project on sexual orientation. One aim of the project a was to question this idea of a three box system, as it seems to cause so much suffering. To do that, I wanted to understand the experience of sexual orientation in everyday life. If real-life doesnt fit into these boxes, how does this idea continue to exist? Also, I wanted to talk to people about how they relate to these boxes.

Mixed Sexual Orientation Identity Relationships

Because a lot of people take sexual orientation for granted as a natural fact of life, I decided to talk to people who would not have a straightforward relationship with sexual orientation. I interviewed 16 people in mixed sexual orientation identity relationships. I let people decide for themselves if they fit the definition of having an ongoing romantic and/or sexual relationship where the way in which you identify your sexual orientation, either now or in the past, is different from that of a current partner. I also advised people that sexual orientation identity did not have to be limited to the three main boxes. Participants were recruited through email lists, magazine articles, personal contacts and social networks. Interviews focused on sexual identities, desires, practices and relationships.

My analysis of the data, suggests that participants experience of sexual orientation can be understood in terms of three processes: Policing, Resistance and Empowerment.


Sexual orientation exists because of policing. The borders of the three box system are continuously produced through everyday processes of policing. Shame and violence are key mechanisms through which this policing is effected. At the same time, this box system is tied up with other systems of squeezing life into boxes (gender, relationships, desires and sexual practices).

Here are a few examples from the interview data.

First, Meg described feelings of shame associated with sexuality as a teenager.

I always felt sexually different as a teenager but just because I thought I was obsessed and must have landed from Mars to want so much … to want to wank so much for a girl but thats partly because you dont hear about that. -- Meg

Second, Kev talked about the difficulties of coping with disapproval for his non-monogamous relationship.

Even again with friends, the two of us have been out with friends before and Ive been sort of distracted looking at someone going passed and my friend have been scandalised at me doing this and then my partner looks over and says who are you looking at? Oh, yeah, I like him. And theyve been even more scandalised then. -- Kev

Third, Sandra, a bisexual woman in a relationship with a heterosexual man, discussed her tactics for avoiding policing in gay spaces where her relationship would not be approved of.

I cannot remember many times going to a gay club with my male partner or a gay bar or whatever but I think that, in those occasions, I probably stepped even further away from him so to be seen as friends rather than in a relationship because I didnt want … because I dont trust myself if somebody was to like confront me with youre not queer enough. Im not good with authority. -- Sandra

The coercion involved in these examples of policing can be understood as various forms of representation, of telling people who they really are or how they should live.

  • Young women should not be too sexual.
  • Serious sexual relationships should be monogamous.
  • People in gay bars should only be interested in same-sex relationships.

If people are continually changing, then attempting to keep them fixed in boxes is a form of emotional violence, sometimes backed up with physical violence like queer bashing. Furthermore, if people have the capacity to make their own life choices, then telling them how to live or promoting particular life choices as intrinsicly superior is unethical.


If defining peoples lives or the way they should live is damaging, then we would expect to find that the borders of the three box system, and the other boxes that go along with it, are also resisted. The participants described a wide range of resistance to putting identity, gender, relationships, desires and sexual practices into tidy boxes.

At the time the interview, Pete had only ever been attracted to women, though he rejected the labels heterosexual or straight. He could not relate to attraction to dominant notions of femininity. He described his initial attraction to his partner.

She had the short haircut and so on and combat trousers was a contrast. [...] And of course also how she talked. I mean she was quite, she was really quite funny, I found, not so dry. Loads of girls are very reserved but she wasnt really [...]

When I asked him how this compared to other women he had been attracted to in the past, he said:

… I think I always looked for that. --Pete

Mark, who has one male and one female partner, also rejects identity labels. Here he described his experience of sex with his male partner.

Sex is [...] also just being able to cuddle and feeling just being very comfortable with someone […] he knows that I love him. I do love him dearly and hes told me recently that he loves me and we sleep together occasionally and I can probably count on one hand the amount of times that Ive climaxed with him but, as I say, thats not what its about, for me. Ive heard lots of women say that and I never believed them. It doesnt matter. I dont need … as long as your happy. I used to think yeah, bollocks! But, no, I believe it because Ive experienced it. -- Mark

Finally, Erica, a woman in a relationship with a gay-identified man, described her difficulties trying to fit her identity into a box.

I think when I was trying to think of myself as having a sexual orientation, it was really messing my head up and then I was thinking oh, I must be really messed up and then I realised when I dropped the sexual orientation dilemma, suddenly my head wasnt messed up anymore. -- Erica

While policing is characterised by representation, resistance can be understood in terms of autonomy. Autonomy is people working things out for themselves (self-determination). In each of these last three examples, participants resisted the representations of what their lives were supposed to be like, and worked out for themselves that:

  • The relationship between gender and desire is complex.
  • There is no correct way to experience ‘sex’.
  • Real-life does not necessarily fit in the box.


Developing the capacity for self-determination in resistance to severe sexual policing depends upon a sense of empowerment. Sustained and effective autonomy depends upon both an awareness that there are alternatives to following the rules and staying in the boxes and an emotional capacity to explore ones desires in spite of the sexual orders. For the participants in this research, resistance was empowered through access to alternative ways of thinking and through the support of good relationships.

Kev described the importance of a science-fiction story he had read as a child. The characters were working in a medical lab and wore isolation suits which meant that they could not see each other. Based on other factors, they were attracted to each other and agreed to a sexual liaison.

And theyre going out to get changed and one says by the way, are you male or female? And the other said does it matter? [...] And the guy went oh, no. I was just interested. And that was the first time I remember thinking, oh, there are other people think sort of like Im thinking and it was really cool. But I think that sticks out so much. It was obviously a formative moment in my childhood. -- Kev

In another example, Eva talked about monogamy negotiations with her partner, having experienced both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships in the past.

basically we are monogamous and I havent slipped up yet but I do kind of worry that maybe sometime Ill go out and have a few drinks and meet someone fantastic and [...] I just got off with them that night then maybe it would be a bit of a nightmare to deal with afterwards. [...] Weve kind of talked about this and been like well, maybe it might happen, which is better than me having to promise that Ill never do it or something. --Eva

Finally, Mark described a key experience in his transition from homophobic macho lad to his current situation. He was good friends with the man who is now one of his partners. He found the intimacy of their relationship confusing and difficult. One night, they went out together and got very drunk. Mark decided that he should have sex with his friend, which was a disaster. The next morning, Mark told me,

He made breakfast and [...] we were able to talk about it. It kind of blew me away. I was able to say just what I said to you there. The reason I slept with you last night or tried to sleep with you was because I thought thats what you wanted and thats what I owed you. And he said no, thats completely ridiculous. And thats, I suppose, when I started to believe that people could like me for me and then I began to look at my sexuality as in, well, if I was prepared to do that maybe I could sleep with him as me. -- Mark

I suggest that these examples indicate the importance of experience in developing a sense of empowerment. This may, in part, come simply through experiencing new ideas, as in Kevs example of the science-fiction story, or more profoundly through the practice of relationships based on principles that support autonomy.


So, to return to my initial question, sexual orientation can be understood as the effect of everyday policing of gender, relationships, desires and sexual practices. It is a sexual order. We dont have individual sexual orientations. We are sexually oriented, given sexual directions. As I described, the policing that produces this order causes problems with sexuality. But we also resist orientation, including by chosing for ourselves how to identify ourselves (or to not identify ourselves).

In conclusion, I want to emphasise three points. First, Sexuality is relational, not individual. Our sense of ourselves, our desires, and even our notion of what sexuality is, are all dependent on our relationships with each other. Second, relationships based on representation involve coercion, and these attempts at control result in suffering. The alternative is autonomy, or, in other words, relationships where people individually and collectively makes sense of their lives and decide how to live them. Autonomy undermines the possibility of sexual orders. Third, while a sexual disorders approach may prove useful in helping people, my research suggests that it is also very important to challenge sexual orders as another way of addressing problems with sexuality.

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