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A Call For An Intersectional Perspective On Sexuality

Source: Von Dominik Bamberger

Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

When we talk about sexuality, specifically our own sexualities, we sometimes fail to consider other forms of differences (and similarities) among humans.  We need to be sure to consider how our race, ethnicity, sex and gender, social class, age, ability, religion, and nationality shape and influence our sexual identities, desires, preferences, and community memberships.

The Tendency To View One Form Of Difference At A Time

Often, when we talk about difference and, more specifically, inequality, we tend to talk about one form of difference and inequality at a time.  That is, we talk about race, racism, and racial inequality.  Or, we talk about gender, sexism, and gender inequality.  It is rare, however, that we talk about how these forms of difference coexist and shape one another.

In gender studies, sociology, psychology, and the humanities, we use the term intersectionality to describe how forms of difference operate simultaneously and intersect and interact with one another.

So, for example, rather than simply looking at the experiences of bisexuals (i.e., sexual orientation), we could look at the experiences of Latino bisexuals (i.e., ethnicity and sexual orientation), or bisexual teenagers (i.e., sexual orientation and age), or Catholic bisexual immigrants (i.e., religion, sexual orientation, and nationality).

Why Is This More Inclusive View Important?

Although we can get a good sense of someone’s life experiences and sense of self just by looking at their sexual orientation or self-reported sexual identity (e.g., lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, gay, queer), we may be overlooking how other forms of difference shape one’s life.

We are not simply sexual beings; we also have a particular race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, age, ability, and nationality.  For example, if we were only to look at the gap in income between women and men, we would fail to see that Black, Latina, and American Indian women are at an even further disadvantage in pay relative to white men.

Simply considering one form of difference fails to paint a complete picture of individuals’ lives.

A Clear Example

As a Kinsey Confidential site visitor pointed out in a comment to the April 30th blog post, “Dine Out for Life – HIV/AIDS Fundraiser” by Natalie Ingraham, one glaring oversight in research on HIV/AIDS rates among Black men who have sex with men (MSM), who may or may not identify as gay or bisexual, is the consideration of race, or, more specifically, racism.

Two researchers found that the higher HIV infection rate among Black MSMs is not due to riskier or less safe sexual practices (i.e., not using condoms regularly and effectively), but is due largely to a smaller pool of potential sexual partners.

The researchers found that among a sample of  Black, white, Latino, and Asian-American MSMs, Black men were rated the least preferred sexual partners and perceived to be the most likely to be HIV-positive.

Thus, because Black men are considered least desired and most dangerous in terms of HIV/AIDS, they have a harder time finding partnerships with non-Black men, which severely minimizes their pool of potential partners and increases their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.  By simply considering sexual orientation, we’d see that men who have sex with men have higher rates of HIV/AIDS relative to men who have sex with women (MSW), but we would miss the racial and ethnic differences among MSMs and MSWs.

It might be a neat exercise, and certainly helpful in a self-reflective sense, to consider how your own race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, ability, age, and nationality shape and influence your sexual orientation, identity, desires, relationships, preferences, and community memberships.  And, making things a bit more complicated, think about how your sexuality shapes and influences these forms of difference in turn.

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