Two Kinds of Sex—Enjoyment and Identity

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People have sex for many different reasons. The more obvious reasons are pleasure and closeness (and for some, conceiving). The covert reasons (which a person may or may not be aware of) include feeling attractive; feeling powerful; feeling normal; wanting something in return; and getting revenge on a third party.

This is all pretty standard stuff. Old news.

But for many people these days, sex seems to be about something else entirely—not so much about sex as an activity, but as an idea. An identity. A statement of self, of tribe, of belonging. Maybe as a focus of civil rights activism.

This makes sex very political. Sex has always been political, because it involves our autonomy, which most political (and religious) institutions want to limit. But now sex is political because it’s about identity and activism. And today, that doesn’t only mean who we are—it means who we aren’t.

And so while some people are interested in sex as something to do, others are interested in sex as a way of making statements about themselves. And of recognizing potential allies in their identity project. This helps explain the sudden explosion of sexual orientations, many of them esoteric or impossible to define.

For example, some “asexuals” want nothing to do with sex, while other “asexuals” masturbate, or date, or even desire and enjoy sex. So what exactly makes someone “asexual”? Apparently, identifying as one—which tells us nothing. Conversations about asexuality (or its new cousin, aromanticism) sound like they’re about sex, but they aren’t—they’re about identity.

The same is true for new would-be orientations like “demisexual”: sexual attraction only under specific circumstances, such as being in love or feeling deeply understood. This describes almost all healthy adults—everyone’s sexual interest is subject to circumstances. Most people generally think of this as ordinary “sexual attraction” rather than a special feature of identity.

Using the Vocabulary of Sex

Increasing numbers of people are adopting the vocabulary of sex to express their identity dramas or political agendas. When people say a lesbian should be willing to date a woman with a penis, this isn’t about sex. When people say porn shouldn’t depict certain kinds of fantasies, this isn’t about sex. When people say that all sex workers by definition are victims of human trafficking, this isn’t about sex.

That is, not “sex” as most people know it: activities that people do for pleasure, closeness, or the more covert reasons. And so today’s conversations that sound like they’re about sex aren’t necessarily about how to have more pleasure, or communicate better with a partner, or explore sex with someone to establish more intimacy.

Rather, some people today use the language of sex to talk about belonging to a community; being able to express who they truly are in the rest of their non-sexual lives; and rejecting some stereotypes about gender roles (which, in the U.S., exist way less than they used to).

When identity politics are the primary agenda, anger isn’t far behind (thank you, Facebook algorithms). Then come the narratives of victimhood: The demand that others make choices—are you for me or against me (and are you for us or against us)? We get political purity tests, extreme language demands (why do I have to disclose my pronouns if I don’t care what you call me?), and Stalinist ideas about science (research results should not be accepted if they make anyone uncomfortable).

There have always been people who have little or no interest in sex (insert favorite ex-huband joke here). But is there such a thing as “asexuality”? And if there is, who gets to define it?

No one thinks that only diabetics should define or study diabetes, so why can only asexuals define or study asexuality? “Nothing about us without us?” We should all be grateful that there are non-rapists studying rape, young people studying menopause, non-alcoholics studying alcohol abuse, and sex therapists with desire studying low desire.

Legitimate Questions

Is asexuality a sexual orientation? Raising that scientific question should not be considered an aggression. If various asexuals say they want sex, have sex, and enjoy sex, what exactly does “asexuality” have to do with sex? Nothing—it’s about an identity that was manufactured quite recently. People are welcome to any identity they want—just don’t call it a sexual orientation, since it isn’t about sex.

And who decides if asexuality is part of the LGBT+++ family? Is a person who refuses to have sex with Asians—or who will only have sex with Asians—entitled to an orientation, or an identity, or inclusion in the LGBT+++ family?

So let’s keep studying sex, talking about sex, and, if the situation is right, having sex. Let’s recognize that while scientists and clinicians may need a bit of education about this or that form of sexual expression, they are not the enemy, and their enterprise is not the enemy.

Sure, I’m disappointed with what a lot of therapists and physicians don’t know about sex—but it’s not because they’re this-phobic or that-phobic, or insufficiently aware of micro-aggressions, it’s not because they’re “privileged” or haven’t had Diversity training.

It’s because, like every other American, they’ve spent decades marinating in a sex-negative culture. They feel sexual guilt and shame, and they’re not sure they’re sexually normal, just like everyone else. This won’t be changed by any amount of Diversity training, or bullying by people who feel more victimized than thou, or insistence that no sexual minority member can be diagnosed with mental health issues.

Some enjoyable sex with a compassionate partner would, however, benefit a lot of people. Helping people create this, even imperfectly, is a noble calling.

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If you liked this piece, you’ll enjoy my post at

And if you like short videos about sexuality, see my collection at

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