A New Humanist Take on the Emerging Vocabulary of Romance, Gender, and Sexuality

I COULD IDENTIFY AS demi-romantic, demi-sexual, cisgender, non-monogamous and pan-erotic. Or I could just identify as myself. However, it seems that finding new words for expressing people’s sexual, romantic, and gender-oriented identities has become something of national interest, at least here in the United States. Thank Caitlyn Jenner for driving it into the mainstream, but it’s been broadcast via online media now for years. Many of its online champions are also decidedly different from one another and notably un-Caitlynesque, indicating that the movement to significantly shift our perspective on sexuality, romance, and gender is both nuanced and far-reaching, and spans diverse financial and sociopolitical groups that color the issue with shades of their own preexisting ideologies.

Growing up in northwest Georgia in the 1980s and ’90s, I received the following message from middle-class American culture: You will be born a girl or a boy. Boys and girls grow into men and women who will later fall in love with each other. You will have one true love with whom you will partner in marriage, the goal of which is to “live happily ever after.” Sometimes, it doesn’t work out this way. For example, men may love other men. Or women may love other women. Or marriages will be broken and end in divorce. It is okay that these things happen, but it isn’t normal or expected for you.

While this message is arguably better than some older alternatives, it still has many flaws. When I share a more accurate version with my children, it will go something like this: You will be born with traits of boys, girls, or both together. All children grow into adults who will question every aspect of their identity and reach multiple conclusions. As you continue to experience life, you will form a variety of relationships, each of which has its own value and ideally brings you closer to understanding and appreciating your own self-worth. Remember, the goal is not to live happily ever after with your one true love forever, but to share your life with people who help you feel authentic, empowered, and whole.

I have lived in a way that makes the differences between the messages feel subtle, but I’m aware they are not. One major reason for this is that the second message presents a direct affront to religion. As far as contemporary Christianity is concerned, marriage is a sacred union, and acts breaking it are sins. Regardless of whether they are to be condemned harshly by fundamentalism or atoned for peacefully by a progressive Protestant’s prayer for forgiveness, they would be deemed evidence of humanity’s inherently flawed nature. Alternatively, fringe sects may support polyamory, however this would only apply when a male partner takes on multiple female partners, each of whom honor him according to tenets set forth by his version of God.

By allowing people to view one another outside the confines of religious morality, humanism provides an opportunity for recognizing the natural and inherent value of certain taboos, including those linked to sexual, romantic, and gender identity. Recognizing these taboos as valuable can ultimately lead to the cultivation of widespread acceptance of them as a natural part of the human experience. However, the actual process of discerning a taboo’s value for both an individual and a society requires an unprecedented amount of patience, persistence, education, and openness to change. This is where I think labels can be helpful guides. As an example of the purpose these sexual, romantic, and gender identifications serve, let’s look at mine.

Demi-romantic: According to asexuality.org, the online home of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), a person’s romantic tendencies exist separately from sexual ones. Romantic attraction centers on a desire for closeness, dedication, and sharing the experience of life’s beauty, not necessarily in tandem with having sexual intercourse. Demi-romantics are those who don’t feel an innate need for romance but may become romantically involved with people whom they already consider to be close and trusted friends.

Demi-sexual: This is to sexual intercourse what “demi-romantic” is to romance. For us demi-sexuals, experiencing emotional and intellectual intimacy is an innate prerequisite for sexual intercourse, which we will gladly engage in but don’t seek. Instead, sexual intimacy must arise naturally from a preexisting bond.

Cisgender: This term has come to simply mean “the opposite of transgender.” When I was born, the delivering physician declared me physically female. I continue to identify myself physically, mentally, and spiritually as a woman, so the term “cisgender” applies to me.

Nonmonogamous: I identify with this term because I don’t feel that monogamy is a condition of romantic or sexual love, and my attitude toward relationships illustrates this. It doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of having a monogamous relationship or that I prefer polyamorous relationships. Neither of those notions is true for me. However, a key element of my sexual identity is my feeling that it is neither impossible nor unnatural to have more than one partner during some stages of life. This relates to my belief that relationships are ideally perceived in the context of one’s life story rather than as isolated narratives.

Pan-erotic: While I’ve seen this term crop up on a few AVEN forums as a synonym for “pansexual,” I’m coining my own meaning here. According to AVEN, pansexuals have the ability and desire to form sexual relationships with all people regardless of how these individuals gender-identify. I don’t consider myself pansexual because it implies, in my opinion, a greater openness to sexuality than I possess. I am instead drawn to psychologist Esther Perel’s description of eroticism as “a place you go inside yourself with another.” Eroticism, according to Perel, need not include the physical act of sex. It exists within the mind and is “the cultivation of pleasure for its own sake.” I take pleasure in beauty wherever I find it. I also find it within people of all races, genders, and creeds. I find it within my own body’s folds, curves, and firing synapses. I find it when I walk alongside streams, stand still in the wind, or gaze up at trees. I even find it in the way cars move along a freeway. For me, pan-erotic refers to my resting state of erotic stimulation, and the very omnipresence of this in my life makes it enormously important to how I identify myself—both sexually and otherwise.

I think perhaps the greatest takeaway from exploring the new vocabulary of romance, gender and sexuality is simply that it drives us all closer to knowing ourselves, which in turn makes for a more compassionate and authentic world.