As our understanding of sexuality has (thankfully) evolved, we now all know that it - along with gender - exists on a spectrum. And while some people believe labels aren’t helpful, for others they really can be. In a world where straight, white, cisgender and non-disabled people are still thought of as the norm and anyone else as ‘other’, labels can give people a voice.
As author of Sexuality: A Graphic Guide Meg-John Barker puts it, “My sense is that any label can be very helpful if it helps us to name our experience in a way that feels like a good fit and/or find community. But any label can also be risky if we hold onto it too tightly when perhaps it doesn't fit us so well any more. Labels are also problematic if they risk excluding others or making their experience seem less valid.”
One lesser-used label that many of us within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community still don’t truly understand the meaning of, is heteroflexible. Some consider it old-fashioned and potentially problematic. Others argue it acknowledges that sexuality exists on a spectrum and is fluid and ever-changing.
What does heteroflexible mean?
I spoke to sex educator, author, podcaster and YouTuber Hannah Witton about why she - sometimes - uses the label to describe her sexuality. “For the most part, I am straight,” she tells me. “But I don't identify with the rigidity of straightness. I do believe there are some people who are 100% gay and some that are 100% straight. But putting myself in that box just doesn't feel right, and I am open to whatever life throws at me.”
And while she has had sex with women, she says her sexuality doesn’t hinge on those specific experiences. “Sexuality is so much more than that,” she adds. “It's not just about who we're physically having sex with. It's our desires, our fantasies. And then there's a whole other conversation about romantic attraction and sexual attraction being different things.”
It was only a few years ago when Hannah stumbled across the term heteroflexible. Dr Lindsey Doe, a clinical psychologist who runs the YouTube channel Sexplanations, had explained in a book, The ABCs of LGBT, that she identified this way. “I was reading how she felt about it, and why and how it applies to her, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it's me’.”
As someone who talks about sex openly online, Hannah naturally gets asked a lot of questions about her sexuality. “I'm so aware of things like queerbaiting. If I made a video, that was like ‘I'm not 100% straight’, that would actually be cashing in on and exploiting any sort of ambiguity of my sexuality. I absolutely do not want to go down that route. So that's why I've never fully addressed it. I have just mentioned it if it comes up.”
But when she does talk about heteroflexibility, it's usually for one of two reasons. The first being, "I'm having a private conversation about sexuality and we're getting deep into our identities." And the second, "It's a general mission of mine at the moment to get straight or straight-ish people to examine our sexualities more. Often people with a dominant identity, like heterosexuality, don't actually see this as an identity because it's framed incorrectly in society as 'normal'. 'Great I'm normal! No more questions!' But we need to examine and interrogate that stuff about ourselves too."
Meg-John explains that the label opens up the idea that sexuality can be flexible and fluid, which is “far more accurate for most people than the wider cultural sense that it is something we're born with which is fixed for life”. They add, “It also opens up the sense that hetero people can experience attractions to other genders without that necessarily meaning they have to now class themselves as gay or bisexual.”
Sexual behaviour vs sexual orientation
Hannah says she strongly believes that your sexual behaviour (aka who you have sex with) doesn't doesn't necessarily have to match your sexual orientation (how you identify your sexuality).
“From all of my life experiences, and the experiences that I've heard from other people, those two things very rarely match up. Otherwise, there wouldn't be this obsession with gold star lesbians. A lesbian who has slept with a man isn’t any less of a lesbian. And I think it's the same thing. When people who are straight sleep with someone of the same gender, that doesn't necessarily make them any less straight. And the same with someone who's gay.”
Why heteroflexible and not bisexual?
So if someone is open to experiences with people of all genders, does that not make them bisexual or bicurious? It’s all about how you choose to identify. “The part of me that is maybe sometimes attracted to women just doesn't feel strong enough for me to identify as bisexual,” Hannah explains. “I feel like the term bisexual just does not suit me at all. I had my first crush when I was four. And I had regular crushes through my entire childhood, and it was always boys. I don't think I ever experienced a crush on a girl until I was 17. But even then, I was very confused and it was almost a bit like I just really wanted to be her friend.
“It also comes back to the differences between our sexual fantasies and what we actually want in real life,” she continues. “If you look into my brain and at my sexual fantasies, or you observe my porn watching behaviour, you’d think I am bisexual. But then if you look at my real life and desires, and relationships and my attraction to people, it’s much more straight.”
Looking back at her sexual experiences with women, Hannah says she went into them knowing she wasn’t bisexual. “It wasn't that I had to have sex with a woman just to make sure,” she adds.
Using the label
Hannah doesn’t often use the term to identify her sexuality publicly, instead referring to herself as straight - especially in queer spaces. “If I'm having a deeper conversation with someone about my sexuality, and I want to be more accurate with it, then heteroflexible is the word that I use. But it also depends on who I'm speaking to.
“This just comes from straight privilege, and from being in a heterosexual relationship. I've never experienced any kind of discrimination because of my sexuality. When I am in queer spaces I don’t think it is my place, and it takes away from other people and their experiences that are more important. I would just be taking up space that’s not necessary.”
Is the label problematic?
Hannah has experienced some backlash on the rare occasion she has mentioned heteroflexibility online, with some people saying that flexibility isn't real and that the term equates to bierasure. “I'm happy to address that, because I think that's actually an important discussion to have,” she explains. “I think it was just that classic case of someone saying something about their sexuality or their sexual behaviour. And then someone else immediately, from their own experiences and with their own preconceptions goes, ‘Oh, they must be bi.’ But that person might feel as though that word doesn't suit or fit them. People just really love to put people in a box because they think it will help them understand others.”
Meg-John says there is a risk of bierasure with the term, as we still live in a culture that is both skeptical and demonising of bisexuality. “Bi people are represented as greedy, suspicious, dangerous and threatening, or dismissed as not real, immature, going through a phase, etc. So it could be that people prefer to adopt words like heteroflexible because saying that they are bisexual feels too risky,” they say.
“The danger is that that supports the cultural assumption that everyone is 'really' more-or-less gay or straight, and there isn't really any bisexuality (even though most studies find that actually most people are somewhere between the extremes of gay and straight in their attractions).”
Finding your label
For anyone unsure about what label suits them best, Meg-John suggests asking what the different terms open up and close down for you.
“I'd encourage you to embrace them if they feel like a good fit, if they help you find communities of like-minded people, or if they help you to make sense of yourself,” they add. “But try to hold the terms lightly so that you can let them go if things change for you, or if you find a word which is an even better fit. And make sure that, in using these terms for yourself, you don’t try to put them on anybody else, or exclude or erase anyone else's experience in the ways you use them.”
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