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Sexual identity refers to how one thinks of oneself in terms of whom one is romantically or sexually attracted to. Sexual identity and sexual behavior are closely related to sexual orientation, but they are distinguished, with identity referring to an individual's conception of themselves, behavior referring to actual sexual acts performed by the individual, and sexual orientation referring to romantic or sexual attractions toward the opposite sex, the same sex, both sexes, or having no attractions.
Sexual identity may or may not relate to a person's actual sexual orientation. For example, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people may not openly identify as such in a homophobic/heterosexist setting or in areas whose record on LGBT rights is poor.
Sexual identity can change throughout an individual's life, and may or may not align with biological sex. In a 1990 study by the Social Organization of Sexuality, only 16% of women and 36% of men who reported some level of same-sex attraction had a homosexual or bisexual identity. Sexual identity is more closely related to sexual behavior than sexual orientation is. The same survey found that 96% of women and 87% of men with a homosexual or bisexual identity had participated in sex with someone of the same sex, as contrasted to 32% of women and 43% of men who had same-sex attractions. Upon reviewing the results, the organization commented, "Development of self-identification as homosexual or gay is a psychological and socially complex state, something which, in this society, is achieved only over time, often with considerable personal struggle and self-doubt, not to mention social discomfort."
Models of sexual identity development
Several models have been created to describe coming out as a process for gay and lesbian identity development (e.g. Dank, 1971; Cass, 1984; Coleman, 1989; Troiden, 1989).
The Cass identity model, established by Vivienne Cass, outlines six discrete stages transited by individuals who successfully come out: (1) identity confusion, (2) identity comparison, (3) identity tolerance, (4) identity acceptance, (5) identity pride, and (6) identity synthesis. Fassinger's Model of Gay and Lesbian Identity Development contains four stages at the individual and group level: (1) awareness, (2) exploration, (3) deepening/commitment, and (4) internalization/synthesis.
Some models of sexual identity development do not use discrete, ordered stages, but instead conceptualize identity development as consisting of independent identity processes. For example, D'Augelli's model describes six unordered independent identity processes: (1) exiting heterosexual identity, (2) Developing personal LGB identity status, (3) Developing a LGB social identity, (4) Becoming a LGB offspring, (5) Developing a LGB intimacy status, and (6) Entering a LGB community.
However, not every LGBT person follows such a model. For example, some LGBT youth become aware of and accept their same-sex desires or gender identity at puberty in a way similar to which heterosexual teens become aware of their sexuality, i.e. free of any notion of difference, stigma or shame in terms of the gender of the people to whom they are attracted.
- "Sexual Identity and Gender Identity Glossary".
- Reiter L (1989). "Sexual orientation, sexual identity, and the question of choice". Clinical Social Work Journal 17: 138–50.
- Sinclair, Karen, About Whoever: The Social Imprint on Identity and Orientation, NY, 2013 ISBN 9780981450513
- Laumann, Edward O. (1994). The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. University of Chicago Press. p. 299.
- Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexuality identity formation: A theoretical model.Journal of homosexuality, 4(3), 219-235.
- Fassinger, R. E., & Miller, B. A. (1997). Validation of an Inclusive Modelof Sexual Minority Identity Formation on a Sample of Gay Men. Journal of Homosexuality, 32(2), 53-78.
- D'Augelli, A. R. (1994). Identity development and sexual orientation: Toward a model of lesbian, gay, and bisexual development.