I also love being asked wacky questions that come from genuine curiosity. For Grade 3s, it’s What is poo made of? Or Why is there hair in my Dad’s armpits? For Grade 5s, it’s What do you get when a mouse mates with a giraffe? And my favourite Grade 7 question was: When you have sex, how do you know when to stop? That’s a really good one.
The truly wacky and creative questions get sparser as the people get older. This is sad and, in truth, devastating. But I always have hope. And then last night, I fished my wish.
Having done my fair share of immigrant-mom imposed math and science courses in high school and undergrad, I wasn’t frazzled. Which is not to say that I understood the question. But, I understood enough to know that in Euclidian space, we have four dimensions (x, y, z, plus time). And in common sexual orientation parlance (gay, bi, straight, etc.) there are two dimensions, both based on gender: mine and theirs. Plus changes over time. That makes three. Only three!
And if you want to get fancy, there is also the categorization of sexual orientation into behaviour, fantasy, and self-identification. But even those are based on the gender of who you’re doing, who you’re daydreaming about, and who you say and feel you are.
So, I could have just said “three”. It was 9:30pm and I wanted to go home. Wacky questions sometimes aren't about the answers; they're just about the chuckles when read out loud. But I couldn’t say it. I mean, can we get more limiting than that? (Though yes, yes we can. When we used to do this all by genital shape – mine and theirs – that was even more limiting). Why do we base the complex and nuanced art and science of attraction, desire, and sexual chemistry on one aspect of human life: Gender?
It bugs me when sexual health workshops (and magazine quizzes) (and dating sites) (and friends) ask, “what’s most important to you in a partner?”. It’s a setup for people to list off “communication”, “trust”, “sense of humour”, “attractive”, “tall”, “smart”, and things like that. When we keep imagining relationships as a shopping list, relationships will keep failing us. Because that attractive, communicative, comedian doesn’t have two-way conversations; or that tall, smart, trustworthy friend of a friend isn’t smart in ways you care about.
Desire shopping-lists assume that the success of a relationship is based on distinct qualities in each individual involved. This fuels annoying and common talk like, “Oh, so-and-so is a total 10”. That 10 might be a 10 to many people, but certainly not to everyone. That random number is not a fact of the person. How many times do I wish that the trembling, self-doubting teens in Grade 12 could understand that! The scoring system is entirely baseless and inept, and needlessly make turn-ons and turn-offs into universal mythologies. So much that, many people will then orient their desires towards the mythological 10, at the expense of tuning into their own unique desires, as well as their sense of who they are and how they want to inhabit their bodies.
Since romantic love has been a thing, people have not only been disappointed by 10s, they have also found gold with unexpected counterparts. Often, the best matches between people contain surprises. We fall in love with others outside our “types”, find ourselves happy with people quite opposite to us, and, as queer realities become more imaginable in many places, we end up with people of genders we weren’t looking for.
You can project all you want into an object of desire if you’re satisfied with its one-way nature. It’s a thrilling experience for many going through puberty, where the fun is all in the yearning. But if you want that desire to be requited or to manifest into connection, something has to be created in the relational Between, as Martin Buber elegantly put forward.
What I mean is, actual sexual connection is something that happens between people, not at them. It’s the feeling of connecting in a particular way, it’s who you become when you’re with them, who they become with you. It’s how you’re seen by them and them by you. Relationships surface certain parts of us and also change us. People who have lots of relationship experience know that, even if you are always you, you are different in every relationship.
So it’s not actually accurate to want someone who is “communicative”. What we want in that case is someone who communicates in a way that works for us, someone we feel on the same page with. And there’s no way to really know how it is until we are in relation to them.
Talking about sexual orientation as relational instead of individual might be a small, insignificant shift for many people, and maybe it’s as inane as trying to map sexual orientation into metric space. But, trust me, it’s going to make everything better.
Imagine when things are difficult in a relationship, when desire wanes, or when chemistry just isn’t there with your Tinder date who’s a 9.5. If we see successful relationships as the result of the coming together of high quality individuals, then when things go wrong it can seem as if it’s one or both individual’s shortcoming. He’s too jealous. She’s too much of an intellectual. They’re not political. When we are rejected in this individualistic framework, it’s always personal.
Even if we, during the moment of rejection, try to pull back and rationalize that it was “bad timing”, or “I’m just not their type”, or “we’ve grown apart”, everything else in the organization of the social world says it’s about us. It skews our perception: Incompatibilities are felt (and responded to) as personal attacks. More on this another time, but let me just make a plug here for increasing our ability to tolerate and feel rejection as important parts of building a strong consent culture.
Sexual orientation in three dimensions (based on a two-point, mine-and-yours gender system, plus time) is like the Equator. It’s a useful reference, a good shorthand, widely understood, and… imaginary. When we forget that it’s only one of many ways to describe desire, it limits our imagination and perception of human possibilities. And just because that limited perception feels normal doesn’t mean it is. It’s just familiar.
I think about the five 14 year-old girls that clung to me in Chinese school every Saturday. I was as boyish as the boys – gently teasing, making gross jokes, jumping railings – but safer and nicer to talk to. They lovingly pushed me around, laughed at my jokes, and dared me to tickle them again and again. It was such titillating fun, and it helped pass the time of hellish weekends spent not learning much Mandarin.
The girls would goad me into saying ridiculous things and pinch me on the arm when I did. And then they’d move their hands away really quickly, in a mixture of daring and shyness. When one time I sprained my ankle by jumping down an entire flight of stairs (my 14-year old version of a 10), two girls sat comforting with me with their heads on my shoulders, one on each side. (I was in heaven, and the ankle, now quite loose and prone to injury, was worth spraining). But I bet few, if any, of them thought what they were doing, what we were all doing, was flirting. It was.
These romances are happening among children and young teens all over the world. In the common framework of sexual orientation, these girls might be said to have had lesbian tendencies (what a hr), or be bi-curious or heterosexually confused. In a more evolved framework, they were androsexual (attracted to masculinities). But in a relational framework, we can get to know them even better: They were oriented towards being giggly against relative stoicism, towards playing up femininity and outsmarting the masculine, towards feeling generous and caring for a fallible other, towards taking turns testing boundaries, and towards being the more beautiful and sensible counterpart.
When we look at sexual connection as relational, many other things fall into place. Like good sex doesn’t just happen between “hot” bodies and the focus on a first date isn’t about being impressive. Instead, first dates are about showing yourselves as you are, and chemistry is what makes bodies and sex feel hotter and hotter.
So back to the original question – How many dimensions does sexual orientation have in metric space? If you ask me (and gosh, I don’t know if they knew what they were getting into when they did), I’d say, Not enough. It depends. And, Many more than I can name.
I’d also say, the metric space doesn’t exist for each person, like a fact about them. Sexual metric spaces are created in Between people, a different one in every Between, and the possibilities within each are infinite. In other words, am I raver or a rocker? I still don't know. And now let's ask other questions.