GRSJ224/Sexuality& Gender; The Dangers of the Binary Labels

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In today’s society, there is a huge importance placed on how we sexually identify ourselves to the world. This predominant heteronormative ideology that exists in North America and many parts of the world has an enormous effect on how we view, understand and learn about our sexualities [1]. For the most part, sexuality is understood to be binary; people are either heterosexual (presumed) or homosexual (identified). While other labels do exists these two labels prevail and are the most widely recognized.

Disclaimer: this page seeks to explore some of the ways in which individuals who prescribe to the heteronormative binary may experience discrimination. Please visit these pages for information about non-binary groups and the ways in which they experience discrimination:

While these new labels have and are being created in an attempt to reflect different sexualities that cannot be encompassed by the heterosexual or homosexual label “it remains debatable whether they transcend the straitjacket of sexual and gender dimorphism[2]



It is important to clarify that gender and sex are two distinctly different concepts, although an individual's sex often plays a large role in dictating that individual's gender. Whenever gender is referred to on this page, it is in reference to the social construct that defines a wide range of characteristics, roles, and identities as being related to an individuals gender. The focus of this page is on the predominant gender binary; female or male. It important to note however that some societies and people do not follow this binary, this is often referred to as non-binary, genderqueer, or the third gender.


Van den Berg’s defines sexuality as: “sexuality involves the things people do, think and feel that is related to their sexual desires”[2]
Sexuality has been traditionally understood through one of two lenses: biological essentialism or social constructionism. Whilst social constructionism identifies external forces as the determinant of an individual's sexuality, biological essentialism focus on the internal factors such as “genes, hormones and brain anatomy” [3]). These two approaches are in constant conflict: “social constructivist scholars have taken biological determinism to task by emphasizing that such an approach to gender and sexuality is simplistic and reductionist" [4].
Moreover, they have pointed out that biological determinism serves the interests of patriarchal ideologies [2] These very different ways of understanding sexuality do however have one main commonality in that they both are currently used to enforce the dominant heterosexist way in which we currently understand sexuality [1].


Binary in this context refers to societies system of dividing people into one of two categories.
The predominant gender binary, in this case, is the idea that an individual fall into one of two possible genders: female or male, attributed based on the shape of the individual's genitalia [5].
The binary in relation to an individuals sexuality infers that an individual is either heterosexual or homosexual.


When we discuss the patriarchy, or the predominant patriarchal ideology, what is being referred to is the social system in which men hold a disproportionate amount of the power. This refers to political, economic, social, religious, etc., power. This imbalance of power specifically defined by many modern societies, yet these societies remain predominantly patriarchal [6].


"Intersectionality is a framework designed to explore the dynamic between co-existing identities (e.g. woman, Black) and connected systems of oppression (e.g. patriarchy, white supremacy)"[7] The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and challenges the homogenous idea of identity. Intersectionality has become extremely important and relevant to the feminist movement.

Dangers of the Binary

Things To Consider

  • Foucault's ideas of power and inequality suggest that these cultural constructs (labels) support the inequalities that exist between men and women in the form of the patriarchy.
  • These labels/sexual identities that we assimilate to have not always existed and are not permanent. People wrongly assume that the term homosexuality has always existed, when in fact it is still a relatively new label [3].
  • It is important to understand that the labels we take on/ are assigned are ““… not wholly owned by the person to whom it is attributed, but it resides in the normative-symbolic structure and in the rules that govern the interaction” [3].


There seems to be a general consensus that if we hope to ever fix the limitations being set on all of our sexualities especially women and marginalized groups sexualities we must first begin by deconstructing the patriarchal heteronormative ideology. It is important to understand that there are major implications for everyone when we begin to attribute sexuality to genetics or culture [3]. These constructs prohibit our sexual freedom in that they fail “ to give an adequate account of the ways in which we live and experience our sexualities”[2].
In order to understand these implications, we need to take a closer look at the problematic results of attributing any one of these things as a means to explain an individual sexuality. Historically it is clear why genetic and biological explanations for homosexuality are problematic. Take the example of the homosexual identity was attempted to be explained through biology, this lens allowed homosexuality to be understood and interpreted by some as a disease, which attached a shameful stigma to the homosexual label [3]. Although it is no longer popular belief that homosexuality is a form of sickness, this shameful stigma remains prevalent. In Iudici & Verdecchia article: "Homophobic Labeling In The Process Of Identity Construction" they examine the role the labeling process plays in homosexuals identity construction, with special attention paid to homophobia [3]. Homophobia, as explained by Iudici & Verdecchia, is based on “prejudice manifested through disgust and hostility towards gays and lesbians” [3]. This homophobia can be felt by homosexuals themselves, they refer to this as “internalized homophobia”. Internalized homophobia can lead to extreme depression, substance abuse, suicide, etc. [3]. Internalized homophobia can be understood as a form of self-surveillance as discussed by Foucault, it has a large effect on the identification process “corresponding to difficulties in terms of acceptance and self-awareness”[3].


It is also very important to recognize the ways in which labeling can be useful for “activating movements, opinions, and discussions that have involved civil society, politics, institutions, and science”[3].

The discourse surrounding labels seems to suggest that overall labeling does more harm to an individual's sexuality than good. The labels currently at our disposal appear to be more restrictive to an individual’s sexuality due to its ingrained sense of determinism and the fact that they have little consideration for how an individual's sexuality can change over time.

The Importance of Intersectionality

It is clear that there is a need to rethink the way in which we understand sexuality. It is being suggested that we should attempt to understand sexuality more as something fluid and changing. Perhaps there is a need to “abandon the heterosexual/homosexual divide” because they prohibit us from understanding sexuality as a “fully embodied process”[2]. This need for “linguistic labeling” is “both a lack of consideration of possible changes inside the path and a lack of importance attributed to the active role of the individual in building his/her sexual orientation”[3]. While sexuality and gender need to both be understood as fluid and ambiguous they should not be understood as one in the same. The general consensus seems to be that this labeling ignores the importance of the individual's experiences in its attempt to generalize and classify their unique sexuality/sexual experiences into a single label [3]. The concept of intersectionality demonstrates exactly why this is relevant. When we attempt to reduce an individual's identity to a single label, that individual is automatically limited and may not feel they have the ability to be whoever they want to be, and to be their true self.
The intersectional approach understands that an individual's identity is comprised of many identities. "All human beings have the power for agency and meaning-making, and even though our choices are constrained by existential, historical, cultural and political situations, our bodies are never determined and fixed”[2]. Our current approach to understanding/defining sexuality is from a third-person ontology which is highly problematic seeing as sexuality is a uniquely lived experience and no two individuals experience it in the same way [2]. We should strive to take on a first-person approach to defining and understanding sexuality we would quickly lose a need for these labels altogether and instead would value our differences rather than trying to disregard and homogenize them. When we homogenize our differences we lose the ability to understand one another and the difficulties, and discrimination that is an individuals lived experience.
This heteronormative patriarchal power that in many ways controls how we understand our sexuality is highly problematic in that it is constructed in order to maintain the patriarchy and continue to suppress women.


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