We Know Sexuality Is a Spectrum —Here's What That Means

Hannah Rimm

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We’ve all heard of the term “spectrum,” used to describe everything from colors to mental health, but what does it mean when applied to gender and sexuality? As the world has further explored the deepest parts of sexual identity and orientation, spectrums have been created to help people figure out how to talk about a deeply intimate part of your identity. Spectrums also are a useful tool for researchers and educators who are often tasked with explaining the concepts of gender and sexuality to the general public.

What is a spectrum?

First things first: In this context, a spectrum is a tool (often shown with single-line chart) that has a descriptor on one end and the opposite descriptor on the other end. For example, a common gender spectrum you might see (which is a different thing from sexuality) would have female on one side and male on the other side with space in the middle for those who identify as neither male nor female (such as nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks).

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The Kinsey scale

One of the most famous spectrums is the Kinsey scale. The Kinsey scale is a numerical heterosexual-homosexual rating system created in 1948 by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, according to the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. This scale has heterosexual as 0 on one end and homosexual as 6 on the other end, with 3 in the middle for those who identify as equally hetero and homosexual (or bisexual). It also has an “X” option for those who do not have sexual relationships, or as we call it now, people who are asexual. The scale was one of the first academic tools that challenged perception of sexuality and began discussions that still continue today.

While the Kinsey scale is one of the oldest spectrums and historically important, some don’t consider it the best spectrum for the current state of gender and sexuality. For example, queer educator Lindsay Amer tells SheKnows that the Kinsey scale is “pretty black and white” and “doesn’t really take sexuality into account outside of homo and heterosexual and it’s super-simplistic about asexuality.”

The Kinsey scale only allows for one type of asexuality (which itself is an entire spectrum) and assumes that all attraction is specifically toward men and women, which we know now is not the only kind of attraction, Amer explains.

Other types of scales

Spectrums go far beyond gender and sexual orientation —they can also measure romantic attraction and relationship style (asexuality, aromanticism and grey-sexual identities can fall on these). There are also spectrums that exist within specific communities, such as the kink spectrum.

“On one end [of the kink spectrum], you have submissives, or bottoms,” Zoe Whitney, the founder of SSASE (an educational group for submissive women and nonbinary people), tells SheKnows, “and on the opposite end, you have dominants or tops. And right in the middle of the scale sits the switch, someone who enjoys both.”

According to Whitney, the best part about using this model in the kink community is that different people or relationships can help inspire different places on the spectrum, “so with one person, you might fall closer to submissive, and with someone else, you might be closer to dominant.”

Along the same lines, Amer notes, “Spectrums help us describe different facets of our identity because they represent every possible gender, sexuality, attraction and expression.” This is important because many people struggle to firmly articulate their identity, and spectrums help people define who they are, especially if they exist outside binaries.

Why does any of this matter?

Spectrums are important because they reinforce that our world does not exist in black-and-white binaries. A great way to understand this outside gender and sexuality is to use liking/disliking specific foods. For example, on one end of the broccoli-liking spectrum is the statement, “I love broccoli,” and on the other end is, “I hate broccoli.” You may fall on one end of the spectrum, but a lot of people will also fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe they like broccoli sometimes or only like broccoli steamed or on pizza. People who identify in the middle of the broccoli-liking spectrum need a place to exist that isn’t in the strict love/hate binary.

This same concept can be applied to gender or sexuality — people are complex animals that can’t be understood in binary terms.

It’s also important (and exciting) to note that new spectrums are created all the time. As we discover and talk about new aspects of identity, we create spectrums to help us to define and describe who we are. It can be vulnerable and intimidating sharing these intimate parts of ourselves

For more information on spectrums, check out some of the resources available, including SexInfoOnline, Queer Kid Stuff’s “What Is a Spectrum?!?” video, “The Kinsey Scale” and Ash Hardell’s “Queer, Asexual and Gender Spectrums!” video.

A version of this story was published September 2018.

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