Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory

Last month I wrote:

Sexual identity labels are maps, not territory. Anybody who claims that maps are useless has clearly never gone adventuring, and neither has anyone who claims that maps are a perfectly accurate representation of the territory.

This resonated with many of my friends (especially the adventuring sort), so I wanted to expand on this concept.

The map-territory distinction has a long history in fields like art, philosophy, and, presumably, geography. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about all of that history, but the basic idea is that there is a reality, and there are our representations of that reality, and it’s important not to confuse one for the other.

There are two broad “camps” when it comes to the issue of sexual identity labels, which includes any of the LGBTQ+ identities as well as labels like dominant, submissive, demisexual, and basically any other word people use to say, “This is who I am/what I’m into.”

One camp says that labels are unnecessary. They cannot describe the full variety of human sexual experience, they prevent people from being open to experiences and feelings they might otherwise be open to, and they cause others to make unwarranted assumptions based on others’ labels. This camp might acknowledge that labels were politically necessary at one point to gain visibility and basic rights, but now we’ve reached a point where–even though homophobia still exists and must be fought–they are not necessary for that fight. You can find sex, love, or whatever else you’re looking for without them. Some members of this camp additionally claim that people using labels–especially if they are inventing new ones–are “special snowflakes” who just “want attention” for something that ought to be personal and private.

The other camp says that labels are important and that they are natural categories. That is, people are naturally and necessarily either gay/lesbian, straight, bi, or maybe even ace. While some people may choose not to use a label, that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately fit into one of these categories. Labels are important for politics, research, and social interaction. After all, how are you going to find people like you if you don’t identify what “like you” even means? People who claim they can’t choose one of the available labels are probably confused and haven’t progressed all the way through the stages of sexual identity development.

Both of these camps would be right in some way if the people in them stuck to making observations about themselves rather than about others. Some people don’t like to use labels. Other people like to use labels. Neither is wrong, because both are making choices for themselves in order to create the lives that they want for themselves.

As I wrote, people who claim that maps are universally useless probably don’t do a lot of traveling. Maybe all your loved ones are living with you or just down the street. Maybe you don’t need to leave town and cross rivers and mountains to find them. Others do. For us, labels can be a way of finding others or helping them get to us. Sure, I’m not going to be attracted to everyone that my sexual labels say I have the potential to be attracted to, but I’ll at least be looking in approximately the right place. This way, if I’m looking for trees, I can make sure to at least end up in a forest and not in a desert, or in the middle of the ocean.

On the other hand, maps are also imperfect. That’s not (just) because we need better maps; that’s because they cannot be perfect. The landscape changes. People make mistakes. The mapmaker can’t predict what information will be important for a particular person to know, so they might leave out important things or include extraneous information that clutters up the space and makes it harder to find your way. The researchers who theorize in their offices and then design studies that confirm what they already believe–for instance, by only accepting participants who are able to label themselves “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or (maybe, in some studies) “bisexual”–aren’t out there surveying the land. Of course your map looks perfect when all it does is hang on your wall as decoration.

There’s another challenge, too. Depending on your philosophy, most people do believe that maps depict something that has an objective truth to it: either the river bends here, or it doesn’t. Either the elevation at these coordinates is 100 feet above sea level, or it is not. But when it comes to sexuality, there may not be an objective reality to discover. I’ve just finished reading Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent book, Sexual Fluidity, in which she surveys a variety of ways in which female sexuality may be more complex and undefinable than anyone (who hasn’t personally experienced it) would’ve imagined, so at the moment I’m inclined to believe that an individual’s sexual territory may not be knowable even to them. That’s another reason our sexual identity “maps” will never be perfect.

Nevertheless, having maps is easier than not having maps. But poorly drawn, inaccurate maps can cause a lot of trouble. How many people–women and nonbinary people especially–have I seen worrying that there’s something wrong with them because they’re standing at a crossroads holding up their map and it just doesn’t look anything like what’s in front of them? They think they must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, but what’s actually happened is that someone drew a map lazily and sloppily. “Am I bisexual?” they ask. “Was I actually gay all along?” “Can I be a lesbian if I sometimes have sex with men for fun?” “Am I ace enough to call myself ace?” “I’ve only ever dated men but I like other genders, too, so why do they keep telling me I’m straight?

Sexual labels are maps, not territory. If they don’t seem to be working well, they probably need some updating. For some people, that might be enough to throw out the map altogether and just go wandering. Others want more guidance, more concreteness. Either approach is okay.

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15 thoughts on “Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory

  1. 1

    With the map analogy and the question of whether or not it represents an objective reality, I immediately thought of the borders of countries. A map shows things like a mountain, a river that we kind of agree are real, but they also show borders that we all know are kind of arbitrary. It’s kind of as if ‘bi’ was a nation between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ that only recently gained independence, and the borders are still disputed, and the maps made tend to go with the biases of whoever made them, including people who still won’t recognize ‘bi’ as a nation. And then even if a nation doesn’t exist in an officially recognized political way, people are still living in the geographical area.

    1. 1.2

      The arbitrary political border metaphor is interesting. Consider perhaps, better maps, but in a time before nationalism and maximum borders, when there were marches between counties, or lands between city-states not directly controlled. Sometimes we are more this way, or that way. We change sometimes, and move. Not every place has to be so strongly typed. And maybe one may have citizenship or visas in multiple places.

  2. 2

    Quite a good essay, and one that is probably quite timely for any number of reasons. And I quite agree that the map-territory dichotomy is quite a useful concept, an important touchstone. Somewhat apropos of which, I might recommend a book (though I haven’t read it yet myself) that discusses models which probably qualify as an analogy to maps:

    Model-dependent realism is a view of scientific inquiry that focuses on the role of models of phenomena. It claims reality should be interpreted based upon these models, and where several models overlap in describing a particular subject, multiple, equally valid, realities exist. It claims that it is meaningless to talk about the “true reality” of a model as we can never be absolutely certain of anything. The only meaningful thing is the usefulness of the model. The term “model-dependent realism” was coined by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their 2010 book, The Grand Design.

    Though I kind of disagree about the “multiple … realities exist”, and the “absolutely certain” parts as I think, as you suggested, the utility and accuracy of both maps and models can both be more or less “proven” by the fact that they largely get us where we want to go: they don’t have to be absolutely accurate to be of value. “It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness when only an approximation of the truth is possible.” (Aristotle)

    And I would tend to fall into the camp that there is frequently a large degree of “objective truth” that is represented by our maps and models. That, despite what some have argued, it is not “models all the way down”.

  3. 3

    Even amongst map lovers, and ones who enjoy taking their maps out into the world to encounter new territory, you’ll have completely different navigation styles – I always fix on the names of places (sign posts are good) so my instructions on finding somewhere would tend to be more like “take the second left at Kew Junction” because I’m more involved with reading and interpreting the map, while my partner tends to use recognition of landmarks sans names, so she might say “you take the first right immediately after the big Gothic church”, since she has an eye for reading and interpreting the territory. (In practice, since we both know each other’s styles, we try to cater to each other’s strengths.)

  4. 4

    Imperator Xanthiosa – and then there’s “turn left” v. “turn south”, and “go down” when you mean downhill v. “go down” when you mean south… even when similar viewpoints are being used, the language can be a barrier.

    Interesting analogy – I really like it.

  5. 5

    Further to Imperator Xanthiosa’s post: some people’s models or terminology may be closer to “there’s a traffic jam where the gas tanks used to be” or telling someone who has never been to your area before to “turn at the old Jones place”: however convenient those are for internal modeling, they’re going to need footnotes or explanations.

    In some ways, that’s true of all language, and we have to learn it somewhere; but sometimes it’s worth checking whether my definition of a word is at least close to the definitions of the people I’m talking to. So “what does polyamorous mean to you?” or “would you consider someone bisexual if they….” at least might be a reasonable question. But if someone says “that other person isn’t really” bisexual, or polyamorous, or for that matter straight, I’m going to at least ask for clarification. If someone claims that I am not really bi, or not really poly, I’m going to demand to know how/why they think I know me better than I know myself. Or just call them an idiot and walk away, depending.

  6. 7

    All the above. Yes, this.

    And some people will just read maps wrong. Or they insist that the borders are somewhere else, or refuse to recognize certain nations. Sometimes it’s mistaken, sometimes it is from poor education about maps, and sometimes it is downright on purpose.

    So, i see why some people are anti-map. I can be that way, but they are still useful things. But if any individual wants to say they live in Terra Incognita, or offworld, hey, there is a place for them too. These maps can be as expansive and complex as necessary, even if they still are not the territory. Which, of course, they aren’t.

  7. 8

    I’m also thinking of not just using the same word and meaning something different, but also using different words for the same thing. “It’s across from the old Jones place.” “No, it’s next to the gas station.” “NO, across from the old Jones place!” Which, of course, is next to the gas station.

    (South is down when you live on a hill, though. 😉 )

  8. 10

    Whether traveling or using e.g. Google maps, what is THE BEST kind of map?
    Of course, this is silly, as the best map is different for different scales and purposes.
    Are maps a substitute for visiting the territory?
    Yes, and no.
    Maps aren’t like visits. But they’re valuable for making successful visits, and they’re valuable for everyone, as we don’t have time to visit everywhere in person before dying of old age. I say it’s better to read a map than to say “you won’t have time to visit so forget the map and the territory.”
    Nobody needs a map if they don’t want any information about where they are and never want to even imagine anywhere else. How sad it would be to sit in a hole and declare victory over any desire for knowledge or awareness.

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