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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Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory