As our understanding of gender and sexuality is evolving, so are the words we use to describe them. There are many more sexual identities and expressions than previously acknowledged, so it’s about time we named more of them.
“The binary options of gender—man or woman—and sexuality—heterosexual or gay—are way too limiting to capture the complexity of human life,” says sex educator Kenna Cook. “There are so many variations in our personalities, beliefs, and DNA that limiting human sexuality to a tiny box of two choices makes it impossible for people to exist authentically.”
Learning the correct terminology for different expressions of gender and sexuality is essential not only to participate in conversations on this topic in an educated way, but also to support the people in your own life who might identify with them. “Language gives us ownership of our identities and autonomy over our personal choices,” says Cook. “Having words to communicate our identities gives us a way to find others similar to us. Words can help us feel seen.”
So, in the interest of educating ourselves and others, here’s a guide to a few human sexuality terms that you might not know, but definitely should.
Cisgender: Identifying with the same sex you were assigned at birth. A cisgender woman, for example, may have been born with female anatomy, like a vulva, and assigned female at birth.
Transgender: Identifying with a gender that differs from the sex you were assigned at birth. For example, trans women are people who may have male anatomy and been assigned male at birth and identify as women.
Queer: Anything other than straight and cisgender, or, more generally, breaking the mold of what society teaches us are the default options for gender and sexuality.
Sexually fluid: Feeling attracted to different genders at different times in one’s lifetime, or open to sexual relationships with a gender that one is not normally attracted to. For example, a heterosexual women who occasionally is attracted to women might identify as sexually fluid.
Words can help us feel seen.
Pansexual: Attracted to all variations of gender identities. Because there are more than two genders, pansexual people may not find the word “bisexual” adequate to describe their sexual identities.
Asexual: Not experiencing sexual attraction to other people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have sexual urges or romantic attraction to others. In fact, many aseuxal people masturbate and have romantic relationships. Some people also feel some sexual attraction to others but view themselves as on the asexual spectrum.
Pangender: Feeling an affiliation with multiple gender identities. A pangender person, for example, might feel they embody male, female, and other genders simultaneously.
Agender: Not identifying with any gender. Agender people might disagree with the whole concept of gender or simply feel that it does not apply to them.
Language gives us ownership of our identities and autonomy over our personal choices.
Non-binary: Not exclusively identifying as male or female. Non-binary people may also identify as agender, pangender, or trans. They can also identify as male or female in addition to being non-binary. Some non-binary people use the pronouns “they/them”.
Genderqueer: Expressing gender outside of cisgender. This could include someone who is trans, non-binary, pangender, agender, or simply “genderqueer,” without any other gender label.
Gender-nonconforming: This term is sometimes used simply to denote a lack of adherence to typical gender roles or stereotypes. Other times, it indicates a refusal to identify with a gender. Some non-binary and trans people also identify as gender-nonconforming.
Polyamory (a.k.a. ethical non-monogamy): Consensually having romantic relationships with more than one person, whether with one primary partner and other secondary partners or with several partners given equal importance.
Having words to communicate our identities gives us a way to find others similar to us.
Open relationship: A relationship in which one or more people are permitted to have other sexual or romantic relationships. This type of relationship agreement can exist in both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships.
Solo polyamory: Someone who considers their primary relationship to be with themselves. Sometimes this means having multiple partners but not a “primary” relationship with anyone.
BDSM: an acronym for Bondage, Dominance, Submission/Sadism, and Masochism.
Kink: a term that is representative of alternative sexual interests like BDSM, sexual fetishes, and other forms of sexual expression that depart from what’s considered “vanilla” sexual expression.
Keep in mind that all these definitions are personal, so you won’t be able to say which term applies to another person unless you ask. For this reason, it’s important not to make assumptions about who someone dates, who they have sex with, or how they identify based on how they look or act.