The Masculine “Compass” Model of Sexual Identity Development…Applicable to All? None?

14 Sep

wall-276741.jpgBy Kolbe Franklin.

In recent years the rhetoric of “born this way,” as a model for understanding sexual orientation, has become normalized in public discourse. From Lady Gaga’s famed song, to polls that indicate that most Americans today feel that homosexuality is biological, sexual orientation is largely understood as an intrinsic, core identity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this perspective is only gaining more support. A 2015 Gallup poll shows that from 1978 to 2015 the percent of adults who claim that homosexuality is something a person is born with increased from 13% to 51% (Jones 2015).

This view has been gaining social, as well as academic, momentum since the 1980s when scientific findings from a variety of disciplines appeared to give legitimacy to the notion that sexual identity was innate, stable, and foundational to a person’s identity. This model, defined as biological essentialism, maintains that same-sex sexual identity has roots in either a person’s genes, brain, or exposure to prenatal hormones. Based on these biological factors, as gay children develop, their same-sex sexuality manifests in a linear fashion, beginning with “‘feelings of differentness’ and progressing through gender atypicality, nascent same-sex attractions, and experimental same-sex behavior” (Diamond 2007: 142). It is assumed that this path ends with the adoption of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity, after which, no further changes in identity will occur. Notably, this model positions individuals with same-sex sexual attractions and behaviors as specific “types” of people.

While this perspective has become largely institutionalized in public opinion, within academic research on sexual orientation, there has been little consensus on the veracity of this model. One particular line of criticism has focused on the idea that this model may be inherently more applicable to men than to women. Nicknamed the “masculine compass model,” critics argue that this paradigm emerged due to the lack of women in early studies of sexual identity. Recently, sociologists and psychologists have begun to argue that this absence of women has led to the creation of a sexual identity paradigm that does not account for the possibility that women and men may have drastically different experiences when it comes to sexual identity development (Diamond 2012; Peplau and Garnets 2000).

The core of this debate focuses on whether men have more stable or innate sexual identities than do women. Diamond (2012) argues that “whereas sexual orientation in men appears to operate as a stable erotic “compass” reliably channeling sexual arousal and motivation toward one gender or the other, sexual orientation in women does not appear to function in this fashion” (73). Specifically, while past findings suggest that men may tend to have relatively exclusive sexual attractions, the possibility exists that women may be more likely to experience sexual desire and arousal for both sexes (Bailey 2009; Chandra, Mosher, Copen, and Sionean 2011; Diamond 2012). Supporting this hypothesis, previous studies have demonstrated that heterosexual and homosexual women are more likely to report changes in the degree of their attraction to same and other-sexed individuals throughout their lives, than are men (Diamond 2012; Kinnish, Strassburg, Turner 2005).

The small body of literature which has investigated the unique experiences of women has found that while a man’s sexuality may function somewhat like biological compass directing him towards a specific gendered object, women’s sexuality does not appear to function precisely in this manner because of its apparent increased responsiveness to and dependence on social influences (Bailey 2009; Diamond 2012; Peplau and Garnets 2000; Rust 1993). Specifically, social and situational factors such as religion, family, and education may have considerable influence on women’s sexual identity which can impact arousal and attraction (Bailey 2009; Baumeister 2000; Chivers, Rieger, Latty, and Bailey 2004; Peplau and Garnets 2000; Rust 1993). This impact of social influences over the life course therefore leads to the potential for greater erotic plasticity and fluidity of sexual orientation, thus challenging the masculine compass model (Bailey 2009; Baumeister 2000; Diamond 2012; Peplau and Garnets 2000).

However, this recent insight engenders additional questions. If the masculine compass model is more applicable to men, why is that the case? Could this perhaps relate to how we socially construct masculinity and femininity differently? Perhaps sexual fluidity is inherently less socially acceptable among men, and therefore, the masculine compass model appears to be true because social forces are encouraging men to adhere to stable identities.

While I do not claim to have all of the answers here, I maintain that is integral to remain critical of normative and institutionalized models of sexual identity development. While scholarly research challenging this model for women has begun to gain increased social and academic attention, perhaps the question should be, why are we so eager to accept that this model is true for men? Conceivably, if the focus changes from how men (and women) experience and develop sexual identity, to why this occurs, the applicability of this normative model and the “born this way” discourse could soon be a distant memory.


Works Cited

Bailey, J.M. 2009. ‘What is sexual orientation and do women have one?’ In D.A. Hope, ed., Nebraska Symposium on motivation: Contemporary Perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities (Vol. 54, pp. 43-63). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Baumeister, R.F. 2000. ‘Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive.’ Psychological Bulletin 126(3): 347-374.

Chandra, A., W.D. Mosher, C. Copen, and C. Sionean. 2011. Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports: 1-36.

Chivers, M.L., G. Rieger, E. Latty, and J.M. Bailey. 2004. ‘A sex difference in the specificity of sexual arousal.’ Psychological Science 15(11): 736-744.

Diamond, L.M. 2007. ‘A dynamical systems approach to the development and expression of female same-sex sexuality.’ Perspectives on Psychological Science 2(2): 142-161.

Diamond, L.M. 2012. ‘The Desire Disorder in Research on Sexual Orientation in Women: Contributions of Dynamic Systems Theory’ Archives of Sexual Behavior 41: 71-83.

Jones, J.M. 2015. ‘Majority in U.S. Now Say Gays and Lesbians Born, Not Made.’, May 20. Retrieved July 30, 2105 ( majority-say-gays-lesbians-born-not-made.aspx).

Kinnish, K.K., D.S. Strassburg, and C.W. Turner. 2005. ‘Sex differences in the flexibility of sexual orientation: A multidimensional retrospective assessment.’ Archives of Sexual Behavior 34: 173-183.

Peplau, L.A., and L.D. Garnets. 2000. ‘A new paradigm for understanding women’s sexuality and sexual orientation. Journal of Social Issues 56: 329-350.

Rust, P.C. 1993. ‘”Coming out” in the Age of Social Constructionism: Sexual Identity Formation among Lesbian and Bisexual Women.” Gender and Society 7(1): 50-77.


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