We are moving toward a complex, intriguingly unclear and, for some, unnervingly ambiguous world where heterosexuals will be a minority. I repeat: heterosexuals will be a minority. “Wait!” I hear you interrupt, “what do you mean by heterosexuals?” I mean persons who identify as straight and are self-consciously attracted to members of the opposite sex. “What opposite sex?” you ask. And this is where I need to complicate my answer.
Sex is Not Natural
Most readers will probably react to my suggestion in the same way as a friend of mine. “Sex is natural,” my friend argued. “Men are instinctively drawn to women and vice versa. One result of this is procreation. This is why we’ve succeeded as a species for about 300,000 years,” they contended.
Evolutionist that I am, I tend to assume that, like other living phenomena, humans and their biological ancestors adapted to survive and proliferate, and discovered sex was a reliable mechanism for reproducing. It made sense to assign different roles to different types of people in order to pair them and regulate procreation. From this perspective, monogamy owed more to evolutionary adaptation than conjugal fidelity.
“But we don’t learn sexual attraction,” my friend objected. “Can you remember learning to speak?” I replied. No. None of us can remember acquiring language. We have naturally-endowed physical and cognitive equipment that permits us to speak and perhaps what Noam Chomsky called deep structures that govern how we produce and use language. But we don’t remember learning to talk. And maybe sexual attraction is similar. We have deep propensities, but learn to develop the manner in which we experience and express them. Heterosexuality is not pre-mapped in our minds, even if it feels like it is.
We humans are capable of countless passions, tendencies and dispositions but have been encouraged to establish our sexual identities in a way that conforms with an arrangement composed of two parts. That means we are being encouraged to think about and assemble our sexual identities in a way that conforms with this.
“Encouraged? We don’t need encouraging,” my friend objected. “Men are men and women are different … it’s obvious.” To which I pointed out that even the physical differences we now regard as plain to see are our own creations. For most of human history, we saw similarities, the female body being just a gradation of one basic male type. “Medical theory taught that there was but one sex,” wrote Jeffrey Weeks in his 2003 book Sexuality, “with the female body simply an inverted version of the male.” Historically, a woman’s clitoris was thought to be an underdeveloped version of the equivalent structure in men—the penis.
If this strikes you as counterintuitive, consider Thomas Laqueur’s studies, which indicate that the apportionment of the world into men and women based on sex—what we now call the binary—is a relatively recent convention that emerged just over 300 years ago. That’s when a clear division between males and females was recognized. Even then, no one knew for sure what made men and women fundamentally different. Hormones were not discovered until the 1920s and 1930s.
Weeks is among several scholars taking their cue from Michel Foucault’s precept “sexuality is the name given to a historical construct,” the idea being that sexuality is experience and is reconstructed continuously as humans move through their life cycle and through changing cultural contexts. We think of ourselves and others in terms of sexual types because social arrangements make it easier to navigate through life as, for example, a cisgender heterosexual male rather than a protean sexual being with a wide range of sexual tastes. But sexuality itself is a capacity for sexual feelings and experiences and, as such, is continually shaped and reshaped, depending on circumstances, surroundings, frames of reference and contextual relationships.
Gen Z’s Fluid Space
So, why should all this lead to a decrease in the number of people attracted solely to people on the other side of the binary? First, some statistics. After increases in 2020 and 2021, American adults’ identification as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual held steady in 2022 at 7.2%— double the figure of 2012—when measured by Gallup. That was higher compared to 3.1% of the UK population in 2021, according to the national census. This figure was an increase from 2.7% in 2019 and almost double the percentage from 2014, which was 1.6%.
Worldwide, a 2021 Ipsos study of 19,000 people in 27 countries suggested people born after 1997, i.e. Generation Z, were nearly 4 times as likely as those over 40 to identify as transgender, nonbinary, or, in some way, gender-nonconforming. they were also the age group most likely to identify as something other than heterosexual. 9% of the total identified as LGBTQ+. But for those reaching adulthood in the second decade of this century, the figure doubled to 18%.
The results reflected those of a 2021 study conducted by the Williams Institute at the UCLA school of law: 15.9% of Gen Z adults in the United States identified as bisexual, compared to just 1.8% of Baby Boomers (b. 1946-64). This complemented a 2020 survey by Ipsos that found that only 51% of Gen Z respondents in the UK identified as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 72% of baby boomers.
The figures have only limited value (unless one accepts everyone is honest when volunteering information on their sexuality and that the human population is divisible into distinct categories). I repeat the stats here only to highlight what appears to be an underlying trend: more and more people declare themselves to be LGBTQ, nonbinary or something other than heterosexual. This drift will, I venture, reach an inflection point after which there will be a sharp upswing in the number of people who do not identify as heterosexual.
The censorious attitudes characteristic of much of the 20th century have gone and the first two decades of the 21st have been ones of inclusivity and release. Gay people no longer need to conceal, nor even declare their preferences or have them disclosed by anyone else. Any remnants of stigma have faded. In fact, ambiguity of sexuality arouses respect, even admiration. Los Angeles Times’ Jessica Gelt provides an example: “[Harry] Styles’ ability to exist comfortably, and extremely publicly, in a fluid space along the gender spectrum is particularly resonant.” Gelt believes Styles is a touchtone of contemporary culture and uses the term “gender nonconformity” to capture the mood he personifies.
There are, of course, countervailing forces. While Uganda is the only African country where it is illegal even to identify as gay, several others, including Kenya and Nigeria, have rolled back progress on LGBTQ+ issues. There is also fierce resistance in several Middle Eastern states, where Islam informs all aspects of culture and law. Islam invokes scriptures and the credo of centuries to affirm a canonical truth: homosexuality is a sin.
Roman Catholicism has a similar credo, though Pope Francis has criticized laws that criminalize homosexuality as “unjust,” and supports efforts to welcome LGBTQ+ people into the church. There are 1.8 billion Muslims and 1.36 billion Roman Catholics in the world, so I am not underestimating the religious resistance to the cultural change I predict. Yet some Muslims are liberalizing and many believe there are various ways of interpreting the Quran. There are also discernible signs of change in the Catholic church. Despite this, many will expect the resistance to continue. I believe expectations exist to be defied.
Unstoppable Gender Fluidity
In the twentieth century, sex referred to biological difference and gender was the response of society to that difference. Today such bygone distinctions seem glib and simplistic. The term gender fluidity captures the absence of stability, either in how we are assigned at birth or how society responds to sexuality — both have been liquefied. And the implication of gender fluidity is that sexual orientation and inclination is ever-changing. Let me return to the linguistic analogy: We learn one or maybe two languages without realizing it, then acquire others, perhaps changing dialects and accents as we mature and move from home to mix with others.
Today’s world is populated by sexually diverse people, many spurning the binary and insisting on a pronoun that reflects how they feel about themselves, regardless of how they were assigned at birth. Gender neutral toilets are everywhere. entertainers proclaim their queerness or, in the cases of Cara Delevingne and Demi Lovato, pansexuality — which means not limited by anything (pan means all-inclusive).
Practically every drama on film or tv has nonconforming characters. Each contributes toward a normalization of gender fluidity, bringing what were once regarded as deviations from heteronormativity to a condition of normalcy. Heteronormativity describes a worldview that endorses heterosexuality as the normal sexual orientation. It will be dismembered over the next two decades.
The decline of heterosexuality does not mean the end of procreation or human survival Marriage will survive but, with the acceptance of same-sex marriage over the past decade, there is likely to be further expansions of the concept of marriage to include polyamorous relationships.
Perhaps I am too sanguine. But I am trying to divine a future, not appraise the present. Gender fluidity is an unstoppable movement. No amount of vestigial prejudice can impede it: It is a question of how — and how fast — the era will take shape. The expansion of choice and multiplication of options is consistent with the diversification we are witnessing in other areas of culture. The days of straight cisgender individuals (and I am one) are not numbered yet, but, in 20 years, their statistical dominance will have gone, replaced by a different type of sexual landscape in which the binary will be only of historical interest.
[Ellis Cashmore’s latest book is The Destruction and Creation of Michael Jackson.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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