A new sexual revolution in the West

By Diltaj Atwal

A sexual revolution is underway.

Kevin Alderson is a University of Calgary professor of psychology and he sees a transformation in the labels used to describe sexuality and gender taking place in western nations. The change is a movement away from talk of sexual orientation to what he calls affectional orientation — a shift that corresponds with changes in how society defines gender. In his upcoming lecture “New Conceptions of Sexuality and Gender,” Alderson sets out to explain changes in sexuality today and how society can accommodate and adapt. The Gauntlet recently sat down with Alderson so he could explain this new sexual revolution.

The Gauntlet: What do you mean when you describe a sexual revolution?

Kevin Alderson: At the lecture, I’m going to be talking about both [sexual revolutions]. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, we had the advent of the birth control pill, which was considered largely responsible for the first sexual revolution. People could, for the first time, be sexual in a more casual way without having to worry about getting pregnant.

My thesis now is that we’re into a next generation sexual revolution which has precipitated not just sexuality, but also gender. In some ways we should be calling this the sexual and gender revolution.

G: How are the definitions of gender and sexuality changing in this new revolution?

KA: One expression that seems to be becoming more common is bisexuality or at least behavioural expressions of bisexuality. We’re still at the time when bisexuals are not well accepted as a viable sexual category by the majority of people. So both heterosexuals and gay/lesbian individuals still want to categorize bisexuals as either this or that.

Our system of sexuality has been about the binary: you’re either gay or straight. One of the new conceptions of sexuality is that it’s not so cut and dry. 

I believe researchers shouldn’t be so concerned about the old construct called sexual orientation. We should be more concerned with what I and others have called affectional orientation. The emphasis is not so much on sex or who you have sex with but on matters of the heart; who you fall in love with and who you don’t.

With gender we are seeing something that’s kind of remarkable: people are bucking the binary. We like to think there are males and females. But transgender people stretch the boundaries for us as a society. They’re in the grey space in between. I’ll be speaking about the idea of being in the middle of gender and what challenges that creates for our society.

G: Are people more vocal about their sexuality and gender than they used to be? 

KA:People have become much more vocal about their explorations of sexuality and gender. This was kept secret from people [only 40 years ago] because it had huge negative connotations. People felt silenced by a society that did not accept them.

It was only in 1973 that the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. There are still some today who believe that people who are gender variant or transgendered should be treated to try to change them.

G: What prompted people to become more vocal?

KA: The big factor, when talking about the rights of queer individuals, was the incredible amount of fighting by the queer community. To go from 1973, when we’re mentally ill, to 2005 when suddenly we can get married, this is a complete spin around for people.

There are less people who grew up in a time when the view towards gays was so negative. When I was a teenager, it was the last thing you would want to be and the last thing you would want to be called. Because of all the work of the gay and lesbian community, this incredible shift has brought us to a point where we are much better tolerated than we’ve ever been in Canadian history.

Now, we are being challenged with the next group of the queer community: those who are questioning their gender.

G: Where else is the sexual revolution taking place? Is it world wide?

KA: From my observations, it seems to be more in western countries. I think there are still 70 countries where homosexual behaviour is illegal. There are still five countries where if you’re caught engaging in a homosexual act, you could be put to death. What we are seeing is more of a western phenomenon, although it’s encroaching into many countries. For example, we see in China a greater tolerance to homosexuality than there has been for a long time and there’s a growing gay community from what I’ve read and  been told.

G: How will these changes affect society? Will changes be long or short term?

KA: It is always the long term we need to be looking at. We’re not just talking about the queer community. We’re talking about the elimination of all kinds of prejudice and discrimination against individuals who are different in so many respects. The long term solution is quite large, but I think if we can begin to fully embrace our queer community, then we will be demonstrating a higher level of acceptance than we find in almost any country in the world.

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