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The spectrum model more accurately represents the ways in which an individual’s sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual and romantic orientations do not always exist as opposite endpoints. They can exist in any combination, and a person's placement on one spectrum does not necessarily determine their placement on any of the others.

The Sex Spectrum

Yes, even sex is not constrained to a binary!

Intersex people are individuals born with physical sex markers (genitals, hormones, gonads, or chromosomes) that are neither clearly male nor female. The existence of intersex people shows that there are not just two sexes, and the lines between sexes can be blurry.

The sex spectrum is the concept of a continuum of people with sexes ranging from people with typical male physiology to people with typical female physiology.

The Gender Identity Spectrum

The gender spectrum visualizes gender as a continuum stretching from men to women and masculine to feminine. Gender identities other than man or woman are considered to be non-binary. The middle range of this spectrum might include:

  • Transgender—a more general term for those who do not identify with the gender generally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth
  • Agender—those who do not identify with any gender
  • Genderqueer or queer—those who feel they are a combination of, between, or beyond genders.

The Gender Expression Spectrum

The spectrum model also creates room for a range of gender expressions that fall between masculine and feminine.

  • Butch—a masculine expression or personality
  • Femme— a feminine expression or personality [pronounced ‘fem’]
  • Androgynous—an expression or personality that mixes masculinity and femininity

The Orientation Spectrum

The orientation spectrum places people whose sexual and/or romantic orientation is toward persons of the same gender and/or sex—gay, lesbian and same-gender-loving people—at one end and people whose sexual and/or romantic orientation is toward persons of the other binary gender or sex—straight people—at the other end. In this model, people who are sexually and/or romantically attracted to both men and women and/or those who are attracted to folks with non-binary genders are found in the middle region, which is why they are often collectively known as middle sexualities.

Many of the same terms used to describe sexual orientation apply to romantic orientation as well. But remember, someone's sexual orientation spectrum is not necessarily the same as their romantic orientation.

  • Bisexual can refer to any person who experiences attraction to people of their own gender as well as other genders, not necessarily at the same time, in the same way or to the same degree.
  • Pansexual can refer to a person who has the potential to be attracted to members of any gender and/or sex.
  • Queer is finding greater use as a non-specific term to describe a sexual orientation other than straight—including people anywhere along this spectrum. It is also sometimes used as an umbrella term for people of all marginalized sexualities and genders.
  • Skoliosexual can refer to people who experience attraction toward non-binary or agender people.

Critiques of the Spectrum Model

The spectrum model has been criticized as being limiting in describing the full range of possible sexualities and genders. Critics of this model argue that male/man and female/woman are not truly opposed to each other but comparable.

A single line connecting two points doesn't make space for identities that exist totally or partially outside of those points rather than between them.
Examples of such identities could include:

  • Intersex people who might feel their sex characteristics are outside of existing categories of male or female.
  • Transgender people who are currently undergoing medical transition and who might consider their sex characteristics to be spread across multiple parts of the spectrum.
  • Genderqueer people, some of whom identify as not between but entirely other than male or female
  • Agender people who do not have a gender.
  • Pansexual, bisexual, or queer people whose sexual orientation includes genderqueer or agender people.
  • Panromantic people who have romantic feelings for others regardless of their sex or gender, including genderqueer or agender people
  • Asexual people who do not experience sexual attraction to any gender. They often feel off the spectrum entirely.
  • Aromantic people who do not experience romantic attraction to any gender.
  • Demisexual people who only experience sexual attraction after a strong intimate bond is formed.

Reflecting on the Spectrum Model

A more accurate and liberating model would require more dimensions than a linear scale, the possibility of existing on multiple points for each category and the ability to depict change over time. You might imagine an identity sphere that allows room for all expression without weighting any one expression as better or more important than another. In this sphere different experiences of sex, sexuality and gender can exist in ever-changing combinations and locations, thus making an even better representation of real diversity, though of course very difficult to depict graphically.

What about you? The following is a worksheet to help you think about where you fall on a continuum. Where do you see yourself in relation to 1 year ago or 5 years ago? Take a moment to print and complete the worksheet. You do not need to share this with anyone. It is a tool for self-reflection.

*See Quick Check Questions: Spectrum Model*

Next Module: Gender Identity