Sexuality and Design
What we can learn from the holistic model of human sexuality to become inclusive by design.
Lately, I’ve found myself wishing inclusion wasn’t such a big topic anymore. That having an inclusive mindset when doing our design process was less of a choice and more of a given. I wish having an accessible color palette or inclusive illustrations was less of a branding decision and more of a requirement to reflect the diversity of the world we live in. This would mean that it’s so normalized to question our own biases and prejudices, that it’s part of our daily lives. I’m probably a wishful thinker, but I keep hoping this is not a distant reality.
Through this article, I’ll be addressing inclusion and exclusion in design through the lens of gender, identity, orientation, and expression. However, discrimination can have multiple repercussions on all aspects of a human being.
The Holistic Model of human sexuality was presented mid 90’s by a Mexican sexologist named Dr. Eusebio Rubio. Within his theory, he expresses that sexuality is better understood through 4 different potentialities, known as holons. Holons happen to be deeply intertwined with one another, as they are part of the system and are a system of their own. These holons are Reproductivity, Gender, Eroticism, and Interpersonal Affective Bonding.
This theory suggests that to fully understand the complexity of these human potentialities, one should always aim to study them through different lenses and multiple perspectives. Doing so nurtures an ideal understanding since human experience can be studied from sociological, biological, psychological, and cultural aspects.
Now, why are all these concepts relevant to human-centered design? Well, I believe we all have a responsibility as creatives, designers, and creators of digital products and services. We can unconsciously become accomplices and perpetrators of experiences that drive exclusion, discrimination, and violence. Instead, we should ensure that the experiences we create are not alienating anyone through gender identification, or exposing already vulnerable groups towards violent or triggering environments.
Paradigms of Sexuality
Here are some of the concepts and paradigms of human sexuality that could avail our design process and decision making. These concepts and questions have helped me be mindful and grow in awareness of the delicate and profound consequences any decision taken lightly may have:
The expression of our reproductivity is a choice.
Reproductivity comes from the need of the human species to reproduce efficiently. Both in a biological and ideological way through the ideal of transcendence. It feeds the need for our traditions, way of thinking, and human progress to carry on and prevail. It contemplates the mental constructions generated around the possibility of becoming parents or not, biologically or via adoption. And what’s even better, it also contemplates the possibility of teaching, coaching, or mentoring others. These are all choices that actually express our reproductivity, our need to linger. How are we helping users and even ourselves transcend? How do we ensure that we’re empowering users to do something that’s meaningful?
Our gender human experience goes beyond our biological sex assignation.
From a biological perspective, we’re sexually dimorphic beings. This has been the base of comprehension around our gender, and while it has helped us jump to conclusions around our nature to some extent, is highly limiting. There are so many different terms to describe gender identity because there are so many ways to experience it! This diversity of terms actually reflects the diversity of humans. Something as simple as a term can become validating, reassuring, and even help people find a community where they can thrive or reach for help.
At this point in time, our identities are both enriched and twisted by our cultural baggage and carry the heavy burden of gender stereotypes that dictate how someone should look, express, or behave. What’s most dangerous about stereotypes is that they can often justify discrimination or blind us in our aim to target an audience or define a proto-persona and, by doing so, exclude someone out of the picture.
How can we become aware of who we are excluding within our product decisions and even our research? How are we aiding others to express themselves fully?
Erotism considers the pleasurable component of physical experiences, individually experienced or in interaction with other(s).
While often misunderstood or limited to sexual context, eroticism speaks to us about the way we experience pleasure and desire — the joie de vivre. The moment we’re born, we become acquainted with this void to fulfill. We’re no longer in a womb, warm, nurtured, being taken care of… And so, desires are born with our first breath. Eroticism considers the pleasurable component of all physical experiences, individually experienced or in interaction with other(s). Beyond the levels of human manifestation that consider desire, arousal, and climax or orgasm, the concept broadens as we include mental components such as representations, social significance, symbolism, and the regulation we impose on how we live our sexuality. How are we allowing users to reach that sense of fulfillment? How are we making their lives more comfortable and enjoyable through the senses?
Love and attachments are a subjective matter.
Remember how there are many ways to identify ourselves? Well, the same happens for love; there are plenty of ways to experience affection and attraction. The interpersonal affective bonding considers how we relate to others, the bonds and attachments we create, and often rely on. The mere choice of deciding whether to engage and strengthen a relationship or not to. How people interact with one another and form connections and now even through digital environments! We have to think about the depth of these relationships and how much responsibility we have in nurturing healthy bonds through design. How do we make sure we’re not exponentially placing users in dangerous environments? How to foster empathy and even social transformation?
As designers, we need to choose conscious decisions, be aware and informed in order to stop replicating the binary notions of gender, biology, and sexual orientation that limit our human potential for diversity. We can achieve this by giving an accurate representation of the world we live in, and embracing a spectrum model that allows us to help shape our future through inclusion.
As usual with design, these changes’ final state could be through a UI that’s representative of our diverse world and inviting through copy. These design choices end up being well thought and meaningful, and more importantly, they consider everyone and enable people to participate and fulfill their goals.
Take this as an open invitation to challenge how we do things, how we address others, the way pronouns work, the data we request in the products we design. Is gender truly relevant in our research approach?, Or are we just really used to building binary personas?
Let’s stay mindful on the way we collect data and how we make sure it stays secure. How we make sure we do not trigger anyone who’s facing a life-changing definition; for us, it looks like a drop-down with options, yet for someone else, it could be a terrifying experience.
Technology is playing a key part in how we interact, learn, and remember things, they’ve enabled us to reach things we’ve only dreamed of. As we continue innovating and creating digital experiences, are we being conscious of the social paradigms we’re bringing to the digital space? are we aware of the socially toxic behaviors we’re potentializing through our neatly designed experiences?
There are multiple factors to take into consideration in the road towards inclusion and even accessibility. Sexuality is only a small peak in the depth of our complexity. Human factors will always require that we keep an open mind, challenge the way we see the world and how we face our prejudices, and actively question our biases every step of the way. It’s the perfect opportunity to be conscious of the treatment we give others and ourselves.
Be kind, be empathetic.
Every human is unique.
If you’d like to dive deeper into this subject, (and you should!), check out the talk Andrea Cuella, Senior UX Designer at Wizeline Vietnam, and I gave a couple of months back on Inclusive Design and Accessibility.
- [Español] Modelo Holónico de la sexualidad humana por el Dr. Eusebio Rubio
- [English] Inclusion is about Designing the future by Kat Holmes
- [English/French] Self Defined. A modern dictionary about us.
- [English] Your Face Here, Creating illustration guidelines for a more inclusive visual identity by Jennifer Hom from Airbnb
- [English] The challenge of Designing for everyone — Benjamin Evans from Airbnb
We want to recognize the incredible talent behind the art that embellishes our words. Thank you Verónica Aguilar/Lettering and Oliver González/Illustrations. Also a big round of kudos to Sayuri Santibáñez, Maribel Carrillo, and Elba Ornelas for their wonderful help proofreading this article!
About the author:
Cristina is a Senior UX Designer with a Bachelor’s degree in Design from ITESO. She has been driving design strategies for a very diverse set of clients at Wizeline, from non-profit organizations to media, education, fintech, and web security enterprises. Also, she’s on the verge of concluding her master’s degree in Sexuality and Gender Equality.