Sexual orientation

From Susan's Place Transgender Resources
Jump to: navigation, search

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation, sexual preference or sexual inclination describes the focus of a person's amorous or erotic desires, fantasies, and feelings. A person's sexual orientation is most often classified by the sex one is "oriented" towards, as:

  • heterosexual, if the focus is primarily a person of the opposite sex,
  • homosexual, if the focus is primarily a person of the same sex;
  • bisexual, if it may be a person of either sex
  • asexual, if there is no sexual attraction to anyone
Gender Prefers Orientation
By gender By birth sex
MTF men straight gay
women lesbian straight
FTM men gay straight
women straight lesbian

These labels are just listed for completeness and to illustrate the futility of labelling.

Complexities and Terminology

Sexual orientation generally refers to how people of various genders create spontaneous feelings in the individual, or which orientation a person identifies with (which may be different). According to some interpretations, person's sexual behavior and sexual identity (self-identification) may or may not reflect his/her sexual orientation. For example, sexual abstinence is independent of sexual orientation in this sense. Some people who may self-identify as having a homosexual orientation engage in heterosexual behavior and even heterosexual marriages to escape social stigma. Most bisexual people have only one sexual or romantic partner at a time, and sometimes happen to have sexual and romantic partners from one only gender throughout their entire lives, despite attraction to some people of both sexes. People with heterosexual attractions may nonetheless have homosexual encounters (including involving initiation by the other party, multiple simultaneous partners, acts of deception, or other unusual social circumstances). A minority of people who self-identify as heterosexual or homosexual actually feel attracted to and engage in sexual behavior with people of both genders.

This situation is complicated further by the fact that there are several different biological and psychosocial components to gender, and a given person may not cleanly fit into a particular category. Some people even find the notion of distinct genders (and distinct sexual orientations based upon them) to be offensive. The complexities of gender are explained in the article on sex.

Sexual fetishism is orthogonal to the gender-based categories of sexual orientation listed above, though of course it may in some cases be an important part of a person's sexual identity and behavior.

Some people feel that various forms of "paraphilia", such as sexual attraction to animals, (zoophilia), furries, or inanimate objects are "alternative" sexual orientations to those listed above. Others argue that these classifications are orthogonal.

Some people use the term queer as an umbrella term to include homosexuality and bisexuality, as well as fetishism, non-human sexual attraction, and other "paraphilia", but it may also be used more narrowly.


There have been different views of sexual orientation in the past. In some cases, a person was considered homosexual, for example, if and only if they had homosexual sex. This perspective still defended by some, notably in the works of the National Association on Research and Therapy for Homosexuality, a group that breaks with mainstream psychological practice in asserting that homosexuality is a disorder.

In other cases, a person could have homosexual sex on occasion, but still be considered to be heterosexual. Some cultures, such as classic Greece and Rome, may have not classified sexual orientation (if at all) by the gender to which one is attracted, but by one's social position in relation to one's position or role during sexual activity. As heterosexual men in the United States are still expected to refrain from engaging in sexual activity with other men, a free Roman male was expected not to be penetrated, with transgressors being similarly labelled as effeminate.

The term sexual preference was used in the late 20th century by gay rights advocates promoting the view that each person should have the right to seek out the partner they prefer, whether of the opposite sex or the same sex. The term sexual orientation is now preferred by most gay rights advocates for its emphasis on fixed sexual identity, as well as countering the charge by some that their sexuality is a choice, although both terms still see use.

Orientation Concepts

While heterosexuality is considered the statistical or biological norm, the concept of "normal" and "abnormal" with its connotations of sickness or moral judgment are no longer considered valid by mainstream researchers. In 1998, the American Psychological Association stated that "The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable." Some conservative researchers disagree, but their view is not shared by mainstream psychological and medical associations.

Even the belief that heterosexuality is the statistical norm has been challenged by some researchers, starting with Alfred C. Kinsey, who claimed in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male that most people's orientation falls along a gradual scale between the two extremes of heterosexuality and homosexuality, with society influencing people to choose socio-normal sexual outlets.

Opponents of Kinsey have claimed that his research methods were not objective, notably that Kinsey had included prison inmates as test subjects. In a response to these and other criticisms, Paul Gebhard, Kinsey's successor as director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, spent years "cleaning" the Kinsey data of its purported contaminants, removing, for example, all material derived from prison populations in the basic sample. In 1979, Gebhard (with Alan B. Johnson) published The Kinsey Data: Marginal Tabulations of the 1938-1963 Interviews Conducted by the Institute for Sex Research. Their conclusion, to Gebhard's surprise he claimed, was that none of Kinsey's original estimates were significantly affected by this bias.

Some early civilizations, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome, often accepted homosexual behavior but, in general, did not make a distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality as orientations. Homosexual and heterosexual responses were considered to both be "natural" feelings that manifest to a greater or lesser degree in different individuals. The Greek civilization in particular considered it quite natural for young men to have older mentors with whom sexual interaction was accepted. A similar example was reported in Rome too, with the well known "Satyricon" by Petronius Arbiter, in which a common acceptance of pedophilia is also described. There was no serious inquiry into the causes of sexual orientation, because there was relatively little awareness of it as a concept; people were free to follow their personal inclinations. In a sense, sexual orientation is a social construct, and a relatively new one. It is most likely determined by a combination of continually interacting sociocultural influences and biological proclivities; where most in most cultures have a sexual object preference for the opposite sex, much fewer having a sexual object preference for the same sex, and even fewer having no preference. There is growing evidence of ambisexuality, or a "potentiality of bisexuality" where perhaps all people are capable of attraction to both or either sex, though it is still likely that people have sexual object preferences.

The traditional Western view that homosexuality was due to man's rebellious or fallen nature, or demonic temptation has given way to scientific explanations which regard homosexuality as natural. Scientists are now questioning the view that homosexuality is a freely made choice or "lifestyle" that one has decided to follow, and many religions are updating their theologies to conform with science.

Psychological and Sociological Viewpoints

For many years the common assumption, shared by many scientists and religious communities, was that the natural and normal human sexual orientation is exclusively for the opposite sex (heterosexual). Sexual studies carried out during and after the 1950s led psychologists and doctors to recognize homosexuality as a second exclusive orientation. Since then similar acceptance has grown for non-exclusive orientations, such as bisexuality.

Sigmund Freud famously characterized humans as naturally "polymorphously perverse," meaning either that practically any object can be a source of erotic fulfillment, or that babies are relatively indifferent to the object of erotic fulfillment. Freud argued that as the child grows, the objects of erotic fulfillment become more clearly defined and limited (whether this is the result of a biological or a social process is a matter of debate). Anthropologists have observed that around the world many people, including people within the same culture, may be oriented towards a variety of objects. Nevertheless, most scholars assume that in any given society what is considered an appropriate object of desire is highly regulated and limited. Moreover, some cultural traditions (especially religious) assert that people should have only one class of objects of desire.

According to two controversial studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, when asked to rate themselves on a continuum from completely heterosexual to completely homosexual, and when the individuals' behavior as well as their identity are analyzed, the majority of people appear to be at least somewhat bisexual, i.e., most people have some attraction to either sex, although usually one sex is preferred. According to Kinsey, only a minority (5-10%) can be considered fully heterosexual or homosexual. Conversely, only an even smaller minority can be considered fully bisexual. This led Kinsey to propose what has since become known as the Kinsey scale. Kinsey concluded that there are not "two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual....only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into pigeonholes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects..."

More recently, attempts to define human sexuality which factor in concepts of changing sexuality over a persons lifetime and their internally perceived ideal state, such as the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, have been put forward.

Most modern scientific surveys find that the majority of people report a mostly heterosexual orientation. However the relative percentage of the population that reports a homosexual orientation varies with differing methodologies and selection criteria. Most of these statistical findings are in the range of 2.8 to 9 percent of males, and 1 to 5 percent of females for the United States (source: [1], page 24 -- this figure can be as high as 12% for some large cities and as low as 1% percent for rural areas). Almost all of these studies have found that homosexual males occur roughly at twice the rate of homosexual females. Estimates for the percentage of the population that identify as bisexual vary widely based on the type of questions asked. Some studies only consider a person bisexual if they are nearly equally attracted to both sexes, and others consider a person bisexual if they are at all attracted to the same sex (for otherwise mostly heterosexual persons) or to the opposite sex (for otherwise mostly homosexual persons). (need to find the current estimates and ranges for the percent of the population that identifies as bisexual)

A very small percentage of people are not sexually attracted to anyone (asexuality).

Biological Viewpoint

Neurological studies had shown that certain regions of the brain of heterosexuals are dissimilar with homosexuals, especially when looking at the studies of neuroanatomist Simon LeVay, a researcher at the Salk Institute. His research was of the brains of 41 male cadavers (19 of them homosexual.) He found that the Third Interstitial Nucleus of the Anterior Hypothalamus (INAH-3) was much smaller in homosexuals than in the heterosexual men he had also dissected.

However, LeVay stated as his conclusion: "It's important to stress what I didn't find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn't show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain.....since I look at adult brains, we don't know if the differences I found were there at birth or if they appeared later." [2]In addition to this, of the men LeVay used in his studies, the sexual histories the "heterosexual" men were unknown.

The man considered the "dean of American sexologists," Johns Hopkins University psychologist John Money, concerning LeVay's studies, says, "Of course it [sexual orientation] is in the brain. The real question is, when did it get there? Was it prenatal, neonatal, during childhood, puberty? That we do not know."

Simon LeVay's finding points out a correlation between physiology and sexual orientation, but does not necessarily establish -- by itself alone -- a genetic basis for sexual orientation.

Religious and Moral Viewpoints

Much religious teaching maintains that sexual behavior should conform to moral and religious codes. For example, Christianity has traditionally considered homosexuality to be morally wrong. Recently, the level of acceptance of homosexuality within Christianity has, in general, increased.

Wider issues of sexual morality are also considered by many religions. Some religions advocate chastity or celibacy for some members, and many religions condemn incest and bestiality. Often religious views of sexual orientation are based on considerations of what seems natural.

For more information see:

  • Homosexuality and morality
  • Religion and homosexuality
  • Sexual morality
  • Buddhist views of homosexuality
  • Christian views of homosexuality
  • Islamic views of homosexuality
  • Jewish views of homosexuality
  • Neopagan views of homosexuality
  • Unification Church views of sexuality

Sexual Orientation as a "Construction"

Many people in Western societies today speak of sexual orientation as a unified and actual thing. Over the past thirty years some anthropologists, historians, and literary critics have pointed out that it in fact comprises a variety of different things, including a specific object of erotic desire, and forms of erotic fulfillment (i.e. sexual behaviors). Some scholars in Queer studies have argued that "sexual orientation" and specific sexual orientations are historical and social constructions. In 1976 the historian Michel Foucault argued that homosexuality as a concept did not exist as such in the 18th century; that people instead spoke of "sodomy" (which involved specific sexual acts regardless of the sex of the actors) as a crime that was often ignored but sometimes punished severely (see sodomy law). He further argued that it was in the 19th century that homosexuality came into existence as practitioners of emerging sciences as well as arts sought to classify and analyze different forms of sexual perversion. Finally, Foucault argues that it was this emerging discourse that allowed some to claim that homosexuality is natural, and therefore a legitimate sexual orientation.

Foucault's suggestions about Western sexuality led other historians and anthropologists to abandon the 19th century project of classifying different forms of sexual behavior or sexual orientation to a new project that asks "what is sexuality and how do people in different places and at different times understand their bodies and desires?" For example, they have argued that the famous case of some Melanesian societies in which adult men and pre-pubescent and adolescent boys engage in oral sex is not comparable to similar acts in the United States or Europe; that Melanesians do not understand or explain such acts in terms of sexual desire or as a sexual behavior, and that it in fact reflects a culture with a very different notion of sex, sexuality, and gender. Some historians have made similar claims about so-called homosexuality in ancient Greece; that behaviors that appear to be homosexual in modern Western societies may have been understood by ancient Greeks in entirely different ways.

At stake in these new views are two different points. One is the claim that human sexuality is extraordinarily plastic, and that specific notions about the body and sexuality are socially constructed. The other is the fundamentally anthropological claim of cultural relativism: that human behavior should be interpreted in the context of its cultural environment, and that the language of one culture is often inappropriate for describing practices or beliefs in another culture. A number of contemporary scholars who have come to reject Foucault's specific arguments about Western sexuality nevertheless have accepted these basic theoretical and methodological points.

Critics of the strong social constructionism view that an underlying phenomenon, sexual orientation (meaning the tendency for spontaneous erotic desires regarding specific people of a specific gender or genders) has always existed (usually because it is physiological in origin; this is of course controversial.) What might be a recent social invention is the notion of a particular form of sexual identity (or self-identification) distinction from orientation.

For more information see:

Sexual Identity (self-identification)

There are many social, psychological, and political issues surrounding "identities", "identity groups", or "communities", which people of various sexual orientations affiliate themselves.


Although not in any sense generally accepted, at least one author has proposed that a further controversial matter is in clinical terms, a genuine sexual orientation. The matter is controversial since it would open the door for many other matters to be classified the same way with similar reasoning. hence although not rebutted, neither is this a mainstream view.

Hani Miletski Ph.D. (sexologist and author) concluded that zoosexuality was a full sexual orientation by the same criteria that other sexual orientations met:

"Chapter 13 repeats and summarizes the answer to the basic research question in the current study - is there a sexual orientation toward animals? The definition of "sexual orientation" was adapted from Francoeur (1991) in his discussion of homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality. According to this definition, sexual orientation consists of three interrelated aspects:
  1. affectional orientation - who or what we bond with emotionally;
  2. sexual fantasy orientation - about whom or what we fantasize; and
  3. erotic orientation - with whom or what we prefer to have sex.
and concludes that all three criteria are met."
"Chapter 15 compares my findings with Kinsey et al.'s (1948) study on the sexual behaviors of American men, Kinsey et al.'s (1953) study on the sexual behaviors of American women, the Gebhard et al.'s (1965) study on sex offenders, the Hunt survey (1974), Peretti and Rowan's (1983) study, and Donofrio's (1996) doctoral dissertation."
Dr. Miletski website [3], book and sources[4]

See also


  • Sell, Randall L. (Dec 1997). Defining and measuring sexual orientation: a review. Archives of Sexual Behavior 26(6) 643-658. (excerpt)
  • Gil Brum, Larry McKane, and Gerry Karp. Biology -- Exploring Life, 2nd edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1994. p. 663. (About INAH-3.)

External links


*Some information provided in whole or in part by