Sexual orientation is a social construct used to describe a pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, both genders, neither gender, or another gender. According to the American Psychological Association sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of "personal and social identity based on those attractions, behaviors expressing them, and membership in a community of others who share them." Sexual orientation is usually classified relative to the gender of the people who are found sexually attractive. Though people may use other labels, or none at all, sexual orientation is usually discussed in terms of three categories: heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. These orientations exist along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexual to exclusive homosexual, including various forms of bisexuality in-between. The continuum between heterosexual and homosexual does not suit everyone, however, as some people identify as asexual. This linear scale is a simplification of the much more nuanced nature of sexual orientation and sexual identity; many sexologists believe it to be oversimplified.
Most definitions of sexual orientation include a psychological component, such as the direction of an individual's erotic desire, or a behavioral component, which focuses on the sex of the individual's sexual partner/s. Some definitions include both components. Some people prefer simply to follow an individual's self-definition or identity.
Some scholars of sexology, anthropology and history have argued that social categories such as heterosexual and homosexual are not universal. Different societies may consider other criteria to be more significant than sex, including the respective age of the partners, whether partners assume an active or a passive sexual role, and their social status.
The current literature and most scholars in the field state that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice; that is, individuals do not choose to be homosexual or heterosexual. There is no scientific evidence that parenting, sexual abuse, other adverse life events, or early childhood experiences influence sexual orientation; those assumptions are now understood to have been based on misinformation and prejudice. No major mental health professional organization has sanctioned efforts to change sexual orientation and virtually all of them have adopted policy statements cautioning the profession and the public about treatments that purport to change sexual orientation.
Sexual identity and sexual behavior are closely related to sexual orientation, but they are distinguished, with identity referring to an individual's conception of themselves, behavior referring to actual sexual acts performed by the individual, and orientation referring to "fantasies, attachments and longings." Individuals may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors. People who have a homosexual sexual orientation that does not align with their sexual identity are sometimes referred to as 'closeted'. The term may, however, reflect a certain cultural context and particular stage of transition in societies which are gradually dealing with integrating sexual minorities. In studies related to sexual orientation, when dealing with the degree to which a person's sexual attractions, behaviours and identity match, scientists usually use the terms concordance or discordance. Thus, a woman who is attracted to other women, but calls herself heterosexual and only has sexual relations with men, can be said to experience discordance between her sexual orientation (homosexual or lesbian) and her sexual identity and behaviours (heterosexual).
Sexual identity may also be used to describe a person's perception of his or her own sex, rather than sexual orientation. The term sexual preference has a similar meaning to sexual orientation, but it may be interpreted as endorsing the notion that sexual orientation is, in whole or part, a matter of choice.
Sexual orientation is a concept that evolved in the industrialized West and there is a controversy as to the universality of its application in other societies or cultures. As philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, "'Sexuality' is an invention of the modern state, the industrial revolution, and capitalism." Non-westernized concepts of male sexuality differ essentially from the way sexuality is seen and classified under the system of Sexual Orientation. The validity of the notion of 'sexual orientation' has also been questioned within the industrialized Western society.
The American Psychological Association states that sexual orientation "describes the pattern of sexual attraction, behavior and identity e.g. homosexual (a.k.a. gay, lesbian), bisexual and heterosexual (a.k.a. straight)." "Sexual attraction, behavior and identity may be incongruent. For example, sexual attraction and/or behavior may not necessarily be consistent with identity. Some individuals may identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual without having had any sexual experience. Others have had homosexual experiences but do not consider themselves to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Further, sexual orientation falls along a continuum. In other words, someone does not have to be exclusively homosexual or heterosexual, but can feel varying degrees of both. Sexual orientation develops across a person's lifetime-different people realize at different points in their lives that they are heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual."
The earliest writers on sexual orientation usually understood it to be intrinsically linked to the subject's own sex. For example, it was thought that a typical female-bodied person who is attracted to female-bodied persons would have masculine attributes, and vice versa. This understanding was shared by most of the significant theorists of sexual orientation from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century, such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld, Havelock Ellis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, as well as many gender variant homosexual people themselves. However, this understanding of homosexuality as sexual inversion was disputed at the time, and through the second half of the twentieth century, gender identity came to be increasingly seen as a phenomenon distinct from sexual orientation. Transgender and cisgender people may be attracted to men, women, or both, although the prevalence of different sexual orientations is quite different in these two populations (see sexual orientation of transwomen). An individual homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual person may be masculine, feminine, or androgynous, and in addition, many members and supporters of lesbian and gay communities now see the "gender-conforming heterosexual" and the "gender-nonconforming homosexual" as negative stereotypes. However, studies by J Michael Bailey and KJ Zucker have found that a majority of gay men and lesbians report being gender-nonconforming during their childhood years.
The majority of transgender people today identify with the sexual orientation that corresponds with their gender; meaning that a transwoman who is solely attracted to women would often identify as a lesbian. Female-attracted transmen often consider themselves straight men, yet some participate in the lesbian community.
For these reasons, the terms gynephilia and androphilia are occasionally (but increasingly) used when referring to the sexual orientation of transgender and intersex people (and occasionally, cisgender people), because rather than focusing on the sex of the subject, they only describe that of the object of their attraction. The third common term that describes sexual orientation, bisexuality, makes no claim about the subject's sex or gender identity. (See also Pansexuality)
Sexual orientation sees greater intricacy when non-binary understandings of both sex (male, female, or intersex) and gender (man, woman, transgender, third gender, or gender variant) are considered. Sociologist Paula Rodriguez Rust (2000) argues for a more multifaceted definition of sexual orientation:
...Most alternative models of sexuality...define sexual orientation in terms of dichotomous biological sex or gender.... Most theorists would not eliminate the reference to sex or gender, but instead advocate incorporating more complex nonbinary concepts of sex or gender, more complex relationships between sex, gender, and sexuality, and/or additional nongendered dimensions into models of sexuality.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has stated "some people believe that sexual orientation is innate and fixed; however, sexual orientation develops across a person’s lifetime". The APA also says that "most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation". In a joint statement with other major American medical organizations, the APA says that "different people realize at different points in their lives that they are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual". A report from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health states: "For some people, sexual orientation is continuous and fixed throughout their lives. For others, sexual orientation may be fluid and change over time".
Gay and lesbian people can have sexual relationships with someone of the opposite sex for a variety of reasons including the desire for family with children and concerns of discrimination and religious ostracism. While some LGB people hide their orientation from their spouse, others develop a positive gay or lesbian identity while maintaining a successful marriage. Coming out of the closet to oneself, a spouse of the opposite sex, and children can present challenges that are not faced by gay and lesbian people who are not married to people of the opposite sex or do not have children.
In 2009 the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation conducted a systematic review of the peer-reviewed journal literature on sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) and concluded:
Efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of SOCE practitioners and advocates. Even though the research and clinical literature demonstrate that same-sex sexual and romantic attractions, feelings, and behaviors are normal and positive variations of human sexuality, regardless of sexual orientation identity, the task force concluded that the population that undergoes SOCE tends to have strongly conservative religious views that lead them to seek to change their sexual orientation. Thus, the appropriate application of affirmative therapeutic interventions for those who seek SOCE involves therapist acceptance, support, and understanding of clients and the facilitation of clients’ active coping, social support, and identity exploration and development, without imposing a specific sexual orientation identity outcome.
No major mental health professional organization has sanctioned efforts to change sexual orientation and virtually all of them have adopted policy statements cautioning the profession and the public about treatments that purport to change sexual orientation. These include the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, National Association of Social Workers in the USA, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the Australian Psychological Society.
The American Psychological Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists expressed concerns that the positions espoused by NARTH are not supported by the science and create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.
Varying definitions and strong social norms about sexuality can make sexual orientation difficult to quantify. Researchers may use different markers of sexual orientation, including self-labeling, sexual behaviour, sexual fantasy or a pattern of erotic arousal. A clinical measurement may use penile or vaginal photoplethysmography, where genital engorgement with blood is measured in response to exposure to different erotic material. In 1995, two researchers argued that due to a lack of research on change over time, there is a limitation on current conceptualizations of sexual orientation. They did not abandon the concept of sexual orientation, but concluded that "given such significant measurement problems, one could conclude there is serious doubt whether sexual orientation is a valid concept at all," and warned against increasing politicization of this area.
From at least the late nineteenth century in Europe, there was speculation that the range of human sexual response looked more like a continuum than two or three discrete categories. Berlin sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld published a scheme in 1896 that measured the strength of an individual's sexual desire on two independent 10-point scales, A (homosexual) and B (heterosexual). A heterosexual individual may be A0, B5; a homosexual individual may be A5, B0; An asexual would be A0, B0; and someone with an intense attraction to both sexes would be A9, B9.
Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories... The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. While emphasizing the continuity of the gradations between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual histories, it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each history... An individual may be assigned a position on this scale, for each period in his life.... A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist.
The Kinsey scale measures sexual orientation from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual), with an additional category, X, for those with no sexual attraction to either women or men. Unlike Hirschfeld's scale, the Kinsey scale is one-dimensional. Simon LeVay wrote, "it suggests (although Kinsey did not actually believe this) that every person has the same fixed endowment of sexual energy, which he or she then divides up between same-sex and opposite-sex attraction in a ratio indicative of his or her own sexual orientation."
Scientific studies have found a number of statistical biological differences between gay and straight people, which may result from the same underlying cause as orientation itself. The attempt to detect sexual orientation in social situations is known as gaydar; some studies have found that guesses based on face photos perform better than chance.
Some researchers who study sexual orientation argue that the concept may not apply similarly to men and women. A study of sexual arousal patterns found that women, when viewing erotic films which show female-female, male-male and male-female sexual activity (oral sex or penetration), have patterns of arousal which do not match their declared sexual orientation as well as men's. That is, heterosexual and lesbian women's sexual arousal to erotic films do not differ significantly by the gender of the participants (male or female) or by the type of sexual activity (heterosexual or homosexual). On the contrary, men's sexual arousal patterns tend to be more in line with their stated orientation, with heterosexual men showing more penis arousal to female-female sexual activity and less arousal to female-male and male-male sexual stimuli, and homosexual men being more aroused by films depicting male-male intercourse and less aroused by other stimuli.
Another study on men and women's patterns of sexual arousal confirmed that men and women have different patterns of arousal, independent of their sexual orientation. The study found that women's genitals become aroused to both human and nonhuman stimuli from movies showing humans of both genders having sex (heterosexual and homosexual) and from videos showing non-human primates (bonobos) having sex. Men did not show any sexual arousal to non-human visual stimuli, their arousal patterns being in line with their specific sexual interest (women for heterosexual men and men for homosexual men).
These studies suggest that men and women are different in terms of sexual arousal patterns and that this is also reflected in how their genitals react to sexual stimuli of both genders or even to non-human stimuli. It must be stated that sexual orientation has many dimensions (attractions, behaviour, identity), of which sexual arousal is the only product of sexual attractions which can be measured at present with some degree of precision. Thus, the fact that women are aroused by seeing non-human primates having sex does not mean that women's sexual orientation includes this type of sexual interest. Some researchers argue that women's sexual orientation depends less on their patterns of sexual arousal than men's and that other components of sexual orientation (like emotional attachment) must be taken into account when describing women's sexual orientations. In contrast, men's sexual orientations tend to be primarily focused on the physical component of attractions and, thus, their sexual feelings are more exclusively oriented according to sex.
Studying human sexual arousal has proved a fruitful way of understanding how men and women differ as genders and in terms of sexual orientation. More recently, scientists have started to focus on measuring changes in brain activity related to sexual arousal, by using brain-scanning techniques. Given that sexual feelings are the product of perceptions and/or fantasies which are processed in the brain, measuring brain regions activity should further show how people of different sexual orientations differ in this respect.
A study on how heterosexual and homosexual men's brains react to seeing pictures of naked men and women has found that both hetero- and homosexual men react positively to seeing their preferred sex, using the same brain regions. The only significant group difference between these orientations was found in the amygdala, a brain region known to be involved in regulating fear.
Although these findings have contributed to understanding how sexual arousal can differentiate between genders and sexual orientations, it is still a matter of debate whether these results reflect differences which are the result of social learning or genetic and/or biological factors. Further studies are needed to clarify how much of people's reactions to sexual stimuli of their preferred gender are due to learned or innate factors.
The multiple aspects of sexual orientation and the boundary-drawing problems already described create methodological challenges for the study of the demographics of sexual orientation. Determining the frequency of various sexual orientations in real-world populations is difficult and controversial.
In the oft-cited and oft-criticized Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), by Alfred C. Kinsey et al., people were asked to rate themselves on a scale from completely heterosexual to completely homosexual. Kinsey reported that when the individuals' behavior as well as their identity are analyzed, most people appeared 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 (with an equal attraction to both sexes).
Kinsey's methods have been criticized as flawed, particularly with regard to the randomness of his sample population, which included a large number of prison inmates. Nevertheless, Paul Gebhard, subsequent director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research, reexamined the data in the Kinsey Reports and concluded that accounting for major statistical objections barely affected the results. 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% of males, and 1 to 5% of females for the United States — this figure can be as high as 12% for some large cities and as low as 1% percent for rural areas).
Estimates for the percentage of the population that are bisexual vary widely, at least in part due to differing definitions of bisexuality. 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). A small percentage of people are not sexually attracted to anyone (asexuality).
|“||Currently, there is no scientific consensus about the specific factors that cause an individual to become heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual — including possible biological, psychological, or social effects of the parents’ sexual orientation. However, the available evidence indicates that the vast majority of lesbian and gay adults were raised by heterosexual parents and the vast majority of children raised by lesbian and gay parents eventually grow up to be heterosexual.||”|
The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2006 stated:
|“||The mechanisms for the development of a particular sexual orientation remain unclear, but the current literature and most scholars in the field state that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice; that is, individuals do not choose to be homosexual or heterosexual. A variety of theories about the influences on sexual orientation have been proposed. Sexual orientation probably is not determined by any one factor but by a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences. In recent decades, biologically based theories have been favored by experts. Although there continues to be controversy and uncertainty as to the genesis of the variety of human sexual orientations, there is no scientific evidence that abnormal parenting, sexual abuse, or other adverse life events influence sexual orientation. Current knowledge suggests that sexual orientation is usually established during early childhood.||”|
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2007 stated:
|“||Despite almost a century of psychoanalytic and psychological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation. It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment. Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice.||”|
The American Psychiatric Association states:
|“||Homosexuality was once thought to be the result of troubled family dynamics or faulty psychological development. Those assumptions are now understood to have been based on misinformation and prejudice. Currently there is a renewed interest in searching for biological etiologies for homosexuality.||”|
A 2010 study stated: "The fetal brain develops during the intrauterine period in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hormone surge. In this way, our gender identity (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and sexual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender identity or sexual orientation."
Professor Michael King states: "The conclusion reached by scientists who have investigated the origins and stability of sexual orientation is that it is a human characteristic that is formed early in life, and is resistant to change. Scientific evidence on the origins of homosexuality is considered relevant to theological and social debate because it undermines suggestions that sexual orientation is a choice."
The hormonal theory of sexuality holds that, just as exposure to certain hormones plays a role in fetal sex differentiation, such exposure also influences the sexual orientation that emerges later in the adult. Fetal hormones may be seen as either the primary influence upon adult sexual orientation, or as co-factor interacting with genes and/or environmental and social conditions.
Recent studies found an increased chance of homosexuality in men whose mothers previously carried to term many male children. This effect is nullified if the man is left-handed.
Research has identified several biological factors which may be related to the development of sexual orientation, including genes, prenatal hormones, and brain structure. No single controlling cause has been identified, and research is continuing in this area. At one time, twin studies appeared to point to a major genetic component, but problems in experimental design of the available studies have made their interpretation difficult, and one recent study appears to exclude genes as a major factor.
Innate bisexuality, or predisposition to bisexuality, is an idea introduced by Sigmund Freud, based on work by his associate Wilhelm Fliess. According to this theory, all humans are born bisexual but through psychological development, which includes both external and internal factors, become monosexual while the bisexuality remains in a latent state.
Because sexual orientation is complex and multi-dimensional, some academics and researchers, especially in Queer studies, have argued that it is a historical and social construction. In 1976 the historian Michel Foucault argued that homosexuality as an identity did not exist in the eighteenth century; that people instead spoke of "sodomy", which referred to sexual acts. Sodomy was a crime that was often ignored but sometimes punished severely (see sodomy law).
Heterosexuality and homosexuality are terms often used in European and American cultures to encompass a person’s entire social identity, which includes self and personality. In Western cultures some people speak meaningfully of gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities and communities. In other cultures, homosexuality and heterosexual labels don’t emphasize an entire social identity or indicate community affiliation based on sexual orientation.
Some historians and researchers argue that the emotional and affectionate activities associated with sexual-orientation terms such as gay and straight change significantly over time and across cultural boundaries. For example, in many English-speaking nations it is assumed that same-sex kissing, particularly between men, is a sign of homosexuality, whereas various types of same-sex kissing are common expressions of friendship in other nations. Also, many modern and historic cultures have formal ceremonies expressing long-term commitment between same-sex friends, even though homosexuality itself is taboo within the culture.
One person may assume knowledge of another person's sexual orientation based upon perceived characteristics such as appearance, clothing, and tone of voice. Perceived sexual orientation may affect how a person is treated. For instance, in the United States, the FBI reported that 15.6% of hate crimes reported to police in 2004 were "because of a sexual-orientation bias."
Under the UK Employment Equality Regulations, "workers or job applicants must not be treated less favorably because of their sexual orientation, their perceived sexual orientation or because they associate with someone of a particular sexual orientation."
Sexual orientation is a term that means what kinds of people a person loves or has sexual or romantic feelings about. A person can love somebody of the same gender (sex), somebody of the other gender, both, or neither.
The words that are used the most to talk about somebody's sexual orientation are:
Words that are sometimes also used to talk about somebody's sexual orientation are:
Not everyone agrees that some of these last terms are really sexual orientations. For example, a person can have a fetish and still be either heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. A person can also be transgender or transsexual and still be either heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.
Many people have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. In many cultures, people who are homosexual or bisexual have been teased (made fun of), fired from their job, or subjected to violence because of who they are. In many countries and states, there are laws against having sex with somebody of the same gender, and people can be put in jail because of who they have sex with. In the United States, these laws were struck down (repealed) by the United States Supreme Court in the last few years.