Sexual orientation

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Topics in Sexual Orientation
General topics

Biological factors / Choice / Environment
Demographics / History
Gender role / Gender identity
Human sexual behavior / Animal sexuality
Critiques of sexual behavior

Societal attitudes
towards homosexuality

Gay rights / Laws / Same-sex marriage
Homophobia / Psychology
Medical science / Gay community
Two-Spirit / Violence against LGBT people
History of the Gay Community

Religion and sexual orientation

Christianity / Islam / Judaism
Hinduism / Buddhism / Taoism


Sexual orientation refers to the sexual gender(s) to which a person is attracted and which form the focus of a person's amorous or erotic desires, fantasies, and spontaneous feelings, in other words the gender(s) toward which one is primarily "oriented". The alternative terms sexual preference and sexual inclination have similar meanings. Clinicians and those who believe sexuality is fixed early in life tend to use the former term; those believing sexuality is fluid and reflects preference and choice tend towards the latter terms.

Typically a person may be identified as primarily heterosexual (the focus is primarily people of the opposite sex), homosexual (people of the same sex), bisexual (potentially both or either sexes), or asexual (no sexual attraction for either sex). (But compare Homosexuality and transgender for a discussion on the use of homo- and heterosexual when referring to transgender or intersex people.)

The term sexual orientation may also refer to the "identity" of a person, either by choice or as an expression of an inner attribute.

These categories are also used to describe sexual behavior, which may depart from an individual's chosen identity or spontaneous desires.

Classification of individuals into these groups is controversial, and different observers may prefer orientation, behavior, or self-identification as the sorting criterion, and make different judgments as to degree.


A much wider definition of sexual orientation

Typically a person may be identified as primarily Heterosexual (the focus is primarily people of the opposite sex/gender), Homosexual (people of the same sex/gender), Bisexual (potentially both or either sexes/gender), or Asexual (no sexual attraction for either sex/gender).

There is sometimes an overlap of opinion as to whether a person is straight/bisexual or gay/bisexual because such a person is technically bisexual (sexually and romantically attracted to both sexes/genders), but also fits a looser, un-official definition of homosexual (gay/lesbian) or straight/heterosexual as being primarily attracted to the same or opposite sex/gender.

However, this categorization ignores many issues of individuality and culture, and sexuality itself has many different facets. Therefore, even when it seems obvious, identifying sexual orientation is often not as simple as it seems.

Complexities and terminology

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).

Sexual orientation, identity, and behavior

Some examples may help clarify the distinctions between orientation or desire, identity, and behavior:

  • People of any sexual orientation may choose sexual abstinence, suppressing or ignoring any desires they may have.
  • Some people who feel homosexual desire may engage in heterosexual behavior and even heterosexual marriage for a number of reasons, whether cultural or religious beliefs, or through fear of discrimination should they "come out".
  • Some 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 whether by self-initiation, with initiation by the other party, with multiple simultaneous partners, through acts of deception, or due to absence of an available partner of the opposite gender (see e.g. prison sex) or other unusual social circumstances. (See: situational sexual behavior.)
  • 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.

Some new terminology consciously differentiates between these three aspects. For example, men who have sex with men, or "MSM", is a clinical term used to describe behavior only. Same-sex attraction focuses on feelings and desires.

Terms such as straight, gay, and lesbian tend to be used more often as identity-labels, but are sometimes used as synonyms for heterosexual, homosexual (men and women or just men), and homosexual (women), respectively. (See also: Terminology of homosexuality.)

Note that the term "sexual identity" is also sometimes intended to mean a person's conception of one's own sex or gender identity. This use however is considered highly inaccurate by transgender people, who consider their gender identity to be related to, but separate from their sexual orientation/identity.

In his book The Bisexual Option, Dr. Fritz Klein, MD, proposes an even more complicated description of sexual orientation. The "Klein Sexual Orientation Grid" takes into account sexual attraction, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional and social partners, lifestyle, and self-identification. Each of these axes is also considered for the personal past, present, and ideal. Klein Sexual Orientation Grid

Classification and boundaries

There is a common boundary-drawing problem (or controversy, at least) when considering how to divide a population between "heterosexual", "bisexual", and "homosexual" by behavior or by orientation. The largest disagreement is probably over which criterion - identity, desire, or behavior - is most important.

With regard to identity, common controversial topics of procedure include whether someone should be categorized as "bisexual" by behavior if they have any sexual contact with members of more than one gender, and further, whether frequency of contact with either sex is a factor, whether group sex is admissible as an instance, and whether the occurrence of orgasm, as well as its frequency in terms of total encounters, has any bearing.

When classifying by orientation or desire, controversial topics include the breadth of attraction to both genders, what "intensity" of attraction is admissible, and whether self-reporting should be solely trusted or whether there should be any manner of "objective" measure.

Some observers only consider the two poles (same-sex vs. opposite-sex), others set explicit but somewhat arbitrary boundaries for the middle "box" when precision is required. Many, following the view of the noted sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey (see Kinsey scale), view sexual orientation and behavior on a spectrum, from exclusively homosexual to exclusively heterosexual, with continuous or discontinuous gradations in between. Kinsey's work has generally replaced Freud's much different theory of innate bisexuality, which was based on erroneous assumptions about human biology.

Several objections have been raised to the classification of people based on desire, including:

  • Sexual attraction is about more than gender; many individual attributes are also important, sometimes more important.
  • Sexual behavior is a changeable choice, not a fixed attribute of identity by which one should be classified.
  • Category boundaries are arbitrary, and it's demeaning to try to fix complex people into simple "boxes".
  • Labels interfere with accepting people for who they are and who they love.

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.

"Alternative" sexual orientations

Some people (often labeled "bisexuals") label themselves pansexual, in that they are attracted to people who don't fit in a clearly definable sex/gender (e.g., transgender and/or intersex people). Still other people use varied terms to describe their sexual orientations, including: fluid (especially when they don't want to restrict their sexual orientation with a more-specific label), homoflexible (for people who consider themselves predominantly homosexual but occasionally open to opposite-sex attraction), heteroflexible (the opposite) and sapiosexual (attracted to someone's mind as much as their body). Additionally, other people (including Kinsey) argue that asexuality best characterized a segment of the population and should be regarded as its own orientation.

Sexual fetishism is usually considered orthogonal (unrelated) 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), prepubescent children (pedophilia), or inanimate objects, are "alternative" sexual orientations to those listed above. Others argue that these classifications are orthogonal. (See #Other for research.)

Hani Miletski Ph.D., a sexologist and author, argues 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."

Some people use the term queer as an umbrella term to include homosexuality and bisexuality (as well as transgender and often intersex people), often as well as fetishism, non-human sexual attraction, and/or other "paraphilia", but it may also be used more narrowly. It is also varyingly used as a derogatory term and as a term of pride.

See also: Terminology of homosexuality

Demographics of sexual orientation

Main article: Demographics of sexual orientation

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 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..."

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. 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). In gay villages such as The Castro in San Francisco, California, the concentration of self-identified homosexual people can exceed 40%. 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).

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

Causes and malleability of sexual orientation

Main articles: Environment, choice, and sexual orientation and Genetics and sexual orientation

Considerable debate continues over what biological and/or psychological variables produce sexual orientation in humans, such as genes and the exposure of certain levels of hormones to fetuses. A much smaller dialog remains in progress on whether that orientation is discretionary, largely limited to a minority of Christians and many Muslims with its foundation rooted in theology and old scientific thinking. Freud and many others, particularly in psychoanalytic traditions, speculate that formative childhood experiences (a.k.a.. nurture) help produced sexual orientation.

Most specialists follow the general conclusion of Alfred Kinsey regarding the sexual continuum, according to which a minority of humans are exclusively homosexual or heterosexual, and that the majority are bisexual, that is, that the norm is to experience a mixture homoerotic and heteroerotic feelings, each kind to a different degree. Interestingly, Kinsey himself—along with current "queer"activist groups—focus on the historicity and personal fluidity of sexual orientation. Kinsey's studies consistently showed sexual orientation as something that evolves in many directions over a person's lifetime.

Sexual orientation and mental health

Clinically, heterosexual acts are considered most common in today's cultures (statistically most likely), but the concept of "normal" and "abnormal" with its connotations of sickness or moral judgment are no longer considered valid by most medical professionals.

Some Abrahamic groups maintain that homosexuals as such do not exist and that homosexuality is actually an unnatural choice, illness or addiction. Many of these groups support reparative therapy to cure homosexuality or stricter laws to prevent individuals engaging freely in homosexual activity, much in the same way as any other harmful mental illness or inappropriate aberration (which is how they tend to view it). One major advocate of this line of thought is the American National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which rejects the consensus of the major psychological associations in removing homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses in 1973.

In 1998, the American Psychological Association stated that the psychological profession's view on homosexuality and mental health was, "the reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable."

Morality, religion, and choice

Ongoing debate about the morality of same-sex relations often references beliefs about whether sexual orientation is a choice or a fixed attribute.

There are several different views on the subject, the major ones of which are:

  • Sexual orientation is a preference, like any other lifestyle choice. People can be influenced in this choice, as in any other, by their peers, by media exposure, and by society in general, but the responsibility for making the choice is personal. (This view is frequently, though not always, accompanied by a belief that choosing homosexuality is immoral or undesirable and should be discouraged. However, some who hold this view also believe that homosexuality can be an addictive behavior, like substance abuse, and difficult to stop; and still others believe that this presumed choice to engage in a "gay lifestyle" is morally neutral or even beneficial.)
  • Sexual orientation is fixed early in life. People should seek romantic and sexual relationships with people of whatever gender they desire. Discrimination against such sexual minorities is immoral.
  • Sexual orientation is fixed early in life, but homosexuality is immoral. People who have homosexual feelings should be discouraged from acting on them, and should live in celibacy or in opposite-sex relationships.
  • Sexual orientation is not fixed; however it changes, not by acts of choice or will, but through factors beyond a person's voluntary control. From this, either of the above two sets of consequences may follow.
  • Sexual orientation is an illusory social construct. People should stop worrying about it and simply allow others and themselves to love whomever they please.

There is a strong correlation between belief in choice and disapproval of homosexuality. (Whether or not there is a causal relationship in either direction is a matter of debate.)

A 2003 Pew Research phone survey of Americans reported that about 50% of people who think sexual orientation is fixed at birth support same-sex marriage, compared to about 20% of people who think it is a preference.

The Pew report shows acceptance of homosexuality increasing over the past 30 years, and that young people have greater acceptance than older Americans.

Likewise, religious affiliation and beliefs correlate strongly with beliefs about sexual orientation. 60% of "secular" Americans, 46% of white Catholics, 43% of white mainline Protestants, 27% of black Protestants, and 20% of evangelical Protestants expressed a favorable opinion of gay men in the Pew survey. 66% of "secular" Americans, 54% of white Catholics, 50% of white mainline Protestants, 26% of black Protestants, and 23% of evangelical Protestants replied that sexual orientation could not be changed. Religious beliefs were the most common reason given for disapproval of same-sex marriage.

Globally, agreement with the idea that homosexuality should be "accepted by society" varies wildly. The 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project reported the following results:

Country Support Oppose
North America
United States 51% 42%
Canada 69% 26%
Mexico 54% 39%
Guatemala 44% 50%
Honduras 41% 55%
Germany 83% 15%
France 77% 21%
United Kingdom 74% 22%
Italy 72% 20%
Czech Republic 83% 16%
Slovak Republic 68% 30%
Poland 40% 48%
Bulgaria 37% 36%
Russia 22% 60%
Ukraine 17% 77%
Middle East
Turkey 22% 66%
Lebanon 21% 76%
Jordan 12% 88%
Uzbekistan 10% 66%
Pakistan 9% 56%
South America
Argentina 66% 26%
Boliva 55% 40%
Brazil 54% 42%
Venezuela 46% 51%
Peru 45% 49%
Philippines 64% 33%
Japan 54% 34%
South Korea 25% 69%
Vietnam 13% 84%
India 7% 63%
Bangladesh 7% 87%
Indonesia 5% 93%
South Africa 33% 63%
Angola 30% 62%
Cote d'Ivoire 15% 84%
Uganda 4% 95%
Nigeria 4% 95%
Ghana 4% 93%
Mali 3% 96%
Senegal 2% 98%
Kenya 1% 99%

Individual religious sects vary widely in their views on sexual orientation, from acceptance of people of all orientations, to advocating of the death penalty for homosexual and heterosexual people who violate certain other norms.

For more information, see:


Main articles: History of sexuality, Anthropological classification of homosexuality

Anthropologists identify the following forms of homosexuality:

  • Age-structured - The partners are of different ages.
  • Gender-structured - Each partner plays a different gender role.
  • Egalitarian - The partners are of equal age (or age is of no relevance in the partnership structure) and both play the same socially-accepted sex role as heterosexuals of their own sex.

What we think of as "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" in modern times usually corresponds to the egalitarian model, which has become dominant in Western societies. Some historical and non-Western societies have institutionalized other forms of same-sex relations. Some scholars argue that using modern egalitarian terminology and identity concepts to describe these social arrangements is inappropriate and misleading.

The pederasty practiced in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and other societies throughout history is one form of age-structured homosexual relations, sometimes considered a form of bisexuality (in modern terms).

(The following paragraph requires verification and possible correction by someone familiar with the subject.)

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. Although in ancient Greece Plato described three sexual orientations and defined them in myth with religious explanation for their existence in his Symposium. [2] 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 labeled as effeminate. A similar example was reported in Rome, with the well known "Satyricon" by Petronius Arbiter, wherein a common acceptance of pedophilia is also described.

Sexual orientation as a "construction"

Because sexual orientation is complex and multi-dimensional, some academics and researchers (especially in Queer studies) have argued that sexual orientation is a completely historical and social construction. 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 and arts sought to classify and analyze different forms of sexuality. Finally, Foucault argues that it was this emerging discourse that allowed some to claim that homosexuality as a human identity.

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 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 generally hold that Focault?s ideas are out-dated and have been proven inaccurate by means of scientific inquiry and further historical exploration of sexuality in cultures.

For example, the notion of sexual orientation being a human construct is seen to contradict current mainstream scientific findings that those of different orientations are anatomically distinct from each other and that is why they have their own separate attractions, i.e., a man who exclusively loved other men in ancient Greece is biologically homosexual, being that certain physical body parts are different in homosexuals when compared to heterosexuals, just as a man who identifies as gay in modern times is the same scientifically speaking. These medical findings however are not uncontroversial themselves.

Sexuality historians in modern times are increasingly abandoning the construction view. Louis Crompton has argued that if Focault were still alive today he would revise his thesis in light of the scientific factors found largely after his death and due to recently studied historical documents that shed light on exclusive homosexuality.

For example, during Focault's time it was largely thought that all ancient Greek men practiced bisexuality in the institution of pederasty, however greater scholarship on the subject shows that, indeed, a minority of Greek males never married and continued to have sex exclusively with other men of their own age. And other findings include that during the Middle Ages in Europe when sodomy was harshly prosecuted sub-cultures developed of men who loved other men and often these men identified with each other in a community, something analogous to the modern gay identity.

For more information, see:

See also


  • Miletski, Hani, Ph.D. Website [3], book and sources [4].
  • 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.)
  • The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality; Republicans Unified, Democrats Split on Gay Marriage. November 18, 2003. [5]. Also available from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: [6]
  • Dynes, Wayne (ed.) "Encyclopedia of Homosexuality." New York and London, Garland Publishing, 1990.

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