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 gender(s) one is "oriented" towards, typically 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 the person feels no sexual attraction for either sex.
(See the next section for controversies over the inclusiveness of this list.)
Complexities and terminology
Three different axes
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. (See situational sexual behavior.) 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 (including involving self-initiated, initiation by the other party, multiple simultaneous partners, acts of deception, absence of an available partner of the opposite gender, 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.
Some demographic labels specifically refer to sexual behavior, as distinct from orientation or self-identification. For example, see Men who have sex with men.
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 orientation. Should someone be categorized as "bisexual" by behavior if they have any sexual contact with members of both genders? Does group sex count? Is an orgasm required? Or should is there a certain threshold - one quarter of contacts? One third? When classifying by orientation, what fraction of the same-gender population must a person be attracted to in order to move from "heterosexual" to "bisexual"? What "intensity" of attraction is required? Should self-reporting be trusted, or should there be some "objective" measure? Some observers only consider the two poles, others set explicit but somewhat arbitrary boundaries for the middle "box" when precision is required. Many, following the view of Kinsey, view sexual orientation and behavior on a spectrum, from exclusively homosexual to exclusively heterosexual, with continuous or discontinous gradations in between.
Some people object to the very idea of sexual orientation, and insist that sexual attraction is fluid, or that it is only meaningful when talking about a specific person, and the labels that people use are either meaningless or only about affiliation with a group. Others simply reject labels because they interfere with accepting people for who they are and who they love. The creation of categories or "boxes" with proscribed boundaries (like those between "bisexual" and "heterosexual") is considered by some to be offensive, especially if the labels for those categories do not align with their own terminology or sense of identity.
Sexual orientation and gender
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 orientation and time
A further problem arises that a person's self-perception and behaviors vary during the course of their life. Some research suggests there may be a genetic component to sexual orientation, and anecdotally it is not uncommon for people to claim they were 'born' a particular way. Confusingly, such people may be no less immune than others, to changing their beliefs about their sexuality later in life.
So it is not clear whether a change in behavior and thinking would be a sign of latent sexual orientation, or a sign of genuine change. Depending upon whether people are 'born' with an orientation or whether it is a matter of choice, it could even make sense to call someone an orientation which perhaps they have never exhibited, or have apparently ceased to exhibit the same way, where they themselves do not agree with the label, or where their feelings have changed during their lifetime.
"Alternative" sexual orientations
Pansexual has been proposed as a variant of bisexual that includes people of neither or of indeterminate gender.
Some people feel that asexual should be considered a sexual orientation which is the opposite of bisexual - sexual attraction to no one at all (which would mean neither men nor women).
Sexual fetishism is usually considered 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), 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:
- affectional orientation - who or what we bond with emotionally;
- sexual fantasy orientation - about whom or what we fantasize; and
- 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 fetishism, non-human sexual attraction, and other "paraphilia", but it may also be used more narrowly. It is also varyingly used as a derogatory term and as a term of pridefulness.
Main article: History of sexuality
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.
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. Although in ancient Greece Plato described three sexual orientations and defined them in myth with religious explanation for ther existence in his Symposium.  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.
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 (see Kinsey Reports), 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: , 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).
For more see: Anthropological classification of homosexuality
Causes of sexual orientation
The causes of sexual orientation, its determinants, or etiology are still a controversial field of science.
The debate over what causes someone’s sexual orientation is in some aspects a classic nature vs. nurture question. The issue is further clouded because almost any human, under extreme circumstances, will interact sexually with any human. (See Kinsey scale.)
Certain schools of thought often emphasize theories of or evidence for genetic determinants of sexual orientation. Opposing camps often emphasize theories of or evidence for environmental determinants, including upbringing, social pressures, and personal choice. Some people criticize the binary nature of "nature vs nurture", and emphasize interaction and other hard-to-classify influences like non-genetic biological factors and random chance. Some people also object to the classification of people into the three sexual orientations listed above. Indeed, such classification is at the very least complex and difficult in practice; see the article on sexual orientation for details.
The role, if any, of personal choice in sexual orientation is particularly important in the ongoing public debate. Those who consider the sexual behavior of gay men and lesbians to be violating their religious creeds believe sexual orientation is a conscious choice or the product of environmental factors, notably parental, which can and should be avoided. On the other hand, those who believe sexual orientation to be an immutable characteristic consider discrimination based on that attribute to be immoral and believe that people should seek healthy relationships with the gender(s) of their orientation.
To complicate matters, some people don't fall into either camp. Some who find homosexuality immoral distinguish those conscious actions from what might be an immutable and spontaneous erotic desire and some people who consider homosexuality to be a choice do not consider it immoral or that morality does not apply.
Beliefs about the empirical determinants of sexual orientation may influence a person's conception of morality, and moral beliefs do tend to influence one's perception of the empirical mechanisms.
Scientific research into the determinants of sexual orientation are described in the articles on genetic and environmental factors, as appropriate.
The relative frequency of various sexual orientations is another complex and controversial question. See the article on the demographics of 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 see:
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 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.
See: Category:Sexual orientation and identity. Contrast with sexual identity.
- Miletski, Hani, Ph.D. Website , book and sources .
- 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.)