Created | Updated Aug 19, 2015
Descriptors for Sexual Minorities | Homosexuality
Heterosexuality | Bisexuality | Polyamory | The Kinsey Scale | The Gender Pronoun Game | Coming Out
Dominance and submission - a Power Exchange Relationship | Embarrassing Questions About Sexual Orientation | Going Back In - Sexuality U-turns
Sexual orientation refers to a person's gender choice while forming romantic and/or sexual relationships.
- Heterosexuality is the orientation for those who prefer mates of the opposite gender.
- Homosexuality is the orientation for those who prefer mates of their own gender.
- Bisexuality is the orientation for those comfortable with mates of either gender.
Other sexuality choices may also make a great impact when choosing a mate, especially a decision to practice Polyamory or Dominance and Submission. However, these are not technically sexual orientations. Sexual orientation is about gender and represents a choice that everyone makes while searching for a mate, whether they choose to recognise it or not.
It sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it isn't for a number of reasons.
Gender and Gender Roles
What is gender anyway? The difference between a male and female child can be noticed before birth, so we all like to think we know what gender is. Really, though, our perception of gender is largely coloured by the culture we live in. In order to make the mating process easier, humans create artificial differences in appearance and behaviour along gender lines.
For instance, women living in strict Muslim cultures wear clothing from head to toe each day, while many Brazilian women feel comfortable wearing topless bathing suits now and again. Both outfits create appearances that are strikingly different from the average fellow, but in rather opposite ways. In America, women may sport hair and clothing, which to someone visiting from another culture, may seem similar to men's. But Americans have no problem distinguishing the difference. Really, when you think about it, appearances for both men and women change a lot between cultures and over time.
Even the traditional division between the 'male' financial duties and the 'female' domestic duties are increasingly under fire around the world. In some more liberal countries, women often have successful careers, trade stocks, own businesses, and run for government office. Men, meanwhile, are increasingly taking on responsibilities for child rearing, housework, and other caretaker tasks.
The surprising upshot of this is that while we all think we know what gender is, we nevertheless harbour a lot of disagreement from one person to the next and from one culture to the next. This is perfectly normal and not something to be concerned about.
The important thing to ask yourself when considering sexual orientation is this:
Is gender a designation for certain physical traits or is it a cultural role?
It is probably both. Certainly, people disagree a lot on the question. Hence, people who claim to prefer one gender may actually end up with someone considered to be the other gender, simply because they define 'gender' differently to you. Interesting, eh?
Particularly challenging for theories of sexual orientation are transsexual, transvestite and transgendered people. These people may be physically 'between' male and female, or may take on the social role of the gender that doesn't match their physical traits some or all of the time. In some cases, these differences have been present since birth or could be related to a psychological condition known as gender dysphoria. In other cases, the person in question simply enjoys challenging social and/or sexual norms.
Some would argue that trans people represent a fundamental flaw in our modern conception of sexuality. How can we define sexuality along gender lines when a growing number of people demonstrate the illusory nature of those lines to begin with? People born with physical traits of both genders, those who use hormones and/or surgery to physically change genders, and those who look and act like the gender they are not physically, seem to have an undefined place in the stratified conception of sexual orientation as understood today. We trudge ahead with it primarily because humanity has been unable so far to devise a better system, and because it is easier for most people to find a mate than it would be in a ubiquitous sea of non-gender-defined sexuality.
Grey Areas in Orientation
If gender is a concept that needs clarification, so is sexual orientation itself. There is a valid argument that we are, indeed, in a ubiquitous sea of sexuality whether we like to admit it or not. So while we may like to define our orientation along gender lines with expectations that we will stick with a single gender or divide our lives equally between the two genders, in reality most people's actions fall somewhere outside of our three basic categories.
For instance, it is entirely possible to have romantic feelings for someone without physical attraction, and vice versa. For a few unfortunate people, romance seems destined for one gender while physical attraction goes largely to another. Trying to develop a fulfilling and lasting relationship does, indeed, present an interesting challenge for such people.
It is also quite possible to marry or otherwise form a long-term relationship with someone whose gender matches your preferences for neither love nor sex. This is especially likely when sexual orientation is defined entirely based upon cultural precepts rather than individual needs and personal history. It is quite possible for a person to stray outside their true sexual desires in order to maintain the ruse of the relationship for their own or society's perceived benefit.
It is even possible to fantasise persistently about people of a gender one is not normally attracted to and would never engage, this is especially prevalent during adolescence while sexual preferences are forming. While such fantasies are sometimes dismissed as latent tendencies, the real motivations are often much deeper and more complex. If sexual orientation were as simple a concept as it seems on the surface, this would hardly be possible.
Really, the best way to understand the ambiguities of sexuality is to take a good look at The Kinsey Scale. The researchers' tool revolutionised the way people view sexuality, even though it has its good share of criticism.
Labels and Orientation Roles
Another complication is that many cultures have orientation roles in the same way that they have gender roles. The stereotypes sometimes hold that gay and bisexual people look and/or act differently than straight ones even outside the dating and relationship scene. This takes the rather basic understanding of sexual orientation and distorts it with the complexities of cultural expectations. To see how strong orientation roles can be, check out the many Descriptors for Sexual Minorities.
Of course, many people confuse choosing a label, such as gay, straight, or bi, with choosing one's orientation. While everyone can choose which label to use, many people report that their sexual attractions, fantasies, and romantic feelings are impossible to control. When choosing a label, people may identify their sexual orientation the way they do for a number of reasons, including:
- They have a gender preference for future sexual experiences.
- They have a gender preference for future long-term relationships.
- Their past sexual experiences and/or relationships point to a certain orientation.
- Their feelings of romantic love have tended towards a particular orientation.
- Their sexual fantasies point to a certain orientation.
- They may identify with the cultural role assigned to a particular orientation.
- They may feel a particular orientation better matches their religious or political beliefs.
- They may be bowing to peer pressure to identify as the same orientation as friends or acquaintances.
- They may wish to avoid discrimination, violent or otherwise, from members of the straight and/or gay communities.
- They may simply not be aware that an orientation might pertain to them, and consequently choose a default out of ignorance.
It is possible for a person to misidentify their sexual orientation. Based on relatively little experience or filled with doubts about the experiences they have had, they may jump to conclusions. They may even have a hunch that their identification is wrong, but may ignore it because their cultural perceptions of orientation have biased them. They may feel that if they do not fit the social role assigned to a certain orientation, then the orientation must not fit them. Later, they will often attempt to correct their error.
This can cause some natural confusion for the people around the formerly misidentified, as you might imagine. A case of misidentification can occur and be resolved quite suddenly. In a worst-case scenario, the misidentified person might leave behind a partner who was chosen during the confusion for their compatible personality without concern for physical attraction.
In order to avoid the above scenario, the best advice is to form relationships only with people you are genuinely attracted to. Also, it is often wise to avoid making quick assumptions about your own sexual orientation early in life. Keeping an open mind is difficult, but it can save a lot of hassle later on. For those who are unsure of their orientation, it is often useful to mentally explore your fantasies and to take note of passing attractions whether they are acted upon or not.
Games People Play
Because there is no obvious physical characteristic with which to identify someone's orientation, there are all sorts of games people can play with one another. The result is a sort of 'are they/aren't they' situation which can range from playful banter to wilful evasion, from unethical lies to something disturbingly akin to a witch hunt.
For instance, there are times when people accuse each other of using the wrong sexual orientation label. Sometimes, there is an honest disagreement. Other times, one party is having trouble distinguishing social stereotypes from individual reality. And sometimes, there are deep reasons related to prejudice or past trauma. The number one rule of etiquette regarding sexual orientation is to accept the labels that people give themselves. After all, they probably know more about themselves than you do. And even if you're right and they're wrong, it is thought to be insulting to question someone else's integrity on such a basic level.
Also, some people refuse to take a sexual orientation label. They may find the labelling process too difficult due to conflicting motivations, a desire to avoid constraints on future behaviour, or a general dislike of labels and their corresponding social roles. Some people even use ubiquitous labels like pansexual1 and pomosexual2 which make them feel better while confusing most people around them.
Even after a person chooses a label for themselves, they may decide not to share it. They may also decide to selectively share it with some people and not others. For instance, it isn't uncommon for a gay person with a successful career to keep their orientation to themselves at work while being quite open about it at home and with friends. While this may seem like hypocrisy on the surface, things are less clear if the person might otherwise be fired without cause. Since most societies assume everyone is heterosexual, gay and bisexual people make constant choices whether to tell others about their orientation, a process known as coming out.
For that matter, some queer people resort to lies to avoid such discrimination. They may simply want to maintain a sense of belonging within mainstream culture. Or they may seek to avoid harsh social consequences. In a few cases, queer people have lied about their orientation for relatively selfish reasons, for instance to maintain the good will of someone who is doing them personal favours.
Even straight people are guilty of lies about their orientation, usually for selfish reasons. Probably the top cause for this trick is a desire to gracefully tell a suitor that you aren't interested. Straight people have also told parents they are gay to reduce family pressure to get married and/or produce children. Straight people have even posed as gay in a prejudiced crusade to 'expose' gay people who are closeted or who engage themselves in socially condemned acts.
Lies about one's own orientation are serious social faux pas that may lead to unintended consequences. For instance, you may successfully avoid a suitor with a lie, but when the lie spreads other potential mates may also avoid you. Lies about someone else's orientation are even more loathsome, as they can get the person into a lot of hot water. The exception is in cases where the lies help someone avoid discrimination, especially violence, job loss, or similar.
Probably the oddest game most people see in relation to sexual orientation is the Gender Pronoun Game. While most versions of the game don't involve actual lies, there's definitely a lot of obfuscation involved.
Changes Over Time
If the above weren't confusing enough, we must also throw into the mix the fact that one's sexual orientation can change over time. It is possible for a person who is heterosexual or homosexual early in life to become bisexual later on. Bisexual people may later be homosexual or heterosexual. It is rare for a person to cross the full extent of the Kinsey Scale, but even this happens occasionally. The good news is that such changes typically take years, and signs often manifest themselves along the way. The bad news is that such changes may disrupt relationships that were underway before they began and then there are the specific issues to be dealt with in the process of going back in.
For reasons that are not entirely understood, more women have been documented making this change over life than men. It could be that Western cultural bias is partly to blame for this. Western society is ambivalent, and occasionally encouraging, towards women who experiment with their sexuality, while being generally harsh towards men who attempt the same. It's also possible that there is something inherently different about women that makes this the case. As more research is done in non-Western cultures, we may learn more about this phenomenon.
A very different form of orientation change can be the result of a ministry programme. People who go through such religious-based group therapy programmes to change their orientation from homosexual to heterosexual are often called ex-gays. As part of the conversion process, such people sometimes cut off friendships and other ties with homosexual people and form new ties with heterosexual people, often those belonging to a particular religious group.
Ex-gay programmes have a historical antecedent in the orientation reversion therapies used in early psychology. Techniques now condemned by authoritative psychological organisations included the needless injection of male and/or female hormones, painful electroshock therapy, emotionally scarring aversion therapy, behavioural therapy, and Freudian analysis. Some of these can even seem brutal in retrospect.
Modern ex-gay programmes do not use hormones or electroshock therapy, but there are occasional reports that harsh behavioural therapy, aversion therapy, and long bouts of social and/or sensory isolation may be used. Thus, there is a great deal of social controversy over these programmes. Proponents argue that the ministry programmes help people who genuinely wish to change, and have a degree of success with some participants. Critics argue that the programmes are largely ineffective, can cause psychological damage to participants, and wouldn't be necessary in the first place if there was universal social acceptance of gay and bisexual people.
In any case, short-term studies tend to show that ex-gay therapies can be successful for some, but not all participants for several years at a time. Long term studies following participants five years or more after completion of their conversion typically show that almost all participants revert to their original orientation. One common problem with many studies is an unwillingness to recognise Kinsey's Scale or to allow for the existence of bisexual participants. Some bisexual persons are equally uncomfortable in the homosexual and heterosexual social roles, but have difficulty realising other options. So they may seek out conversion therapies and may provide examples of 'success stories' where their orientation has changed in appearance only.
Stereotypes and Prejudice
To top it all off, there are plenty of people who confuse cultural stereotypes with reality when it comes to sexual orientation. In America, for instance, it is common for burly gay teenaged boys to escape detection amongst their peers. Meanwhile, limp-wristed straight boys are often singled out for inappropriate, humiliating, and sometimes violent abuse because the attackers believe they are gay.
Similarly, women who possess so-called masculine traits such as great physical fitness, mathematical acumen, and lower-than-average hygiene3 may be called a lesbian or otherwise treated like one. Unfortunately, proving your heterosexuality is difficult when you are socially shunned. And it shouldn't be necessary for anyone to do so.
Discrimination against people who are perceived as gay is wide-ranging depending on the culture. Many countries in Africa and the Middle East maintain life sentences and/or the death penalty for homosexual acts. In some cases, these laws are used by the politically powerful to rid themselves of unwanted citizens or perceived competitors. In most Western countries, it is no longer illegal to engage in homosexual sex acts, but homosexual marriage and/or adoption may remain unrecognised officially, or illegal.
Depending on the area, it may be legal for employers, parents, landlords, banks, businesses, churches, or any number of social institutions to discriminate against someone on the basis of their orientation. So in some places, your orientation can get you fired, thrown out, and denied credit or goods. It is usually wise for gay and bisexual people to read up on their local laws, and to research the laws of foreign countries before visiting.
In some more liberal societies, homosexuality is increasingly accepted. Gay couples may be able to adopt children and may even be able to obtain a domestic union that carries some or all of the benefits married couples receive. In such countries, all legal penalties for homosexual acts have been overthrown by new legislation or court action.
If some Western societies are increasingly accepting of homosexuality, though, there is also an increased tendency to view sexual orientation as a model of duality. People may be assumed to be either gay or straight, in much the same way that people were once always assumed to be heterosexual. Some people worry that bisexual and transsexual people have fallen through the cracks in part when it comes to civil rights. Even in the most accepting communities, there is usually room for improvement.
While this entry is a good primer for understanding sexual orientation, it necessarily leaves out many lesser details. The most interesting of these are often posed to gay and bisexual people in the form of embarrassing questions. In general, it is best to confine these questions to someone who has already stated their willingness to answer them.
Sexual orientation is a complex phenomenon among humans, and no single person can answer all the potential questions about it. Great care should be taken in understanding one's own sexual orientation in order to prevent social confusion. Also, reducing cultural bias is worthwhile because it makes it easier for people to identify themselves correctly earlier in life.