Sexual Orientation


Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s sexual attraction to other people of a certain type of sex/gender category.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the development of sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, queer, or asexual) in terms of both static and fluid sexuality

Key Takeaways

  • The varying forms of these attractions are generally divided into the following categories: heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, queer sexuality, and asexuality.
  • In place of these categories, some prefer to think of “queer” sexual orientations; a broader term that refers to any non-heterosexual form of sexuality. The heterosexual/homosexual binary is a continuum of complete heterosexuality to complete homosexuality, with bisexuality in the middle.
  • Heteronormativityis the assumption that heterosexual orientations are normal to the exclusion of other sexual orientations.
  • Sexual identityis an individual’s conception of their own sexuality.
  • The primary debate in conversations about sexual orientation is whether sexual orientation is static or fluid, whether one is born with an immutable sexual orientation, or whether one develops sexual orientation.
  • Sexual reorientation therapies, commonly known as “conversion therapies,” seek to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals.
  • Sexual reorientation therapies seek to convert “homosexuals” into “heterosexuals.”

Key Terms

  • Heterosexual/Homosexual Binary– Classification of sexuality on a continuum from heterosexuality to homosexuality with bisexuality falling in the middle
  • Asexuality– Asexuality, in its broadest sense, is the lack of sexual attraction to others.
  • Heteronormativity– The view that all human beings are either male or female, both in sex and in gender, and that sexual and romantic thoughts and relations are normal only when between people of those two sexes.
  • Queer sexuality – an umbrella term describing any non-heteronormative sexuality, including homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, and any otherwise uncategorized sexual identity

Full Text

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation describes an individual’s pattern of attraction—emotional, romantic, sexual, or some combination of these—to another sex, the same sex, multiple sexes, or none. The varying forms of these attractions are generally divided into the following categories:

  • heterosexuality, or attraction to members of the “opposite” gender, e.g. a man attracted to women
  • homosexuality, or attraction to members of the same assigned sex
  • bisexuality, or attraction to members of both assigned sexes
  • asexuality, or having no sexual attraction; this is not the same as having no interest in sexual activities or behaviors.

The gender binary social construct (discussed in the earlier section, “Gender Identity in Everyday Life”)  is just as problematic for sexuality as it is for gender, because it creates heteronormative assumptions that mark heterosexuality as normal and queer sexuality as deviant merely because it is the opposite of heterosexuality.

Significantly, sexual orientation does not actually refer to one’s sexual practices. Instead, it refers to a  a psychological pattern, that describes the typical direction of an individual’s erotic desire. Sexual identity and sexual behavior are closely related to sexual orientation, but they are distinguishable. Sexual identity refers to an individual’s conception of their own sexuality, while sexual behavior limits one’s understanding of sexuality to behaviors performed. People may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors.

Development of Sexual Orientation

The primary tension in conversations about sexual orientation addresses whether sexual orientation is static or fluid, whether one is born with an immutable sexual orientation, or whether one develops sexual orientation. In fact there’s some truth to both ideas. Our orientation is primarily innate, but for some people it may change slightly (or even dramatically) in response to changes in their lives. Still, these changes occur in response to internal changes, not external pressures. Sexual reorientation therapies are a good example of this.

Sexual Reorientation

Some organizations advance the view that sexuality can be changed. These organizations tend to pathologize non-heterosexual orientations or conceive of them as an illness that must be corrected through medical or therapeutic means. Some of these institutions offer sexual reorientation therapies (often called “conversion therapies” or “reparative therapies”), which promise to “convert” queer individuals to heteronormative identities. Such “therapies” tend to do significant harm to its participants, as demonstrated by the significantly higher rates of depression and suicide in that population. Further, the participants rarely report a ‘successful’ transition to a heteronormative identity. The ‘success’ rate is so low (3%) that the successes might be accounted for by internal changes the individuals experienced outside the influence of the therapies. So while it is true that sometimes people’s sexual orientations change or shift over time, concentrated efforts to create that change through external pressures have failed and, in many cases, have led to increased emotional and mental distress in the participants.

No major mental health professional organization has sanctioned efforts to change sexual orientation and virtually all of them have adopted policy statements condemning the practice.

Sex and Sexuality

Venn diagram depicting the relationships between assigned sex and sexual orientation. Androphilia and gynephilia are preferred terms for some populations because homosexual and heterosexual assign a sex to the person being described.

Source: Boundless. “Sexual Orientation.” Boundless Sociology Boundless, 24 Aug. 2016. Retrieved 27 Feb. 2017 from

Source: "Sex-sexuality-venn."

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