Definitions of the term "sexual orientation"
More information on
conflicts over definitions
Conflicts between science and religion:
A faith group often determines religious truth from the content of their holy book(s). For example, many
Christians look to the Bible
for religious guidance. Jews study the
Torah. Muslims use the
Scientific truth is generally derived from observations of nature
and the testing of hypothesis.
In the study of human sexuality and many other areas where science and
religion overlap, different groups can develop conflicting beliefs.
This is seen in their use of different definitions for commonly used words and
terms. Lack of a consensus over the meaning of such common terms as "sexual
orientation," "heterosexuality," "bisexuality," and "homosexuality" makes debate and dialogue almost
Conflicting definitions of "sexual orientation:"
By a near consensus, sexual orientation includes only three classifications:
heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality. However, a few experts add:
Pansexuality (a.k.a. omnisexuality): "... Aesthetic
attraction, romantic love and/or sexual desire for people regardless of
their gender identity or biological sex." 1
Asexuality: A total lack of sexual attraction towards others.
Many regard this as a sexual dysfunction rather than as a sexual
Some religious conservatives take a very different path. They lump together
three very different phenomenon:
||Paraphilias -- dozens of rare, obsessive, and sometimes illegal and dangerous
sexual practices. Examples are: having sex with animals, engaging in
intercourse with dead bodies, abusive pedophilia, etc., and
||The three main sexual orientations, and
They call all of these sexual "orientations" They are then able to
make the case that legislation to protect individuals from hate crimes or
discrimination motivated by the victim's sexual orientation would also protect
from prosecution sexual exhibitionists, sexual abusers of children, those who
practice bestiality, etc. Sometimes, members of Congress who compose such
legislation do not define "sexual orientation" in their bills. They thus leave
themselves open to this type of argument. More info.
About the expression "sexual preference:"
"Sexual preference" has been commonly used it the past in place of
"sexual orientation." It is still frequently used by social and religious
conservatives, and occasionally by others.
Using the word "preference" implies that a person is actually a bisexual.
That is, they are attracted to both men and women, although they prefer one
gender over the other.
However, bisexuals are in a distinct minority. They are massively outnumbered
by heterosexuals who are only attracted to members of the opposite sex; they are
significantly outnumbered by homosexuals who are only attracted to members of
the same sex.
It would seem inappropriate to use the term "preference" to refer to a
heterosexual or homosexual who is sexually attracted to persons of one gender
and not at all attracted to the other gender. However, if you want to imply that
homosexuals are sexually attracted to both men and women, then it can be an
An additional conflict over sexual orientation:
Most religious and social conservatives define sexual orientation in terms of
behavior. Sexual orientation is what one does. It is chosen and
Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, human sexuality researchers, therapists,
counselors, etc. generally agree that sexual orientation is defined by the
gender to which a person has feelings of attraction. Sexual orientation is
what one is. It is discovered during one's lifetime and is rarely or never
changeable. Most would agree with a statement by the American Psychiatric
" 'Sexual orientation' is a term
frequently used to describe a person's romantic, emotional or sexual
attraction to another person.
||A person attracted to
another person of the same sex is said to have a homosexual orientation
and may be called gay (both men and women) or lesbian.
||Individuals attracted to
persons of the other sex are said to have a heterosexual orientation.
Sexual orientation falls
along a continuum and individuals who are attracted to both men and
women are said to be bisexual. ..."
The difference in the definitions is important. Everyone agrees that
behaviors can be changed:
||Persons with a bisexual orientation can decide to behave as
heterosexuals by confining their relationships to members of the opposite
Persons with a homosexual orientation can decide to become celibate, to
"leave the homosexual lifestyle."
Thus, people who engage in same-sex behavior can change and become ex-gays in
terms of their behavior.
However, there is a general consensus, except among religious conservatives,
that feelings of sexual orientation are very rarely or never changeable. Thus
all or essentially all adults with a homosexual or bisexual orientation can
never change their orientation to heterosexual.
Conflicts over definitions of "sexual orientation:"
It is common practice for different individuals and groups to use their
own favorite definitions without even acknowledging the existence of other
During discussions of sexual orientation, a person may switch between among
various definitions. This causes much confusion and misunderstanding. It is
sometimes done intentionally.
We recommend that the terms homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual never be used
in isolation, but always be identified as referring to either orientation or
behavior: i.e. to feelings of attraction or practices.
This essay compares and contrasts different sets of meanings for "sexual
orientation." Throughout the rest of this web site, we use the definitions
used by the American Psychiatric Association, and all other major associations
in the mental health field.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Pansexuality," Wikipedia, at:
"Asexuality," Wikipedia, at:
"Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues," American Psychiatric Association,
Copyright © 2007 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Original posting: 2007-JUN-05
Latest update: 2015-DEC-21
Author: B.A. Robinson