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Religious Tolerance logo

Definitions of the term "sexual orientation"

More information on
conflicts over definitions

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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 Qur'an.

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 impossible.

Conflicting definitions of "sexual orientation:"

By a near consensus, sexual orientation includes only three classifications: heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality. However, a few experts add:

bulletPansexuality (a.k.a. omnisexuality): "... Aesthetic attraction, romantic love and/or sexual desire for people regardless of their gender identity or biological sex." 1
bullet Asexuality: A total lack of sexual attraction towards others. Many regard this as a sexual dysfunction rather than as a sexual orientation. 2

Some religious conservatives take a very different path. They lump together three very different phenomenon:

bulletParaphilias -- 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
bulletThe three main sexual orientations, and
bullet Gender Dysphoria.

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 effective term.

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 changeable.

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 Association:

" 'Sexual orientation' is a term frequently used to describe a person's romantic, emotional or sexual attraction to another person.

bulletA 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.
bulletIndividuals attracted to persons of the other sex are said to have a heterosexual orientation.
bulletSexual orientation falls along a continuum and individuals who are attracted to both men and women are said to be bisexual. ..." 3

The difference in the definitions is important. Everyone agrees that behaviors can be changed:

bulletPersons with a bisexual orientation can decide to behave as heterosexuals by confining their relationships to members of the opposite sex.
bulletPersons 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 meanings.

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.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Pansexuality," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. "Asexuality," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. "Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues," American Psychiatric Association, undated, at: http://www.healthyminds.org/

Site navigation: Home > "Hot" topics > Homosexuality > Basic data > Orientation > here

Copyright © 2007 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2007-JUN-05
Latest update: 2015-DEC-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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