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Definitions of "sexual orientation"

The American Psychological Association
(APA) definition & its interpretation

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A commonly accepted definition:

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sexual orientation as:

"... an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. ... Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality." 1

Various groups have different opinions of this and similar definitions:

bullet Religious liberals, sexologists, therapists, human rights promoters, etc. generally accept this definition of sexual orientation.
bullet Most GLBT individuals (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals) also accept this definition although many are uncomfortable with the use of the term "homosexual" and its derivatives, because they feel the latter are medicalized terms. They imply that gays, lesbians and bisexuals have a mental health problem. They prefer the phrases "gay and lesbian" or "lesbian and gay." However, they accept the terms heterosexual and bisexual.

bullet Religious and social conservatives rarely refer to sexual orientation, probably because the term implies a situation that a person discovers, rather than chooses, and is fixed. They prefer terms like "homosexual lifestyle" which imply a situation that is chosen and changeable.

Faced with this conflicts between the GLBT community, religious/social conservatives, and therapists, we have chosen to use the APA definition and terms throughout most of this website. Similarly, when we discuss abortion access, we choose medical terms instead of those promoted by pro-life, anti-abortion, and pro-choice people and groups.

The APA states that there are three possible sexual orientations:

bullet Heterosexuals are attracted to persons of the opposite sex only.
bullet Homosexuals are attracted to persons of the same sex only.
bullet Bisexuals are attracted to both men and women, although not necessarily to the same degree.

Conflicting interpretations of "sexual orientation:"

There are two main interpretations on what the term "sexual orientation" actually means:

bullet Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, religious liberals, therapists, human sexuality researchers generally interpret "sexual orientation" as referring feelings of affection and sexual attraction.
bullet When they use the term "sexual orientation," most religious conservatives define "sexual orientation" in terms of behavior.-- what a person does. As noted above, most conservatives prefer terms like "sexual preference," and "homosexual lifestyle."

Since sexual behavior almost always occurs between two persons who are either of the same sex or opposite sex, religious conservatives have need of only two orientations. They often ignore the bisexual category and treat everyone as either homosexual or heterosexual.

Some conservative religious groups interpret "sexual orientation" very broadly. In addition to the standard three orientations (heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality), they add as many as 30 types of paraphilias -- sexual impulse disorders -- including incest, bestiality, necrophilia, sexual exhibitionism, etc. Some of the latter are criminal acts.

Needless to say, this difference in definition and interpretation creates a great deal of confusion:

bullet Consider a person with homosexual feelings that they have aced upon, who now decides to be celibate. Under the conservatives' definition, they would be considered to be ex-homosexual or ex-gay; under the definition used by most others, they would be considered a celibate homosexual or celibate gay person.
bullet Consider a person with bisexual feelings who has had sex with same-sex partners in the past. She/he now decides to only enter relationships with members of the opposite gender. Under the conservative definition, they would be considered an ex-gay; under the other definition, they would remain a bisexual.

These two decisions are often used by religious and social conservatives as proof that homosexuals can "change" and become ex-gays. Many -- perhaps most -- some would say all -- ex-gays fall into the above two categories.

Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality," APA Help0 Center, at:

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

Copyright 2007 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2007-JUN-05
Latest update: 2009-JUN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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