Sexual Orientation

Based on a matter of principle, it is reasonable to say that our experiences and expressions of sexuality are private. However, the diversity of the sexual experience (particularly that which strays from the normative 'heterosexuality') has been highly politicised and publicised for many years. Modern-day discussions of sexuality are usually centred around equal rights, the politics of 'acceptance' and the policing of bodies. Let's take things a step back and refresh our understanding of what exactly sexual orientation means. 

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Table of contents
    • In this explanation, we'll be discussing sexual orientation.
    • We'll start by exploring the meaning of sexual orientation in terms of its definition, and a quick overview of the philosophical origin of love.
    • We'll briefly explore the difference between sexual identity and sexual orientation, followed by a (non-exhaustive) list of sexual orientations and their definitions.
    • Finally, we'll clear up our understanding of the difference between 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity'.

    Happy Pride! Let's do this.

    What is the meaning of 'sexual orientation'?

    The study of sexuality and sexual identity has been explored across a range of disciplines in academia. Its roots can be traced back to psychologists and sociologists, with more contemporary disciplines, such as queer theory, emerging in recent years.

    Defining 'sexual orientation'

    Sexual Orientation, Pride flags hanging on fences, StudySmarterThe Pride (rainbow) flag has become a political symbol, used in the celebration of sexual diversity around the world. Pexels

    According to Merriam-Webster, sexual orientation can be defined as "a person's sexual identity or self-identification as bisexual, straight, gay, pansexual, etc". In essence, an individual's sexual orientation refers to their patterns of romantic, sexual and emotional attraction.

    You might often see that the terms 'sexual orientation' and 'sexuality' are used interchangeably. In many instances, the word 'sexuality' is also used to refer to one's sexual orientation. However, 'sexuality' can also be used to refer to someone's capacity for experiencing sexual feelings, or their engagement in sexual activity.

    The Origin of Love

    In Plato's Symposium, which included the input of various Greek philosophers praising Eros (the god of love), the following was theorised:

    A long time ago, there were three types of humans. The male came from the sun, the female came from the earth, and those who came from the moon had characteristics of both.

    The moon people had four arms, four legs and two faces (one on either side of their head). Moving in circular momentum, the people of the moon were fast and powerful, overestimating their ability to take over the gods and the heavens. To teach them a lesson, Zeus split them down the middle, and left them to spend their lives searching for their 'other half' - including two halves of males, two halves of females and two halves of the androgynes. Only when we find our other half, can we become 'whole' as we once were. And that is the origin of love!

    Sexual identity vs sexual orientation: what’s the difference?

    Some sources say that the terms sexual identity and sexual orientation can be used interchangeably, while some others (very few of them, actually) say that the two terms are slightly different (in that sexual identity is a combination of sexual orientation and gender identity).

    The most common distinction between sexual identity and sexual orientation is made, such that:

    • the term sexual identity refers to how we feel and identify in terms of our sexuality (including our sexual orientation, sexual behaviour and sexual expression),

    • the term sexual orientation refers to how we feel and identify in terms of our sexual, emotional and/or romantic attraction towards others.

    What are the different types of sexual orientation?

    You are likely familiar with the acronym LGBTQIA+, which stands for (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual, and beyond). It has been used, historically and in contemporary discourse, to signal the various experiences of gender and sexuality that people have (aside from cisgenderism and heterosexuality). The acronym has been repeatedly updated and adapted to be more inclusive.

    The "+" at the end is indicative of the fact that there are infinite, unique experiences and expressions of sexuality all over the world which are difficult (if not impossible) to place into finite categories.

    At most, we can categorise (some, but not all) sexual orientations as follows:

    • attraction to men,

    • attraction to women,

    • attraction to the same gender,

    • attraction to a different gender,

    • attraction to multiple genders, and

    • attraction to nobody.

    Is there a sexual orientation list?

    Sexual Orientation, scrabble tiles spelling out equality, StudySmarterThere are many ways to advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights, including attending Pride events, voting and speaking with people with more traditional or close-minded stances. Pixabay

    While there are many lists of sexual orientations that you can find in books, academic texts and websites, it may be misguided to say that we have an exhaustive list of sexual orientations that can tell us everything we need to know. It might also seem odd to say that this is a strength on our part as a society - but it's true!

    The fact that we don't have a singular, all-encompassing list of sexual orientations shows strength in our awareness that the human experience is too diverse to compile it all into a single book or webpage.

    However, just as is the case with other experiences of diversity (including our gender identities, for instance), there are several trusted sources we can look to in order to familiarise ourselves with the most commonly identified sexual orientations.

    Let's look at some of them now!

    Allosexual orientation

    The term 'allosexual' is not a very popular one, but it does hold a lot of value. The word is used to refer to those who do experience sexual attraction, and helps normalise the existence and experiences of asexual people, who do not experience sexual attraction.

    Androsexual orientation

    The term androsexual refers to an attraction to those who identify as men or masculine, regardless of the sex which they were assigned at birth.

    Asexual orientation (or "ace")

    As mentioned, the term 'asexual' refers to someone who does not feel sexual attraction to other people, or at all. Someone who is asexual is not also necessarily aromantic, as they may well feel a romantic attraction to others.

    Many people go through periods where they feel like they don't want to have sex - that doesn't necessarily mean that they are asexual. Moreover, asexuality is different from celibacy, which is when people choose not to have sex. Asexuality, like all sexual orientations, is not a choice!

    Bisexual orientation (or "bi")

    The term 'bisexuality' is often misunderstood as reaffirming the gender binary (with the prefix "bi" meaning 'two'). However, someone who is bisexual doesn't necessarily only experience sexual attraction towards cisgender men and women.

    Someone who identifies as bisexual tends to be sexually attracted to people of more than one gender.

    Demisexual orientation

    The demisexual orientation is said to fall on the spectrum of asexuality, and is used to describe those who only experience sexual attraction to under particular circumstances (for example, after they have established a romantic relationship with somebody).

    Fluid

    The word 'fluid', just the same as in its reference to gender identity, refers to those who experience changes in their sexuality (including orientation, behaviour and expression) overtime.

    Gay

    The word gay was traditionally used to describe men who are attracted to other men, but now is often used in reference to anybody who experiences attraction to the same gender.

    Gynesexual orientation

    The term gynesexual refers to an attraction to those who identify as women or feminine, regardless of the sex which they were assigned at birth.

    Heterosexual orientation (or "straight")

    Someone who identifies as heterosexual experiences attraction towards people of a different gender (typically, the "opposite" sex).

    Homosexual orientation

    The term homosexual is a relatively outdated one - it was used in medical and psychological discourse in, often, quite dehumanising ways. It was used to describe people who experience sexual attraction towards people of the same gender.

    Lesbian

    Some women who experience attraction towards other women prefer the term lesbian. However, as mentioned, some may also prefer the label "gay".

    Pansexual orientation

    The term pansexual typically describes those who experience attraction towards anyone, regardless of that person's sexual or gender identity.

    Queer

    The word 'queer' is loaded with a rich history - not all of which is positive. In the past, the word 'queer' was used as a slur to insult and offend people with diverse sexual identities. While some people still find it offensive, others have chosen to reclaim it and use it as a form of empowerment.

    Not sure if you should refer to someone you know as "queer"? Just ask them!

    Questioning

    Someone who is questioning may be exploring or figuring out their sexual orientation. People who are exploring bisexuality are often referred to as bicurious.

    Is there a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity?

    While our sexual orientation is about who we are attracted to, our gender identity is more about how we ourselves feel and identify.

    You can learn more about Gender Identity in a dedicated explanation on our web-app!

    The diversity of our experience

    Although our sexual orientation and gender identity are two distinct characteristics, the premise which underlies their diverse existence is the same: that the traditional binary of 'male and female' doesn't adequately capture the human experience of gender or sexuality.

    Furthermore, a common characteristic of our sexual orientations and gender identities are that they can both be fluid. How we identify in terms of our gender and sexuality can (and likely will) change over the course of our lives as we learn more about ourselves and open ourselves up to more experiences.

    Talking about it

    Another similarity between the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity is in how they should be approached in both academic and everyday discourse.

    The bottom line is that we must be open to listening to and understanding the experiences of our gender diverse friends, instead of assuming how they feel and how they would like to be 'labelled' (if at all).

    Coming out

    The term coming out (or "coming out of the closet") refers to the process of opening up to others about how we experience and identify in terms of our gender and sexuality.

    The process of coming out can be incredibly empowering for some people of diverse gender and sexual identities, and for others, it can be extremely difficult. If someone chooses to disclose their identities to the people around them, it's crucial to show respect and support in several ways. This can include:

    • asking and using their preferred name and pronouns,

    • not disclosing their identity to others, unless they specifically ask you to,

    • standing up to people who refuse to accept the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people, and

    • listening to their feelings and experiences, without assuming to know.

    Sexual Orientation - Key takeaways

    • An individual's sexual orientation refers to their patterns of romantic, sexual and emotional attraction.
    • Sexual identity refers to how we feel and identify in terms of our sexuality, while sexual orientation refers to how we feel and identify in terms of our attraction towards others.
    • Sexual orientations can (to a limited extent) be categorised into: attraction to men, attraction to women, attraction to the same gender, to a different gender, to multiple genders, or no experience of attraction at all.
    • While our sexual orientation is about who we are attracted to, our gender identity is more about how we, ourselves, feel and identify.
    • The term coming out (or "coming out of the closet") refers to the process of opening up to others about how we experience and identify in terms of our gender and sexuality.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Sexual Orientation

    What is sexual orientation?

    According to Merriam-Webster, sexual orientation is "a person's sexual identity or self-identification as bisexual, straight, gay, pansexual, etc". 

    How many sexual orientations are there in 2022?

    While there are many lists of sexual orientations that you can find in books, academic texts and websites, it may be misguided to say that we have an exhaustive list of all existing sexual orientations. The experience of sexuality is so diverse, that it is likely there are some experiences that don't even have labels that adequately describe them!

    What are some examples of sexual orientation?

    Some examples of sexual orientation are asexual, bisexual, heterosexual and pansexual. 

    When does sexual orientation develop?

    Many sources cite puberty/early adolescence as the beginning of sexual attraction. However, our sexual orientation is something that we are born with. We may not express it early in life because it can take some time to figure it out!

    How does sexual orientation affect our culture?

    It may be inaccurate to say that sexual orientation affects our culture, and it is also inaccurate to say that culture affects our sexual orientation. At best, the link we can make between these two factors is that a more open and accepting culture means we are more comfortable openly expressing our sexual orientations and identities. 

    What is the difference between sexual identity and sexual orientation?

    Some sources say that the terms sexual identity and sexual orientation can be used interchangeably, while some others say that the two terms are slightly different. Sexual identity refers to how we feel and identify in terms of our sexuality, while sexual orientation refers to how we feel and identify in terms of our attraction towards others. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    We can find an exhaustive, all-encompassing list of sexual orientations in many sources. True or false?

    Choose the correct statement. 

    Someone who experiences attraction to more than one gender may identify as...

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