Sexual Orientation: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Diane Davis
Studying sexual orientation can help you understand how a person's feelings and sense of identity are involved. It may or may not be evident in the person's appearance or behavior. Explore this subject and test yourself with a quiz.

Definition

A person's sense of identity based on an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes is called sexual orientation. Sexual orientation also refers to a person's sense of identity based not just on those attractions, but also on related behaviors and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.

Factors that Determine Orientation

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. People express their sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including such simple actions as holding hands or kissing.

Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. However, sexual orientation is usually discussed in terms of three categories:

Three Categories of Sexual Orientation

  • Heterosexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of the other sex)
  • Gay/lesbian (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of one's own sex)
  • Bisexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to both men and women)

Many cultures use identity labels to describe people who express these attractions. In the United States the most frequent labels are lesbians (women attracted to women), gay men (men attracted to men), and bisexual people (men or women attracted to both sexes). However, some people may use different labels or none at all.

Sexual Orientation is Distinct from Sex and Gender

Sexual orientation is distinct from other components of sex and gender, including biological sex (the anatomical, physiological, and genetic characteristics associated with being male or female), gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and social gender role (the cultural norms that define feminine and masculine behavior).

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