Skip to main content
Sexual orientation isn't something that's just for or about those of us who are queer. Everyone has a sexual orientation and a sexual identity of some sort. Sexual orientation isn't just about people who aren't heterosexual. It's not just for people who are or who have been sexually active or in sexual or romantic relationships. It really is about everyone, including people who's sexual orientation or identity is "None," "I don't know yet," "Polkadot," or "42."
Like a lot of terms initially developed to describe an "other," a "them," or any group of people outside a current or accepted norm, which was the case with sexual orientation, it’s more common to hear many terms about orientation or sexual identity used within or about queer culture, and more rarely when talking about everyone else. (Homosexual came first as a term before heterosexual, for the record: if you're interested in more on that, check out Hanne Blank's great book on the history of heterosexuality, Straight.) That’s a bummer because questioning, sorting out, and learning to manage our sexual orientation and identity can be a big help when it comes to our sexuality as a whole, by ourselves and with partners, in our realities as well as our ideals and fantasies. Since there is no “default” orientation,it's not something anyone else can figure out for us, and it most typically plays a big part in figuring out what we want when it comes to sexuality and relationships with others, understanding sexual orientation is pretty darn important.
First things first: let’s sort out some of the most basic lingo.
Sexual orientation: The term sexual orientation is generally used to describe how a person -- if they do -- finds themselves sexually, affectionally, and/or romantically attracted to other people in regards to the gender of those people; which gender or genders of person a given person can be in love with and wants to have any kind of sex with. There may be varying degrees of those things or experiences of those things being more separate than unified: for instance, a person may be very sexually attracted to men, but more emotionally attracted to women or someone may find that romantic attraction for them, to anyone, usually plays a bigger part than sexual attraction.
Of course, what those words mean -- sexual, romantic, and affectional -- also isn't going to be the same for all people, as not everyone experiences or conceptualizes those things the same way. The same goes for attraction. An experience of feeling attracted to another person in these spheres doesn't feel the same for everyone or the same with everyone we're attracted to. For instance, one person might experience a feeling of attraction as more physical or sensory, while someone else might experience it as more intellectual or emotional, and vice-versa. Someone might be attracted to two different people, but more attracted to one than another. On the whole, though, what it feels like to feel attracted to someone else is to feel drawn to them, to have a strong interest in them or desire to be with them; to feel sexually attracted, means that attraction ticks off boxes in us we identify with what we know to be our sexual feelings or wants; to feel romantically attracted, that it ticks off the boxes we identify with our romantic feelings or wants. If and when we see someone or are around someone and we find ourselves starting to feel what we know to be lusty, horny, or otherwise sexually wanting, we're probably experiencing sexual attraction.
Some people choose to identify a romantic orientation separate from their sexual orientation, rather than mixing the two together. For instance, a woman who is romantically attracted to other women, but who as asexual, and experiences her attractions only or mostly as romantic, rather than sexual might separate orientations like that. A person who has experienced only or mostly sexual attraction to men, but only or mostly romantic attraction to women might identify as bisexual, ambisexual or queer, or they might say they're gay persexual orientation, but straight in romantic orientation.
Some people have the idea that a person's sexual orientation says something about their gender. While some terms for sexual orientation certainly reference the attract-ee's gender, and some people find that how they relate to someone else's gender, sexually or otherwise, has something to do with theirs, orientation really isn't about our own gender. It's about the other person's gender or sex or our perceptions of that person's gender or sex (especially with the latter, since we most often will have no idea what kind of genitals someone has when we're initially attracted to them, and might never know, even when we get involved with them, what kind of chromosomes they have). This is one of the reasons why beliefs like the idea that "real" men are only men attracted to women or that someone experiencing attraction to someone of a given gender should be questioning their own aren't sound.
There are slang or less formal terms for many of these that people use for themselves, like bi, ace, dyke, fag, or pan. Some terms people use to personally identify their orientation, like queer, dyke or fag, for example, were terms once used as derogatory terms or taunts which people have now reclaimed as positive and affirming.
If none of these terms feel like a good fit to you, fret not. None of them are required: we don't have to check a box for them when we're getting an ID or getting a seat on an airplane (would that the same were true of gender!). These aren't the only terms there are, just a general overview, and all of the terms we have right now are relatively recent, the oldest of them only dating back less than 150 years. So, if they feel writ in stone, know that they're so not. They're all still newer than the invention of the telephone.
You not only get to use NO term at all if that's what you want, you could mash more than one of these terms together, or mash one with a term for your gender identity or some other part of sexuality. For instance, maybe you're homopoly (which sounds like a much more interesting game of Monopoly) or heterocurious, a butch bi or a panbottom, a girlfag or a tryke, or an ambidextrous ambisexual (which could come in handy -- but I'll quit while I'm ahead before the puns go sour). I also don't see why anyone can't use more than one of those terms if they feel they describe them: we are large, we contain multitudes.
Or, you can make up new words entirely. After all, that's exactly how we have the terms we use now.
Sexual preference: An outdated term once used to describe sexual orientation. A sexual preference is a term we now usually use, if we do, to describe something like being sexually attracted to people who are tall, have a certain style of dress, or a certain haircolor. Like a preference in anything, it's just some quality or thing we like more than we like another thing. Sexual preferences can also include or refer to things we prefer in sexual activities, such as a certain sexual position, activity, or a certain kind of sexual language. Sometimes, “preference” is used as a subsection of sexual orientation, for instance, if someone is bisexual, they may not be equally attracted to both genders, but may generally prefer to be sexually involved with women, and only occasionally with men, or vice-versa. Some people who are bisexual, ambisexual or pansexual use the term "preference" to describe, when they experience it, as many people do, a preference for one sex, gender or gender expression over another or others. Sometimes it is also used as a synonym for sexual orientation, but a) that's more often by people who want to further the notion that we can completely choose how we are oriented and b) even when it's not used by folks like that, it's not such a great synonym since a preference is a very different thing than an orientation.
Sexual "Lifestyle": Lifestyle, when used to refer to orientation, like "gay lifestyle," is most commonly a negative term used to suggest that any one orientation has a given way of living, or is represented by the most visible or most maligned section of that group. For instance, back in the 80's when HIV first showed up on the scene, there was a lot of talk about how the "gay lifestyle" was responsible for the spread of the virus, and what people saying that were referring to was gay men with numerous sexual partners as a habit very heavy into the pickup scene engaging in no protected sex, even though not only did that not reflect a great number of gay men, it also didn't reflect even a great number of people, including gay men, who had contracted HIV.
Lifestyle -- a person's way of living as expressed in their actions, choices, interests, and opinions, including everything from how they dress to what their political affiliations or level of activism is -- instead varies greatly among people of a given orientation, the same way it varies among a given gender, race or socioeconomic group. There is no one gay or queer lifestyle just like there is no heterosexual lifestyle.
Sexual identity: Sexual identity is an umbrella term which is used to sum up the general gist of a person's sexuality in terms of how they identify and present themselves. It may include sexual orientation, sexual politics, sexual interests; chosen or wanted relationship models, gender identity, sexual preferences, sexual history, the whole enchilada. Queer, dyke or straight are terms for sexual identity, as might be kinky, polyamorous, demisexual, femme, slut, top, boy, stone, radical, vanilla, tutti-frutti and so on. Because sexual identity is so personal and can encompass so many things, some people get creative and come up with combination phrases, such as "agender granola dyke" or "heteroflexible kinky poly switch."
Sexual identity can be very fluid, just like sexual orientation, and often even more so. While some portions of our sexuality are at least partially fixed or hard-wired, like our basic sexual orientation, parts of our gender identity as well as some of our sexual or partnership preferences, many aspects of our sexual identity will develop, shift and evolve through our lives. For instance, during one period of our lives, we may explore a certain type of sexual activity, like role-play. At the time we’re doing that, that may become a prevalent part of who we feel we are. Later, we may lose interest in that, or decide that really isn’t a big part of our sexual identity anymore. While we’re single, our relationship status of being single or multi-partnered may not be a big part of our sexual identity, but if and when we become partnered or married, it may then become integral.
Just like terms for sexual orientation aren't required of you if you don't want them or aren't feeling them, the same goes for terms or words for your overall sexual identity.
You also never have to get married to any of these terms, and it's okay to try some on for a while, see how they fit, and then swap out for others you find fit better as you go. When we're in our teens and twenties, we are usually in the process of a lot of sexual development, including finding out who we are and what we want in this respect. So, while it's understandable with orientation or identity to have a burning need to just know and say who we are, once and for all, the truth is that those are things that not only can shift and change some, but which we'll probably only feel very sure of decades down the road, if we even do then. When it comes to identifying any of these things, no matter what our age, the best any of us can do is to consider our past and our present: what we've felt, wanted and experienced before, and how we feel, what we want, and who we are right now.
It's common to want to know how many people are a given orientation. You might want to know to have a sense of how alone you are or aren't, of how big your dating pool is or might be, to get a sense of your world in regard to orientation, or just because you like to geek out.
The truth, though, is that it's mighty hard to get sound demographics on sexual orientation, and most people whose primary work this is will tell you that we just don't have those yet or anything even close. There are a few major reasons for that.
For one, orientation is about feelings, not behaviours. It's doable, sometimes very easily, to study a lot about people's behaviors: behaviors involve actions, and actions, or their outcomes or consequences, can often easily be tracked and measured. It's often exceptionally difficult, on the other hand, to study and measure people's feelings. Those feelings don't always DO things we can observe or count, feelings are subjective and thus very hard to measure, and sometimes, too, people can feel one way, but act another, a pattern which is exceptionally common when it comes to sex and sexuality.
To give you an idea of that around orientation specifically, take a look at this chart from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, then look at the results of a Gallup poll of people done in the same year here. You can easily see from some huge gaps in just those two things that how we identify our orientation in a survey (or period!) often isn't reflective of our sexual behaviour. That doesn't mean people are necessarily being dishonest, by the way: again, remember that sexual orientation is really about feelings, not actions.
The world has certainly been changing for the better when it comes to acceptance and tolerance for orientations besides heterosexuality over the last 100 years, and has taken big strides just in the last decade. But we still very much do not live in a world where, on the whole, everyone thinks it's just as okay to be queer as it is to be straight; a world where non-heterosexual people can be visible and out as comfortably as heterosexual people can. That means a lot of people in studies won't be honest because they don't feel safe, or because they feel ashamed. It also means a lot of people who aren't straight won't even know or accept that they aren't. So, in any given survey or study, especially those where people can't be 100% anonymous, the fact of the matter is that no matter what someone's orientation actually is, a majority of people are still going to feel much more safe and comfortable saying they're straight than saying they are anything else.
Plus, not everyone wants to be out, for a whole bunch of different reasons -- including not agreeing with the idea they have to be or should be -- and in studies, many people won't have the right questions asked to really have their orientation counted, like, for instance, if a survey or study asks, as the often do, only if someone is heterosexual or homosexual. There continues to be a huge lack of visibility in the world and most studies and surveys for people whose orientation is something other than heterosexual or homosexual. That means not only are people like bisexual people or asexual people often not included in studies, many won't even know or believe they, themselves, exist in any real way because the world they have been raised in and are living in didn't account for or visibly include those options, either.
All that given, based on the decades of solid research we do have, on both sexual behaviour and feelings, we know that the majority of people in the world identify as heterosexual, while the majority also have experienced broader attraction than that; most people, in their lifetime, will have or have had at least SOME sexual or romantic attraction to or sexual interaction with someone (or someones) who are of the same or a similar gender to them. In other words, in most studies, far fewer people identify as queer than the history of their sexual experiences or attractions would suggest.
By that token, what's most likely is that very few people are completely heterosexual or homosexual in the strictest way some people use those terms -- where they mean ONLY attracted to one gender or another, especially throughout a lifetime. What we know so far is that while the people of the world are often presented as being primarily heterosexual, and it can often look that way on paper, the reality is that orientation is probably much, much more diverse than that. The other thing to know is that even with orientations where studies or realities state that a given orientation only makes up a small percentage of people, that even something like .05% of people? Isn't being alone: it's millions of people.
People's experience with knowing and identifying an orientation for themselves varies a whole lot. Some people can clearly identify knowing what their orientation was as very small children. Many people find that it's during adolescence where they really start to get a sense of what their orientation is, and that it's in their 20s or 30s where it really becomes clear to them. Other people still feel like they don't figure it out until their 40s, 50s or 60s, and some people feel like they either never get a handle on it, or it's shifted enough through their lives that there just was never one orientation or identity to know.
But if you're trying to get some clues about your orientation, you can start by considering things like these:
How you answer questions like those now may be different than you might when you’re older, even without sexual partnership experience. For instance, plenty of people find that if and when they leave home or the community they grew up in, and have new environments and freedoms that give them more room to find out who they are, or make more room for them being someone different than the person they thought they were.
As we grow, we also tend to start questioning certain aspects of our culture or community more -- like gender roles or the dynamics and beliefs of our peer groups -- which often play a part in our feelings about orientation and sexuality. And while a person doesn’t need to “experiment” with sexual partners to get a pretty good bead on orientation, as you are involved in romantic and sexual relationships, those relationships will often clarify some aspects of your orientation and give you extra food for thought.
There isn't one. Seriously, there just isn't. Just like there's no default race, ethnicity, age, color of hair or kind of music people like, there isn't a default orientation. By all means, more people in the world to date identify as heterosexual than as other orientations. And that very well might be because more people are heterosexual than are gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, asexual or any other orientation. Certainly, we know that more people, on the whole, live through their lives identifying as straight and mostly choosing partners of a different sex or gender than theirs than people who do otherwise, or mix it up a lot more.
But that's all a bit tricky, since most of us live in a world and in communities, and were raised in a world and communities, where heterosexuality was treated as the default (this is what we mean when we talk about heteronormativity), and where it's what was and is expected of us, what we mostly saw in movies and books and maybe even out and about in our world. It also generally, in most of the world and in many of our communities, was the orientation we usually got strong messages was the only one that was unilaterally acceptable and the one that is ideal. Which, when you think about it, is a whole lot like telling someone there's one gender that's ideal, one ethnicity, or one kind of body. Like all of those things, there certainly are people or communities which say there are ideals, but that doesn't mean they're right.
So, we know that even many people who aren't heterosexual -- who don't feel that way for themselves, and/or whose sexual and romantic lives don't appear to reflect a sole or primary attraction to people of a different sex or gender -- feel like they should be, or have a hard time picturing themselves living lives as someone other than a straight person. This shows up a lot in expressed feelings like, "I am pretty sure I'm a lesbian, but I just can't picture myself having a family with another woman," feelings which are often more reflective of never having been shown that picture as an equally-awesome option to any other rather than what a person really wants for themselves.
No matter what the numbers are or really are, there still isn't one orientation that's the default, where all other orientations are deviations. Like most of the rest of sexuality, orientation is simply diverse.
Sexuality research over the last fifty years or so shows us clearly that no matter our orientation, it’s fairly hard-wired. In other words, our sexual orientation is probably fixed pretty early in our lives to a certain degree, based on a combination of genetics, early familial, platonic, romantic and sexual relationships and the environments and communities in which we’re reared. Orientation is also both fluid -- it can tend to change or shift throughout our lives, though when it does, that's outside our control, not something we or others can force or make happen by choice -- and often based in part on our active choices. We all make conscious choices about who we take as partners and engage in sexual activities with, what we call ourselves, or what communities we participate in: no given sexual orientation or identity forces us to act in a given way or partner with certain people. While those choices or actions aren't feelings and can't tend to radically change who we're attracted to, those things do often tend to inform how we identify and understand our orientation.
The American Psychological Association states that,"Sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience, and some people report trying very hard over many years to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual with no success. For these reasons, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation for most people to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed." The APA, for the record, also has not newly adopted this stance, nor their stance about orientations like homosexuality or bisexuality not being mental illnesses or "perversions." They have had these stances since the early 1970s. If anyone tells you these ideas are newfangled inventions, feel free to remind them that by that token, so is disco music.
There’s a lot of argument about this issue. Some folks use the notion of choice in how we enact our orientation as a way to support certain personal or political agendas, like stating that if a queer person has the ability to choose to partner with whomever they like, they can just choose to be heterosexual. Approaches like that make looking into the why of orientation loaded, and can bias the way even academic or medical researchers look at sexual orientation. But even folks who stand strongly against the usual agendas with presenting orientation as a choice might not be 100%, or even close to that, with the idea that orientation isn't a choice. Some people's lived experiences of their own orientation and how they have experienced it don't feel as hard-wired as other people's. Some people also aren't, understandably, comfortable with having to say there's no choice in orientation just to get people to stop doing things like conversion therapy, especially since it can stifle or silence speech about the fluidity many people experience over a lifetime with orientation.
Asking about choice in orientation is tricky, because we just don’t have an absolute answer yet, and we may never. Ultimately, we can confidently say we have enough research and real life knowledge and experience, from a wide range of people over many years, to know that it is probably a combination of both choice and wiring. But it truly doesn’t matter very much whatever the exact combination is.
What’s important is that whatever our orientation, whatever active choices we do make about how we identify, who our partners are and what we participate in feels right and okay with us and with those we partner with. What's also important is that we and everyone else recognize that while orientation can shift over time, or sometimes be murky, and we all can certainly choose who we date, have sex with or partner with, it's never our place or anyone else's place to try and forcibly or coercively change the orientation of any person; what we all need to be doing is accepting and respecting, or learning to accept and respect, whatever the orientation of someone is.
Psychological and sexual research has shown clearly that orientation in and of itself is not a cause for problems like addiction, depression, homelessness or suicidal thoughts or actions. When such problems are associated with orientation -- and this comes up because the rates of these things are far higher for people who aren't heterosexual than for people who are -- they are rooted in the nonacceptance of those orientations, by oneself or others, or taunting, scolding or punishment because of the perceptions of them. In other words, the greater incidence of problems like these we see in LGBTQ people isn't about being LGBTQ. It's not like there's something about being a guy who is into guys that, all by itself, creates depression, nor something about being potentially attracted to people of any gender that drives a person to drink just because. It's about being LGBTQ in a world, community or environment that doesn't support LGBTQ people, whether that non-support is merely non-support or is non-support actively expressed with things like bullying, sexual, religious or other kinds of violence and abuse, or discrimination in things like jobs, housing and having families. If people with heterosexual orientations faced the nonacceptance, discrimination and abuse queer people do because of their orientation, we can be sure rates of those things for them would skyrocket, too.
This is probably also a good place to tell you, if you don't already know, that despite bias and bigotry out there that claims or has claimed otherwise, there's no orientation that makes everyone with it good people, nor any which makes anyone with it bad people by that token alone. As I like to say when I'm teaching sexual anatomy, not only does everyone have an asshole, but everyone can be an asshole. The same applies here: "good" people and "bad" people come in all orientations. Just like there are crappy people who are queer, there are crappy people who aren't; just like there are great people who are straight, there are great people who are something else entirely. Whatever our orientation is doesn't dictate what kind of a person we are, nor say anything at all about our worth and value as people. People of every orientation have worth and value.
Bigotry and bias about orientation also isn't a sound place for us to get information about those orientations, just like people who are sexist aren't sound people to inform us about the sex or gender they have bias towards, people who are racist are the least likely people to tell us sound or true things about the race or ethnicity of people they malign, and Mitt Romney isn't the dude to ask for the facts about poor people. Bigotry and bias are primarily based in ignorance and a lack of real information, not the other way round. And anyone telling you or implying that you're a bad person while they're shoving their agenda down your throat, trying to shame or trigger you with hateful speech, or trying to keep basic rights away from you based on your orientation, is someone for whom you can hopefully see it's obvious that the mirror is the best place for them to look if they're looking to find someone who needs a personal integrity makeover.
Young adults are typically in a very fluid stage of sexual development, physiologically, emotionally and in their relationships. The nature of the word “development” is that it means a process which takes time, rather than being complete from the get-go. It’s always been common, for instance, to have crushes on best friends, or sexual fantasies about same-sex friends, and even for people who do or will identify as heterosexual to engage in same-sex sexual activity during childhood and adolescence, no matter a person’s orientation in the long run. It’s typical for many people who are homosexual to have opposite-sex partners during their developmental years and sometimes beyond, especially given the pressures most of us experience to be heterosexual. It’s also common for some young adults to be less choosy about their sexual partners than their older counterparts; we know that in people's teens and twenties, on the whole, they're often less selective about sexual partners than many will be later in life. That's not because young people are trying to cause the fall of civilization or just want to have sex with anything that moves. It's just because when we're in a phase of our development where we're trying to figure things out, we often tend to do -- be it in our minds, actions or both -- what scientists trying to find things out do. We experiment.
In other words, not only do many young people sexually explore and experiment with partners -- often enough, not just of one gender -- they might not choose later, based on things like availability, commonality, peer and community pressures, sexual compatibility and basic care and respect, but plenty of young people also sometimes choose sexual partners they might not have strong interest in later as adults, for reasons like curiosity or social safety.
Honest, consensual sexual experimentation -- whether that’s in your own head only or out and about with others -- when you’re a teen or young adult is normal. (It's also normal not to be interested in that yet, too, or not to feel you want to do that yet: there's no one timetable with sexuality or sexual partnership that's the normal one.) There also isn’t a thing wrong with whichever sexual orientation you feel belongs to you. People who are queer aren’t necessarily more cool, sexually available, enlightened or open-minded; people who are straight aren’t necessarily prudish, traditional or narrow-minded. Having an attraction or a relationship or two outside what turns out to be your orientation base doesn’t mean you’re flighty, nor does it mean those relationships aren’t or weren’t important.
It’s understandable when so many parts of your identity are in flux to be in a hurry to affix a label to your orientation, especially if ambiguity or false assumptions are causing you grief. But sexual orientation can’t be rushed, nor is determining ours something we need to “just get over with.” It takes time -- and it’s common for many adults in their twenties, thirties and even forties to be uncertain about theirs; to experience gradual or even radical shifts in orientation. So, yeah: it’s possible that what feels like your orientation at times may be a phase: but it’s often phasal at one time or another for everyone, young and old, gay and straight and everything in between. But even if and when it is a phase, there’s no "just": it’s still meaningful, still relevant, and still 100% who you are. And even if and when it was a phase? Then it might have been a phase if you said and felt you were straight, too.
No one but you can assign an orientation (or an identity) to you but you. What you call yourself, how you identify, and when you identify is your choice, even if others disagree with you or challenge you. The important thing is that you do what you can to make yourself comfortable and at peace with yourself, that you are honest with yourself, and your friends, family and/or partners as you want to be and to the degree it's safe for you to be, and that you realize you have as much time as you want or need to become and discover who you are.
Remember: your sexuality is with you through your whole life, so you get to take all the time you need to explore it on your own and conceptualize it for yourself. Not only don't you need to magically know or understand all of it right now, you really can't. Most of us probably can't even when we're at the end of our sexual lives, but we really, really can't when we're at or near the start of it. And while there are times it can feel like your sexuality must be or needs to be The Biggest Part of Who You Are, it is only one part of who any of us are. How big a part it is or isn't varies, both among people and also often during different times and parts of our lives. If you don't have it all figured out now, or even ever, it really is okay, especially since there's a whole rest of you to take into account besides your sexual self.
You also get to be exactly whoever you want to be when it comes to your sexual orientation and identity. By all means, not everyone has the same sexual freedoms, liberties and rights. We wish everyone did, but the reality is that everyone does not. Some nations or areas still stigmatize, penalize or punish people based on their sexuality, including their sexual orientation; some people's friends and families are very accepting of all orientations, while others are absolutely intolerant.
But. We still get to be whoever we are in those situations, even if, for our safety, that might mean that sometimes, or for a period of time that "who" lives more in our heads or our hearts than we get to manifest in our lived lives. We also don't usually have no choice but to stay in areas, communities or families which are unaccepting; we can often elect to choose a different place to live in, or different people to surround ourselves with in order to find acceptance and support and love -- or have sex with, or both -- who we want to.
If you need some extra support around your orientation, or just someone safe to talk to to help you sort it all out, you can: