Sexual orientation can be simply described as what sort of sex a person finds themselves attracted to and in what way. Sexual orientation is described by the American Psychological Association as follows: “Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes.” It is an integral part of who we are as humans, though it may not be apparent in a person’s conduct, activities, or appearance. There are many factors that go into one’s orientation, and it usually encompasses a combination of environmental, emotional, hormonal, and biological factors.
While there are numerous orientation groups, there are four that are agreed upon in scientific circles. These terms were coined in the 19th century, and we use them to this day.
This defines the group that feels attracted to the opposite sex, examples being a man attracted to women or a woman attracted to men. This is also known in slang terms as “hetero” or “straight.”
This term is used to define the group that feels attracted to the same sex, examples being a woman attracted to women or a man attracted to men. Men who are homosexual sometimes use the term “gay,” and homosexual women often use the term “lesbian.”
Those that associate with this group fall neither within heterosexual nor homosexual definitions, but instead feel emotionally romantic toward and/or sexually attracted to both men and women, whether they themselves are a woman or man. People who have distinct (but not exclusive) attraction to a gender may also fall into this category – an example would be a woman who prefers men, but will also consider attraction with another female.
Classic ideas about sexual orientation have been steadily changing over recent years to accommodate for the term “asexual.” An asexual person is someone who does not feel any sort of emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction. In essence, it is a lack of either interest in sex, or sexual attraction to others.
The asexual orientation has only recently been adopted as an orientation at all, and is still disagreed upon by many. Some interject that, for an orientation to exist, it must point in a certain direction, and that the lack of sexual desire is a sickness or dysfunction. The image of a compass is used as a metaphor – while a compass can point in many different directions, and even change directions, a compass that does not have a needle is not pointing anywhere and is in fact broken. Again, we’re talking about other people’s opinions here. If a person is happy and healthy and functioning properly, who’s to say that being asexual can somehow be compared to a broken compass? It can’t and nor should it be. If a person is happy with who and what they are, why suggest anything is broken in the first place?
There are many more variations of sexual orientation, and some conjecture that we have yet to discover them all. Among these are pansexual, the attraction to all sexes and/or gender identities; polysexual, an attraction to multiples sexes and/or gender identities; and intersexual, being someone who is neither biologically male nor female, and may or may not include a missing sense of sexual orientation.
Though these additional orientations are not widely accepted, taught about, or spoken of, they do indeed exist and are just as valid a form of orientation as any of those previously mentioned.
Lack of Mutability in Sexual Orientations
For many years, it was rumoured (and widely believed) that one’s sexual orientation could be shifted and changed based on how one was raised or what sort of sexual or emotional experiences one had while growing up. However, with the acknowledgment by scientific professionals that sexual orientation is not a choice, there also came the acknowledgment that people have one orientation and it does not change. While there are many who hide their orientation, or are sometimes confused about their true orientation, this does not mean the orientation is shifting.
It has been agreed upon that as much as one may try to “change how they feel,” in the long run there has been no evidence this results in the desired outcome. In fact, psychologists have proven that trying to force someone to feel sexually towards a gender that they are not attracted to can cause long term mental repercussions.
Social Influences on Sexual Orientations
Sexual orientation is said to, arguably, go hand-in-hand with social identity and orientation. This means that one’s social environment, such as the behavior, thoughts, and orientation of the people surrounding an individual, is often what helps to define one’s sexual orientation. The example may be used that, due to an individual’s family being of a certain religion, they will be predisposed to a certain form of sexual orientation. This is arguable due to the fact that many individuals have come out of social environments that look down upon their sexual orientation, and the person is forced to either hide it or reject that social environment.
The Kinsey Scale
Also called “The Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale,” this scale was created by Alfred Kinsey in an attempt to deepen the description and definition of sexual orientation. Based on one’s sexual history, they can find their place on the scale and describe themselves based upon it. The scale goes from 0 to 6, where 0 is purely heterosexual and 6 is purely homosexual. Therefore, the numbers 1 to 5 indicate some scale of bisexuality. Kinsey described the reasoning behind his scale: “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. While emphasizing the continuity of the gradations between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual histories, it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each history [... ]. An individual may be assigned a position on this scale, for each period in his life. [... ] A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist.” These days, the Kinsey Scale is considered a step in a better direction, but by no means a complete reference, as it is far too linear. Rating sexuality in a 0-6, in an up-or-down method, does not even begin to describe the uniqueness of each sexual orientation.
So, as we begin to explore the uniqueness of each individual, I hope that from the brief descriptions given above, we can at least see that people come into this world with their compasses pointing in different directions. Indeed, even acknowledging and accepting those who have no needle in their compass!
Copyright Piaras O Cionnaoith 2013