Sexual orientation is an unchangeable and involuntary aspect of sexuality that refers to the gender(s) or gender alignments that an individual feels sexual attraction towards and how that sexual attraction is experienced.
Typically, sexual orientation labels are derived using a prefix combined with the suffix "-sexual." Bisexual, heterosexual, and demisexual are all examples of sexual orientations. Other labels that do not use the "-sexual" suffix, such as gay, lesbian, and trixic, can also be used to describe one's sexuality.
An individual who experiences no sexual attraction, or only experiences it rarely or weakly, may consider themselves asexual.
The romantic counterpart is romantic orientation. Perioriented individuals may prefer to identify only with their sexual orientation label, as one's romantic orientation is often socially assumed to be the same unless specified otherwise. For asexual-spectrum, aromantic-spectrum, and otherwise varioriented individuals, it is often useful to identify with separate sexual and romantic orientations following the split attraction model.
The term sexual orientation was created by various sexologists, or social scientists who observed and catalogued sexuality in the mid-1800s. One of the earliest sexual orientation classification schemes was proposed in the 1860s by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. The classification scheme, which was meant only to describe men, separated them into three basic categories:
- Dioning, comparable to the term "heterosexual."
- Urning, comparable to the term "homosexual."
- Urano-Dioning, comparable to the modern term bisexual.
In addition, Ulrichs created four terms describing variations of urning, including mannling, or a masculine urning; weibling, or a feminine or "effeminate" urning; zwischen, or a somewhat manly and somewhat "effeminate" urning that is comparable to androgynous; and virilised, or an urning that sexually behaves like a dioning, comparable to straight-passing.
In 1894, Richard von Krafft-Ebing created the terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" in his sexology book Psychopathia Sexualis, leading to the long-standing medicalization of LGBT+ identities and association between queer sexuality and mental health and neurodivergence.
In 1896, Berlin sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld published a scheme that applied to both women and men that measured the strength of an individual's sexual desire on two independent 10-point scales, the "A" or homosexual scale and "B" or heterosexual scale. A heterosexual individual may be A0, B5; a homosexual individual may be A5, B0; an asexual would be A0, B0; and someone with an intense attraction to more than one gender would be A9, B9.
The Kinsey scale, also called the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, was first published in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and was also featured in the 1953 sequel report Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The Kinsey scale provides a classification of sexual orientation based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or desire in one's history at a given time rather than assuming that individuals are either exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual.
The stigmatization of those who would not be classified as heterosexual, including heterosexual trans individuals, in the early and mid 1900s led to political organizing in the US around individualized marginalized sexual orientations and sometimes gender identities, including organizations like Mattachine Society, which was primarily gay, and the Daughters of Bilitis, which was primarily lesbian. After the Stonewall riots initially caused more co-organizing, however, some gay and lesbian individuals became less accepting of bisexual or transgender people in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. From about 1988, activists began to use the initialism LGBT, and it was not until the 1990s within the movement that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals had more or less equal respect.
Open identification of one's sexual orientation, especially if not straight or allosexual, may be hindered by homophobic and heterosexist environments. Social systems such as language and cultural traditions can have a powerful impact on the realization of sexual orientation.
Integration of sexual orientation with sociocultural identity may be a challenge for LGBT individuals. Individuals may or may not consider their sexual orientation to define their sexual identity, as they may experience various degrees of fluidity or may simply identify more strongly with another aspect of their identity, such as family role.
An individual may presume knowledge of another individual's sexual orientation based upon perceived characteristics, such as appearance, clothing, voice (such as the "gay voice"), the company one keeps, and behavior with other individuals. The attempt to detect sexual orientation in social situations is sometimes colloquially known as "gaydar."
Language can also be used to signal sexual orientation to others, but it can also force individuals to identify with a label that may or may not accurately reflect their sexual orientation.
The internet, in particular social media, is a common origin of modern discourse on the subject of sexual orientation and shapes popular conceptions around sexual identities. Tumblr in particular is a common origin of queer sexual discourse, although Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit are also frequently sites of discourse as well.
Translation is a major obstacle when comparing different cultures. Many English terms lack equivalents in other languages, while concepts and words from other languages fail to be reflected in the English language.
Some other cultures do not recognize a distinction between homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, instead categorizing a individual's sexuality according to their sexual role, such as "active" or "passive." In this distinction, the passive role is typically associated with femininity or inferiority, while the active role is typically associated with masculinity or superiority. Some cultures may also have exclusive genders, particularly cultures and individuals impacted by the double bind of racism and heteronormativity.
- Wikipedia entry on sexual orientation.
- Planned Parenthood article on sexual orientation.
- "A Guide For People Who Question Their Sexual Orientation" by Richard H. Reams, Ph.D.
- The Riddle of "Man-Manly Love", Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, originally self-published in 1864, re-released by Prometheus Books in 1994.
- Archived copy of Psychopathia Sexualis.
- The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault, originally published in 1976, republished by Pantheon Books in 1978.
- Digitally archived version of "Sappho und Sokrates: Oder wie erklärt sich die Liebe der Männer und Frauen zu Personen des eigenen Geschlechts?" (in German).
- Archived copy of Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.
- Archived copy of Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.
- Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: A Documentary History, Jonathan Ned Katz, Meridian Press.
- Transgender Subjectivities: A Clinician's Guide, Jack Drescher, Haworth Press.
- Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of The Others, Jonathan Alexander and Karen Yescavage, Haworth Press.
- Research, policy and practice: Annual meeting, American Educational Research Association Verlag AERA.
- Bisexuality and Transgenderism, Alexander and Yescavage (again).
- "Stability and Change in Sexual Orientation Identity Over a 10-Year Period in Adulthood," Steven E. Mock and Richard P. Eibach, Archives of Sexual Behavior.
- "Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation," Hazel R. Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, Psychological Review.
- Word's Out: Gay Men's English, William L. Leap, University of Minnesota Press.
- Media Messages: What Film, Television, and Popular Music Teach Us About Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, Linda Holtzman and Leon Sharpe, Taylor & Francis.
- "'Appeals to nature' in marriage equality debates: A content analysis of newspaper and social media discourse," Cliodhna O'Connor, British Journal of Social Psychology.
- "Queer Reverb: Tumblr, Affect, Time" by Alexander Cho in Networked Affects, MIT Press, pp. 43-58.
- "Disturbing Hegemonic Discourse: Nonbinary Gender and Sexual Orientation Labeling on Tumblr," Abigail Oakley, Social Media + Society.
- "Identity experience among progressive gay Muslims in North America: A qualitative study within Al-Fatiha," O. Minwalla et alia, Culture, Health & Sexuality.
- "Problems of Translation in Cross-Cultural Research," Lee Sechrest et alia, Journal of Cross-Cultural Research.
- "'War of Words' on New (Legal) Sexual Identities: Spain's Recent Gender-Related Legislation and Discursive Conflict" by José Santaemilia in Gender and Sexual Identities in Transition: International Perspectives, Cambridge Scholars Press, pp. 181-98.