There are a lot of terms used when describing sexuality: gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, trans-gender, same-sex attraction, same-gender attraction, queer, and so on. Some refer to a sexual orientation, others refer to an identity, while others refer to attractions or behaviors.
Some of these terms are frequently used interchangeably by many, even when the terms mean different things. This can lead to confusion when one uses one term in lieu of another. For example, one can engage in homosexual behavior without necessarily identifying as gay or even having a homosexual orientation. Yet they often all get lumped together.
This will be the first of two posts about terminology used when discussing sexuality. The purpose of this post is to define sexual orientation, sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual behavior.The next blog post will address the different terms used to describe the above listed categories.
Sexual orientation is defined by the American Psychological Association as "an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes." Sexual orientation is related to sexual identity, sexual attractions, and sexual behavior, but is distinguished from them. For example, an individual could have a homosexual orientation, without a gay identity, without engaging in homosexual behavior, and have the possibility of a variety of types of attractions. Some examples of sexual orientations include: homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, polysexual and pansexual.
Sexual identity is a reference to how and individuals think of themselves in terms of who they are sexually and emotionally attracted to. Sexual identity is related to sexual orientation, but is not the same thing. There are many people that have a homosexual or bisexual orientation that do not identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Sexual identity tends to be more closely related to sexual behavior than to sexual orientation, as the majority of those that identify as homosexual or bisexual have participated in sexual behavior with someone of the same sex. Those with a homosexual or bisexual orientation that don't have a homosexual or bisexual orientation, on the other hand, are less likely to have participated in sexual behavior with someone of the same sex.
There are also some individuals that do not have a sexual identity, some because they may live in a culture that does not not readily use sexual identities, while others because they choose not to take on a sexual identity. In the past, I chose not to take on a sexual identity. I later chose to identify as same-sex attracted, as I didn't like the implications that often seemed to come with a gay or bisexual identity. I am now comfortable identifying as bisexual, as that seems to be the best identity that fits for me.
As sexual identities are how individuals self-identify, there are quite a variety of them. Some examples of sexual identities include: gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, homosexual, heterosexual, same-sex attracted, queer, and LGBT, just to name a few.
Sexual attraction is both simpler and more complex than sexual orientation and identity. In simple terms, it is the basis of sexual desire. Sexual attraction is closely related to sexual orientation. It should also be noted that also related to sexual attractions are physical, romantic and emotional attractions. Individuals can experience just one of these types of attractions to another individual, or they can experience several or all of them.
Not only can sexual attraction be described as being directed toward the same sex, the opposite sex or to both sexes, it can also be described as being to specific traits or features in others, some of which may be related to the person's sex, while others may not. For some that are bisexual and many that are pansexual, sexual attraction to traits or features is less likely to be related to the sex of the person to whom the individual is attracted.
Sexual behavior refers to sexual activity, and is related to sexual orientation and sexual identity, but is not the same thing. For example, an individual could participate in sexual behavior with someone of the same sex without being homosexual or bisexual, just as one could participate in sexual behavior with someone of the opposite sex without being heterosexual or bisexual.
An individual may participate in sexual behavior with someone of a sex that they are not attracted to for a variety of reasons, including lack of availability of a sexual partner of a sex they are attracted, curiosity, cultural expectations, and a variety of other reason. In short, an individual's sexual behavior, while usually related to sexual orientation and identity, does not always coincide with their orientation or identity.
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In two weeks, my post will focus on the specific terms used in the categories I described. Until then, if you have any comments or questions about the terms I have used in this post, feel free to comment or to send me a private message.