It all starts with attraction

Remember the thrill of your first crush? Maybe it was a boy at school or a girl you met over summer vacation. Whoever it was, your heart beat just a little bit faster whenever they were around.

Sexual orientations start with attraction.

According to a recent publication of the American Psychological Association (2012): Sexual orientation begins with "the sex (or gender) of those to whom one is sexually and romantically attracted” (p.11).

Identifying as gay or lesbian refers to same-sex attraction, while identifying as straight refers to attraction to the opposite sex/gender. Bisexuality refers to attraction to persons of more than one gender, while persons who identify as asexual do not experience sexual attraction to others at all or do so only under limited circumstances.

We tend to focus on sexual attraction when discussing sexual orientation. But as the American Psychological Association points out, sexual orientation also relates to feelings of romantic attraction. For some people, sex is the most important part of any relationship. For others, the romantic and emotional elements are what really matter.

Sexual orientation also includes behavior. As stated by Beaulieu-Prevost & Fortin (2015) in the academic journal Sexologies, behavior refers to mutually voluntary sexual and/or romantic activity with another person.

Typically, behavior follows attraction—that is, people engage in relationships with persons to whom they are sexually and/or romantically attracted. But that’s not always the case. Some people might feel attraction to both men and women, for instance, but engage in relationships with persons of just one gender.

The final aspect to sexual orientation is identity, or self-identification. For example, someone who is attracted to people of the opposite sex or gender will typically self-identify as straight, while someone who is attracted to people of the same sex or gender will self-identify as gay/lesbian.

But not everyone identifies according to the attractions they feel or relationships they engage in.

For instance, a recent study by researchers at Northwestern University shows that not all men who have sex with other men identify as gay. And, not all people who are attracted to persons of both sexes identify as bisexual (Carrillo & Hoffman, 2017).

Historically, many have avoided identifying as gay, lesbian, or another sexual minority for fear of bias and discrimination, or because they don’t feel those labels accurately describe who they are.

Even today, persons may avoid being open about their feelings and/or behavior for fear of negative consequences, such as rejection from family members, hostility in their community, or discrimination at work. People who keep their sexual orientations private are sometimes referred to as being in the closet. The decision to be open about one’s sexual orientation is referred to as coming out.

Overall, national surveys show that the number of people who experience some degree of same-sex attraction or engage in same-sex behavior is significantly larger than the number of people who self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or some other sexual minority. For instance, a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found the following:

Among women between the ages of 18 and 44, 19% reported some degree of same-sex attraction, and 17.4% reported some degree of same-sex contact in their lifetime, while only 1.3% identified as lesbian and 5.5% identified as bisexual (Copen, Chandra, & Febo-Vazquez, 2016, pp. 1-5).

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Want to dig deeper? Check out the CDC survey referenced in this article.

Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual orientation among adults aged 18-44 in the United States: data from the 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth


American Psychological Association. (2012). Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. American Psychologist, 67(1), 10–42.

Beaulieu-Prevost, D. & Fortin, M. (2015). The measurement of sexual orientation: Historical background and current practices. Sexologies 24(1), 29-34.

Carrillo, H. & Hoffman, A. (2018). Straight with a pinch of bi: The construction of heterosexuality as an elastic category among adult US men. Sexualities, 21(1-2), 90-108.

Copen, C.E., Chandra, A., & Febo-Vazquez, I. (2016). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual orientation among adults aged 18–44 in the United States: data from the 2011–2013 National Survey of Family Growth. CDC: National Health Statistics Report, 88.

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

Explore More

Read the abstract of the research by Beaulieu-Prevost and Fortin on the measurement of sexual orientation.

The measurement of sexual orientation: historical background and current practices

Read More

Check out this summary of the article based on research at Northwestern University on sexual identities among men who have sex with men.

Straight with a pinch of bi

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