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 refers to the sex (or gender) of those to whom one is sexually and romantically attracted” (p.11).
People who are homosexual (gay / lesbian) are attracted to people of the same sex or gender, while people who are heterosexual (straight) are attracted to people of the opposite sex or gender, and people who are bisexual experience attraction to people of more than one sex or gender. There are other sexual orientations you will learn about as you explore identiversity. For instance, people who are asexual do not experience any sexual attraction, and people who are pansexual are attracted to people of all gender identities and expressions.
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 mutually voluntary activity 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 people of just one sex or 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 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 behaviors 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 people of both sexes identify as bisexual (Carrillo & Hoffman, 2017).
Historically, many people 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, people 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).
Want to dig deeper? Check out the CDC survey referenced in this article.
American Psychological Association. (2012). Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. American Psychologist, 67(1), 10–42. http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/amp-a0024659.pdf
Beaulieu-Prevost, D. & Fortin, M. (2015). The measurement of sexual orientation: Historical background and current practices. Sexologies 24(1), 29-34. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1158136014000656
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. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs//data/nhsr/nhsr088.pdf