What Is Sexual Orientation?

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Sexual orientation refers to the type of person you are sexually, emotionally, and romantically attracted to.

In the past, it was believed that sexual orientation was strictly based on the sex of the person to whom you are attracted. It was also believed that people could only be attracted to women, men, or both. Additionally, terminology used to describe sexual orientation has evolved over time.

Are the Terms 'Sexual Preference' and 'Sexual Orientation' the Same?

The term "sexual preference" used to be acceptable. But sexual preference isn’t really an accurate term to describe sexual orientation and shouldn’t be used.

The phrase “sexual preference” implies that who we are attracted to is a choice, and can evoke shame in people who have sexual feelings that exist outside of heterosexuality.

Your sexual orientation is not a choice—it’s just who you are, and it’s something to be celebrated.

But our idea of sexual orientation is more expansive now, and it's clear that sexual orientation exists on more of a continuum.

Elements of Sexual Orientation

Most people think of sexual orientation as wrapped up in one thing: sexual attraction. And that’s certainly a big part of it! But sexual orientation doesn’t just refer to who you are interested in having sex with. It’s also about who you are interested in having an intimate emotional relationship with. This may mean sex, but sometimes there isn’t any sex involved.

Besides sexual intercourse or other sexual acts, sexual orientation can be expressed in any number of ways, including:

  • Holding hands
  • Kissing
  • Other forms of non-sexual physical interaction
  • Providing emotional support
  • Being committed to a person
  • Having similar values and life goals

It’s also important to keep in mind that for many of us, who we are attracted to and what our sexual orientation looks like isn’t entirely binary. It used to be assumed that the majority of people are attracted to someone of the opposite sex (heterosexual), and that orientations like homosexual (where you are attracted to someone of the same sex) and bisexual (where you are attracted to both sexes) were far rarer.

Sexual Orientation Exists on a Spectrum

But the current thinking is that even these categories are too limited and that most of us experience our sexual orientation as more expansive and fluid than this.

Some people find that their sexual orientation is something that changes throughout life, and some people prefer not to put any labels at all on their sexual orientation or who they are attracted to.

Types of Sexual Orientation

There are many ways to describe sexual orientation. And, more sexual orientations have been recognized in recent years.

Let’s take a look at some of the types of sexual orientation:

  • Heterosexual: Experiencing sexual, romantic, and emotional attraction to people of the opposite sex.
  • Gay or Lesbian: Experiencing sexual, romantic, and emotional attraction to people of the same sex as you.
  • Bisexual: Experiencing sexual, romantic, and emotional attractions to both people of the same and opposite sex. Bisexuality is a continuum: you may not experience it all the time, with the same intensity, or in the same manner.
  • Asexual: People who are asexual have little or no interest in having sex with others. This is not because of religious or ideological reasons. Being asexual doesn’t mean you aren’t interested in close or intimate relationships, though. About 1% of the population is asexual.
  • Aromantic: People who are aromantic do not have romantic feelings toward people of any gender. Some people who are aromantic are asexual but some aren’t.
  • Demisexual: People who are demisexual can only be sexually attracted to someone to who they feel a deep emotional connection. People who identify as demisexual may identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or others.
  • Pansexual: Being pansexual means that your sexual attractions are not restricted by sex or the gender binary. Some people are also panromantic, meaning that their romantic feelings aren’t limited by sex or gender.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of sexual orientations.

Sexual Orientation vs. Gender Identity

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same things. Gender identity refers to a person’s personal sense of what their gender is, whether it be man, woman, non-binary, or something else.

A person’s sexual orientation refers to the type of person they are attracted to emotionally, sexually, or romantically.

Is It Normal to Question Your Sexual Orientation?

Understanding your sexual orientation is something that may be a lifelong journey. Many people know what their sexual orientation is at a very young age, but some people take longer to explore their feelings.

Exploring your sexual orientation is a normal part of development during childhood, and adolescence, and may continue for some time after this.

Many people may have an innate understanding of their sexuality before it feels socially or culturally comfortable for them to express it to the world, while others may feel more comfortable earlier. Keep in mind that understanding and sharing your sexual orientation is not a one-time event, and is something that you may express to a smaller subset of people before you express it to others.

The timeline and process of understanding sexual orientation are unique to each person and all paths are valid.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should I fill in for sexual orientation on medical forms?

    Sometimes medical forms or other information intake forms will ask you to share your sexual orientation. This is usually so that you can receive inclusive care and treatment. However, you are under no obligation to share your sexual orientation. If you don’t wish to answer, you can leave this question blank or choose “I don’t know.”

  • Can you change your sexual orientation?

    Although sexual orientation is something that may change organically for someone as they progress through life, sexual orientation is not something that can be changed by others. In fact, forcing someone to change their sexual orientation can be harmful and traumatic.

  • What causes a person to have a certain sexual orientation?

    Experts aren’t sure what causes a person to have the sexual orientation that they do. Both nature (genetics, hormones) and nurture (developmental, cultural, social) influences may be at play. Either way, sexual orientation is not a choice, a mental disorder, or something that can be controlled.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Moleiro C, Pinto N. Sexual orientation and gender identity: review of concepts, controversies and their relation to psychopathology classification systems. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6:1511. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01511

  2. American Psychological Association. Sexual Orientation & Homosexuality.

  3. Moleiro C, Pinto N. Sexual orientation and gender identity: review of concepts, controversies and their relation to psychopathology classification systems. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6:1511. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01511

  4. Youth.gov. Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

  5. National Institutes of Health. Sex, Gender, and Sexuality.

  6. Antonsen AN, Zdaniuk B, Yule M, et al. Ace and Aro: Understanding Differences in Romantic Attractions Among Persons Identifying as Asexual. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 2020;49(5):1615-1630. doi:10.1007/s10508-019-01600-1

  7. Johns Hopkins University. LGBTQ Glossary.

  8. Hayfield N, Křížová K. It’s Like Bisexuality, but It Isn’t: Pansexual and Panromantic People’s Understandings of Their Identities and Experiences of Becoming Educated about Gender and Sexuality. Journal of Bisexuality. 2021;21(2):167-193.

  9. American Psychological Association. Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual Orientation Information Frequently Asked Questions.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.