Sexual orientation, sexual preference or sexual inclination describes the focus of a person's amorous or erotic desires, fantasies, and feelings. A person's sexual orientation is most often classified by the gender(s) one is "oriented" towards, typically as:
- Heterosexual, if the focus is primarily a person of the opposite sex.
- Homosexual, if the focus is primarily a person of the same sex.
- Bisexual, if it may be a person of either sex.
(See the next section for controversies over the inclusiveness of this list.)
Complexities and terminology
Three different axes
Sexual orientation generally refers to how people of various genders create spontaneous feelings in the individual, or which orientation a person identifies with (which may be different). According to some interpretations, person's sexual behaviour and sexual identity (self-identification) may or may not reflect his/her sexual orientation. For example, sexual abstinence is independent of sexual orientation in this sense.
Some people who may self-identify as having a homosexual orientation engage in heterosexual behaviour and even heterosexual marriages to escape social stigma. Some bisexual people have only one sexual or romantic partner at a time, and sometimes happen to have sexual and romantic partners from one only gender throughout their entire lives, despite attraction to some people of both sexes. People with heterosexual attractions may nonetheless have homosexual encounters (including involving self-initiated, initiation by the other party, multiple simultaneous partners, acts of deception, absence of an available partner of the opposite gender, or other unusual social circumstances). A submissive might be made to have sex with someone outside their normal sexual orientation in obedience to their dominant partner, or in desire to please them.
A minority of people who self-identify as heterosexual or homosexual actually feel attracted to and engage in sexual behaviour with people of both genders. One term for this is Heteroflexible.
Some demographic labels specifically refer to sexual behaviour, as distinct from orientation or self-identification.
There is a common boundary-drawing problem (or controversy, at least) when considering how to divide a population between "heterosexual", "bisexual", and "homosexual" by behaviour or orientation. Should someone be categorized as "bisexual" by behaviour if they have any sexual contact with members of both genders? Does group sex count? Is an orgasm required? Or should is there a certain threshold - one quarter of contacts? One third? When classifying by orientation, what fraction of the same-gender population must a person be attracted to in order to move from "heterosexual" to "bisexual"? What "intensity" of attraction is required? Should self-reporting be trusted, or should there be some "objective" measure? Some observers only consider the two poles, others set explicit but somewhat arbitrary boundaries for the middle "box" when precision is required. Many, following the view of Kinsey, view sexual orientation and behaviour on a spectrum, from exclusively homosexual to exclusively heterosexual, with continuous or discontinous gradations in between.
Some people object to the very idea of sexual orientation, and insist that sexual attraction is fluid, or that it is only meaningful when talking about a specific person, and the labels that people use are either meaningless or only about affiliation with a group. Others simply reject labels because they interfere with accepting people for who they are and who they love. The creation of categories or "boxes" with proscribed boundaries (like those between "bisexual" and "heterosexual") is considered by some to be offensive, especially if the labels for those categories do not align with their own terminology or sense of identity.
Sexual orientation and gender
This situation is complicated further by the fact that there are several different biological and psychosocial components to gender, and a given person may not cleanly fit into a particular category. Some people even find the notion of distinct genders (and distinct sexual orientations based upon them) to be offensive. The complexities of gender are explained in the article on sex.
"Alternative" sexual orientations
Pansexual has been proposed as a variant of bisexual that includes people of neither or of indeterminate gender. Some people feel that asexual should be considered a sexual orientation which is the opposite of bisexual - sexual attraction to no one at all (which would mean neither men nor women).
Sexual fetishism is usually considered orthogonal to the gender-based categories of sexual orientation listed above, though of course it may in some cases be an important part of a person's sexual identity and behaviour.
Some people feel that various forms of "paraphilia", such as sexual attraction to animals, (zoophilia), oneself (autosexual), or inanimate objects are "alternative" sexual orientations to those listed above. Others argue that these classifications are orthogonal. (See #Other for research.)
Some people use the term queer as an umbrella term to include homosexuality and bisexuality, as well as fetishism, non-human sexual attraction, and other "paraphilia", but it may also be used more narrowly. It is also varyingly used as a derogatory term and as a term of pridefulness.
Sexual identity (self-identification)
Main article: Sexual identity
There are many social, psychological, and political issues surrounding "identities", "identity groups", or "communities", which people of various sexual orientations affiliate themselves.