How should we categorize a person’s sexual orientation? Take a moment to read Personal Voices, “Defining Sexual Orientation.” Here you will see that the simplest way to categorize a person’s sexual orientation seems to be through sexual behavior: with whom does he or she have sex? However, if that were our sole criterion, we would have to call Peter gay—after all, he has sex exclusively with other men. But because Peter fan­tasizes only of sex with women, can we really call him gay?

Maybe, then, the secret life of sexual fantasies determines sexual orientation. Bill, however, sometimes fantasizes about sex with men, even though he considers himself straight and has sex only with women. Allie is having sex only with men now but has slept with women in the past.

Perhaps we should consider romantic love instead of sex to determine a person’s sexual orientation. Whom do you love, or whom could you love? Anthony loves his wife romantically and would never consider an emotional attachment to the men he picks up. Would you consider Anthony 100% heterosexual just because he loves only his wife? Maybe we should just let people decide for themselves; if they believe they are het­erosexual, they are, no matter how they behave. Yet when people’s behavior and beliefs about themselves are in conflict (such as Anthony’s), social scientists usually define them by their behavior.

The problem may be that we tend to think of sexual orientation in discrete cate­gories: you are either homosexual or heterosexual (or, occasionally, bisexual). The full variety and richness of human sexual experience, however, cannot be easily captured in such restrictive categories. People can show enormous variety in their sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, emotional attachments, and sexual self-concept, and each contributes to a person’s sexual orientation.

In this chapter, we will explore the nature of sexual orientation and the ways re­searchers and scholars think about it. Heterosexuality is a sexual orientation, and the question “Why is he or she heterosexual?” is no less valid than “Why is he or she ho-

 

sexual orientation

The gender(s) that a person is attracted to emo­tionally, physically, sexually, and romantically.

 

straight

Slang for heterosexual.

 

heterosexual

Man or woman who is sexually attracted to members of the other sex.

 

homosexual

Man or woman who is sexually attracted to members of the same sex.

 

bisexual

Person who is erotically attracted to members of either sex.

 

Personal Voices