Sexual Orientation

Updated: MAY 13, 2024

Sexual orientation is the awareness people have about the sexes they’re sexually attracted to. A person’s sexual orientation may be fixed or more fluid, changing over time.

Sexual Orientation Types

The different sexual orientation types indicate which sexes people are sexually attracted to, if any. Historically there were three types of recognized sexual orientations:

  • Heterosexual: sexual attraction to the opposite sex
  • Homosexual: sexual attraction to the same sex
  • Bisexual: sexual attraction to the opposite and the same sex

However, Alfred Kinsey's research published in 1948 suggested that rather than three distinct groups, sexual orientation is a spectrum ranging from exclusive attraction to the opposite sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. The Kinsey scale had a separate category, labeled X, for people with “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions.” It could be presumed that this group referred to asexuality, but Michael D. Storms made the distinction clear in 1979, when he revamped the Kinsey scale and referred specifically to asexual as people who were not attracted to people of any sex.

While these four sexual orientations are a good starting point, some people identify more strongly with newer types, including:

  • Allosexual: sexual attraction to others, the opposite of asexual
  • Ambisexual: sexual attraction to the same and different genders, ambisexuality is a subcategory of bisexuality
  • Androsexual: sexual attraction to men or masculinity, regardless of their sex assigned at birth
  • Cupiosexual: no sexual attraction, but a desire to engage in sexual behavior
  • Demisexual: sexual attraction to people after establishing a romantic or emotional connection
  • Fluid: sexual attraction that changes over time
  • Graysexual: fluctuating level of sexual attraction
  • Gynesexual: sexual attraction to women or femininity, regardless of their sex assigned at birth
  • Pansexual: sexual attraction to people, regardless of their gender
  • Pomosexual: no defined sexual orientation
  • Queer: an umbrella type for anyone who isn’t heterosexual and cisgender
  • Questioning: unclear about or still exploring sexual orientation

What is Sexual Orientation?

Sexual orientation informs who someone is sexually attracted to. While it is separate from romantic orientation, the two often work in tandem to help people connect with others they may date, fall in love with, and commit to in the long term.

Sexual Identity vs Sexual Orientation

A person’s sexual orientation is who they are attracted to. Their sexual identity is their sense of self and how it relates to their sexuality. Sexual orientation is a part of someone’s sexual identity, along with other aspects such as kinks or fetishes.

Sexual identity is also a personal characteristic, while sexual orientation is shared by groups of individuals. People can look to a community of others who share their sexual orientation for support and potential relationships.

Sexual Orientation, Gender, and Gender Identity

Sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity are key components for developing a sense of self. However, they are very separate concepts. While someone’s sexual orientation determines who they’re attracted to, their gender determines who they are. Gender is the socially constructed characteristics related to being male, female, or nonbinary.

Just as sexual identity is someone’s sense of self and how it relates to their sexual orientation, their gender identity is their sense of self and how that relates to their gender.

Expressing Sexual Orientation

People express their sexual orientation through a variety of sexual behaviors, from hand-holding and kissing to intercourse, and some nonsexual behaviors. As sexual orientation is linked to the human need for love and intimacy, tasks such as communicating and working towards common goals with a partner can be ways to express one's orientation.

While people typically behave in a way that aligns with their sexual orientation, they may also subvert it for play with a partner. For example, in the BDSM community people who don’t identify as heterosexual may practice forced heterosexuality, where a consenting submissive is “forced” by their dominant to engage in play with someone of the opposite sex.

What Is My Sexual Orientation?

Some people understand their sexual orientation from an early age. Others are less sure about it and may need to explore different relationships and experiment to find an orientation that fits.

"When questioning one’s sexuality, it’s important not to put pressure on yourself to find a label for yourself right away,” said Dr. Jeanette Craigfeld, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in LGBTQ+ concerns. “I think a lot of LGBTQ+ people early in their journey feel like they need to have a definitive identity for themselves, but I think it’s much better for people to allow themselves to stay open to different possibilities and to try to have as much fun with it as they explore.”

She says exploring LGBTQ+ content can be a great starting point.

“Starting to engage with more LGBTQ+ shows, films, books, music, art, etc can help you expand your ideas of what sex and love can look like. You might find a certain character who really resonates with you or notice that you get really interested or excited when certain types of couples are shown. You can also start to notice where your mind tends to go when you think about sex or relationships. Are there certain fantasies you tend to have when you really let yourself daydream freely? When you imagine your future with different kinds of partners, what comes up for you emotionally?”

People who think they may not be straight might like to move from private exploration to interacting with the LGBTQ+ community.

“Going to queer spaces, whether it’s gay bars, pride events, or LGBTQ+ Meet Ups, are a fun way to start to get more involved in the community and meet potential friends or partners,” Craigfied added. “Dating apps are a great place to start if you’re feeling nervous about doing anything in person to start, because you can make it clear that you’re questioning your sexuality and looking to explore before meeting anyone in person. It’s usually easiest to be upfront about that from the beginning - some LGBTQ+ prefer not to date someone who is still in the questioning or exploration stage, but there will be lots of other LGBTQ+ people who will be excited to help you figure that out. Most LGBTQ+ people have been in a similar place before and will understand feeling nervous or intimidated by the process."

People may grow to understand their sexual orientation by listening to their inner voice, rather than the influences of their family members, friends, and community. Counseling can also help people unsure of their sexual orientation learn more about themselves and feel comfortable with this part of their identities.

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