Part 1: The Complexity of Sexual Orientation


Defining "Sexual Orientation"

If you were to Google “sexual orientation definition” you’d discover a variety of definitions. My definition is a modification of one offered by Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams in his book, The New Gay Teenager.

Sexual orientation is the preponderance of one’s emotional and physical attractions — whether stable or fluid — to males, females, both, or neither.

“Preponderance” means “the weight of the evidence.” The evidence that points to the truth about your sexual orientation is rooted in your attractions — both emotional and physical — to other people. Dr. Savin-Williams and I do not include sexual behavior in the definition because even a celibate person has a sexual orientation. 

My definition emphasizes "emotional and physical attractions," which are at the core of the evidence that you will collect in Part 4. Let me explain why I chose each of those four words. 

  • I could have used the word “romantic” rather than “emotional.” If I had chosen “romantic attraction,” a more focused term than “emotional attraction,” you might have wondered whether an emotional attraction that you felt for someone qualified to be labeled romantic. So I chose emotional attraction, the broader term, to encourage you to cast wide net for evidence. By doing so, however, I do not mean to suggest that any emotional attraction to a same-sex friend indicates that a person is gay or bisexual. Heterosexuals can experience a “girl crush” or “bromance,” a topic we’ll return to in Part 4. 

  • I could have used the word “erotic” or “sexual” rather than “physical.”  Once again, I chose the broader term. But the broader term also raises questions: When does attraction to another person’s physical appearance have an erotic dimension?  Conversely, when is physical attraction merely an aesthetic attraction, an appreciation of the beauty of the male body such as depicted in Michelangelo’s statue of David, or of the female body as depicted in a statue of Aphrodite? And to complicate things further, sometimes physical attraction for another person has both erotic and aesthetic dimensions. 

  • I could have used the word “desires” rather than “attractions.” “Desires” implies a greater intensity than “attractions.” Once again, I chose the broader term to encourage you to cast a wider net for evidence. 

  • Using “and” may suggest that emotional attractions and physical attractions are of equal importance. But that is not true for many people. As we’ll discuss in Part 4, one or the other may be a more meaningful indicator of your sexual orientation. 


My definition acknowledges that some people do not experience sexual attraction for others. The term for this sexual orientation is "asexual" (the prefix a- means "not"). Many asexuals do experience emotional attractions for others. Some asexuals will define their "romantic orientation" using a term such as "hetero-romantic," "homo-romantic," or "bi-romantic." To learn more, check out the book The Invisible Orientation and visit the Asexual Visibility and Education Network website.

My definition also acknowledges that some people experience their sexual orientation as being fluid rather than stable. This is an expansion of our understanding of sexual orientation that we'll explore further in Part 4. 

Sexual Orientation & the Gender Binary

Finally, my definition assumes what is called "the gender binary," the assumption that everyone is either a man or a woman, a boy or a girl.  But for some people, their gender transcends the male-or-female gender binary. They may identify as Beyond the Binary, Agender, Bigender, Gender Fluid, etc. Additionally, some people are attracted to transgender people, perhaps as well as to cisgender people.  

Integrating beyond-the-binary transgender people into the definition of sexual orientation may be impossible because the very concept of sexual orientation is been rooted in the question, "Are you attracted to people of the same sex as you, the other sex, or both sexes?" Indeed, for some people the concept of sexual orientation isn't even meaningful.

Is Sexual Orientation a Choice?

No, because people do not choose their emotional or physical attractions. Rather, each of us discovers our emotional and physical attractions through life experiences.  We do choose our sexual behavior, however. We also choose how we label our sexual orientation identity, and that identity is the topic of Part 2, “What is Sexual Orientation Identity?” (Use the navigation, on the left at the top of the page.)