Sexual Orientation

What Is Sexual Orientation?

Sexual orientation is a term used to refer to a person's pattern of emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction to people of a particular gender (male or female).

Sexuality is an important part of who we are as humans. Beyond the ability to reproduce, sexuality also defines how we see ourselves and how we physically relate to others.

Sexual orientation is usually divided into these categories:

  • Heterosexual: Attracted to people of the opposite sex
  • Bisexual: Attracted to people of either sex
  • Homosexual: Attracted to people of one's own sex
  • Pansexual: Attracted to people of any gender identity
  • Asexual: Not sexually attracted to other people

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Sexual orientation involves a person's feelings and sense of identity; it’s not necessarily something that’s noticeable to others. People may or may not act on the attractions they feel.

What Determines Sexual Orientation?

Most scientists agree that sexual orientation (including homosexuality and bisexuality) is the result of a combination of environmental, emotional, hormonal, and biological factors. In other words, many things contribute to a person's sexual orientation, and the factors may be different for different people.

Homosexuality and bisexuality aren’t caused by the way children were reared by their parents, or by something that happened to them when they were young. Also, being homosexual or bisexual does not mean the person is mentally ill or abnormal in any way. They may face burdens caused by other people’s prejudices or misunderstandings.

How Do People Know Their Sexual Orientation?

Many people discover their sexual orientation as teens or young adults, and in many cases without any sexual experience. For example, someone may notice that their sexual thoughts and activities focus on people of the same sex, or both sexes. But it’s possible to have fantasies or to be curious about people of the same sex without being homosexual or bisexual. And they may not pursue those attractions.

Can Sexual Orientation Be Changed?

Experts agree that sexual orientation isn’t a choice and can’t be changed. Some people who are homosexual or bisexual may hide their sexual orientation to avoid prejudice from others or shame they may have been taught to feel about their sexuality.

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Trying to change someone to a heterosexual orientation, including so-called conversion therapy, doesn’t work and can be damaging. Experts don’t recommend this. In fact, the American Medical Association calls it “clinically and ethically inappropriate.”

Are There Support Groups for People Struggling With Their Sexuality?

Yes, various support groups and organizations are available. They can help a person come up with ways to deal with the prejudice, bias, and stereotypes that many LGBTQ people have experienced at some point, and also address safety, rights, and health issues. (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer).

While homosexual or bisexual orientation isn’t a mental health problem, there are higher rates of depression and substance abuse (including alcohol and other drugs) among lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Suicide risk is also higher among LGBTQ people, research shows. The risk is higher for those who came from families who didn’t accept them for who they are, and for those who were bullied or abused.

If you’re thinking about suicide, or are worried about someone who might be, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255. The Trevor Project is a crisis intervention and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youths younger than 25; it’s available by calling 866-488-7386.

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