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Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation or sexual preference describes the object of a person's erotic desires, fantasies and feelings, which is usually another person:

Erotic objects may be also be inanimate (see fetish) or non-human (see bestiality). A few people claim to be asexual, with no sexual interest in any person or object.

Most people distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. In this view, sexual abstinence does not have an effect on a person's sexual orientation. Thus we may speak of a heterosexual virgin or a homosexual celibate. Some advocates insist that a heterosexual who engages in homosexual activity (as in prison) should not be considered "bisexual".

There have been different views in the past. In some cases, a person was considered homosexual, for example, if and only if they had homosexual sex; in other cases, a person could have homosexual sex on occasion, but still be considered to be heterosexual in orientation.

The term sexual preference was used in the late 20th century by gay rights advocates promoting the view that each person should have the right to seek out the partner they prefer, whether of the opposite sex or the same sex. The term sexual orientation is now prefered by most gay rights advocates for its emphasis on fixed sexual identity, although both terms still see use.

Table of contents

Psychological and Sociological Viewpoints

For many years the common assumption, shared by many scientists and religious communities, was that the natural and normal human sexual orientation is exclusively for the opposite sex (heterosexual). Sexual studies carried out during and after the 1950s lead psychologists and doctors to recognize homosexuality as a second exclusive orientation. Since then similar acceptance has grown for non-exclusive orientations, such as bisexuality.

Sigmund Freud famously characterized humans as naturally "polymorphously perverse," meaning either that practically any object can be a source of erotic fulfillment, or that babies are relatively indifferent to the object of erotic fulfillment. Freud argued that as the child grows, the objects of erotic fulfillment become more clearly defined and limited (whether this is the result of a biological or a social process is a matter of debate). Anthropologists have observed that around the world many people, including people within the same culture, may be oriented towards a variety of objects. Nevertheless, most scholars assume that in any given society what is considered an appropriate object of desire is highly regulated and limited. Moreover, some cultural traditions (especially religious) assert that people should have only one class of objects of desire.

According to two controversial studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male[?] (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female[?] (1953) by Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, when asked to rate themselves on a continuum from completely heterosexual to completely homosexual, and when the individuals behavior as well as their identify is analyzed, the majority of people appear to be at least somewhat bisexual, i.e., most people have some attraction to either sex, although usually one sex is preferred. According to Kinsey, only a minority (5-10%) can be considered fully heterosexual or homosexual. Conversely, only an even smaller minority can be considered "fully" bisexual. See Kinsey Reports.

Most modern scientific surveys find that the majority of people report a mostly heterosexual orientation. However the relative percentage of the population that reports a homosexual orientation varies with differing methodologies and selection criteria. Most of these statistical findings are in the range of 2.8 to 9 percent of males, and 1 to 5 percent of females for the United States (source: [1] (http://www.colorado.edu/Economics/CEA/papers98/wp98-33.pdf), page 24 -- this figure can be as high as 12% for some large cities and as low as 1% percent for rural areas). Almost all of these studies have found that homosexual males occur roughly at twice the rate as homosexual females. Estimates for the percentage of the population that identify as bisexual vary widely based on the type of questions asked. Some studies only consider a person "bisexual" if they are nearly equally attracted to both sexes, and others consider a person "bisexual" if they are at all attracted to the same sex (for otherwise mostly heterosexual persons) or to the opposite sex (for otherwise mostly homosexual persons). (need to find the current estimates and ranges for the percent of the population that identifies as bisexual)

A very small percentage of people are not attracted to anyone (asexuality).

For more see: Anthropological classification of homosexuality

Religious and Moral Viewpoints

Much religious teaching maintains that sexual behavior should conform to moral and religious codes. For example, Christianity has traditionally considered homosexuality to be morally wrong. Recently, the level of acceptance of homosexuality within christianity has, in general, increased.

Wider issues of sexual morality are also considered by many religions. Some religions advocate chastity or celibacy for some members, and many religions condemn incest and bestiality. Often religious views of sexual orientation are based on considerations of what is "natural".

For more see: Religion and homosexuality, Homosexuality and morality, Buddhist views of homosexuality, Christian views of homosexuality, Islamic views of homosexuality, Jewish views of homosexuality, Neopagan views of homosexuality, Unification Church views of sexuality, sexual morality

Sexual orientation as a "construction"

Many people in Western societies today speak of "sexual orientation" as a unified and actual thing. Over the past thirty years some anthropologists, historians, and literary critics have pointed out that it in fact comprises a variety of different things, including a specific object of erotic desire, and forms of erotic fulfilment (i.e. sexual behaviors). Some scholars have argued that "sexual orientation" and specific sexual orientations are historical and social constructions. In 1976 the historian Michel Foucault argued that homosexuality as a concept did not exist as such in the 18th century; that people instead spoke of "sodomy" (which involved specific sexual acts regardless of the sex of the actors) as a crime that was often ignored but sometimes punished severely (see sodomy law). He further argued that it was in the 19th century that "homosexuality" came into existence as practitioners of emerging sciences as well as arts sought to classify and analyze different forms of sexual "perversion." Finally, Foucault argues that it was this emerging discourse that allowed some to claim that homosexuality is natural, and therefore a legitimate "sexual orientation."

Foucault's suggestions about Western sexuality led other historians and anthropologists to abandon the 19th century project of classifying different forms of "sexual" behavior or "sexual" orientation" to a new project that asks "what is "sexuality" and how do people in different places and at different times understand their bodies and desires? For example, they have argued that the famous case of some Melanesian societies in which adult men and pre-pubescent and adolescent boys engage in oral sex is not comparable to similar acts in the United States or Europe; that Melanesians do not understand or explain such acts in terms of sexual desire or as a sexual behavior, and that it in fact reflects a culture with a very different notion of sex, sexuality, and gender. Some historians have made similar claims about so-called homosexuality in ancient Greece; that behaviors that appear to be homosexual in modern Western societies may have been understood by ancient Greeks in entirely different ways.

At stake in these new views are two different points. One is the claim that human sexuality is extraordinarily plastic, and that specific notions about the body and sexuality are socially constructed. The other is the fundamentally anthropological claim of cultural relativism: that human behavior should be interpreted in the context of its cultural environment, and that the language of one culture is often inappropriate for describing practices or beliefs in another culture. A number of contemporary scholars who have come to reject Foucault's specific arguments about Western sexuality nevertheless have accepted these basic theoretical and methodological points.

Factors affecting sexual orientation

The causes of sexual orientation are controversial. Various factors have been advocated, including genetic factors, non-genetic biological factors, psychological and societal factors, and conscious choice. The morality of different sexual orientations is also hotly debated: see sexual morality, religion and homosexuality.

Research and the expererience of non-heterosexuals, is now opening another viewpoint that sexual orientation is set in early childhood and perhaps even earlier. Studies of homosexual identical twins suggest that when one twin is homosexual that there is a 40 to 60 percent chance that the other twin will aslo be homosexual. In fraternal twins the figure is 15 to 30 percent. For same sex non-twin siblings the figure is 5 to 10 percent, or roughly the background level (ranges are from a combination of [2] (http://www.worldpolicy.org/americas/sexorient/twins) & [3] (http://researchmag.asu.edu/stories/supporting)).

For many, these data strongly indicate a significant biological influence on sexual orientation. For many others, including 2 of the 3 authors (Bailey and Pollard) of the studies cited above, there is a worry that recruiting subjects from readers of gay advocacy magazines may skew the results.

In Western cultures, in the last quarter of the 20th century, various advocates began espousing the view that the sexual orientation of adults is impossible to change, regardless of a person's actions or decisions. A minority continues to believe that re-orientation from homosexuality to heterosexuality is possible, for those who choose to change (see reparative therapy, International Healing Foundation). This view is especially held by religious groups or groups connected to them.

For more see: causes of sexual orientation, Genetic basis for homosexuality

See also: affectional orientation, sexual behavior, reparative therapy, queer, lesbigay.

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