The Problem With Defining Sexual Orientation

A conversion therapy survivor once told me, "I never considered myself to be gay, even though I was having sex with male friends in high school." Growing up in the Deep South, he said he believed he was straight because he was a man. "That's just how it was."

The problem with attempting to neatly categorize sexual orientation is that, like the rest of human behavior, it isn't neat. What people think may not be how they behave; how people behave may not be what they think. And that's just one of the problems, according to a new research paper by J. Michael Bailey, et al. The paper is called, "Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science," wherein Bailey and a team of experts try to put context around the politically and socially charged concept of sexual orientation.

The researchers identified sexual orientation as, "Four related phenomena [that] fall under the general rubric of sexual orientation, but they are conceptually and empirically distinguishable." They include: sexual behavior, sexual identity, sexual attraction, and physiological sexual arousal. While someone may identify as heterosexual, like the conversion therapy survivor I interviewed, he may only have sex with men, or with both men and women. Or, he may be sexually attracted to men, but emotionally attracted to women. There can be many combinations of the four phenomena.

How many are there?

Part of the problem with collecting statistics about how many people are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, is self-identity. "[H]omosexuality remains stigmatized to some degree even in the most liberal nations (Kohut, 2014), and thus some individuals may be motivated to underreport homosexual attractions, identity, and behavior."
But, the researchers noted, self-reporting is the most common way studies are conducted on the topic.

While Alfred Kinsey estimated 10% of the population was gay, more recent surveys, asking people to self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, put that number closer to 5%. Three more studies assessed same-sex attraction, as well as identity, and found, "The percentage of adults who admitted to 'any homosexual feelings' ranged from 1.8% to 11%, exceeding the percentage identifying as 'homosexual' or 'bisexual'..." A review of 71,190 adult men and 117,717 adult women found that 93.2% of men and 86.8% of women rated themselves as "entirely heterosexual." Exactly how many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or nonheterosexual, is likely to remain a mystery for quite some time.

What is Sexual fluidity?
Sexual fluidity, the researchers say, is a "situation-dependent flexibility in a person's sexual responsiveness, which makes it possible for some individuals to experience desires for either men or women under certain circumstances regardless of their overall sexual orientation." Sexual fluidity was found in a longitudinal study by Lisa Diamond. She interviewed 80 women, all of whom identified as lesbians at age 16, but who, overtime, changed their self-identifications to bisexual or "unlabeled." Diamond's research found there were no dramatic changes in sexual orientation, such as lesbian to heterosexual, but there was movement in most of the women throughout the study.

Does bisexuality exist?
According to the scientists, "Research has found that some individuals who identify as bisexual show patterns of sexual arousal (and sometimes patterns of sexual behavior) that appear to be predominately heterosexual or homosexual, whereas some individuals who identify as heterosexual or homosexual show bisexual patterns of genital arousal, attraction, or behavior." While bisexuality does exist as an orientation, once again, it is self-identified and those who claim the bisexual label have varied experiences, attractions, and even reasons for identifying as bisexuals.

What we really need to know
It's important to remember that sexual orientation labels and categories are a relatively recent phenomena. The first occurrence of the word "homosexual" didn't appear until 1869 in a pamphlet written by Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who was writing in opposition to Prussia's sodomy laws. Kathy Baldock, author of Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, explains that heterosexuality originally meant a man who was primarily interested in women, but could be given over to "same sex excesses." It was a time when women were property, and the purpose of sex was procreation.

Sexual orientation terms were first used in the medical community, but eventually made their way into mainstream thinking. The word homosexual didn't appear in the Bible until 1946, at a time when the concept and social constructs around sexuality had morphed into a more conservative era, following the roaring 1920s. Thus, the insertion of the word in the Biblical text took on the meaning of the culture in which it was used. Today, unfortunately, we throw sexual orientation labels around like brands of potato chips. Labeling someone's sexuality often reduces people into a monolithic pronoun instead of the complex human beings they more often tend to be.

When it comes to statistics, the researchers point out that LGB advocates tend to favor the higher numbers while opponents to the LGB cause tend to favor the lower number. "To the extent that this dispute is political," the researchers said, "it makes little sense. If homosexuality is wrong, then it is wrong even if it is common; if it is not wrong, then nonheterosexual people deserve their rights regardless of how rare they are."