What is sexual orientation?

Let’s face it. Americans bring sex into everything from toothpaste to cars, yet most of us have a hard time affirming sexuality as a gift of God.

And if it’s hard to talk about sexuality in an open, honest, caring way, it may seem nearly impossible to talk about differences in sexual orientation. One reason is that when people think “sex,” they tend to think of sexual behavior. But sexuality encompasses a lot more than behavior.

Sexuality encompasses all of these:

  • how we understand and express our gender;
  • how we grow and change over the years;
  • how we view our bodies;
  • how we relate to each other;
  • whom we like, love, and are attracted to;
  • how we reproduce;
  • how we’re alike and different  in appearance and behavior;
  • what we believe is important;
  • and much, much more.

Sexuality includes biological sex

Given that every newborn is greeted with the same question—is it a boy or a girl?—biological sex can appear to be the most fundamental aspect of our sexuality.

Yet even that simple question doesn’t always have a simple answer. Some babies have physical characteristics that lead to confusion about whether they’re male or female. For other babies, atypical aspects of physical, genetic, and brain sex may be invisible at birth and become apparent in early childhood, at puberty, or even later when genetic tests are performed. Some people don’t learn until they’re adults and can’t conceive, for example, that their genetic makeup is not simply either/or.

In addition, our biological sex may not match our gender identify, which is how we see ourselves on the spectrum of female and male, what we let the world see about us, and how congruent our bodies are with our internal experience.

Biological sex and gender diversity are explained more fully in Made in God’s Image.

Sexuality includes gender roles

Despite real variations in physical sex, parents do label their child as a boy or a girl, and from that moment on, children begin learning what’s considered appropriate for them as boys or girls—and what’s not.

One gender role expectation that children learn early is not to act “gay” or not to act like a “sissy,” “faggot,” or “dyke.” Rather than be free to be themselves, boys and girls learn to stifle anything that might be considered “wrong”—too feminine for boys or too masculine for girls.

These playground rules, which extend into adult relationships, demonstrate that people confuse gender role with sexual orientation, which will be discussed shortly.

Sexuality includes sensuality and intimacy

Sexuality includes being sensual, which has to do with

  • the ways we feel pleasure,
  • our comfort with touching and feelings,
  • the image we have of our bodies,
  • how we accept ourselves,
  • what we know about our bodies, and
  • how we take care of them.

Sexuality also includes intimacy, which has to do with our ability to

  • trust another person,
  • to become known,
  • to share,
  • to show affection,
  • to reveal ourselves honestly, and
  • to allow others to reveal themselves to us.

Sexuality includes behavior

Sexual behavior has many components: how we walk and talk, how we dress, how we express affection.

When people use the term “having sex,” they’re talking about a subset of a huge range of behaviors, from holding hands to kissing to various forms of giving and receiving pleasure, including different kinds of sexual intercourse.

Sexuality includes sexual orientation

Sexual orientation refers to the sex of the people to whom we’re physically and romantically attracted. We discover our own orientation by noticing the patterns of our dreams, fantasies, longings, physical and emotional arousal, comfort, and love.

Please note that when people label their orientation, they’re indicating only their internal sexual orientation, not their sexual behavior. For example, a woman who identifies herself as heterosexual is simply saying that she’s attracted, physically and romantically, to men. She isn’t saying that she’s attracted to all men, nor is she saying that, at the moment, she acts on her attraction.

So it is with homosexuality (gay or lesbian) and bisexuality, which are also sexual orientations.  Gay males that that the people they’re attracted to, physically and romantically, are other males; lesbians find that the people they’re attracted to are other women. Bisexual people find that they’re attracted to some who are male and some who are female.

Like heterosexuality, the terms homosexuality and bisexuality describe an internal experience that’s unique for each person. In fact, many people feel that such words are inadequate descriptors of their own personal experience.

And sexuality includes identity

Our identity is who we say we are to ourselves and to others. Note that a person’s identity, orientation, and behavior don’t always line up. For example, a bisexual woman may be married to a man. Her internal orientation is bisexual, but unless she specifically talks about it, people will probably assume that she’s heterosexual.

Of a man who’s uncomfortable with his attraction to other men may insist, both to himself and to others, that he’s heterosexual. Unless he specifically talks about his attraction to men, people will probably assume that he’s heterosexual.

Or a woman who understands herself to be lesbian and has a long-time woman partner may feel that her workplace isn’t a safe place to be “out,” so she allows others to assume that she’s a single, heterosexual woman and then deals with their efforts to help her find a man.

So you see that people’s sexual identity—both their private understanding of their sexual orientation and the public image they project—may not align with their relationships and behavior.

Adapted from And God Loves Each One

Contributed by Ann Thompson Cook

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