Definitions and distinguishing from sexual identity and behavior
Sexual orientation is traditionally defined as including heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality, while asexuality is considered the fourth category of sexual orientation by some researchers and has been defined as the absence of a traditional sexual orientation. An asexual has little to no sexual attraction to people. It may be considered a lack of a sexual orientation, and there is significant debate over whether or not it is a sexual orientation.
Most definitions of sexual orientation include a psychological component, such as the direction of an individual's erotic desires, or a behavioral component, which focuses on the sex of the individual's sexual partner/s. Some people prefer simply to follow an individual's self-definition or identity. Scientific and professional understanding is that "the core attractions that form the basis for adult sexual orientation typically emerge between middle childhood and early adolescence". Sexual orientation differs from sexual identity in that it encompasses relationships with others, while sexual identity is a concept of self.
The American Psychological Association states that "[s]exual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes" and that "[t]his range of behaviors and attractions has been described in various cultures and nations throughout the world. Many cultures use identity labels to describe people who express these attractions. In the United States, the most frequent labels are lesbians (women attracted to women), gay men (men attracted to men), and bisexual people (men or women attracted to both sexes). However, some people may use different labels or none at all". They additionally state that sexual orientation "is distinct from other components of sex and gender, including biological sex (the anatomical, physiological, and genetic characteristics associated with being male or female), gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and social gender role (the cultural norms that define feminine and masculine behavior)".
Sexual identity and sexual behavior are closely related to sexual orientation, but they are distinguished, with sexual identity referring to an individual's conception of themselves, behavior referring to actual sexual acts performed by the individual, and orientation referring to "fantasies, attachments and longings." Individuals may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors. People who have a non-heterosexual sexual orientation that does not align with their sexual identity are sometimes referred to as 'closeted'. The term may, however, reflect a certain cultural context and particular stage of transition in societies which are gradually dealing with integrating sexual minorities. In studies related to sexual orientation, when dealing with the degree to which a person's sexual attractions, behaviors and identity match, scientists usually use the terms concordance or discordance. Thus, a woman who is attracted to other women, but calls herself heterosexual and only has sexual relations with men, can be said to experience discordance between her sexual orientation (homosexual or lesbian) and her sexual identity and behaviors (heterosexual).
Sexual identity may also be used to describe a person's perception of his or her own sex, rather than sexual orientation. The term sexual preference has a similar meaning to sexual orientation, and the two terms are often used interchangeably, but sexual preference suggests a degree of voluntary choice. The term has been listed by the American Psychological Association's Committee on Gay and Lesbian Concerns as a wording that advances a "heterosexual bias".
Androphilia, gynephilia and other terms
Androphilia and gynephilia (or gynecophilia) are terms used in behavioral science to describe sexual attraction, as an alternative to a homosexual and heterosexual conceptualization. They are used for identifying a subject's object of attraction without attributing a sex assignment or gender identity to the subject. Related terms such as pansexual and polysexual do not make any such assignations to the subject. People may also use terms such as queer, pansensual, polyfidelitous, ambisexual, or personalized identities such as byke or biphilic.
Same gender loving (SGL) is considered to be more than a different term for gay; it introduces the concept of love into the discussion. SGL also acknowledges relationships between people of like identities; for example, third gender individuals who may be oriented toward each other, and expands the discussion of sexuality beyond the original man/woman gender duality. The complexity of transgender orientation is also more completely understood within this perspective.
Using androphilia and gynephilia can avoid confusion and offense when describing people in non-western cultures, as well as when describing intersex and transgender people. Psychiatrist Anil Aggrawal explains that androphilia, along with gynephilia, "is needed to overcome immense difficulties in characterizing the sexual orientation of trans men and trans women. For instance, it is difficult to decide whether a trans man erotically attracted to males is a heterosexual female or a homosexual male; or a trans woman erotically attracted to females is a heterosexual male or a lesbian female. Any attempt to classify them may not only cause confusion but arouse offense among the affected subjects. In such cases, while defining sexual attraction, it is best to focus on the object of their attraction rather than on the sex or gender of the subject." Sexologist Milton Diamond writes, "The terms heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual are better used as adjectives, not nouns, and are better applied to behaviors, not people. This usage is particularly advantageous when discussing the partners of transsexual or intersexed individuals. These newer terms also do not carry the social weight of the former ones."
Some researchers advocate use of the terminology to avoid bias inherent in Western conceptualizations of human sexuality. Writing about the Samoan fa'afafine demographic, sociologist Johanna Schmidt writes that in cultures where a third gender is recognized, a term like "homosexual transsexual" does not align with cultural categories.
Some researchers, such as Bruce Bagemihl, have criticized the labels "heterosexual" and "homosexual" as confusing and degrading. Bagemihl writes, "...the point of reference for 'heterosexual' or 'homosexual' orientation in this nomenclature is solely the individual's genetic sex prior to reassignment (see for example, Blanchard et al. 1987, Coleman and Bockting, 1988, Blanchard, 1989). These labels thereby ignore the individual's personal sense of gender identity taking precedence over biological sex, rather than the other way around." Bagemihl goes on to take issue with the way this terminology makes it easy to claim transsexuals are really homosexual males seeking to escape from stigma.
Gender, transgender, cisgender, and conformance
The earliest writers on sexual orientation usually understood it to be intrinsically linked to the subject's own sex. For example, it was thought that a typical female-bodied person who is attracted to female-bodied persons would have masculine attributes, and vice versa. This understanding was shared by most of the significant theorists of sexual orientation from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century, such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld, Havelock Ellis, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud, as well as many gender-variant homosexual people themselves. However, this understanding of homosexuality as sexual inversion was disputed at the time, and, through the second half of the twentieth century, gender identity came to be increasingly seen as a phenomenon distinct from sexual orientation. Transgender and cisgender people may be attracted to men, women, or both, although the prevalence of different sexual orientations is quite different in these two populations. An individual homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual person may be masculine, feminine, or androgynous, and in addition, many members and supporters of lesbian and gay communities now see the "gender-conforming heterosexual" and the "gender-nonconforming homosexual" as negative stereotypes. Nevertheless, studies by J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth Zucker found a majority of the gay men and lesbians sampled reporting various degrees of gender-nonconformity during their childhood years.
Transgender people today identify with the sexual orientation that corresponds with their gender; meaning that a trans woman who is solely attracted to women would often identify as a lesbian. A trans man solely attracted to women would be a straight man.
Sexual orientation sees greater intricacy when non-binary understandings of both sex (male, female, or intersex) and gender (man, woman, transgender, third gender, etc. are considered. Sociologist Paula Rodriguez Rust (2000) argues for a more multifaceted definition of sexual orientation:
...Most alternative models of sexuality... define sexual orientation in terms of dichotomous biological sex or gender... Most theorists would not eliminate the reference to sex or gender, but instead advocate incorporating more complex nonbinary concepts of sex or gender, more complex relationships between sex, gender, and sexuality, and/or additional nongendered dimensions into models of sexuality.
— Paula C. Rodriguez Rust
Relationships outside of orientation
Gay and lesbian people can have sexual relationships with someone of the opposite sex for a variety of reasons, including the desire for a perceived traditional family and concerns of discrimination and religious ostracism. While some LGBT people hide their respective orientations from their spouses, others develop positive gay and lesbian identities while maintaining successful heterosexual marriages. Coming out of the closet to oneself, a spouse of the opposite sex, and children can present challenges that are not faced by gay and lesbian people who are not married to people of the opposite sex or do not have children.
Often, sexual orientation and sexual orientation identity are not distinguished, which can impact accurately assessing sexual identity and whether or not sexual orientation is able to change; sexual orientation identity can change throughout an individual's life, and may or may not align with biological sex, sexual behavior or actual sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is stable and unlikely to change for the vast majority of people, but some research indicates that some people may experience change in their sexual orientation, and this is more likely for women than for men. The American Psychological Association distinguishes between sexual orientation (an innate attraction) and sexual orientation identity (which may change at any point in a person's life).
Some research suggests that "[f]or some [people] the focus of sexual interest will shift at various points through the life span..." "There... [was, as of 1995,] essentially no research on the longitudinal stability of sexual orientation over the adult life span... It [was]... still an unanswered question whether... [the] measure [of 'the complex components of sexual orientation as differentiated from other aspects of sexual identity at one point in time'] will predict future behavior or orientation. Certainly, it is... not a good predictor of past behavior and self-identity, given the developmental process common to most gay men and lesbians (i.e., denial of homosexual interests and heterosexual experimentation prior to the coming-out process)." Some studies report that "[a number of] lesbian women, and some heterosexual women as well, perceive choice as an important element in their sexual orientations."