Sexual Orientation


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A photograph shows two people holding hands.
Figure 1. Between 3% and 10% of the adult population identifies as homosexual. (credit: Till Krech)
What does sexual orientation means? (OpenStax Psychology 2e)

A person’s sexual orientation is their emotional and erotic attraction toward another individual (Figure 1). While the majority of people identify as heterosexual, there is a sizable population of people within the United States who identify as homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or other non-hetero sexualities. (Bisexual people are attracted to people of their own gender and another gender; pansexual people experience attraction without regard to sex, gender identity or gender expression; asexual people do not experience sexual attraction or have little or no interest in sexual activity.)

Issues of sexual orientation have long fascinated scientists interested in determining what causes one individual to be straight while another is gay. For many years, people believed that these differences arose because of different socialization and familial experiences. However, research has consistently demonstrated that the family backgrounds and experiences are very similar among heterosexuals and homosexuals (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Ross & Arrindell, 1988).

Genetic and biological mechanisms have also been proposed, and the balance of research evidence suggests that sexual orientation has an underlying biological component. For instance, over the past 25 years, research has demonstrated gene-level contributions to sexual orientation (Bailey & Pillard, 1991; Hamer, Hu, Magnuson, Hu, & Pattatucci, 1993; Rodriguez-Larralde & Paradisi, 2009), with some researchers estimating that genes account for at least half of the variability seen in human sexual orientation (Pillard & Bailey, 1998). Other studies report differences in brain structure and function between heterosexuals and homosexuals (Allen & Gorski, 1992; Byne et al., 2001; Hu et al., 2008; LeVay, 1991; Ponseti et al., 2006; Rahman & Wilson, 2003a; Swaab & Hofman, 1990), and even differences in basic body structure and function have been observed (Hall & Kimura, 1994; Lippa, 2003; Loehlin & McFadden, 2003; McFadden & Champlin, 2000; McFadden & Pasanen, 1998; Rahman & Wilson, 2003b). In aggregate, the data suggest that to a significant extent, sexual orientations are something with which we are born.

Misunderstandings About Sexual Orientation

Regardless of how sexual orientation is determined, research has made clear that sexual orientation is not a choice, but rather it is a relatively stable characteristic of a person that cannot be changed. Claims of effective gay conversion therapy have received wide criticism from the research community due to significant concerns with research design, recruitment of experimental participants, and interpretation of data. As such, there is no credible scientific evidence to suggest that individuals can change their sexual orientation (Jenkins, 2010).

Dr. Robert Spitzer, the author of one of the most widely-cited examples of conversion therapy, apologized to both the scientific community and the gay community for his mistakes, and he publically recanted his own paper in a public letter addressed to the editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior in the spring of 2012 (Carey, 2012). In this letter, Spitzer wrote,

I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judge the major critiques of the study as largely correct. . . . I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time or energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals. (Becker, 2012, pars. 2, 5)

Citing research that suggests not only that gay conversion therapy is ineffective, but also potentially harmful, legislative efforts to make such therapy illegal have either been enacted or are underway across the United States, and many professional organizations have issued statements against this practice (Human Rights Campaign, n.d.)


Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Houston, Texas. Accessed for free at


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