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What are the Types and Meanings of Sexual Orientations?

Updated on October 29, 2012
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The Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists at least 20 different sexual orientations. These determinations have been contended since the initial publication of the DSM, but below I discuss the more common on the list.

Some are considered sexually or socially "deviant," while others are rather typical - regardless of whether many people believe it or not.

Defining Sex and Gender

Some of the hardest yet most useful lessons people can learn when it comes to gender studies and sexual identity are the differences between sex (two definitions), sexuality, and gender.

First, I want you to define these to yourself. What is sex? What is sexuality? What is gender? How are they similar? How are they different?

To generalize the more recently accepted definitions of these terms, sex can be:

a) the physical acts performed to achieved orgasm or sexual stimulation

b) the physical, biological sex of an individual as determined by genitalia (i.e. penis, vagina, and the ranges in between)

This might be a little confusing. Really, think of biological sex as the stuff between your legs. It's what you're born with or what you've created through surgery, pills, or medications.

Sexuality relates to the first definition of sex I provided above. There are many elements to sexuality, but they include attraction (emotional, physical, mental) and what many call "sexual orientation." Think of this as the math between parts. If heterosexual, people with A parts will match with B parts. If homosexual, people with A parts will match with other people with A parts. It's not as simple as this, but this should help.

Gender, on the other hand, has less to do with biological sex than social constructions of masculinity and femininity. Although many people identify with the genders traditionally attached to their biological sex (i.e. biological females are often feminine, biological males are often masculine), this is not always the case. Masculinity and femininity (or the acts, behaviors, and philosophies each gender is said to manifest) change across time and culture. They are not standardized ways of being, and are passed from generation to generation through socialization.

Heterosexual

Heterosexuality is considered in Western society as the "normal" sexual orientation.

Literally, it comes from the Greek work hetero, which means different. To be heterosexual means you are physically attracted to "different sex." Since sex refers to the biological organs of reproduction, this means you are attracted to people with the opposite genitalia as yours.


Homosexual

Homosexuality is often considered an inappropriate or "deviant" way of behaving in Western culture, but has been around in practice (not really so much in thought) for thousands of years and across animal species.

Literally, it comes from the Greek word homo, which means same. Therefore, homosexual means same sex. This means the individual is attracted to people with the same genitalia as their own.

Bisexual

Bisexuality is a bit of a misnomer, as it assumes that there are only two, distinct sexes. In fact, physical genitalia does not fit any specific descriptors. Biological females are considered to have a specific set of physical parts than males, but these vary widely according to absolutely every single human being.

Literally, bi refers to two, which means that the individual is physically attracted to people from the two sexes. As noted above, this is inaccurate, but it does provide a more all-encompassing sexuality than hetero- or homosexualities.

Pansexual

To avoid the language gap from the other major sexual orientations as described in the Bisexuality section, pansexual covers all of the bases.

Pan means all, which means a pansexual is physically attracted to all sexes. Although this includes biological males and females, it also includes people across the spectrum of sexes possible (with surgery, this changes more and more all the time).


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Well then, what's "transgendered?"

I understand the confusion with all of these terms. The best way to keep them clear is to think of things in mathematical terms. Trans + gendered means across + the social behaviors often attributed to specific biological forms. I know that's still confusing.

While transsexual implies a person is physically changing their body, transgendered means someone is changing their way of dressing, speaking, thinking, and being. There's no surgery involved. Because gender is not binary (there are no two genders), transgendered individuals can appear in a variety of different ways.

Transsexual

This section is inaccurate, too. A transsexual is someone across sexes. It does not mean these people are attracted to people of all sexes (that'd be more like pansexual). Instead, it means they are in the process of transitioning from one specific set of biological sex characteristics to another (i.e. a biological male transitioning to become a biological female, a biological female transitioning to become a biological male, or an intersex individual transitioning towards any set of dominant physical sexual attributes).

Again, transsexuality is not a sexual orientation.

The "Philias"

Although I would be remiss to avoid discussing what I call the "Philias," it is a very sensitive subject in Western society.

Some of the philias (Greek for love) we hear about most include pedophilia, or the love of children. In this situation, the love isn't platonic. Instead, it refers to a sexual attraction to children.

Historically, this has not been considered as dastardly and debased as it is now, but in this day, age, and culture, it is thought of as one of the absolute worst things a person could do.

Although these philias technically fall within the spectrum of sexual orientations, they are not the most common by any means. In fact, they are usually looked down upon by people within the sexual orientation categories outlined above.

There are many different philias that cover a wide variety of practices and preferences, but many are punishable by severe law in Western society.

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