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Sexual Orientation

Essentialism Or Social Construction, Early Sex Research, Family And Social Relations, Cross-cultural Sexual Diversity


Sexual orientation is defined by the sex of those to whom a person is attracted. In most societies, people are classified as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual. Heterosexual is the term applied to those attracted to the other sex; homosexual covers those attracted to the same sex; bisexual applies to those attracted to both men and women; and asexual individuals profess to no sexual attractions at all. Heterosexuals are, in slang parlance, referred to as straight people; homosexuals often prefer the terms gay (for men) and lesbian (for women) because the word homosexual, a nineteenth-century construct, has, for some, a medical or negative cast to it.

Terms such as transsexual and transgender are often mistakenly used as sexual orientation categories when they actually refer to other things. Transsexuals, people who have surgical procedures to change their sex from male to female or female to male, assume a new sex and gender identity and usually have sexual relations with someone of the sex they were before surgery.

Transgender is a term that has transplanted the term transsexual and added to it. It refers both to transsexuals and to those who enjoy wearing the clothing of the other sex on occasion—also known as cross-dressers or transvestites. In broad terms, transgender refers to anyone who transgresses societal sex/gender categories and can include a wide array of people who resist or simply do not fit narrow boundaries of gender identity, appearance, or behavior. In the 1990s, activists in the Gay Liberation Movement, particularly in the United States, began to speak of a transgender community or transgender identity. A transgender community refers, in general, to those living a life with a gender identity other than the one to which they were born. This identity does not, however, indicate what a transgendered person's sexual orientation is, beyond how they themselves determine it.

An intersexual person, called a hermaphrodite in the past, refers to someone born with sex characteristics of both women and men. Typically, a child born with dual sex characteristics is treated with surgical and hormonal therapy. Known as sex reassignment (or in this case, initial assignment) a choice is made to have the child made into either a male or female. Sex assignment is embedded in binary sex/gender categorization and demonstrates that most societies are uneasy with blurred sex/gender characteristics (Dreger 1999).


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships