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social sciences

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Sexual Orientation  
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The phrase sexual orientation is used to describe erotic attraction toward people of the same gender (homosexual), the opposite gender (heterosexual), or both (bisexual). Like any such simplistic categorization, definitions are not easy to make and are problematic.

There is an assumption that the label "heterosexual" is to be reserved for people who have sexual interactions only with members of the other sex, and this implies that those who do not do so are classed as homosexuals, regardless of the number of same-sex sexual relationships they have had and even if the number of opposite sex relationships far outnumber them. When can an individual be labeled bisexual, homosexual, or heterosexual?

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The Kinsey Scale

Kinsey's influential 1948 study of American males and his 1953 study of females first pointed out the difficulties of such classification. To overcome it, Kinsey developed a seven point scale with 0 representing individuals who had only heterosexual intercourse and with 6 representing those who had only same-sex activities.

Not so surprisingly, Kinsey and his associates found that 37 per cent of the males and 13 percent of the females in their sample had had at least one homosexual encounter. The scale, however, did not establish numerical ranges for categorizing sexual orientation. Is a man who has had sexual relations with females 70 per cent of the time and with males 30 percent of the time, a homosexual? Is a woman who has sex with males 30 per cent of the time, and 70 per cent with other women, a lesbian? Are they both bisexual? Because of this difficulty, Kinsey used the terms homosexual and heterosexual as adjectives rather than nouns, to refer to activities but not to people.

Experimentation and Fantasies

The issue is further complicated by the fact that many people do considerable experimentation before confining themselves to one sex. Others might originally have partners only of the opposite sex, but as they age they have an increasing number of partners of the same sex, and settle down with a same-sex partner. How should they be labeled?

If this problem does not make the issue complicated enough, other factors also have to be considered, particularly the psychological reactions of individual partners. What kind of fantasies and feelings about same-sex relationships do individuals have even though they have sexual relations only with the opposite sex? Anna Freud, for example, maintained that the crucial determination of homosexuality or heterosexuality was one's thoughts and images when masturbating or becoming sexually aroused. A woman who becomes sexually aroused by same-sex fantasies while having sex with her husband would be classed as homosexual even though she never engaged in homosexual behavior. The opposite case with males would be equally true.

Other factors might also be at work, and this is most noticeable in observations made about other species. Beach, for example, held that homosexual activities among animals was usually an expression of the dominant or submissive role of that particular individual animal vis-à-vis another. He cautioned, however, that the existence of homosexual behavior in some animals says little about homosexual relations in humans, that is, that homosexuality is "biologically normal." This might well be the case, but he felt the empirical evidence from animals was irrelevant and neither supported nor denied the deduction.

Cross-Cultural Data

Cross-cultural data has also been utilized to emphasize the existence of same-sex orientation over much of history or culture. Ford and Beach examined 190 cultures for information about sexuality using what was then called the Human Relations Area Files, a collection of reports on a variety of cultures. The information was extracted from reports of observers in earlier periods, many of them missionaries or explorers, while later reports were often made by trained anthropologists.

They reported that homosexual behavior was not found to be a predominant sexual activity among adults in any of the societies, but that in the majority of the 76 groups for which information on homosexuality was available, same-sex relations were considered to be normal and socially acceptable, at least for certain members of the society. In about a third of these societies where homosexuality was reported, it was said to be rare, absent, or carried on only in secrecy. The fact that it was not mentioned in the reports of the majority of societies, however, should not be taken to say it was non-existent, since the observers might well not have been looking for it.

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