"Sexual Orientation":
How a Misnomer Has Become Mainstream

Family North Carolina Magazine—Mar/Apr 2008

by By Tim Wilkins

It has been said, “He who controls the language, controls the debate.” Nowhere has this been more evident than in the culture war over the issue of human sexuality. In an attempt to drive the debate and advance their cause, proponents of the social acceptance of practically all forms of sexual expression have sought to redefine the American vocabulary and impose a new terminology that casts harmful and objectionable behavior in a favorable light.

At the same time, our historical understanding of many words is being challenged through societal pressure to conform to a “politically correct” philosophical agenda. This article seeks to arm people with a heightened awareness of the impact terminology has on our culture by exposing some of these efforts to control the language and ultimately the debate.

A prime example of this language shift is the misnomer “sexual orientation”—a term that has become commonplace in our daily speech, our places of business, and our government. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “misnomer” as the “use of a wrong or inappropriate name (or) inappropriate designation.”1 Misnomers often have a way of “settling in” after a period of time, to the point that we accept them, embrace them, and may not want to see them corrected—even when there is good reason to do so, and in the case of “sexual orientation,” there is good reason to do so.

The History of “Sexual Orientation”
The term “sexual orientation disturbance” was coined in 1973 when the American Psychological Association (APA) debated removing homosexuality from its list of sexual disorders.2 Some time after this, the word “disturbance” was dropped, and professionals and experts adopted the phrase “sexual orientation.” Activists interested in promoting the idea that an individual’s sexual attractions were closely related to heredity, or a so-called “gay gene,” capitalized on the opportunity. If a person’s sexual attractions are part of their “orientation,” or genetic makeup, the thought goes, then those attractions must be completely natural and acceptable, regardless of who the subject of those attractions may be. Although there is no scientific basis for such a claim, this notion has been effectively promoted and marketed, hence the widespread acceptance of the “sexual orientation” misnomer.

Interestingly, “sexual orientation” was preceded by “sexual preference”3—a term which fell out of favor around the mid 1980s.4 One must admit that “orientation” has a scientific ring to it that “preference” lacks, and this helped cement the idea into societal use. “Preference” is more casual, similar to preferring corn over carrots, while “orientation” suggests something less subjective; something more “hard-wired” into an individual. In fact, the change from “preference” to “orientation” has been so dramatic that advocates for “orientation” now argue that “preference” is used only by persons that are “adamantly anti-homosexual.”5

Merriam-Webster defines “orientation” as “a person’s self-identification as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.”6 This definition provides nothing concrete, but the mere fact that it is included in the dictionary demonstrates how far the acceptance of this term has progressed in our culture. The only noteworthy portion of the definition is a person’s “self-identification”—how that person identifies himself or herself. While individuals can identify themselves in any way they wish, using subjective measures based on someone’s “self-identification” to establish scientific standards or public policy, for example, is completely illogical, but this is exactly what is happening in America today.

The APA says, “Sexual orientation is different from sexual behavior because it refers to feelings and self-concept.”7 Therefore, empirical proof is unnecessary, which is helpful in this matter since none exists. Based on the APA’s definition, who is to say other categories should be excluded? Asexuals who exhibit no sexual attraction declare their condition a “sexual orientation.”8 9 Autosexuals only feel sexual desire towards their own bodies.10 Pansexuals exhibit many forms of sexual expression.11

Another illogical argument regards how the APA differentiates between “sex” and “gender.” According to the APA, “Sex refers to biological status as male or female. It includes physical attributes such as sex chromosomes (and) hormones, internal reproductive structures, and external genitalia. Gender is a term…used to refer to ways…people act, interact, or feel about themselves… While aspects of biological sex are the same across different cultures, aspects of gender may not be.”12

Note the APA’s subjective definition of gender—how people “feel about themselves.” The point? The APA definition seems to imply that a person’s gender (the way they feel about themselves) may cause them to want to act or behave in contradiction to their sex or biological status. While an opposite-sex attracted person has a gender that parallels and complements their biological status, a same-sex attracted person does not.13

Another reason “sexual orientation” is a misnomer is the confusion surrounding the term. “Sexual orientation” is defined in different ways, even among homosexual activists. For example, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) defines “sexual orientation” in its media reference guide as “The scientifically accurate term for an individual’s enduring physical, romantic, emotional and/or spiritual attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual orientations.”14 The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) defines it as something that is “determined by our sexual and emotional attractions,” and “influenced by a variety of factors, including genetics and hormones, as well as unknown environmental factors.”15

Activists have also created a growing list of terms (see sidebar) to describe every form of sexual and gender confusion, from the term “questioning” (to describe individuals, typically children, who are not sure whether they are homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual and/or who are confused about their gender identity) to “gender nonconforming” (to describe a “person who is or is perceived to have gender characteristics and/or behaviors that do not conform to traditional or societal expectations”).16

Media Bias
The media also plays a powerful role in selling pro-homosexual terminology to the public. Many newspapers have instituted rules for addressing what they consider “inaccurate terminology.” Editors from the Associated Press and New York Times tell their reporters to avoid “sexual preference.”17 When a Baltimore Sun reporter recently used “preference” in an article, a reader rebuked him, and the newspaper apologized and appended its “in-house stylebook.”18

In so doing, newspapers act as accomplices and exacerbate the misnomer. As author Marilyn Vos Savant has pointed out, “Every newspaper’s front page is biased; the notion that a newspaper’s position only comes through on its editorial position is no longer even quaint, it’s foolish.”19

The American Press Association has created a 2,354-word document titled “Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language” to “assist authors” when writing on sexuality. According to this document, “sexual orientation is a preferred term…over preference.”20

Whether through the media or other sources, information saturation takes its toll on us. When the information is wrong, we become consumers, and possibly even purveyors, of misinformation. Countless websites perpetuate the misnomer of “sexual orientation.” Internet blogs, which multiply like kudzu, make all voices equal. But “[t]he right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.”21

Future Terminology
Is “sexual orientation” here to stay? It is doubtful. Interestingly, many pro-homosexual groups are themselves declaring “sexual orientation” a misnomer—arguing instead for “affectional orientation”22 or “emotional orientation.”23 Why? Because this new terminology takes the focus off of “sex”—the underlying behavior, which may include sodomy, that many in society find so objectionable. John Erwin writes, “Sexual identity isn’t just a matter of whom we have sex with, it’s the people who we naturally feel affection towards.”24

And true to form, levels of government, universities, and educational associations are now using “affectional,” including: the City of St. Paul, Minnesota in its employment discrimination policy,25 Indiana University of Pennsylvania,26 University of Iowa,27 University of Texas (Austin),28 and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.29

Homosexual activists have seized control of the language and they continue to market their terminology to the public through their allies in the media, government and mental health institutions. Concerned citizens must learn to recognize the use of misnomers such as “sexual orientation” and resist the pressure to compromise the truth about human sexuality. v

Tim Wilkins is the founder/director of Cross Ministry, Inc., which is headquartered in Wake Forest.


1 “Misnomer,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://mw1.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/misnomer>.

2 Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) 170.

3 John R. Ballew, “Understanding Sexual Orientation,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.gayline.gen.nz/und_orientation.htm>.

4 Robert Justin Lipkin, “What is sexual orientation?,” 17 Feb.2004, 5 Jan. 2008 <http://www.mail-archive.com/conlawprof@lists.ucla.edu/msg00648.html>. Also: [1]Heather L. Moore, “Preference vs. Orientation,” Jun.1994, 5 Jan. 2008 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3693/is_199406/ai_n8714215>.

5 Heather L. Moore, “Preference vs. Orientation,” Jun.1994, 5 Jan. 2008 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3693/is_199406/ai_n8714215>.

6 “Orientation,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/orientation>.

7 “What Is Sexual Orientation?,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.apa.org/topics/orientation.html#whatis>.

8 “Asexualty,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.answers.com/topic/asexuality>.

9 From the homepage <http://www.asexuality.org/home/>.

10 “Autosexuality,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.answers.com/topic/autosexuality>.

11 “Pansexual,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pansexual>.

12 “What is the difference between sex and gender?,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.apa.org/topics/transgender.html#whatis>.

13 For a fuller explanation of this line of thought, read the author’s article “Cruel Joke or Medical Anomaly,” 8 Nov. 2007 <http://www.crossministry.org/articles/crueljoke>.

14 GLAAD, Media Reference Guide: Glossary of Terms, http://www.glaad.org/media/guide/glossary.php

15 GLSEN, Talking the Talk: A Glossary of LGBT Terminology and Match-up Game,” A GLSEN Lunchbox Resource, 2003, http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/1278.html.

16 GSA Network, Transgender Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights, Beyond the Binary: A Toolkit for Gender Identity Activism in Schools, 2004, pg. 5.

17 “AP, New York Times & Washington Post Style,” 4 Jan. 2008 <http://www.glaad.org/media/guide/style.php>.

18 John McIntyre, “Orientation, not preference,” 2 Nov. 2007, 4 Jan. 2008 <http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2007/11/orientation_not_preference.html>.

19 Marilyn Vos Savant, The Power of Logical Thinking (New York: St, Martin’s Press, 1996) 107.

20 “Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language,” 4 Jan. 2008 <http://apastyle.apa.org/sexuality.html>.

21 From Quotations Page, 12 Dec. 2007 <http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/104.html>.

22 “Theories about Sexual and Affectional Orientation,” 7 Dec. 2007 <http://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/spd110td/interper/culture/linksgayissues.html>. Also: Bobbi Keppel, et. al., "Sexual and Affectional Orientation and Identity Scales," 16 Dec. 2000, 7 Dec. 2007 www.biresource.org/pamphlets/scales.html. Also: Diane Wilson, "Affectional Orientation and Gender Identity," 7 Dec. 2007, www.firelily.com/gender/resources/orient.html. Also: "The Language of Psychology–Dictionary and Research Guide," 4 Dec. 2007, 7 Dec. 2007, www.123exp-health.com/01084053615/.

23 “Supporting a Friend or Family Member Who has Decided to Come Out,” 21 Sept. 2007, 7 Dec. 2007 <http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/sexinfo/?article=Nq4D>. Also: John Michael Dykes, "Homosexuals Should Focus on Points of Commonality," 12 Mar. 1996, 7 Dec. 2007, www.tech.mit.edu/V116/N11/homosexuals.11o.html. Also: Sally A. Huffer, Submission in a resolution, "Bixexual Validity in Houston's LGBTI Community by the FUtures Conference Planning Committee," 7 Dec. 2007, www.pridehouston.org/community/futures1.php.

24 John Erwin, 20 Apr. 1994, 7 Dec. 2007 <http://www.qrd.org/qrd/youth/1994/john.erwin.constitutional.rights.debate-4.20.94>.

25 “Your Civil Rights in Saint Paul,” 7 Jan. 2008 <http://www.stpaul.gov/depts/humanrights/your_civil_rights.html>.

26 “Minority Organizations,” 7 Jan. 2008 <http://www.iup.edu/admissions-office/aamic/minorg.shtm>.

27 “Diversity,” 18 Oct. 2005, 7 Jan. 2008 <http://www.uiowa.edu/~ucs/diversity.html>. October 18, 2005

28 “Statement on Diversity,” 14 Sept. 2007, 7 Jan. 2008 <http://www.utexas.edu/student/cmhc/diverse2.html>.

29 David Nash, “State Supreme Court Sets New Standard for Addressing Student-on-Student Harassment,” Feb. 2007, 7 Jan. 2008 <http://www.njpsa.org/pubs/article.cfm?aid=1029>.

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