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Not just gay talk

A gentleman commented on last week’s post on sexual preference and sexual orientation:

Each term - preference and orientation - is biased, prejudicial and politically charged. The usage speaks to the opinion of the speaker, hitting the reader with the writers opinion, eliciting either a warm fuzzy or cold, hard feeling.

I think that using well defined, accurate terms over euphemisms would improve the report, unless the example that started this was an opinion piece.

I thought we already had such a defined, accurate, non-euphemistic term in sexual orientation. The word orientation identifies a tendency without specifying its origin.

We know that human beings have an inborn proclivity to sexual activity — you’re not going to dispute that, are you? The question is the direction in which that proclivity develops. Since science has not yet determined definitively whether homosexual behavior — which is what all the hoo-hah is about — is inborn or learned or a mixture of the two, orientation is a neutral term.

Or so think, among others, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher. They all use the term.

And really, do you think when the freshman class shows up for orientation, we are saying that its members have an inborn trait to attend college classes?


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:53 AM | | Comments (4)


I agree that this is the way the teo terms have come to be perceived, but I suspectg it involves a rather wilful understanding of "preference" to mean something voluntary. It can be used quite neutrally to refer to a person's normal behaviour given a choice, ther than to whatever underlies the choice.

Are the two words ("preference" and "orientation") really so similar?

When I go to the salad bar, I usually look for raspberry vinaigrette, because I prefer that dressing; but I'll happily accept California French or balsamic in its place.

The gender of my sexual attraction is (at least for me) not a "because-I-can't-find-anything-better" choice. I am oriented to be attracted to a particular set of physical, emotional, and spiritual characteristics.

Would a "Kinsey Zero" straight man say he "prefers" sex with women over sex with men? The word seems inflammatory—almost accusatory—in that context, doesn't it?

First, I must thank our host for not picking at my grammar and punctuation, but looking through my writing for my meaning.
Sadly, I am wihtout the reference resources of the editorial desk. I am limited to basic sources such as dictionaries, thesaurus' and style manuals.
None of my dictionaries, thesaurus', style manuals or my Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition Text Revision (DMS-IV-TR) lists either of the terms under discussion. Both terms reflect sexual desire or activity with someone of the same sex. This is "homosexuality". No ambiguity about that meaning. There is no dispute what that wird means.
Without reading the original piece to determine context and the intent behind the usage (why would this fact be important to the story), it is hard to know what was being communicated. I can only speak within the limitations of this discussion of usage.
My comments reflected my preference for clarity and my opinion that the terms "sexual preference" and "sexual orientation" are euphemistic terms (not synonyms) for "homosexual", that soften a word that too often elicits an emotional response.
When I, and then my children, attended college orientations, we received "introductory instruction concerning a new situation" ( Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary).
"Sexual orientation" suggests nothing more than a proclivity or sense of direction that does little to inform, unless the term is explaining a contradiction, i.e., "The married father of four struggled with his sexual orientation, his sexual preference changing, seemingly with the phases of the moon."
Orientation addresses direction and preference choices. Broadly, sexuality is either homo or hetero. Thre is no nudge and a wink in those terms, only clarity of expression and communication.

"Sexual orientation" is not a euphemism for "homosexual." Most newspapers I am aware of use "homosexual" or "gay" when that is what they mean to say. "Sexual orientation" is the phrase used when speaking of sexuality in a more general way, such as an article covering a study or a poll that discusses sexuality and sexual orientation. "Sexual orientation" includes hetersexuality and bisexuality and all other sexualities. So, for example, this sentence uses the phrase: "While 19 states and Washington, D.C., have laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, and many cities offer similar protections, federal law offers no such shield, though it does bar discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, sex, age, disability and pregnancy."

What other phrase would have worked here?

And by the way, sexuality is arguably not "either homo or hetero" -- there is bisexuality, for one thing, and the idea of sexuality being more of a continuum or spectrum rather than an either/or.

I agree that clarity is most important, and that euphemism is most often a hindrance to clarity. I just don't agree that "sexual orientation" is a euphemism.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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