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Orientation, not preference

A Sun reporter who used the phrase sexual preference in an article got a swift rebuke from a reader who admonished that sexual orientation should have been used instead.

The reference slid past the copy desk and into print, perhaps in part because our in-house stylebook did not address the issue. (It does now.)

In the entry gay, the Associated Press Stylebook says, in part, “Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to “sexual preference” or to a gay or alternative “lifestyle.”

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage entry on sexual orientation gives an explanation” “never sexual preference, which carries the disputed implication that sexuality is a matter of choice.”

Curious things happen when terms become politicized. Sexual preference might have been innocuous in an earlier age in the context of a man’s finding red-headed women attractive, or a woman’s liking tall men. But the intense emotional charge on the matter of homosexuality — witness the odd uproar over J.K. Rowling’s mentioning that she thinks of a character in her Harry Potter novels as gay — means that responsible journalists will choose neutral terms over inflammatory ones.

No one will dispute that sexual behavior is a matter of individual choice, but political/scientific/religious disputes over whether homosexuality is inborn or learned make it important for the paper not to appear to take sides.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:35 AM | | Comments (7)


Isn't 'orientation' as biased as 'preference', just to the other side of the issue?

Hmm. Maybe "orientation" is biased ... to the scientifically accurate side of the issue!

No, "orientation" is not biased -- it means, roughly, a tendency or inclination. Whether you think homosexuality, bisexuality, or hetersexuality is a choice or inborn trait or something else, "orientation" still works. It's the more neutral word. "Preference" implies only choice.

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.

But what then is the option, Bruce? What one- or two-word phrase would objectively hit the same notes as "this person finds members of their own gender sexually attractive"?

In response to steegness query: 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 answer you.
My comments reflected my preference for clarity and my opinion that the terms "sexual preference" and "sexual orientation" are euphemistic terms (not homonyms) for "homosexual", that soften a word that too often elicits an emotional response.

The public editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., addresses a similar situation:

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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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