News & Opinion | October 15, 2020 9:17 am

This Is the (Very Important) Difference Between “Sexual Orientation” and “Sexual Preference”

"Sexual preference" is considered a dated and offensive term reinforcing a harmful view of sexuality as a "choice."

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"Sexual orientation" is the accepted term.
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Earlier this week, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett sparked controversy after using a term deemed offensive while discussing LGBTQ rights.

“I have no agenda, and I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not ever discriminate on the basis of sexual preference,” said Barrett during Tuesday’s confirmation hearings.

Barrett received backlash for her use of the term “sexual preference,” which LGBTQ activists, allies and organizations deemed “offensive” and “outdated,” explaining that use of the term — as opposed to “sexual orientation” — suggests that sexuality is a choice, rather than “a key part of a person’s identity,” as Senator Mazie Hirono emphasized in her response to Barrett’s gaffe.

As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explained, the term “sexual preference” has been “almost universally” replaced by “sexual orientation” today, with the former term seen as an archaism used primarily by the religious right to delegitimize LGBTQ identities and rights. While the archaic term “suggests that sexuality is a choice, that gay and bisexual people simply prefer to partner with people of the same sex,” the modern update “acknowledges that sexuality is a fundamental human trait,” wrote Stern.

Citing Jesse Bering’s 2013 breakdown of the difference between “sexual preference” and “sexual orientation,” Stern noted that “sexual preference” is similar to other dated terms now deemed offensive for reinforcing harmful views used to invalidate the LGBTQ movement.

“The term is similar to other expressions, like ‘the gay lifestyle’ or ‘avowed homosexual,’ that were once common but are now considered offensive,” wrote Stern. “These phrases play into the anti-gay canard that sexual minorities are not a discrete and insular minority deserving of constitutional protections but rather deviants who should not be rewarded for their aberrant sexuality.”

Barrett later apologized for her use of the term, stating she “did not mean to imply that it was not an immutable characteristic or that it’s solely a matter of preference.” She added, “I honestly did not mean any offense or to make any statement by that.”

The meanings and connotations of words inevitably shift as language adapts to changing cultural attitudes and views. A few years or decades from now, as our understanding of sex and gender continues to shift and broaden, “sexual orientation” may very well become an offensive term that reflects and reinforces a dated conception of sexuality. For now, however, it’s the appropriate way to describe any of an increasingly broad range of sexual identities for what they are: legitimate identities.

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