Last updated on: 3/18/2008 | Author:

What is the Difference between Sexual Orientation and Sexual Preference?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, in its 2002 edition, provided definitions for “sexual preference” and “sexual orientation”:

Sexual preference: “The preference one shows by having a sexual interest in members of the same, opposite, or either sex.”

Sexual orientation: “The direction of one’s sexual interest toward members of the same, opposite, or both sexes, especially a direction seen to be dictated by physiologic rather than sociologic forces. Replaces sexual preference in most contemporary uses.”


The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance stated on its website (accessed July 25, 2003):

“It is sometimes impossible to find truly neutral terms to describe beliefs and events. Often, the words used will automatically bias the article. Referring to homosexual behavior as a lifestyle or a preference implies that a person can choose their sexual orientation. Referring to homosexuality as an orientation implies that it is not changeable and not chosen.

Other terms, such as ‘Sexual orientation’ have different meanings to the groups involved. Some conservative Christian groups define the term as including exhibitionism, sadism, masochism, abusive pedophilia, beastiality, necrophilia, etc.

No other group agrees with religious conservatives in this definition; everyone else accepts that the term ‘sexual orientation’ relates only to the gender of other adults to which an adult has feeling of sexual attraction.”

July 25, 2003

Jim McKnight, PhD, Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, wrote in his 1997 book Straight Science? Homosexuality, Evolution and Adaptation:

“[T]here is much confusion in the literature between sexual orientation and sexual preference. How we choose to express ourselves sexually may be quite different from the way nature has made us…

From a biological perspective a genetic predisposition to homosexuality would be just that, a precursor, or orientation, and no more. Sexual preference on the other hand may well be learned or a matter of personal choice and may even go against one’s nature…

To show that one chooses one’s sexual expression is not necessarily a sufficient explanation of one’s sexuality. A substantial agenda has emerged that equates preference and orientation. This is often deliberate and only points to the shallowness of much theorising about homosexuality.

The literature is full of accounts of men who have reluctantly abandoned fulfilling lives as fathers and husbands to acknowledge a driven need to express an orientation which is often confusing and sometimes repugnant to them (Ross, 1983; Malcolm, 1997). More importantly, the variability of sexual behaviour has always been seen as intuitive evidence for a constructivist view of sexuality but it may be argued that it reflects evolution just as well.”