Stop Saying “Sexual Preference”

You may mean well, but it makes you sound ignorant.

A protester dressed as a devil who said his name is "Queen" stands with another demonstrator outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013.
A protester dressed as a devil who said his name is “Queen” stands with another demonstrator outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

There are some phrases that should just be done away with, but over time they are used and heard so routinely that we develop a sort of soft spot for them and can’t bear the thought of chopping off their heads. The term “sexual preference”—at least when it’s used interchangeably with “sexual orientation”—is one of these seemingly harmless phrases whose cultural execution, I’d say in this month of pride, is long overdue.

This is more than a matter of pedantics, and it’s definitely not one of political correctness. You’re more than entitled to continue using “sexual preference” right alongside “the gay lifestyle” or “avowed homosexual” or whatever term you’d like to broadcast just how dense you really are. Just know that it’s simply flat-out incorrect to refer to a person’s sexual orientation as a “preference.” More than that, it’s dangerous.

Having said that, sexual preference is unlike other terms in this particular social arena in that most people use it without any bad intentions. Naiveté is their only offense, and that’s far easier to fix than willful ignorance. There’s a certain breeziness to sexual preference, and I have no doubt that’s precisely why it’s so often used: People think they won’t offend gays and lesbians because of the lightness of tone. “Well, another person’s sexual preference is none of my business,” we often hear good-hearted people say. “So long as nobody’s getting hurt, to each his own.”

Still, it’s a quietly toxic expression. That’s because the very construct of a preference, or the verb “to prefer,” implies that the individual has a choice, that there are options available and yet, all else being equal and as a matter of taste, really, the person would rather “this one” over “that one.” Think how bizarre it would sound if we were to apply the same language to any other unalterable biological trait. “Suit yourself, and to each his own,” we might reason, “but my preference is to have hands this size, not that size.” Or perhaps, “It’s perfectly fine to go with a darker birthmark on your leg, I just preferred to get mine on my arm, and in this lighter shade of brown, too.” In fact, while we’re on skin color, this flawed logic would, of course, also extend to a person’s opting to be black, white, Asian, or any other race or ethnicity as a preference.

If there’s anything that the science of sexuality has taught us over the past few decades, it’s that human beings have little—if any—conscious control over what arouses them. That’s the case for men and women, gay, straight, or bi. Therefore, to say that one has a preference for males over females, or females over males, makes little sense, since it gives the impression that one had every opportunity to choose what to be turned on by. A straight man who is aroused by beautiful women may wonder how gay men could possibly “prefer” men instead, but from a gay man’s perspective, those beautiful women aren’t even an option—they’re in an entirely different, non-erotic category altogether.

One can speak of sexual preferences correctly, perhaps, when it comes to people of the same sexual orientation having different tastes or being attracted to different types, such as a straight woman who prefers men with beards while another is more into the clean-shaven look, or a gay man who prefers more masculine partners while another is into campy characters. It’s also logical enough to use “sexual preference” in the sense of sexual activities—a lesbian who prefers to give rather than to receive oral sex, for instance, or a straight man who prefers sex while standing up rather than lying in bed.

And perhaps it’s justifiable to use “sexual preference” in some limited sense with bisexuals, who really are equally (or at least notably) aroused by both sexes. A bisexual person might have a hankering for one or the other at any given time and prefer to be with a man or a woman in the same way that, while we like them both, tonight we’re more in the mood for Chinese than Mexican food. Even here, though, it can quickly become problematic to adopt the sexual preference language, since it insinuates that bisexuals have the option of being gay or straight like everyone else, they just can’t make up their minds whether it’s males or females that they’d prefer to have sex with.

By contrast, the language of “sexual orientation” avoids these types of conceptual pitfalls altogether, because it correctly conveys the scientifically accurate view that being gay, bi, or straight is a matter only of what our brains—and our genitals—“orient” to sexually. We’re given no options in that process. Whichever way our erotic antennae point isn’t for us to decide.

For most of us, our brains were tuned to be gay or straight before we were born. Once we became sexually mature, we realized that the world was carved up for us into erotic and non-erotic categories. There’s nothing “out there” that’s objectively sexual. Instead, our minds sexualize the scene before us, and the very same target in two people’s direct line of sight can be seen as two very different things. Where you see a chocolate cake (or Kate Upton), I see, say, a pencil; where I see a chocolate cake (or Anderson Cooper), you see a pencil. (Don’t get me wrong. Upton is a beautiful designer pencil made of handcrafted olive wood and embellished with rare sparkling gems, definitely pleasing to the eye. But functionally, she’s still a pencil to me, not something to savor with a glass of milk. Anderson, on the other hand … well, never mind.)

All of this logic goes for the sexual paraphilias, too, which are primary patterns of arousal that lie outside the norm. The paraphilias, of course, are less tolerated as a whole than simply being gay, straight, or bi, and we argue over which groups get to use the term sexual orientation, but I see no rational reason not to regard the paraphilias as their own distinct sexual orientations. They’re notoriously difficult to study, but most scientists believe that paraphilias arise through a process of early childhood “sexual imprinting,” especially in males. The point is that whether it happens in the womb or in the first several years of life, a person’s sexual orientation, whatever it is, isn’t an option that he or she preferred over another. It’s a lens forged upon our brains that sexualizes the world for us in a distinctive way. It just is. There’s no moralizing in this scenario. Zero.

I’m happy to moralize until I’m blue in the face, though, when it comes to those who’d continue proselytizing by using the embarrassing “choice” and “lifestyle” rhetoric. And I think it’s time to throw “preference” into the vernacular trash with these venomous terms.

It’s become fashionable among social conservatives, I’ve noticed, to object to the use of the word “bigot” because their “personal beliefs” about homosexuality are simply different from another person’s. “I don’t ‘hate’ gay people,” they say. “I just disagree with them, that’s all.” By “disagreeing,” either you’re willfully ignoring the obvious fact that sexual orientation is not a choice (which indeed makes you a bigot), or you’re simply unable to grasp the obvious fact that sexual orientation is not a choice (which makes you stupid).

So … which of the two do you prefer?