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The Development of Sexual Orientation

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are often confused. As previously discussed, gender identity describes the gender(s) people consider themselves to be (masculine, feminine, or transgendered). Sexual orientation refers to a person's pattern of attraction to other people including physical, emotional, sexual, and romantic attraction. These patterns of attraction are usually identified in the following manner: 1) heterosexual (straight) refers to a pattern of attraction to the opposite gender, 2) homosexual (lesbian or gay) refers to a pattern of attraction to the same gender, 3) bisexual refers to a pattern of attraction to both genders, and 4) "questioning" is a term used to describe people who are not yet certain which (if any) pattern of attraction best suits them. It should be noted that an attraction is an internal psycho-emotional experience and should not be confused with sexual behavior. Therefore, sexual orientation refers to a pattern of physical, emotional, sexual, and romantic attraction to others, which may or may not be acted upon. Like gender identity, sexual orientation is usually described along a continuum ranging from exclusively heterosexual, to exclusively homosexual, with bisexuality falling in between these two poles.

serious teen girlThroughout adolescence, most youth will question their sexual orientation in one way or another. This can be a confusing time because it is quite possible to be emotionally attracted to one gender but physically attracted to the other. Or, youth can find themselves emotionally and physically attracted to predominantly one gender, but a specific person or persons of the opposite gender can attract them. Youth can be very puzzled by these conflicting feelings. Therefore, it is considered quite normal for youth to feel somewhat uncertain, or ambivalent about their sexual orientation. Some gay and lesbian adults reflect back upon their youth and say they knew from a very early age their attraction was to their own gender. However, other gay and lesbian adults report their sexual orientation was not at all clear to them during their adolescence, and it took them many years to sort things out. Similarly, many heterosexual adults can recall some feelings of attraction toward their own gender during adolescence and beyond.

Ultimately, adolescent youth must decide for themselves what makes them happy and fulfilled. While the majority of youth will eventually discover they are consistently attracted to the opposite gender (heterosexual), other youth may find themselves consistently attracted to their own gender (homosexual), or equally attracted to youth of both genders (bisexual), and some youth do not feel themselves strongly attracted to either gender (questioning). As their sexual development continues to progress, most youth will eventually identify themselves as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. However, since sexual orientation is an internal, psycho-emotional experience, no one else is qualified to label or judge another person's sexual orientation.

Is gender identity and sexual orientation a choice?

Adolescent sexual development can be confusing and anxiety-provoking, not only for the youth themselves, but for their families as well. While their children's sexuality is a very sensitive, challenging, and even frightening topic for many parents, it is best if parents try to remain patient and non-judgmental. Youths' gender identity and sexual orientation will be constantly evolving and changing during the adolescent period. As this article has discussed throughout, the adolescent developmental process often involves "trying on" and experimenting with many different identities, roles, and behaviors. Sexual identity and sexual behavior are not exempt from this type of experimentation. While some parents may feel comfortable with all gender identities and any sexual orientation so long as their children are happy and fulfilled, other parents may feel outraged when faced with their children's "choice." These parents may believe that a sexual orientation other than heterosexuality is unnatural and dangerous, or think that being transgendered means their children are simply confused. Sometimes parents believe their children's "choices" are morally reprehensible because of the family's religious convictions or cultural customs.

The issue of "choice" with respect to both gender identity and sexual orientation is quite controversial and beyond the scope of this article. However, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest people do not get to "choose" their attractions, nor do they select their gender identity as though they were choosing from a menu. The scientific investigation of transgendered identity has been previously reviewed; and although inconclusive, the preliminary evidence suggests that gender identity is influenced by biological factors. Likewise, scientists and researchers are still far from reaching an absolute agreement about the causal factors of homosexuality; but it appears that biological factors such as genetics and hormonal processes are somehow involved (Bailey & Pillard, 1991; Bailey, Pillard, Neale & Agyei, 1993; Hamerhu, Magnuson, Hu & Pattatucci, 1993; Bailey, Bobrow, Wolfe & Mikach, 1995; LeVay, 1993).

Therefore, the current working hypothesis is that people do not willfully "choose" their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Thus, whether someone is transgendered, gay, or straight; it is unlikely this is a choice they make. However, assuming there are genetic or other biological underpinnings for sexual orientation and gender identity, what people do about these aspects of their sexuality is an entirely separate matter, and does imply an element of choice.

As mentioned previously, sexual orientation describes an internal psycho-emotional experience, and does not automatically include a behavioral manifestation of that experience. Thus, while sexual orientation may prove to be biologically determined, people must ultimately decide whether they choose to act upon their attractions. For a variety of personal reasons, some people may decide not to act upon certain attractions. However, denying the existence of these attractions will not eliminate them, nor does it diminish their power and force. Likewise, acknowledging certain attractions does not compel a person to behave according to those attractions. These are private and personal choices each person must make.

Parents may find greater acceptance and compassion once they understand that gender identity and sexual orientation are probably not something their children willfully choose. Nonetheless, it can still be highly distressing for families as their children sort out their sexuality. It is best if parents can find a way to put aside their own personal beliefs and feelings in order to continue to provide their children with unconditional love and support during these sensitive years so that their relationship remains intact. It is quite possible to be loving and supportive, even where there is disagreement. Harsh criticism and angry accusations only serve to alienate children and rarely produce any lasting behavioral change.

 




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