Sexual Orientation: Terminology and Models

by K. J. Comerford and Lawrence Platt, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

What it is
Sexual orientation is “a component of identity that includes a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction. A person may be attracted to men, women, both, neither, or to people who are genderqueer, androgynous, or have other gender identities. Individuals may identify as lesbian, gay, heterosexual, bisexual, queer, pansexual, or asexual, among others.” (APA, 2015).

Sexual orientation is different from gender identity, which can be described as “a person’s deeply‐felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a person’s primary or secondary sex characteristics. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.” (APA, 2015).

Relevant Terminology
Aromantic: a term that describes having little or no romantic attraction to others. A person who identifies as aromantic may have sexual and emotional relationships with others, or they may not.

Asexual: a term that describes having little or no sexual attraction to others. A person who identifies as asexual may have romantic feelings for others and/or engage in sexual behavior, or they may not. Asexuality is different from celibacy.

Ace: a term that a person who falls on the asexual or aromantic spectrum might choose to use to describe their sexual orientation

Bisexual: describes having sexual, romantic, and/or physical attraction to two distinct genders, typically male and female

Demisexual: describes a sexual identity in which a person requires an emotional connection prior to experiencing sexual attraction

Gay: a term that is often used to describe an orientation in which a man is sexually, physically, or romantically attracted to another man, and in some cases as an umbrella term to describe various sexual orientations within the LGBTQIA community

Gray/Grey Asexual: a term that a person who falls on the asexual spectrum might identify with if they experience sporadic sexual attraction or engage in sporadic sexual behavior. This is different from demisexuality (see Demisexual).

Heterosexual: a term that most often is used to describe a man who has emotional and sexual attraction toward women (and typically not other genders), and a woman who has emotional and sexual attraction toward men (and typically not other genders)

Lesbian: describes a sexual orientation in which a woman is sexually and/or romantically attracted to women

Monogamous: umbrella term that describes having only one sexual and/or romantic partner at the same time

Non-monogamous: an umbrella term used to describe a person who does not identify as monogamous, who may or may not have more than one sexual and/or romantic partner at the same time

Pansexual: a term used to describe having sexual and/or romantic attraction for people regardless of their gender identity or gender expression

Polyamarous: describes an identity that involves having or being open to having multiple sexual or romantic partnerships at the same time, consensually. This is different from being polygamous, which is used to describe someone who has multiple spouses.

Queer: an umbrella term that some people who identify within LGBTQIA+ choose to use to describe their culture, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation. This term may be used to describe a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. In the case of orientation, often times a person is sexually or romantically attracted to people who identify within LGBTQIA+. The term queer has a complicated history of being used as a derogatory insult, and for that reason, may people who fit these descriptions choose not to use the term to describe themselves. Others may use it to reclaim the term.

Questioning: a term sometimes used to describe the experience of uncertainty as it relates to gender identity or sexual orientation

Straight: See heterosexual



The Asexuality Spectrum
*It is important to note that this is a limited model and not all individuals who identify asasexual necessarily agree or identify with the definitions in this infographic.

The Gender Unicorn
The Gender Unicorn (above) is a gender and sexual orientation model by Trans Student Educational Resources (2014). Gender identity, gender expressions, physical attraction, and emotional attraction are marked on different continuums, and distinguished from sex assigned at birth. *It is important to note that this is a limited model that does not represent everyone’s identities or experiences.

The Kinsey Scale
*This is a limited model and may or may not be useful or relevant to an individual’s own orientation.

The Klein Sexuality Grid
*This is a limited model and may or may not be useful or relevant toan individual’s own orientation.
Providing relevant terminology and models related to sexual orientation is useful not only in the process of self-identification, but just as importantly, for the future of sex education and research. The misuse terms related to gender, sex, and sexual orientation is prevalent in research even today, and is problematic because this dissemination can cause harm to certain communities, and confusion about the language we use when advocating for our clients and their needs. Additionally, while many learners have diagnoses that limit physical and intellectual abilities, this shouldn’t limit them from being able to engage in consensual sexual behavior. Understanding and communicating sexual orientation is necessary to teach another person about sex, especially as it relates to consent, safety, and enjoyment. Providing multiple models of orientation and discussing each of their limitations can potentially be a straight-forward and useful approach to helping individuals understand and advocate for the many unique ways a person might identify. Per the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s Code of Ethics (BACB, 2017), clients have a right to effective treatment, and for that to occur, behavior analysts must be informed and supportive of others’ safe practices and preferences as they relate to orientation and gender.

•RESPECT. Always respect an individual’s identity. Sexual orientation is individualistic!
•KNOW YOUR COMPETENCY. Sex educators or sex therapists often have more resources and knowledge at theirdisposal and in most cases, practitioners should seek out specialist for issues regarding sexual orientation (Stein &Dillenburger, 2017). When in doubt, SEEK OUT!
•RESEARCH. Continue to read peer-reviewed articles pertaining to LGBTQIA topics. Ask questions. Attend seminars.Read blogs by people who identify as LGBTQIA. Perspective taking is important.
•PROVIDE RESOURCES AND TOOLS and remember to express their limitations. Models can be a helpful in self-assessment of sexual orientation, but they are all limited in their own ways.
•SPREAD THE KNOWLEDGE. Conversations about identity can be difficult and exhausting for folks who experiencelife in LGBTQIA+ identities. Help out by having difficult conversations with loved ones about why identities are important.

American Psychological Association (2018). Defining the limitations of language. Retrieved from
American Psychological Association (2015). Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming People. American Psychologist, 70 (9), 832– 64. Retrieved from
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (2017). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Retrieved from
Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy W.B., & Martin, C.E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders.
Klein, F. 1993. The bisexual option, 2nd ed., New York: The Haworth Press, Inc.
Mosbergen, D. (2013). The asexual spectrum: identities in the ace community (infographic). Huffington Post. Retrieved from
National LGBT Health Education Center (2016). Glossary of Terms for Health Care Teams. Retreived from
Stein, S., & Dillenburger, K. (2017). Ethics in sexual behavior assessment and support for people with intellectual disability. International Journal on Disability and Human Development, 16, 11-17.
Trans Student Educational Resources (2014). The Gender Unicorn. Retrieved from

National Hotlines
LGBT Helpline (Ages 25+)
(888)340-4528 or (617) 267-9001
Peer Listening Line (Ages 25 and Under)
(800)399-PEER or (617) 267-2535
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline
1-888-843-4564 Email:
Trans Lifeline

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