Sexual Attraction and Orientation
As people pass from childhood through the teen years and beyond, bodies develop and change. So do emotions and feelings.
Adolescence Is a Time of Change
During the teen years, the hormonal and physical changes of puberty lead to an awakening of sexual feelings. It's common to wonder and sometimes worry about new sexual feelings.
It takes time for many people to understand who they are and who they're becoming. Part of that involves having a greater understanding of their own sexual feelings and who they are attracted to.
What Is Sexual Orientation?
Sexual orientation is the emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction that a person feels toward another person. There are several types of sexual orientation. For example:
- Heterosexual. People who are heterosexual are romantically and physically attracted to members of the opposite sex: Heterosexual males are attracted to females, and heterosexual females are attracted to males. Heterosexuals are sometimes called "straight."
- Homosexual. People who are homosexual are romantically and physically attracted to people of the same sex: Females who are attracted to other females are lesbian; males who are attracted to other males are often known as gay. (The term gay is sometimes used to describe homosexual individuals of either sex.)
- Bisexual. People who are bisexual are romantically and physically attracted to members of both sexes.
People who don't feel any sexual attraction and are not interested in sex at all are sometimes referred to as asexual. People who are asexual may not be interested in sex, but they still feel emotionally close to other people.
During the teen years, people often find themselves having sexual thoughts and attractions. For some, these feelings and thoughts can be intense — and seem confusing. That can be especially true for people who have romantic or sexual thoughts about someone who is the same sex they are. "What does that mean," they might think. "Am I gay?"
Being interested in someone of the same sex does not necessarily mean that a person is gay — just as being interested in someone of the opposite sex doesn't mean a person is straight. It's common for teens to be attracted to or have sexual thoughts about people of the same sex and the opposite sex. It's one way of sorting through emerging sexual feelings.
Some people might go beyond just thinking about it and experiment with sexual experiences with people of their own sex or of the opposite sex. These experiences, by themselves, do not necessarily mean that a person is gay or straight.
What Is LGBT?
You may see the letters "LGBT" or ("LGBTQ") used to describe sexual orientation. This abbreviation stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender" (or "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning").
Transgender isn't really a sexual orientation — it's a gender identity. Gender is another word for male or female. Transgender people may have the body of one gender, but feel that they are the opposite gender, like they were born into the wrong type of body.
People who are transgender are often grouped in with lesbian and gay as a way to include people who don't feel they fit into the category of being "straight."
Do People Choose Their Sexual Orientation?
Why are some people straight and some people gay? There is no simple answer to that. Most medical experts, including those at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Psychological Association (APA), believe that sexual orientation involves a complex mix of biology, psychology, and environmental factors. Scientists also believe a person's genes and hormones play an important role.
Most medical experts believe that, in general, sexual orientation is not something that a person voluntarily chooses. Instead, sexual orientation is just a natural part of who a person is.
There's nothing wrong about being LGBT. Still, not everyone believes that. These kinds of beliefs can make things difficult for LGBT teens.
What's It Like for LGBT Teens?
For many LGBT people, it can feel like everyone is expected to be straight. Because of this, some gay and lesbian teens may feel different from their friends when the heterosexual people around them start talking about romantic feelings, dating, and sex.
A 2012 survey by the Human Rights Campaign found that 92% of LGBT teens had heard negative things about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
LGBT teens might feel like they have to pretend to feel things that they don't in order to fit in with their group, family, or community. They might feel they need to deny who they are or that they have to hide an important part of themselves.
Fears of prejudice, rejection, or bullying can lead people who aren't straight to keep their sexual orientation secret, even from friends and family who might support them.
Some gay or lesbian teens tell a few close friends and family members about their sexual orientation. This is often called "coming out." Many LGBT teens who come out are fully accepted by friends, families, and their communities. They feel comfortable about being attracted to someone of the same gender.
But not everyone has the same good support systems. Even though there is growing acceptance for LGBT people, many teens don't have adults they can talk to about sexual orientation. Some live in communities or families where being gay is not accepted or respected.
People who feel they need to hide who they are or who fear discrimination or violence can be at greater risk for emotional problems like anxiety and depression. Some LGBT teens without support systems can be at higher risk for dropping out of school, living on the streets, using alcohol and drugs, and trying to harm themselves.
Everyone has times when they worry about things like school, college, sports, or friends and fitting in. In addition to these common worries, LGBT teens have an extra layer of things to think about, like whether they have to hide who they are.
This doesn't happen to all gay teens, of course. Many gay and lesbian teens and their families have no more difficulties than anyone else.
The Importance of Talking
For people of all sexual orientations, learning about sex and relationships can be difficult. It can help to talk to someone about the confusing feelings that go with growing up — whether that someone is a parent or other family member, a close friend or sibling, or a school counselor.
It's not always easy to find somebody to talk to. But many people find that confiding in someone they trust (even if they're not completely sure how that person will react) turns out to be a positive experience.
In many communities, youth groups can provide opportunities for LGBT teens to talk to others who are facing similar issues. Psychologists, psychiatrists, family doctors, and trained counselors can help them cope — confidentially and privately — with the difficult feelings that go with their developing sexuality. They also help people find ways to deal with any peer pressure, harassment, and bullying they might face.
Whether gay, straight, bisexual, or just not sure, almost everyone has questions about physically maturing and about sexual health — like if certain body changes are "normal," what's the right way to behave, or how to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It's important to find a doctor, nurse, counselor, or other knowledgeable adult to be able to discuss these issues with.
Beliefs Are Changing
In the United States, and throughout much of the world, attitudes about sexual orientation have been changing. Being gay, for example, is getting to be less of a "big deal" than it used to be. Although not everyone is comfortable with the idea of sexual orientation differences, a Human Rights Campaign survey found that most LGBT teens are optimistic about the future.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD, and Neil Izenberg, MD
Date reviewed: October 2012
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