The Construct of Sexual Orientation in Ordinary Language

Dissertation, University of Nevada, Reno (1999)
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Reviews of studies on sexual orientation reveal that researchers have not developed a clear conceptual definition of sexual orientation and that most researchers have failed to provide a theoretical framework for their studies. While some scholars recognize the conceptual confusion that has plagued the development of a theory of sexual orientation, most researchers study sexual orientation as if it were an immutable, essential nature of an individual without questioning how social context influences categorization. The problem with this approach is that components have been hypothesized to be part of the construct, but there has been no systematic study of how to judge the accuracy of the construct. The present study suggests that, because categories of sexual orientation are socially constructed, the study of sexual orientation would benefit from an understanding of how the ordinary language community defines and categorizes sexual orientation. The purpose of the present study was to test the semantics of various category labels of sexual orientation used in ordinary language. Three hypothesized components of sexual orientation , involving either same-sex or opposite-sex oriented behavior, along with a fourth stimulus condition were manipulated in a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 factorial design. Subjects were 371 college students who completed a questionnaire in which they were asked to give a one-word description in response to written statements about hypothetical individuals described as male or female who engage in various same- or opposite-sex behavior. Contrary to what was hypothesized, results demonstrate that there were some necessary and sufficient conditions for categorizing sexual orientation. Also contrary to a proto-behavioral hypothesis, the results of the relative strength of the three components in predicting category label indicate that sexual attraction was the strongest predictor, followed by overt sexual behavior, and sexual fantasy, respectively. The most impressive finding was the overwhelming support for the impurity hypothesis in which descriptions with any same-sex oriented behavior appeared to be judged to contaminate the individual's sexual orientation resulting in greater frequencies of responses of "homosexual" compared to other category labels. Finally, as predicted, overt sexual behavior was least predictive of the sexual orientation of females with sexual fantasy being the most predictive. For descriptions of males, sexual attraction was the most important predictor. Provided in the discussion are possible explanations for the current findings, a description of the limitations and implications of the study, and recommendations for future research

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Catherine J. Neighbors
University of Nevada, Reno


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