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Of course, heterosexual and straight are interchangeable in most contexts, but there are times when I find myself wanting to make the distinction of whether the attraction to the opposite sex is exclusive.

In my experience, straight certainly means "exclusively attracted to the opposite sex." Thus, a straight woman is attracted to men, and not women. It would be incorrect to describe a woman who has been involved with both men and women as straight.

But could one describe such a woman as heterosexual? I feel as though, given the literal meaning of the word roots, one ought to be able to use heterosexual to mean "attracted to the opposite sex" without implications about lack of attraction to anyone else. (Same thing goes for gay vs. homosexual.)

Is this idea backed up by usage - do some people, sources, etc. utilize this distinction in meaning - or does English not have an easy way to express it?

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By that logic, you could call someone a "vegetarian" even if they eat meat. But the logic is wrong, you can't reason out the meanings of words from their origins or roots. That's the etymological fallacy. –  David Schwartz Jul 15 '12 at 4:06
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@JarrodRoberson I, respectfully, disagree with your entire comment. Saying, "I'm straight" is a declaration of one's own sexual identity that, without additional context, is mutually exclusive from how one may perceive someone who identifies as LGBTQ. –  Brandon Bertelsen Jul 15 '12 at 11:05
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"Is this idea backed up by usage - do some people, sources, etc. utilize this distinction in meaning - or does English not have an easy way to express it?" a short answer is scientists and other professionals use the distinction, they have a semantically unambiguous meaning in English that they use, the other is casual slang at best and hate speech at worst, depending on the context and the speaker/recipient. –  Jarrod Roberson Jul 15 '12 at 11:14
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When I get hit on by a guy and I say, "Sorry, I'm straight". He doesn't look offended, he looks disappointed. That wouldn't be the case if what you are saying is true. Let's review a few usage case scenarios out there. "I'm straight"=hetero, "He/she is straight"=hetero, "We are straight"=hetero, "They are straight"=hetero, "I thought he/she was straight"=hetero, "I didn't think he/she was straight"=hetero. None of these, without additional: context, tone, inflection, or pitch are moral judgements. In every case, they are specifications of perceived sexual identity. –  Brandon Bertelsen Jul 15 '12 at 11:26
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@JarrodRoberson: I'm gay, and I can assure you, when I refer to straight people as "straight", I'm not making any sort of moral judgment. I don't know any GLBT people who avoid using the term "straight" or are ever offended by its use. And it's certainly not "casual slang"; it occurs regularly in The New York Times, for Pete's sake. –  ruakh Jul 15 '12 at 20:15
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9 Answers

Straight is a metaphor, and means heterosexual only in a limited set of contexts. Most of the time it doesn't mean that.

  • It's 20 miles straight North to the border.
  • I'm pretty sure she's been straight with me about that.
  • Stand up straight and look straight ahead.
  • Honestly, you're such a straight arrow; would it kill you to ignore that stuff?
  • Be sure to position it straight up; we don't want to have to brace it.

The metaphor theme is Morality is a Straight Line, which is part of Life is a Journey. The presupposition is that homosexuality is immoral, while heterosexuality is moral, and therefore straight.

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That's true. Any two words will have some context in which one will be usable with a certain sense and the other won't. That's why they stay separate. Any pair of words that have exactly the same sense in all contexts will drop one and keep the other. –  John Lawler Jul 15 '12 at 4:27
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In the context of sexual orientation references I would add that the term is judgmental, usually fundamental religious judgement. Which makes it a negative in many contexts and not just neutral, I like this answer because of the mention of the moral differentiation as well as all the other terms that are related to being squarish without being sexual in nature. –  Jarrod Roberson Jul 15 '12 at 11:18
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Nice answer. I’d add that it sounds really weird to my ear to apply straight to the sexual behaviour of animals. The phrase straight pigeon sounds almost like a joke. I’d definitely go with heterosexual pigeon. (And, in case anyone asks: yes, homosexuality is well documented amongst all sorts of animals. Check out Bruce Bagemihl’s compendious tome, Animal Exuberance.) –  Daniel Harbour Jul 15 '12 at 13:08
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-1, sorry. This is etymological information made to sound like a description of current usage. This sense of "straight" is now a dead metaphor, used by millions of people who do not share the presupposition you describe. –  ruakh Jul 15 '12 at 20:19
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True; it was meant to answer the question, which was about synonymy. And dead metaphors are the ones that will bite you the worst. Granted, many people don't make that presupposition; but it's there to discover, for anyone looking for an excuse. –  John Lawler Jul 15 '12 at 21:14
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In common usage (which at the end of the day is what matters - we communicate to get a point across), heterosexual and straight are synonymous. That is, if a person is described as either, they are assumed to be exclusively attracted to the opposite gender; if a relationship is described as such ("He's in a heterosexual relationship right now"), generally it only implies that this particular relationship is one between a male and a female.

In terms of expressing attraction to one gender without further implications: "gynephilic" and "androphilic" and/or "gynesexual" and "androsexual" are words that are often used, or simply "men who have sex with men" (edit: note that this refers to action and not attraction, which appears to be your intention) as has been mentioned, since it makes no mention of sexual orientation. However, in conversation it's probably easier to just say "he likes girls".

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It's worth noting that there is a distinction between "men who have sex with men" and "androphilic." In principle a person may experience sexual attraction to males and not act on it; or conversely a man may have sex with men for some reason other than sexual attraction (e.g. ritualistic sex). –  Derrick Coetzee Jul 15 '12 at 5:56
    
@DerrickCoetzee This is true, and as the original question was about attraction as opposed to action, that's a very relevant point. Will clarify my original answer, thanks! –  Key Jul 15 '12 at 5:59
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No, in English, "heterosexual" and "straight" are synonymous, with each of "homosexual," "bisexual," and "asexual" being in a separate "quadrant of sexuality." One cannot fall into more than one of these categories.

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Well... sure you can. And you've neglected other "quadrants" if you must call them that, such as trans, intersex, two-spirited, queer... –  JAM Jul 15 '12 at 3:44
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All that is just made-up stuff. All there is human behavior, not these invented modern categories. That’s why health workers talk about “men who have sex with men”. It doesn’t assume anything at all. –  tchrist Jul 15 '12 at 4:05
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I didn't say everyone fell into one of these categories, you'll note, just that these four in particular are mutually exclusive. –  James McLeod Jul 15 '12 at 4:26
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And note that these descriptions also make no assumptions. That is left to the ignorant who misuse them as labels. –  James McLeod Jul 15 '12 at 4:36
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Folks who at various times in their lives display gynesexual characteristics and at other times display androsexual characteristics are amphisexuals — or simply human, if you prefer a shorter word. Human sexuality is a fluid continuum, not a Boolean characteristic.

Particularly when used as noun rather than as adjectively, words like homosexual and heterosexual carry heavy connotations of morality, exclusivity, culture, identity, and expression. They work better to describe relationships or acts than they do to describe people. Used to describe people, these terms can easily come off sounding judgemental, and are seldom 100% accurate in all regards anyway.

Someone who is sexually attracted to one gender may or may not be sexually attracted to the other gender, and they may or may not be sexually repulsed by the other gender. They may form romantic attachments with only one gender yet engage in sexual behavior with both. Finally, all this is much more fluid than the clinical-sounding terms may suggest, as even within the same individual it can vary significantly with time and circumstance.

For example, I have personally known both men and women who identify as “straight”, yet who sometimes engage in non-romantic sexual activity with members of their same sex. Clearly, they are not repulsed by their own sex, yet at the same time they do not consider themselves “bisexual”. Indeed, they reject that term if applied to them, probably because of the social connotations, and perhaps because they do not form romantic relationships with their own sex.

This actually works the other direction, too. I’ve also known both men and women who, despite self-identifying as “gay”, have been known to have sexual (but not romantic) relations with members of the opposite sex. These folks might be somewhat less likely to reject the “bisexual” label with quite the same vehemence as the corresponding self-identifying “straight” people often are. But they still think it a mere technicality, and so do not change their constructed cultural identification just because of some occasional dalliance outside of that consensus construct.

I’m reminded of this bit of dialogue from the musical Hair:

Prison Psychiatrist: And men?
Woof: What do you mean...?
Prison Psychiatrist: You have any sexual attraction towards men?
Woof: You mean if I'm a homosexual or something like that?
Prison Psychiatrist: Yeah.
Woof: Well, I wouldn't kick Mick Jagger out of my bed, but uh, I'm not a homosexual, no.

Probably that could stand some updating for today’s audiences, swapping in someone younger for Mick Jagger, but the expressed sentiment is ageless.

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I have some doubts about straight and heterosexual being exactly synonymous, though they do overlap a lot.

Heterosexual/homosexual are not polar. People are not 100% one or the other. There are degrees in between, usually graded as homosocial(likes the company of their own sex) > homoerotic(gets excited by their own sex) > homosexual(has sexual relations with their own sex).

If we accept this homosexual continuum, then straight and heterosexual do not have to be identical. A "bromance" for example, (my apologies for using such a ridiculous word...) is probably straight as in 'normal' and not sexual, but not strictly speaking heterosexual as it is taking homosocial to extremes. Another example is the WW I poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, which is undoubtedly straight but still verging on homoerotic.

In the same light, it is worth bearing in mind that while male/female are polar and genetic, male and female are social constructs and therefore not polar. Think drag queens, lady-boys, ladettes, etc.

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+1 for recognizing that human sexuality AND gender is a spectrum, not a constant. –  Brandon Bertelsen Jul 15 '12 at 10:45
    
Siegfried (who was probably gay), not Vidal who just died and used to cut Jean Shrimpton's & Twiggy's hair - though it's a funny Monty Python image. –  jitard Jul 15 '12 at 19:50
    
Whoops... my bad! Yes, Seigfried, who some speculate simply must have been gay because of his poetry, but it is completely unproven. –  Roaring Fish Jul 16 '12 at 7:05
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Straight in terms of sexuality is more likely the opposite of 'kinky'. So, you could have a 'straight' homosexual, or a 'kinky' homosexual. Or more to the point, a 'straight' heterosexual, or a 'kinky, not straight' heterosexual.

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I more commonly hear "vanilla" used as the opposite of "kinky," probably because it avoids this ambiguity. It's a shame because "straight" and "kinky" make a better pair of metaphors. –  octern Jul 15 '12 at 4:22
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Straight is simply a slang term for somebody who is predominantly heterosexual. In ten years from now, the term "straight" may no longer exist as slang for the same just as it probably didn't in the middle ages :).

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In the sixties there could be some confusion between straight as in "straight arrow" & not hip and gay & straight.

I believe it was when gay was first being used as a polite version of queer that straight seemed to pop up as its opposite. Queer had more restricted in use, it was a sort of a form of tagging. I don't think queer & straight were used as opposites.

"Straight acting" is a term that has a controversial history of its own - like "passing."

And I agree with the comments above about there being such a extended continuum of sexuality that there is no pure sexual response - it's all tinged with various admixtures.

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As others have noted, heterosexual and straight both refer to the portion of the heterosexual–homosexual continuum where one is predominately attracted to the opposite sex. The two words vary somewhat in connotation and register, so they are not exact synonyms, but neither one suggests significant homosexual activity, nor do they rule out past or incidental homosexual activity.

If you would like a term that specifically suggests more openness to homosexuality, consider heteroflexible or bi-curious:

Heteroflexibility is a form of a sexual orientation or situational sexual behavior characterized by minimal homosexual activity despite a primarily heterosexual sexual orientation that is considered to distinguish it from bisexuality. It has been characterized as “mostly straight.” Although sometimes equated with bi-curiosity to describe a broad continuum of sexual orientation between heterosexuality and bisexuality, other authors distinguish heteroflexibility as lacking the “wish to experiment with . . . sexuality” implied by the bi-curious label. The corresponding situation in which homosexual activity predominates has also been described, termed homoflexibility.

Straight but not narrow is a similar idiom used to describe people who are heterosexual but open-minded about homosexuality.

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