18

In American politics, Judge Amy Barrett used the term "sexual preference" during her confirmation hearing. This was criticized as offensive by writers at publications such as CNN, USAToday, and Vox.

Several popular conservative pundits claimed that the term was not considered offensive until Barrett used it:

I sincerely didn’t know “sexual preference” was considered problematic until I heard The Daily today.

Thomas Williams

To be clear, the "sexual preference" attack is a bad faith contrivance. The evidence its advocates present in its defense doesn't hold up. We are to deny truth, as we knew it 48 hours ago, in deference to the new party line.

Noah Rothman

@MerriamWebster dictionary redefining words on the spot apparently in an attempt to smear a SCOTUS nominee.

Archive here: https://web.archive.org/web/20200928131548/https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/preference

No mention of the term being offensive just days ago.

Steven Crowder

Are these claims correct?

All that I can confirm is that as recently as September 28th, the Merriam-Webster page did not mark this term as offensive (see the link in Steven Crowder's tweet), but does currently label it offensive.

I am unable to find any sort of authoritative consensus on this term being offensive or inoffensive dating before Tuesday's hearing.

2
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 8:59
  • Do not discuss this in comments. If you wish to discuss, go to the chatroom. Comments discussing this question will be deleted (because they can't be moved). – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 9:00
17

tl;dr No, "sexual preference" isn't offensive. Historically, there was a public discourse over if non-heterosexual people chose to be non-heterosexual, so a pro-LGBT group recommended that authors consider replacing instances of "sexual preference" with "sexual orientation" out of fear that people might see the word "preference" a lot when reading about whether or not non-heterosexuality was a choice, sorta creating a subliminal bias toward believing that sexual orientation is a choice. However, this was sort of a pragmatic political consideration; the term itself isn't offensive.


No, it's not offensive.

Politics aside, "sexual preference" is not generally considered an offensive term. After some digging, this actually seems like a pretty neat piece of history.

As far as I've been able to find, this goes back to discussions from the 1980's:

History of the development of the guidelines

The Committee on Lesbian and Gay concerns (CLGC) has considered issues of heterosexual bias in language since its beginning in 1980. A first draft of the "CLGC Nomenclature Guidelines for Psychologists" was approved at the September 1985 meeting. Comments were solicited from APA's Division 44 and from the Association of Lesbian and Gay Psychologists. A revised document was approved by the committee in October 1985 and by the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility in Psychology (BSERP) in spring 1987.

—"Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language" by the "Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concern". Original PDF link; archived PDF.

Around that time, a lot of public debate focused on if sexual preference/orientation is a choice. The gist was that if sexuality was a choice, then people could faulted for making the wrong selection; but, if sexuality wasn't a choice, then a person couldn't be reasonably blamed for it.

Apparently The Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns (CLGC) felt that having the word "preference" mixed into the debate might kinda subliminally push people toward thinking of sexuality as a choice. So, it seems that they felt that it'd be better to use the term "sexual orientation".

As they describe it:

PROBLEMS OF TERMINOLOGY

Problems occur in language concerning lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons when language is too vague or concepts are poorly defined. There are two major problems of designation. First, language may be ambiguous in reference, so that the reader is not clear about its meaning or its inclusion and exclusion criteria. Second, "homosexuality" has been associated in the past with deviance, mental illness, and criminal behavior, and these negative stereotypes may be perpetuated by bias.

  1. Sexual orientation is a preferred term for psychological writing over "sexual preference" and refers to sexual/affectional relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual people. The word "preference" suggests a degree of voluntary choice that is not necessarily reported by lesbians and gay men and that has not been demonstrated in psychological research.

Note that their concern isn't that the term is offensive; merely, they felt it might carry misleading connotations.

Later in the same document, they give the example:

PROBLEMATIC AND PREFERRED EXAMPLES

Issues of Designation: Ambiguity of Referent

  1. PROBLEMATIC: Sexual preference
    PREFERRED: Sexual orientation
  • Comment: Avoids connotations of voluntary choice that may not be appropriate.

Sounds like they're saying that people would get confused, perceiving the subject of the choice implied by the preference to potentially be the preference itself. Which would obviously be a very silly mistake for the reader to make, but perhaps they were concerned that people merely skimming stuff might somehow absorb such confusion at a subconscious level, sorta like a subliminal source of confusion.


Summary

No, there's nothing offensive about the term "sexual preference". It's just that a group of folks who were trying to remove bias from language suggested that the term be avoided out of concern that some people might get confused.

If you're writing an article for publication, and you're concerned that some folks might carelessly skim it and potentially absorb a false connotation of sexual orientation being a choice, then you might want to follow the original advice to avoid the term "sexual preference" in favor of "sexual orientation", when the substitution is viable.

2
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 8:57
  • If you disagree with an answer, downvote it. Do not discuss it in comments. If you wish to discuss, go to the chatroom. Comments discussing this answer will be deleted (because they can't be moved). – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 8:58
15

The term "sexual preference" has been considered offensive before the use by Barett.

The reason is that when attacking the humanity of LGBT+ people, one argument by christian conservatives is that it's an (immoral) choice which can be changed.

glaad media reference (wayback):

Offensive: "sexual preference" Preferred: "sexual orientation" or "orientation" The term "sexual preference" is typically used to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can and should be "cured."

Glaad also references the AP and NYT style guides:

[Associated Press (2013): ] avoid references to "sexual preference" or to a gay or alternative "lifestyle."

[New York Times (2013): ] sexual orientation. Never sexual preference, which carries the disputed implication that sexuality is a matter of choice.

sexual preference. Use sexual orientation instead.

APA style (wayback):

Use the term “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference,” “sexual identity,” or “sexual orientation identity.” All people choose their partners regardless of their sexual orientation; however, the orientation itself is not a choice.

An APA article from 1991 makes the same point:

The term sexual orientation is preferred to sexual preference for psychological writing and refers to sexual and affectional relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual people. The word preference suggests a degree of voluntary choice that is not necessarily reported by lesbians and gay men and that has not been demonstrated in psychological research.

Based on this, an older version of the APA style guide specifically calls the term "sexual preference" "problematic".

2
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 8:56
  • If you disagree with an answer, downvote it. Do not discuss it in comments. If you wish to discuss, go to the chatroom. Comments discussing this answer will be deleted (because they can't be moved). – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 8:58
6

This answer is a follow-up to the already excellent answer by Nat. Its purpose is to clarify some aspects of the background of the issue, and to incorporate into an answer some of the insights that have been articulated by various contributors in the comments (which are at risk of being deleted by the moderators as excessive).

The view that the term sexual preference is offensive is based on the following three premises:

(1) The belief that being gay (which, within this answer, includes being lesbian and being bisexual) is not a matter of choice is more conducive to the recognition of gay rights than the belief that it is a matter of choice.

(2) Using the word orientation in this context better fits the belief that being gay is not a matter of choice than using the word preference; the word preference is, on the other hand, better suited to the belief that being gay is a matter of choice.

(3) (1) and (2) are so obvious that the only purpose anybody could have in using the term sexual preference is to actively undermine gay rights.

If one accepts (1), (2), and (3), and one supports gay rights, one will likely find somebody's use of the terms sexual preference offensive. Should one accept (1), (2), and (3)?

Regarding (1), it should be noted, first, that the belief that being gay is a matter of choice does not logically entail any kind of opposition to gay rights: as has been pointed out by thieupepijn in a comment, one may believe that being gay is a matter of choice and that this is a perfectly OK choice to make, a choice that everybody has the right to make without being subjected to any disadvantages for it. It is, however, still possible that as a matter of psychology and sociology (rather than logical entailment), people are more likely to support gay rights if they believe that being gay is a not a matter of choice. Whether (1) is ultimately true is thus an empirical matter, which puts it outside the scope of this site. What is relevant to the question posed by the OP is, however, that the belief in the offensiveness of sexual preference depends on (1).

Regarding (2), it should be noted that there is nothing self-contradictory about saying that one is oriented towards something because one has so chosen; the meaning of oriented does not rule that out. There is also nothing self-contradictory about saying that one prefers something because one is so constituted that one can't help preferring it. To borrow the example from Jjj's comments, one may say that one prefers red wine to white wine, without having any idea as to why one does. If it were to be discovered that there is something in one's genes that makes one prefer red wine, that would not make one stop saying that one prefers red wine, and it certainly won't lead one to start saying the one is now oriented towards red wine. Thus if there is a connection between using the term sexual preference and believing that sexuality is, in this respect, a matter of choice, that connection is not a logical entailment, but at most a psychological connection: the term arguably 'might kinda subliminally push people toward thinking of sexuality as a choice', as Nat has so eloquently put it.

So, even though (1) and (2) may be true, they are not so obviously, unquestionably true that everybody who uses the term sexual preference should be immediately presumed to be doing so out of a desire to undermine to gay rights. In other words, (3) is not true. It is perfectly possible to disagree with (1) and/or (2), or to be uncertain whether (1) and/or (2) are true, and so use the term while wholeheartedly supporting gay rights.

(To avoid possible misunderstandings, I should make it clear that this answer, as befits this site, and like the other contributions so far made to this page, deals with the question only as a question about the meanings of certain English words; it is not intended to imply anything whatsoever about the current political developments in the United States that have prompted the question.)

2
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 8:57
  • If you disagree with an answer, downvote it. Do not discuss it in comments. If you wish to discuss, go to the chatroom. Comments discussing this answer will be deleted (because they can't be moved). – Andrew Leach Oct 18 '20 at 8:59
1

Speaking as a gay man: Yes, it is offensive. Very mildly so, but enough that I will probably correct you if you say it to me. It's usually said out of well-meaning ignorance, and I would understand there wasn't malice behind it unless it was in the context of worse things.

Why do I mind it?

  1. I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla, but I'm certainly happy with vanilla if that's what's offered. That's not the same when it comes to my attraction (and marriage) to men. It's a fundamental part of my identity.
  2. As stated in other answers, preference implies choice. That is not a choice I was ever given.
  3. No one ever says heterosexuality is a "preference". It's an other-ing statement that makes straight people the standard and me the weird one (which I am, but not for this).

As to when it became offensive, I couldn't tell you. I can tell you that this is at least a common opinion among the many gay people that I know.

In this case, Barrett's use of the phrase is said in the context of her other anti-LGBT views, and it feels deliberate to me (although obviously that is just conjecture on my part).

Edit:

One more thing, a lot of these things just become offensive over time because they are part of the vocabulary used by that the people who think we are deviants who don't deserve equality. In much the same way "colored people" isn't inherently wrong by any linguistic quality, but by the fact that it was the term used by racist people and just picked up that racism. "Sexual preference" maybe wasn't homophobic by itself, but picked up the flavor of the homophobia it was mixed in with. Like a mushroom or something.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.