Beyond Gay and Straight: New Paper Says Sexual Orientation Is Much More Complicated

All of us have "multiple sexual orientations ... across a variety of different dimensions."


Emmanuele Contini/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Have you ever looked at "MILF" photos? Lusted after someone with "dad bod?" Congratulations, you might be a mesophiliac!

"Mesophilia"—a sexual attraction to middle-aged adults—is one of dozens of potential sexual-orientations explored in a new paper from forensic psychologist Michael Seto, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and director of forensic rehabilitation research at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.

Seto's research has long focused on sexuality, especially the psychology of sex offenders and of pedophiles. In his latest paper, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Seto returns to and expands upon "the idea that pedophilia, a sexual interest in prepubescent children, can be considered a sexual orientation for age, in conjunction with the much more widely acknowledged and discussed sexual orientation for gender."

The gendered direction of attraction is usually what we mean when we talk about sexual orientation: are you gay? straight? bisexual? But a burgeoning idea among sex researchers and psychologists is that this defines things too narrowly. As Jesse Singal explains at New York mag, "given the current scientific understanding of what sexual orientation is — that it is a deep-seated attraction toward certain sorts of people that first manifests itself around puberty, tends to be stable across the lifespan, and can't be altered by any intentional means — there's compelling reason to think gender is just one piece of a bigger, more complex puzzle."

Even the gender dimension is more complex than most realize, writes Seto, with some people "attracted to gynandromorphs, that is… individuals with physical features of both sexes … other individuals who are attracted specifically to transgender people, and those who would describe themselves as more pansexual with regard to gender, for example, being attracted to both cis- and trans-gender women or men."

Seto/Archives of Sexual Behavior

According to Seto—who defines sexual orientation as "essential aspects of one's sexuality that organize sexual attention, sexual response, and sexual behavior"—all of us have "multiple sexual orientations, rather than a single sexual orientation, across a variety of different dimensions."

In his paper, Seto looks at seven chronophilias—orientations where sexual attraction hinges on age—and various paraphilias, the term given to sexual desires such as sadism, masochism, and exhibitionism. After gender, the second most-studied dimension for sexual attraction has been age.

The vast majority of people are teleiophilic—that is, preferring sexually mature but pre-middle-age adults.

For men, data indicates that around one percent are pedophilic (attracted to prepubescent children), notes Seto, while nepiophilia (attraction to infants and toddlers) is much more rare and hebephilia (attraction to children around ages 11-14) and ephebophilia (attraction to adolescents) both more common. Good estimates are hard to come by, however, as "little is known about noncriminal variations in age interests" and most of the research that does exist is exclusive to men.

Seto/Archives of Sexual Behavior

Sexual orientations are thought to be innate—i.e., a person can't choose to stop getting turned-on by feet or dominance or dad-bod anymore than they can choose to stop sexually reacting as they do to the opposite or same sex. This tends to alarm folks who think that calling something natural is to condone anything it inspires. But psychopathy and sociopathy are innate, or natural, too. The born-this-way element of sexual orientation doesn't mean that acting on an orientation is OK when it conflicts with other moral or social norms we've nurtured.

Likewise, sexual orientations are psychologically neutral, notes Seto—that is, having an unusual orientation isn't, in itself, enough to raise mental-health concerns. But any particular sexual orientation might rise to the level of disorder if it causes someone severe distress or inhibits normal sexual functioning.

Aside from the gender and age dimensions, other points of variation for sexual orientation include self/other ("individuals' sexual interests can be directed outward toward others, or inward toward an imagined self," such as when a man is turned on by imagining himself as a woman), living/non-living (non-living targets might literally mean attraction to the dead, attraction to specific body parts on a living human, or attraction to inanimate objects), human/other species, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism, and consent/non-consent.

"Unlike sexual orientation for gender, where most people are exclusively heterosexual, with decreasing numbers of individuals showing some same-sex interest from predominantly heterosexual to exclusively homosexual, we do not expect sharp differentiations for age categories where individuals show a sexual response to only one category," writes Seto. "In other words, though most people are teleiophilic, this does not mean they show no interest in sexually mature adolescents or middle-aged adults." Similarly, someone showing a sexual orientation toward submission, voyeurism, or any other paraphilia does not mean they won't get aroused without this element.