Sexual orientation

A person’s sexual orientation refers to their sexual, emotional or romantic feelings towards men, women or both sexes. The most commonly used terms to describe people’s sexual orientation are: - straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Sexuality can be usefully understood as being on a continuum. At one end of the continuum is being entirely attracted to the same sex and at the other, being entirely attracted to the opposite sex. Whilst a person will usually identity with one of these terms, sexual attraction is not always fixed in that they may move either way along the continuum at some point.

Most people will begin to get a clear sense of their sexuality between mid-childhood and adolescence, however, some people may not become clear about their sexual preference until later in life, especially if they have lived in an environment where there is a high degree of pressure to conform to a certain sexual orientation.

For example, due to an overwhelming pressure to conform, a person may have decided at some point that they are a particular sexual orientation, only to discover later in life that their decision was in fact as a result of that pressure. Even if a person becomes clear about their principle sexual orientation, they may retain a marginal interest outside of that orientation that they may or may not be interested in acting upon.

Common difficulties around sexual orientation

Many people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual still experience varying levels of homophobia (discrimination and prejudice). This can take place within their family, with friends or in their place of work. If they have grown up in a social environment that has a significant degree of homophobia, it is highly likely that sooner or later they will internalise some of the discriminatory and negative messages that surround them. This can be experienced so powerfully that a person can call into question their whole sense of self worth. It can have a devastating effect on their self esteem and confidence and may cause them to develop a strong self critical attitude.

When seeing a counsellor or psychotherapist with issues related to their sexual orientation, a person who is gay, lesbian or bisexual often does so with a degree of internalised homophobia (which they may or may not be aware of), and as a consequence, this may lead to confusion.

People who are gay, lesbian or bisexual often seek therapy around the time they are ‘coming out’. ‘Coming out’ is the phrase commonly used to describe the process of a person reaching a place of understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientation and subsequently disclosing it to others.

For many people this can be an extremely confusing, stressful and anxiety provoking period in their lives. They will usually give considerable thought to how and whom they talk to and are likely to experience doubts and very real fears about how people will respond.

The work in counselling and therapy is often helping the person to uncover and become more aware of the negative messages they have internalised from their environment that have consequently become negative self beliefs. Through the process of gaining understanding of these negative self beliefs and developing an ability to choose new beliefs, they can develop a more realistic and positive self identity.

Through developing more affirmative beliefs and a more positive self-image, the person will generally feel more confident and experience greater self-esteem. This in turn can help the person to feel able to move towards meeting people with whom they feel they can identify and feel comfortable with, leading to the development of more meaningful and satisfying relationships.

Pete Kerridge and Harley Street Psychotherapy adopt an affirmative attitude to all sexual orientations