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What Is Heterosexuality?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 29, 2021

Heterosexual people are sexually or romantically attracted to people of the opposite sex. Heterosexual men are sexually or romantically attracted to women, and heterosexual women are sexually or romantically attracted to men.

The prefix “hetero” comes from the Greek word heteros, which means “the other (of two), another, different, second; other than usual.”

Other Names for Heterosexual and Related Terms

People often use the term “straight” in place of the word heterosexual.

You might also hear these related terms:

Heteronormative. This is a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the norm or preferred orientation over others.

Heteroromantic. This is when you’re romantically attracted to only the opposite sex.

Heterosexual ally. This is a heterosexual person who supports people with other sexual orientations.

What Is the Difference Between Heterosexual, Homosexual, and Other Sexualities?

While heterosexuality is the most common sexual identity, it’s just one of many possible sexual orientations. In addition to heterosexuality, which describes people who are sexually or romantically attracted to the opposite sex, you may hear these terms.

  • Homosexual, same-sex attraction
  • Bisexual, attraction to more than one sex
  • Asexual, no sexual attraction to any sex
  • Aromantic, no romantic attraction to any sex
  • Polysexual, attraction to people of various genders
  • Heteroflexible, primary attraction to people of the opposite sex and occasional attraction to people of the same sex
  • Homoflexible, primary attraction to people of the same sex and occasional attraction to people of the opposite sex

These are just a few of the many terms used to describe various sexual identities. Despite the large number of individuals that identify as heterosexual, it’s important to respect any individual’s sexual orientation and the label they choose. For example, some people may mainly identify as heterosexual, but their sexual identity may change over time. Others may identify as heterosexual as it relates to sexual attraction, but they may also form romantic or emotional relationships with members of the same sex.

Myths and Misconceptions about the Heterosexual Label

Although heterosexuality is fairly common, there are some myths and misconceptions about this sexual orientation.

Transgender Individuals Aren’t Heterosexual

Many people don’t realize that people who identify as transgender can be heterosexual. The term “transgender” refers to a person’s gender identity, not their sexuality or orientation. In fact, transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, queer, asexual, or any other sexual orientation, just like cisgender people — those whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex.

Heterosexuality Isn’t Fluid

Heterosexual people sometimes identify with other sexualities over the course of their lifetimes. This is a common experience — many researchers believe sexuality is a spectrum and that orientation can change over time.

Heterosexuality Is “Normal”

While heterosexuality or straightness is the most common sexual orientation, people who identify with other sexualities are just as “normal.” In fact, the stigma that only straight people are normal is harmful. It’s natural and normal to identify as whatever sexual orientation you choose.

Researchers believe this misconception plays a role in the significantly higher rates of depression and suicide among LGBTQ-identifying people.

Heterosexuality Is The Only Sexual Orientation

Some people hold a religious belief that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. Sometimes, this belief leads to “remedies” like conversion therapy, where individuals of different sexual orientations receive counseling geared toward “fixing” homosexuality, bisexuality, and other orientations.

This practice is considered extremely harmful to the participants’ mental health and has been outlawed in many places around the U.S.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Journal of Public Health: “A Population-Based Study of Sexual Orientation Identity and Gender Differences in Adult Health.”

Cosmopolitan: “23 Sexuality-Related Terms You Need to Know.”

Dictionary.com: “heteroromantic.”

Human Rights Campaign: “The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “heteronormative.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “heterosexual.”

Modern Psychological Studies: “Effects of an LGBTQ identity and support systems on mental health: a study of 4 theories.

National Health Statistics Reports: “Sexual Orientation and Health Among U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2013.”

Online Etymology Dictionary: “hetero-”

Safe Zone Project: “Are all transgender people gay?”

University of South Dakota: “The Spectrum Model of Sex, Gender and Sexuality.”

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