Avoiding Heterosexist Bias

Summary of Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language

Sexual orientation is the preferred term 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.

The terms “lesbian sexual orientation,” “heterosexual sexual orientation,” “gay male sexual orientation,” and “bisexual sexual orientation” are preferable over “lesbianism,” “heterosexuality”, “homosexuality”, and “bisexuality”, respectively.

Lesbian and gay male are preferred to the word “homosexual” when used as an adjective referring to specific persons or groups, and lesbians and gay men are preferred terms over “homosexuals” used as a noun when referring to specific persons or groups.

The word “homosexual” has several problems of designation. First, it may perpetuate negative stereotypes because of its historical associations with pathology and criminal behavior. Second, it is ambiguous in reference because it is often assumed to refer exclusively to men and thus renders lesbians invisible. Third, it is often unclear.

The terms “gay male” and “lesbian” refer primarily to identities and to the modern culture and communities that have developed among people who share those identities.

Same-gender behavior, male-male behavior, and female-female behavior are appropriate terms for specific instances of same-gender sexual behavior that people engage in regardless of their sexual orientation

Likewise, it is useful that women and men not be considered “opposites” (as in “opposite sex”) to avoid polarization, and that heterosexual women and men not be viewed as opposite to lesbians and gay men. Thus, male-female behavior is preferred to the term “opposite sex behavior”

When referring to sexual behavior that cannot be described as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, special care needs to be taken. Descriptions of sexual behavior among animal species should be termed “male-male sexual behavior” or “male-female sexual behavior” rather than “homosexual behavior” or “heterosexual behavior,” respectively.

Bisexual women and men, bisexual persons, or bisexual as an adjective refer to people who relate sexually and affectionally to women and men. These terms are often omitted in discussions of sexual orientation.

Omission of the term “bisexual” also contributes to the invisibility of bisexual women and men. Although it may seem cumbersome at first, it is clearest to use the term “lesbians, gay men, and bisexual women or men” when referring inclusively to members of these groups.

Use of gender instead of sex.

The terms “sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably. Nevertheless, the term “sex” is often confused with sexual behavior, and this is particularly troublesome when differentiating between sexual orientation and gender. The phrase “it was sexual orientation, rather than gender, that accounted for most of the variance” is clearer than “it was sexual orientation, rather than sex, that accounted for most of the variance.”


Goals for Reducing Heterosexual Bias in Language

Rule

Example

Reducing heterosexual bias and increasing visibility of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons. Lesbians, gay men, and bisexual men and women often feel ignored by the general media which take the heterosexual orientation of their readers for granted. Unless an author is referring specifically to heterosexual people, writing should be free of heterosexual bias.

For Example:

  • Using examples of lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons when referring to activities (e.g., parenting, athletic ability) that are erroneously associated only with heterosexual people by many readers.
  • Referring to lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons in situations other than sexual relationships.
  • Omitting discussion of marital status unless legal marital relationships are the object of the writing.
  • Referring to sexual and intimate emotional partners by both male and female pronouns
  • Using sexual terminology that is relevant to lesbians and gay men as well as bisexual and heterosexual people
  • Avoiding the assumption that pregnancy may result from sexual activity

Clarity of expression and avoidance of inaccurate stereotypes about lesbians and gay men.

Stigmatizing or pathologizing language regarding gay men and lesbians should be avoided (e.g., “sexual deviate,” “sexual invert”). Authors should take care that examples do not further stigmatize lesbians, gay men, or bisexual persons (e.g., an example such as “psychologists need training in working with special populations such as lesbians, drug abusers, and alcoholics” is stigmatizing in that it lists a status designation (lesbians) with designations of people being treated.

Comparisons of lesbians or gay men to parallel groups

When comparing a group of gay men or lesbians to others, parallel terms have not always been used. For example, contrasting lesbians with “the general public” or to “normal women” portrays lesbians as marginal to society. More appropriate comparison groups might be “heterosexual women,” “heterosexual men and women,” or “gay men and heterosexual women and men.”

Potentially Problematic Sentences/Phrases

  • Sexual preference
  • The sample consisted of 200 adolescent homosexuals.
  • None of the subjects were homosexual or bisexual.
  • Manuscript title: “Gay relationships in the 1990s”
  • Subjects were asked about their homosexuality.
  • The women reported lesbian sexual fantasies.
  • The male antelopes were bisexual.
  • It was subjects’ sex, not their sexual orientation, that affected number of friendships.
  • Homosexual abuse of children.
  • When the mother is employed, her partner may discover that his share of childcare has increased.
  • AIDS education must extend beyond the gay male population into the general population.
  • Women’s sexual partners should use condoms.