When did ‘sexual preference’ become politically incorrect?
A classic example of performative offence-taking
The Democrats are out to get Amy Coney Barrett. That’s because a) she’s been nominated to the Supreme Court by a Republican President and b) they don’t like her religious beliefs.
Fortunately, neither of these things are disqualifying factors (yet). Instead, her opponents have pinned their hopes on something she might say during the Senate confirmation hearings. And so when she made a reference to “sexual preference” during Tuesday’s proceedings, they pounced. Her use of the term was “offensive and outdated” they protested.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Kyle Griffin of MSNBC was one of those who leapt in to explain:
"Sexual preference," a term used by Justice Barrett, is offensive and outdated. The term implies sexuality is a choice. It is not. News organizations should not repeat Justice Barrett's words without providing that important context.
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 13, 2020
And here we have GLAAD (an advocacy group) telling us what we ought to say instead:
The correct term is sexual orientation. "Sexual preference" is a term often used by anti-LGBTQ activists to imply that sexual orientation is a choice. https://t.co/rT6g95gsG1
— GLAAD (@glaad) October 13, 2020
Let’s start with the obvious. Referring to sexual preference doesn’t have to imply that sexual orientation is a choice. The meanings of ‘preference’ and ‘choice’ are distinct. One can have a preference in the absence of a choice and a choice in the absence of a preference. We may make choices on the basis of our preferences, but that does not mean that we choose what we prefer.
Admittedly, in some situations, a preference can change — and thus it could be argued that the use of ‘sexual preference’ might imply that sexual orientation can be changed. However, if that’s the problem then it also applies to ‘sexual orientation’ as a form of words. Certain kinds of orientation — a political orientation, for instance — can be changed. Other kinds can’t, hence the term ‘fixed orientation’. Of course, there are many preferences that can’t be changed either — hence the term ‘innate preference’.
So, looking at the matter objectively, there’s no reason why ‘sexual preference’ should be deemed incorrect and ‘sexual orientation’ correct.
What’s really at issue here are the subjective and selective judgements of a cultural elite who think they should determine what the rest of us can and can’t say. Indeed, they’re literally re-writing the dictionary.
Just look at the relevant online entry on the Merriam-Webster website, which makes the following declaration: “The term preference as used to refer to sexual orientation is widely considered offensive in its implied suggestion that a person can choose who they are sexually or romantically attracted to.”
Yet on the same page, as archived on the 28 September 2020, the statement is absent. If ‘sexual preference’ really is “widely considered offensive”, then why did Merriam-Webster — America’s premier dictionary — wait until now to tell us?
One might also ask why Joe Biden referred to ‘sexual preference’ earlier this year without Democrat senators lining up to condemn him? The inconsistency is glaring.
But then performative offence-taking isn’t meant to be fair. When just about any form of words can be presented in the worst possible light, the temptation to do so as-and-when convenient is overwhelming. The only way to ensure consistency is to assume the best of everyone unless proven otherwise — which is one choice we can make.
I’m a gay guy in his 50s who fought the battles for equality both in Canada and here in the UK in the 90s and noughties, being beaten up, spat upon and verbally abused for my trouble by those opposed to my sexuality. I’d always assumed I was a progressive, tolerant, open minded and eminently liberal person. It seems, however, that I missed the important memo declaring that my sexual preference must henceforth be referred to exclusively as my sexual orientation. I’d always used them interchangeably as have my gay and straight friends and family. Personally, I don’t care if people think a person’s sexuality is a choice or not (I think not) so long as I’m not disadvantaged as a consequence. Intent is important and my experience has been that most people using either term do so with goodwill.
It’s a strange thing indeed to see the very forces I would instinctively identify with ‘jump the shark’ in this way, descending into a downward spiral of absurdity where battling against matters of genuine offence with material effects gives way to the seeking out of ever more obscure symbolic reasons to take offence which are then weaponised against one’s political opponents. Between their wholesale signing up to the Covid death cult and this pearl clutching, professional offendee nonsense, I’m finding myself increasingly at odds with many of my erstwhile allies on the left. It’s a disturbing thing indeed to discover one’s inner Tory on these matters at least, but there we are. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!
…..For a moment I thought I had a double! Us Derek’s are a dying breed – nice to see another! 🙂
Hey, right back atcha, Derek! 🙂
You must be very grateful to your parents for not naming you ‘Roger’.
I’m a Roger. I’m cancelling you for that offensive remark – no doubt intended :o)
I do hope I’m not going to be the victim of a Roger pile-on – which I suppose would be called a ‘rogering’.
I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know why, don’t need to know why, don’t understand, don’t need to understand why I love the man I am with! Nuff said!
Welcome into the light.
“Intent is important and my experience has been that most people using either term do so with goodwill.” So well put…Excellent!
That’s the best description of something that has been missing for me for a long time. It’s what has made todays discourse so much worse and is continuing to do so.
Everyone who has an agenda that they cling onto (unknowingly sometimes) has the belief and “knows for sure” the other differing opinion can have no other intent than to hurt or undermine their own. I find this such a sad state of affairs.
Yes, it seems you did miss the memo. I’m 64 and gay, and I got it. I also know that orientation and preference are not now, and never have been used as synonyms. I’m not offended by her use of preference, but she’s a lawyer and I believe she’s smart enough to use words with precision. The ambiguity of the word Preference in this context gives her more religious supporters an excuse to continue supporting her.
No-one finds the term ‘sexual preference’ offensive, not even those claiming they do. This is about language change for the sake of controlling public discourse. I’m studying this in my Critical Theory classes. These people make up new words and keep changing definitions of current ones in a concerted effort to to confuse and bewilder their opponents, thus ensuring they maintain control of the narrative.
The internet has brought both good and bad. On the bad side is the online dictionary that can change or add to a definition ‘just like that’. It turns a dictionary from a description of common usage to a prescription wielded by the tiny minority with cultural power.
Which is another definition of chaos. When people no longer hold meanings in common, communication is dead.
What is truly “outdated and offensive” is this obnoxious tactic of manufacturing reasons to pretend that one is offended. All the way back in May, of this year no less, the Dem presidential nominee used “preference” and no pearls were clutched, no fainting couches were sought, no vapors were had.
This is only ‘outrage’ of the selective kind, from the church of the perpetually aggrieved and offended. Far more genuine outrage should come from the fact that an entity like Mazie Hirono is a sitting US Senator, a statement that someone will also find offensive. Yeah, well; reality sometimes is offensive.
Arguing about “preference” over “orientation” us utterly bonkers. It’s almost surreal semantics. The word “preference” has zero attachments with regards to having made a choice, it’s a passive statement.
I prefer spaghetti over penne. I don’t choose to i just do. It’s not my f-ing pasta orientation.
Funny, and topical. Upvoted.
What’s wrong with being able to choose anyway? Just because I was born heterosexual doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be allowed to sleep with a man, if I find one I prefer. So insisting on ‘orientation’ infringes my rights as it implies that I ‘should’ only sleep with women.
Most people who have any convictions are going to see life through the prism of those convictions. I would imagine that Judge Barrett when called upon to interpret the law will do so through the prism of her convictions just like everyone else including the liberal ,late Judge Ginsburg whom she is hoping to replace.
As far as the cultural clique dictating to us what definitions we must or must not use is concerned I suggest we follow the example of Jordan Peterson and absolutely refuse to submit to such fascism.
Get woke, people. Come and join us in our life of unrelenting, abject misery.
Take any word – no matter how simple or well-defined for centuries – and let the “woke” ( as just one example ) Left crowd get ahold of it, and Bingo!, they demand that it means something else entirely, or its polar opposite. Remember singing “Deck the Halls” during the holidays? If anyone “dons” their “gay apparel” nowadays, it probably isn’t a Christmas sweater they’re wearing.
And, besides, we all know what the real agenda is behind this vacuous quibbling over the word “preference” is in the context of the ACB confirmation hearing. It is to try to make the label of “bigot” apply to a woman who stands head and shoulders intellectually and ethically above her interrogators… simply because she is a Christian. Their motives are utterly transparent.
The liberals downfall will be hinged to this policing of language in a way that is more toxic and restricting than those who are speaking as if the definition of words matters.
I find the new vanguard of so-called queer activism love to language shame, and old radicals are jumped and shamed and dozed as fast as any conservative.
Like, I believe biological sex is a real thing. Based on the fact that it takes a male reproductive system to fertilize the egg carried in a female reproductive system, and yet to say this publicly these days is a verbal Molotov cocktail.
Most identifying as queer these days also seem to be overwhelmingly oriented toward heterosexuality, with a fetishizing of gender roles as the only thing they’ve queered. And honestly, who cares?
It’s all so shallow, so self-absorbed, and toxic AF.
It’s almost as if people are so freaked out by the very real problems we have that they’ve decided to hyper focus on the meaningless and absurd.
Climate change doesn’t care who you want to partner up with. Environmental destruction by big industry offenders doesn’t give a hoot what your pronouns of choice are, and well, frankly, neither do most of us.
There is a link between “normalizing mental illness” and the post-modern liberal.
And now mental illness it the new norm. What progress!
Hopefully when people need to actually start surviving and are forced to face reality there won’t be time for this ridiculous pig and pig show.
Well, one way of filling a few column is to insert o few large clips from Twitter – that conduit for the vacuous and hard-of-thinking.
But, overridingly, does anyone actually give a shit what these ridiculous people say or think?
(tour guide voice) “and this, folx, is where we can observe the leftists”despite their loud insistence that they do otherwise”indeed writing the rules as they go along.”
Oh poor you. Offended by a word that previously meant nothing until someone you disliked said it. (Btw, it doesn’t even imply that it’s a choice or not a choice. You are finding offense where there is none.)
George Orwell predicted the rewriting of history – as would appear to be the case with the dictionary definition. I’m not sure that it helps their case when they use such nonsense as: “The term preference as used to refer to sexual orientation is widely considered offensive in its implied suggestion that a person can choose who they are sexually or romantically attracted to.”
Ignoring the lazy use of a preposition at the end of the sentence… those words literally make no sense! Or are they implying that we have no choice about who we are attracted to?
Surely the whole point of consensual sex is that 2 people have sex with each other because they both choose to. When one of them chooses not to to have sex but is forced to anyway it is called rape.
The choices we make are based on our individual characters (part genetic, part cultural and part experiential), which inform our preferences in individual circumstances. The fact that we might choose to do something one day and not choose to do it another day is all part of being human – we make mistakes and we change our minds throughout our lives.
Must of course be noted that there are now patrols in all areas of social discourse seeking to be offended. Even better, to be offended on behalf of those who are NOT offended. But should be.
Quite how we got into this mess is one thing.
Getting out of it quite another. Given that all the joys that Cultural (anything but truth be known) Marxism bring to society have now spilled out of Academia *(where are least they were contained for many years. Though why my taxes should fund the brainwashing of our kids is yet another matter) into the public sector and now into the corporate world, where MegaCorp now proudly proclaims its perfect Wokeness.
FUBAR, as our American friends say. It may well be we have to do the Marxist thing, and institute a Stalinist purge, for sure in academia and the public sector. Labour camps and re-education. What say you?!
It’s funny that Merriam-Webster is suddenly quoted as some sort of unassailable authority. So be it. If you check their thesaurus for orientation synonyms, the word preference is not listed. Check it for preference, and orientation isn’t listed. That’s because they are words with meanings distinct enough to fail the synonym test. Nice attempt at hairsplitting deflection, though.
This article starts with a falsehood. Democrats oppose Amy Coney Barrett because she is deeply conservative (influenced by her religious beliefs) and because her conservatism influences her judicial decision making.
Also, lawyers are careful with words. Preference is not synonymous with choice, but it does tend to imply choice and does tend to imply something alterable. Choice of words can be an indicator of a person’s fundamental beliefs.
When others like Joe Biden similarly used “preference,” did that also imply choice? Because it seems the only thing that’s really going on here is some overheated hypersensitivity for its own sake.
If Barrett’s “conservatism influences her judicial decision-making” – and really, some evidence of this would help – then it’s reasonable that a Dem nominee would be opposed over that person’s progressivism as an influence, right? And yet the record shows that the nominees of Dem presidents are confirmed by far, far wider margins.
Preference is not synonymous with choice, but it does tend to imply choice and does tend to imply something alterable
It does not at all, except through people being oversensitive about these things. As mentioned in my comment, using a deliberately trivial example – if i prefer spaghetti over penne, there is no implied choice about anything. It just is.
People attaching meaning to things based purely on their own perspective is a ridiculous notion that is at the root cause of most of this nonsense. Far better, and healthier to take words at their basic meaning and take people’s opinions and words in good faith.
Many of the reactions here seem to be made by people unaware that orientation versus choice has been a hot political issue in the United States, on which Christian conservatives like Amy Coney Barrett have played a militant role. They argue that homosexuality, being according to them forbidden by the Bible and Church tradition, must be a choice because God, being perfectly good, would not create natural homosexuals. Evil has to be a human choice. Therefore, homosexuals, instead of being elements of the natural order, are those who have chosen to be evil, and can and ought to be punished for their activities.
In the US at least, this is an important political conflict, not just quibbling over language, and it is reasonable to bring it into the examination of Barrett’s qualifications for sitting on the Supreme Court.
No fair point – but my counter would be that’s what we’re debating here – that this fixation on the word “preference” that is not helpful. There is a greater prevalence of this sort of thing in the US for sure and public discourse is a hell-hole at the moment precisely for these sort of reasons.
It’s not much better elsewhere, granted, but the US is leading the way here and not a good thing
You are mistaken as to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding whether or not being same-sex attracted/oriented is a “choice” that can and should be overcome by will-power and prayer. The Church teaching accepts that sexual orientation is deep-seated and is not amenable to conscious change or choice. Instead, all persons (of any sexual orientation or other types of sexuality) who are not in a marriage between a man and a woman are held to the same standard–basically, to refrain from sexual activity. Whether you agree with the actual religious prohibition/teaching or not, the fact is that you are barking up at the wrong branch of the Christian tree in asserting that Catholicism teaches that sexual orientation is a choice that can be willed or prayed away.
“Choice of words can be an indicator of a person’s fundamental beliefs.”
Not in the case of ‘preference’ vs ‘orientation’. This is patently confected outrage.
Surely the important words are “I would not discriminate on the basis of…” Only Neo Marxist Postmodernists would completely ignore that part and focus on a single word.
You sound like you have been infected by the woke pseudo religion. You should self isolate immediately and read “Cynical Theories” as an antidote as soon as possible.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe