by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 15
October 2020
Reaction
07:00

When did ‘sexual preference’ become politically incorrect?

by Peter Franklin
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Credit: Getty

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 Her use of the term was “offensive and outdated” they protested.

Why, though?

Kyle Griffin of MSNBC was one of those who leapt in to explain:

And here we have GLAAD (an advocacy group) telling us what we ought to say instead:

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.

Join the discussion


  • October 19, 2020
    "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.... Read more

  • October 19, 2020
    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... Read more

  • October 18, 2020
    At least you're doing this course because you want to know thine enemy, and not because it's compulsory. I've been thinking about returning to university to do an Eng. Lit. MA or MPhil, but have been rather put off by all the stories I keep hearing about how toxic universities have become. Read more

To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, join UnHerd.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up