We live in a time where there are nearly limitless identities we can use to describe our life experiences. Gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, aromantic, biromantic, polyromantic, etc., ….but wait, how are those different again? It’s incredible that there are so many descriptors that validate people’s selfhood, but I for one didn’t just magically download all of them into my brain overnight. In a quest for developing a continual knowledge base surrounding the relationships we have with ourselves, family, and friends, it’s easy to get lost in the lingo. My hope is to give you a beginner-friendly shallow dive into the differences between sexual and romantic orientations. Feel free to use what follows as a launch pad for more research, starting open conversations, and igniting self-understanding.

What is Sexual Orientation?

We’re not getting anywhere in developing our knowledge if we skip over the basics. So, we’re starting with square one. Sexual orientation, often referred to as your “sexuality” overall relates to how you express yourself as a sexual being. This seemingly simple phrase actually encompasses quite a bit of what we understand about our own sexual identities, including but not limited to gender preference of sexual partners, fantasies, desire, beliefs, values, behaviors, practices, roles, and relationships.

Something to note here- it is a very common misconception to relate someone’s sexual orientation to their gender identity, possibly because they’re often talked about within the same conversations. These identities are in NO way inherently related.

What is Romantic Orientation?

Okay, let’s keep it going with these definitions. Romantic orientation describes a preference pattern one has regarding a romantic partner based on a person’s gender(s), regardless of their sexual orientation. This definition has a bit more meat and potatoes to it, so let’s break it down even further. Think about the non-sexual characteristics you look for in a life partner(s). Let’s say your top 3, non-negotiables are finding someone funny, generous, and kind. These are what make you romantically attracted to them long before any sexual fantasies are pursued or the clothes come off.

Yet another thing to note here- If someone experiences sexual attraction, their sexual and romantic orientations are oftentimes aligned, meaning they experience sexual attraction towards those of the gender(s) they’re interested in forming romantic relationships with. There are times when this is not the case as well, but we’ll just stick to the basics here for now.

Let’s Practice

Below you’ll find some sample clips of conversation to help paint the differences (and overlaps) between these orientations even more clearly.

Josh: “Oh dude, what ever happened with you and Riley last night? Did you end up going back to his place?”

Hunter: “Haha oh I forgot that I haven’t told you yet. Riley’s actually a girl! I’m bisexual so I’m attracted to men and women. I totally get why you thought Riley’s was a guy though, considering I’ve been going on dates with my fair share of guys recently. It went really well though! I’m hoping I’ll get to spend the night at hers sometime this weekend.”

So, Hunter just clued Josh in on his sexual orientation. He’s bisexual, meaning he’s sexually attracted to both men and women. Onto the next.

Sabrina: “I’m just so confused. I thought I was devoted 100% to Betty, we’ve been dating for so long and I’m so in love with her. But lately my attraction has been changing. I’m just in a spot where I know I’m sexually attracted to Betty, but I also want to be intimate with Clover-no strings attached. I can’t stop thinking about them. I haven’t felt physical attraction to anyone except other women since I broke up with my first boyfriend, and I thought for sure it was women only from here. I’m just lost.”

Jenna: “That does sound pretty stressful. So, you’ve been sexually attracted to men in the past, but not since you’ve been romantically and sexually invested in Betty. This led you to currently identify as homoromantic and bisexual. Is it possible that you’re now just slightly shifting to instead being homoromantic and pansexual?”

Sabrina may have just discovered that while she’s only been able to fall in love with others of the same gender (homoromantic), she’s sexually attracted to people within her gender and other genders (women, men, and nonbinary folks like Clover). This shows that rather than her being lesbian like she thought, she may instead better identify as pansexual.

Being curious to understand identities you’re unfamiliar with is an incredible first step towards investing in your future self and your future relationships. With this, it’s also good to keep in mind that it’s okay if identities change overtime. As we grow, some of our orientations may grow with us, and others may stay constant our whole lives. We just have to do the best we can each day and give ourselves and others grace along the way. Just remember- being accepting, non-judgmental, and open is the best way to approach these conversations, with yourself and others