Let me start by saying that sexual orientation and sexual preference are terms that were created by sexologists in order to study sexuality scientifically. To quote my 33-year-old son: "Why the hell do people have to label everything? Why can't people just fuck who they want without society having to label it?" As a dad, I have no problem with my son's thoughts about the subject. As a formally-trained Human Sexuality educator, college professor, and SDC contributor, my answer is, "so you can understand how researchers gather data and conduct studies on human sexuality and be a better consumer of sex research."
Orientation vs. Preference
The two terms sexual orientation and sexual preference are often used synonymously. I prefer the term sexual orientation because I feel that it is broader and encompasses the term sexual preference. I define sexual orientation as your adult, free choice, of sexual partners.
I intentionally use the qualifier, "adult," because it is not unusual for you to experiment with same- and opposite-sex partners in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. By adulthood, you've have had the time and opportunity to make an informed choice about the kinds of partners you desire and prefer to have sex with. I also intentionally use the qualifying term "free choice" because it eliminates sexual experiences that were forced, or occurred in situations where your free choice was curtailed. The best example of that is if you've been incarcerated. In jail, you have three choices; abstain, masturbate, or have sex with same-sex partners. If you choose the latter, does that mean you are gay or lesbian, or just taking advantage of the available sex partners? Was it really a free choice? I'll let you decide.
There is No Right or Wrong — Orientation Just “Is”
There is no inherently right or wrong or good or bad sexual orientation. No one knows why you have the sexual orientation you do. As with other preferences you have (food, career, political, etc.), you are drawn to your sexual partners because they turn you on. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that links sexual orientation to hormones, parenting styles, dominant fathers, etc. I could go on and on, describing the many studies that have been done that seek to explain sexual orientation. Many of them have a political or religious agenda. In the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey even developed the Heterosexual–Homosexual Rating Scale, which used a continuum from 0-6 to "measure" someone's sexual orientation. He gave men who were exclusively heterosexual a score of 0, and, at the opposite end, gave exclusively homosexual men a rating of 6. Everyone between 0-6 had gradations of same- or opposite-sex attraction.
To tell you the truth, I really don't care why you have certain the sexual orientation that you do. What I really care about is whether or not you are maximizing the pleasure you are getting out of it. As you probably figured out from my other columns, as an Acceptance and Commitment (AC) sex coach, I believe that this has everything to do with what your mind is telling you about your sexual orientation. Are your thoughts, feelings, mental images, and self-talk about your sexual orientation positive and helpful in living the kind of sex life you want and deserve, or do they create barriers to achieving sexual satisfaction?
Managing Your Orientation
A lot of what your mind tells you about your sexual orientation is based on outdated images of yourself and messages you received from your caregivers and society regarding how you should be. While this is important to know because it has contributed to who you are as a sexual person, it does not have to continue to hold you back from being the sexual person you want to be. I visualize the painful and unhelpful sexual baggage you carry around as a large duffle bag. You throw it over your shoulder and carry it around everywhere. Everyone has one, and some are bigger than others because they are filled with more sexual baggage (insults, slurs, failed relationships, unsatisfying sexual experiences, etc.) related to our sexual orientation.
If you are struggling with your sexual orientation and get into a sexual situation that gives you an opportunity to try something new, you have two choices: (1) let your duffle bag drag you down and stop you in your tracks, or (2), drop the bag (it will not go anywhere), free yourself, and take a chance. You will never lose your sexual baggage from the past. Unfortunately, it will always be with you. You do have the choice, however, to either let it drag you down, or to move forward despite it, knowing that you can drop it and kick it in the corner whenever you need to.