Some on the right pointed out media bias around the term “sexual preference” this week, following a remark Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett made at her confirmation hearing Tuesday. They argued media outlets and writers who had previously used the term “sexual preference” positively began stating the term was offensive after Barrett used it. Barrett later apologized for using the term, and Merriam-Webster updated its dictionary definition to include that the term is offensive.

At the hearing, Barrett was asked about gay marriage and gay rights. She answered that she has “never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.”

Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono and Cory Booker then confronted Barrett over her use of the term, with Hirono saying Barrett had used “outdated and offensive” language.

After some left-rated media outlets published op-ed pieces that also decried Barrett’s use of the term, some Twitter users accused them of apparent media bias.

The Advocate (Lean Left media bias), for example, called Barrett’s use of the term “a revealing moment” and called the term “outdated.” However, less than three weeks ago, The Advocate had published and tweeted a piece by Kenny Ortega that stated, “To come from that history to be able to now, as a director, be telling these stories [...] about young people who are just comfortable with who they are, no matter what their sexual preference is. It's just glorious and so satisfying."

Slate (Left media bias) also took heat for publishing a piece calling Barrett’s use of the term an “alarming” “anti-gay dog whistle to the religious right,” saying the “religious right often refuses to use [the term] “orientation,” fearing that it will legitimize homosexuality.”

Daily Wire (Right bias) journalist Matt Walsh tweeted a screenshot in response, appearing to show that Slate had used the term positively before. Yet some on the left pointed out that his example of Slate’s positive use of the term appeared to be from a letter to the editor, and that Slate had published an opinion piece against use of the phrase as far back as 2013.

Other right-rated voices, including Tucker Carlson and Reason editor Robby Soave, pointed to numerous instances of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden using the phrase, and asked why left-rated media hadn’t admonished him multiple times, if the phrase were so offensive.

Ideological Divides: Left and Right Disagree About Sexuality

Underneath every controversy that floats to the top of the media cycle are very polarized worldviews and philosophies. In this case, disagreement over the term “sexual preference” is not only about very different views about sexuality, but also about the very definition of the word “preference.”

For example, on Twitter, MSNBC (Left media bias) producer Kyle Griffin stated that the term sexual preference “implies sexuality is a choice. It is not.” Quillette (Lean Right media bias) contributor Colin Wright then replied, “Since when does "preference" imply choice? Do you choose whether you prefer chocolate over vanilla? Do you choose whether you prefer cats or dogs as pets? No. All you're doing is starting from a position of being offended and then searching for any conceivable justification.”

In addition to a disagreement over what the word “preference” means, there are obviously differences in thought about sexuality in general. The left argues that sexual orientation is not a choice — that people are born gay or straight. Many, though not all on the left, also say that gender, sex, and sexual orientation are all different things, and that gender is largely a social construct. These folks endorse the idea of gender fluidity — that gender is not fixed and can change over time.

While some on the right agree that sexual orientation is not a choice, they say the claims about sexuality and gender fluidity are at odds: if sexuality is not a choice, then biological determination is real, and so gender arises from those innate differences — meaning gender can’t be fluid, change, or be based on feelings. Gender and sex are linked, and the real social construct, they say, is the idea that gender is not determined by biology.

Here’s an argument on the left:

“The very construct of a preference, or the verb “to prefer,” implies that the individual has a choice, that there are options available and yet, all else being equal and as a matter of taste, really, the person would rather “this one” over “that one,”” wrote Jess Bering in a 2013 opinion piece for Slate. “Think how bizarre it would sound if we were to apply the same language to any other unalterable biological trait.”

And one on the right:

“Boys and girls have innate differences and any “social construct” surrounding gender is due to those preferences, not the other way around,” wrote Nicole Russell in a 2018 op-ed for Washington Examiner (Lean Right). “To take this a step further, this doesn’t mean men and women don’t struggle with their biological gender — dysphoria is very real — but it doesn’t mean transitioning is healthy or the most helpful reaction to that, or that we should indulge personal claims of gender fluidity.”

This squabble between the left and right on this term reveals how the very same words and phrases can elicit very different feelings and hold very different meanings for people on opposite sides of the political spectrum. This is why we created the AllSides Red Blue Dictionary, where you can get a distilled understanding of how the left and right see the same words differently. Check out our explanations for how the left and right see and feel about the terms sexual orientation, transgender, and more. And of course, be sure to read news across the political spectrum to get the full understanding of controversial events.

Julie Mastrine is the Director of Marketing at AllSides. She has a Lean Right bias.

This piece was reviewed by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias) and Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias)

Image Credit: Flickr/The White House