Sexual orientation of person

Status: This standard was approved as a recommended standard on June 13, 2023.


Sexual orientation refers to how a person describes their sexuality. For example, a person may describe their sexuality as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual or pansexual.

Person refers to an individual and is the unit of analysis for most social statistics programs.


Sexual orientation is closely related to two other concepts, sexual attraction and sexual behaviour. Sexual attraction refers to a person's feelings of sexual desire toward other people. Sexual behaviour refers to the sexual activities in which a person engages. While these three concepts are related in the sense that they each represent a different dimension of a person's sexuality, they do not necessarily correspond to each other. Also note that in the context of this standard, sexual orientation is distinct from the concepts of gender and sex at birth.

Research generally describes the developmental process of a person's sexuality as beginning with the recognition of sexual attraction, which can inform a person's sexual behaviour as well as how they describe their sexuality (i.e., their sexual orientation). The development of a person's sexuality continues long past adolescence into adulthood. Changes in a person's sexual attraction or sexual behaviour may take place throughout one's lifetime, which may also influence how they describe their sexuality.

Sexual orientation is a complex and evolving subject for which there is no universally accepted definition. How people define their sexuality and the words that they use to do so are affected by ongoing social change, making sexual orientation a difficult concept to define. Every effort has been made to create a standard that reflects the terminology used internationally, in academic literature, and guided by qualitative testing and consultations with experts, a wide range of stakeholders and members of the general public.

At Statistics Canada, data on sexual orientation are currently only collected from people aged 15 years and older.

Conformity to relevant internationally recognized standards

As of 2023, two national statistical agencies have published statistical standards for sexual orientation: Statistics New Zealand (Stats NZ) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Notwithstanding some minor differences in terminology, Statistics Canada's standard is closely aligned with each of these countries' standards both from a conceptual perspective and in its approach to collecting data on sexual orientation.

Standards from Stats NZ and ABS consider sexual orientation as a multidimensional concept that includes sexual identity (i.e., how a person describes their sexuality), sexual attraction and sexual behaviour. Statistics Canada's standard on sexual orientation has a similar conceptual approach. In this standard, sexual orientation (i.e., how a person describes their sexuality) is presented as a concept that is distinct, but closely related, to the concepts of sexual attraction and sexual behaviour. While Stats NZ and ABS use the term 'sexual identity' to refer to how a person describes their sexuality, Statistics Canada's standard uses the term 'sexual orientation' to refer to the same concept. 'Sexual orientation' is used in this standard as it is the term that is commonly understood by the public and used by the Government of Canada to refer to whether a person is heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, or of another sexual orientation.

From a data collection perspective, Statistics Canada's standard is similar to those from Stats NZ and ABS. These two countries use a question with four response categories for individuals to report their sexual orientation: heterosexual or straight, lesbian or gay, bisexual, and a write-in option.


Relation to previous version

  • Sexual orientation of person June 13, 2023 to current

    This is the current standard.

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