The ‘dickhead’ plate

Francesco Urbini, Testa di Cazzo maiolica dish, 1536

Francesco Urbini, Testa di Cazzo maiolica dish, 1536

Just as it is difficult to understand how ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the depiction of the phallus, so there are challenges to interpreting the meaning behind a remarkable example of Renaissance earthenware: a shallow maiolica dish on which is depicted the head of (most likely) a woman composed entirely of penises. The dish is dated 1536 and is labelled with the mark and initials of Francesco Urbini. The inventiveness of the image (for example, the pierced penis forming the earring) is reminiscent of the later sixteenth-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose speciality was the portrait composed of objects such as fruit, vegetables, fish and books.

A scroll accompanies the head, but at first glance the text is unintelligible. However, an inscription on the reverse of the plate provides the key to deciphering it: ‘El breve dentro voi legerite Come i giudei se intender el vorite’ (‘Read the text like the Jews if you want to understand its meaning’). Like Hebrew, the inscription needs to be read from right to left. The text is thus: ‘OGNI HOMO ME GUARDA COME FOSSE UNA TESTA DE CAZI’ (‘every man looks at me as if I were a head of dicks’).

Even with an understanding of the inscription the intended meaning of the image remains obscure. Whether the artist had a specific individual in mind, whether this is simply playful grotesquery, whether the dish was regarded as humorous or obscene, whether indeed food was ever served off it—all these remain unanswerable questions. If nothing else the dish is evidence that the modern Italian insult of ‘testa di cazzo’, and its direct English equivalent of ‘dickhead’, have long been in existence.

The phallus: ancient and modern

Greek herm

Greek herm, c.520 BCE

Marble and bronze herm of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, from Pompeii

Marble and bronze herm of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, from Pompeii

One of the striking features of ancient Greek and Roman culture is the apparently unembarrassed attitude towards sex. Depictions of the phallus (the erect penis) may illustrate this. To view overt representations of the phallus in modern western culture generally requires accessing hard-core pornography; but in ancient Greece and Rome images of the phallus would have been an everyday sight. Herms—sculptures depicting head and occasionally upper torso on a square plinth from which protruded male genitals—were commonly placed as boundary markers, and they would have been found in the home too. Generally depicting a god (frequently Hermes, a god of fertility and sexual intercourse), but including examples of citizens too, herms were intended to bring luck and fertility, as well as the apotropaic purpose of warding off evil.

Bronze tintinnabulum from Herculaneum; a man struggles with his phallus (in the form of a beast)

Bronze tintinnabulum from Herculaneum; a man struggles with his phallus (in the form of a beast)

Tintinnabulum, depicting gladiator fighting his phallus

Tintinnabulum, depicting gladiator fighting his phallus

Another object with an apotropaic function was the wind chime (tintinnabulum), and often this too assumed a phallic form. Wind chimes likely occupied similar places on boundaries, in gardens, porticoes, shops and houses. In the collection of the British Museum are examples of phallic wind chimes in the form of a winged penis, and a winged animal (possibly a lion); another bronze statuette, probably also a wind chime, is of a naked man, sticking his tongue out while sitting astride two phalluses. Other surviving tintinnabula include examples of struggles with the huge phallus: a gladiator fights his own huge phallus with a sword, while another is engaged in a fight with his penis which has taken the form of a beast.

Priapus in the form of Mercury; fresco from Pompeii

Priapus in the form of Mercury; fresco from Pompeii

The exaggerated nature of the phallus on display in these objects can also be seen in images of the Roman fertility god, Priapus (from whose name the medical condition of priapism—in which the erect penis does not return to its flaccid state—is derived). Excavations in Pompeii have unearthed frescos of Priapus (in one of which he also has attributes of Mercury), indicating that such images would have been found set into the walls of premises, on street corners and on shop signs.

Priapus, Roman god of fertility; fresco from Pompeii

Priapus, Roman god of fertility; fresco from Pompeii

Beyond their functions as lucky charms and protectors against evil and bad fortune, it is difficult from our historical and cultural distance to know how this phallic imagery was understood in antiquity. Were they considered erotic? Or were they looked upon as comic, ridiculous or even grotesque? Answering questions such as these is made more challenging by the inevitable tendency to view these images through modern eyes—and thus to view them loaded with the cultural and symbolic meaning of the phallus in the modern world. We may see in these phalluses the grotesque or the absurd or the aggressively sexual, or we may simply be offended by them—but whether the Greeks and Romans viewed them in this way is unclear.

Penis costume from San Francisco, 2005

Penis costume from San Francisco, 2005

30 St Mary Axe

30 St Mary Axe

It is tempting to think that, at least in respect of the phallus, we are far removed from ancient culture. In modern culture the phallus is generally thought of in two ways: as the subject of a risqué but safe exaggeration and amusement; or as something to be concealed as obscene and threatening. Because the phallus is generally restricted to the dark, pornographic margins of our culture, we may conclude that its open display in antiquity marks out ancient Greece and Rome as phallocentric, and hence radically different from our own culture.

But would that conclusion be right? A walk through most major cities may raise doubts. Stroll through London and we observe: the thousands of men wearing ties; Nelson’s column; 30 St Mary Axe; the Shard. Modern culture might not represent the phallus in as overt way as the Greeks and Romans did, but it may be just as phallocentric.

Sex, gender, and the two-spirit

If you are biologically male does that mean that you are a man? And if your biological sex is female does that make you a woman? Most people would unhesitatingly answer yes to both questions. But are they right to do so? Perhaps the key question is this: does an individual’s (biological) sex determine that individual’s gender?

Trying to answer that question inevitably leads into hotly-contested scientific, political and social debates—a lot rides on how we view the relationship between sex and gender. Gender essentialists (or determinists) maintain that fundamental differences between the biological sexes are responsible for the gender differences between men and woman: women are wired to like pink, are more nurturing, more passive, less spatially aware, etc.; men are wired to prefer blue, are less emotionally aware, more aggressive, better at reading maps, etc. Whether the different wiring between men and women is biological or evolutionary is less significant than the broader point essentialists make: men and women are different in ways that simply cannot be got around. And from that potentially follows arguments as to why women are better suited for, say, caring professions or parenthood, while men make, say, more natural engineers or leaders. Although not an inevitable consequence of gender essentialism, the theory has proved convenient to those who wish to justify ‘traditional’ gender roles and, in some cases, gender inequality.

Social constructionists, on the other hand, argue that gender is socially and culturally constructed rather than biologically determined. The overwhelming majority of gender differences, in this view, have nothing to do with biology and a lot to do with social and cultural influences: upbringing, family, social conventions, media, and so on. Are women biologically wired for parenthood in ways that men are not? No, answer constructionists: if we give baby dolls as presents to girls and toy cars as presents to boys, if advertising, films and television tend to present women as homemakers and men in roles of action out in the world, then men and women are being socially and culturally conditioned to assume certain roles which are then mistakenly thought to be natural.

The debate may well elude a definitive verdict. For example, the question of why girls ‘prefer’ pink and boys blue has received some attention in recent years, with evolutionary reasons suggested as an explanation: our female ancestors needed to be proficient at gathering berries; men were hunting under blue skies. This does not account, however, for the conventional belief a century ago that pink was a more suitable colour for boys and blue for girls. Nor does it account for the findings of other research suggesting no colour preference can be detected in children under the age of two.

As Natasha Walter has pointed out in a thoughtful critique of essentialism in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (London: Virago, 2010)—within the context of her wider and intelligent analysis of and attack on the pervasiveness of sexism—what is particularly interesting about the debate is the way the media tend to seize on evidence that lends support to the essentialist argument, while largely ignoring research supporting the constructionist position. The mainstream and popular media (not, of course, immune to sexism—Page 3 of The Sun being only the most egregious example—and, like the worlds of politics and science, largely male-dominated) may well have too much invested in a theory of fundamental, essentialist gender differences to countenance any other possibility. And perhaps it is for this reason that more widely it is often regarded as simple ‘common sense’ that men and women, whether through differently-wired brains or hormonal differences, are fundamentally different, even to the point that they begin to resemble alien species, as the title of John Gray’s best-selling and specious Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (1992) has suggested. Gray’s book and his many follow-ups are almost certainly the best-known and most popular example of gender essentialism.


We-Wa, a Zuni two-spirit, weaving

It may be ‘common sense’ to think in terms of binary categories—male/female, men/women, masculinity/femininity—and to assume that the first of those categories (biological sex) determines the other categories, but that does not make it right. Our attachment to binary categories may reflect not the ‘truth’ but rather a society for whom there is an investment in such a form of categorization. A comparison with other societies may raise doubts about these ‘common sense’ notions. In particular, native American culture, at least prior to much of its obliteration, challenges modern, western assumptions about sex and gender. Not only did gender roles within many tribes run counter to the division of the sexes familiar to European settlers, but in the figure of the two-spirit, found in the majority of tribes, was embodied an even more radical departure from traditional western thinking about sex and gender.

The two-spirit (also known as the berdache, although this term has increasingly fallen into disfavour) was an individual who combined the biological characteristics of one sex with the ‘spirit’ of the other. Thus, a male two-spirit had male biological characteristics but was considered to have the spirit of a woman; a female two-spirit had female biological characteristics but was considered to have the spirit of a man.

One way of thinking about the two-spirit is either as a woman within the body of a man, or a man within the body of a woman. In traditional western thinking about sex and gender the word ‘trapped’ is often applied to this notion, as if something has gone wrong with nature: an individual has been born into a body with the wrong biological characteristics. Gender identity disorder, or gender dysphoria, is a specific diagnosis according to the 5th edition of the standard reference work, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013). Gender reassignment, a medical process designed to align biological sex with an individual’s gender, for all its potential value to the life experience of those who undergo it, nevertheless confirms the sense that a misalignment of sex and gender is problematic. Both transgenderism and transsexualism remain the focus of prejudice and misunderstanding.


Squaw Jim (1854-1929; a two-spirit from the Crow Nation) and his Squaw

Another way of thinking about the two-spirited individual is in terms of a third, or even fourth, gender, upsetting traditional binary notions about sex and gender. One of the striking features of native American culture is that the two-spirit seems not to have been thought of as ‘unnatural’ or as a deviation from the norm. Male two-spirit (i.e. biologically male but with a female spirit) would wear women’s clothes and perform female roles; female two-spirit would wear men’s clothes and perform male roles. In both cases there was full acceptance within the tribe without any prejudice. Moreover, the two-spirited individual often occupied honoured positions within their tribe: as, for example, healers, shamans, specialist craftspeople, and the focus of ceremonial dances. It is also worth noting that two-spirit might have relationships with either sex. Thus, for example, a male two-spirit may marry a man or a woman, but it would be inappropriate to apply the western (binary) concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality in this context: the concepts make little sense within the more fluid understanding of sex and gender within native American culture.

dance to the berdache

George Catlin, Dance to the Berdache, 19th century

The two-spirit suggests that native American culture had concepts of biological sex, gender and sexual relations radically different from those within Euro-American culture. Indeed, for European settlers they were typically regarded as evidence of the abnormality, perversity and homosexuality of native Americans, and hence ran counter to Euro-American morality and laws. Subject to moral and legal impositions, as well as native American acculturation (the process of one culture changing, and adopting the thought, customs and institutions of another culture) stemming from these impositions, the two-spirit gradually became an individual not to be honoured but to be deemed unworthy of respect, even to be despised.

Although the concept of the two-spirit may raise questions about the supposed ‘truth’ of the binary categories familiar within western culture, it does not itself constitute an alternative ‘truth’. The two-spirit may best be seen as an example of the way sex and gender are socially and culturally constructed. It may well be that a scientific truth of sex and gender will forever remain elusive, since the way these concepts are thought about are deeply entangled within their social and cultural context.

Further reading

Sabine Lang, Men as Women, Women as Men: Changing Gender in Native American Cultures, trans. by John L. Vantine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998)

Beatrice Medicine, ‘Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories’, Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 3.2 (2002)

Walter L. Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Cultures (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986)

Bleeding noses and fellatio: the Sambia and sexuality

The Sambia are a people inhabiting remote Papua New Guinea. Little known until the 1970s, they have since become the subject of extensive study by the American anthropologist Gilbert Herdt. One of the most striking features of Sambia society is its sexual culture, particularly the sexual practices during the life-cycle of male tribal members.


Sambia nose-bleeding ritual

For his first few years of life a Sambia boy is brought up by his mother within the family home. Then, at the age of about seven, he is separated from his mother and taken deep into the forest to an all-male hut. There he will live for the next twelve to fifteen years, within an exclusive all-male society, having no contact at all with women. Several initiation rites occur within this period. Upon arrival in the male community, the young newcomer has canes forced up his nose to induce bleeding. In addition, for the next few years until he reaches puberty, the boy has to perform oral sex on older males. Once he has reached puberty (about the age of thirteen) the boy is tied to a tree, beaten, and once again nose-bled with canes. The first stage in his life within the all-male community is now complete.

The second stage involves a role reversal: as one of the older males in the community he is now fellated by the younger males. During these years he is also receiving instruction in the secrets of sexual intercourse with women, a necessary preparation for him taking a wife. At about the age of twenty he leaves the all-male society to return to the village and marry; his wife, who will usually be at the age where she has begun menstruating, has usually been arranged for him by his father or a tribal elder within the village.

Sexual relations between the man and his wife begin with the husband orally inseminating his wife. Other ritualistic aspects characterize the sex between man and wife: when his wife is menstruating, her husband will bleed his own nose; during intercourse he will push mint leaves up his nose and chew on bark; he will refrain from penetrating too deeply during sex; and after sex he will take a mud bath. Once his wife has conceived the man will refrain from sexual relations with her until the baby has weaned—generally for several years. He may have other wives to attend to during this time.

Fatherhood completes the crucial lifecycle transition from boy to man in Sambia society—full rights of manhood within the tribe are assumed upon becoming a father. The Sambia male will remain in his family home but will have little involvement in the domestic life of his family; most of his time will be spent in the company of other men. However, from the point of fatherhood his sexual relations will be exclusively with his wife or wives.

The practice of ritualized homosexual relations is not unique to the Sambia. It can also be found in other groups across Melanesia, including another tribe from Papua New Guinea, the Etoro (or Edolo) people. Among the Etoro homosexual relations apparently continue after a man has commenced sexual relations with his wife.

To many westerners this process is likely to seem bizarre or ‘weird’. It may well defy comprehension and possibly evokes feelings of disgust and moral shock—after all, the practices include what, to western eyes, would be considered paedophilia, (enforced) homosexuality and physical assault, all occurring within an intensely patriarchal society. How might the gulf of understanding be bridged?

It is important to grasp Sambia sexual practices within the context of the Sambia belief system. Central to Sambia beliefs is the notion that males and masculinity are superior to females and femininity. In addition, there are contrasting ideas of the reproductive potential of the two sexes. Female Sambia are considered to have full procreative power at the onset of menstruation; male Sambia, on the other hand, have an imperfect, shrivelled procreative power until such time as they have achieved masculinity. This masculinity has nothing to do with biological puberty; rather it is something that is attained several years after the onset of puberty and is realized in fatherhood and in the possession of a warrior spirit.

But how is masculinity to be acquired? By ingesting semen. In Sambia culture, semen is regarded as having vital powers, a life-giving spirit; only by consuming sufficient quantities of it through ritualized fellatio is a boy able to make the transition to manhood. The power of semen is also the reason why wives must fellate their husbands, since the Sambia believe the ingested semen will be transformed into breastmilk. In effect, therefore, the infant at the breast is consuming semen and its vital powers. Furthermore, it is notable that neither the practice nor even the concept of masturbation appears to exist in Sambia society, ensuring that the life-giving resource is not ‘wasted’.


One of the many studies by the anthropologist and expert on the Sambia, Gilbert Herdt

The path to masculinity is not, however, simply about ingesting the vital spirits contained within semen. Crucial to the journey is avoidance of female impurities. This is why male Sambia spend their entire boyhood and adolescence apart from women, and why it is considered necessary for them to receive instruction in the secrets of sexual intercourse with women. Purification and defence against the impurities of the female also underpin the ritualized aspects of male-female intercourse. Nose-bleeding and the mud bath are purifying acts; the use of mint leaves and bark during intercourse is intended to ward off the odour of female genitalia; and the avoidance of deep penetration during sex reflects the deep and persistent concern for male Sambia to avoid the debilitating, life-sapping effects of female impurity.

The Sambia mental universe is undoubtedly a long way removed from most western belief systems. Nevertheless, it constitutes a coherent set of ideas by which Sambia sexual practices can be explained. Those practices make sense given the beliefs of those who perform them. What makes less sense is an attempt to understand the practices in relation to western notions of sexuality. Certainly it is tempting to describe Sambia sexual culture, in terms familiar to western observers, as consisting (for men) of two stages: a homosexual stage until adulthood, and then an enduring heterosexual stage. But are we right to do so? And beyond that, what might we learn from studying the Sambia?

The problem with trying to understand Sambia sexual practices in western terms is that sex has a different place and role in Sambia society than it does in the West. The procreative requirement for sexual intercourse is, of course, shared, but the social and cultural meaning of sex differs markedly between western and Sambia societies. What is most striking about Sambia sexual practices is how closely related they are to social relationships rather than individual preferences. For the Sambia, the organization of society—rooted in ideas of an exclusively male warrior mentality, male superiority over female, the hierarchy of age, and the elevated social status that comes from fatherhood—shapes sexual practices. As Herdt has commented:

Sambia cultural ontology privileges social relationships over individuals, the position of the inseminator over the recipient, and men over women… Sexuality [among the Sambia] is always an expression of the structure of particular relationships across time: in the case of the same sex, it is usually casual [‘growth’ and ‘play’] and nonexclusive; in marital relationships it is usually intense [‘work’] and exclusive. (Gilbert Herdt, ‘Representations of Homosexuality: An Essay on Cultural Ontology and Historical Comparison, Part II’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1 (1991), p. 612.)

In the West the connection between social relations and sex is more likely to be seen as working in the opposite way. Whereas for the Sambia social relations shape sexuality, in the West sexuality shapes social relations. The sexual choices made in the West (marriage, monogamy, multiple partners, same-sex or opposite-sex relations, etc.) are usually thought to stem from individual sexual identity. This is because modern, western culture has thought of sexuality as an essential feature of an individual’s identity. Western thought predominantly takes an object-relations approach to sex: following Freud, sexual drive is to be understood in terms of an individual subject desiring an object (e.g. in relation to heterosexuality, one individual desiring another of the opposite sex). For the Sambia, however, sexual practices are organized not by a subject/object analysis of erotic desire but by life-stage and social position.

If we apply western ideas of sexuality to the Sambia then we are likely to view their sexual practices as both abusive, for their denial of individual freedom and choice, and as downright bizarre for failing to conform to established ideas of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Clearly the Sambia engage in a range of homosexual and heterosexual acts in the sense that sex takes place between both members of the same sex and members of the opposite sex. What seems odd (to western minds) is their practice of restricting these acts to particular life stages—odd, because homosexuality and heterosexuality are usually thought to refer to core features of individual identity, not to life stages or ritualized acts. But by seeing Sambia sexual practices in their own culturally and socially specific context—and setting aside familiar, western ideas of homosexuality and heterosexuality—it is possible to regard these practices as making complete sense.

The sexual practices of the Sambia challenge essentialist ideas about sex and sexuality. For many people, it would seem to be both natural and universally true that sex can be understood as an individual’s erotic desire for an object; and, furthermore, that erotic desire stems from an equally natural and universally true inner sexuality (or sexual orientation). The sexual culture of the Sambia suggests, however, that sexual thought, feeling and behaviour—far from following supposed biological truths that are universal and unvaried across time and culture—are in fact shaped by the society and culture in which they occur and hence are socially and culturally varied.

It is not necessary to think highly of Sambia sexual culture to learn from it that the West is not in possession of the ‘truth’ about sexuality—and, indeed, that there may be no single truth about sexuality in the first place.

Further reading (all the following are by Gilbert Herdt)

Guardians of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity (New York, 1981)

Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea (Berkeley, 1982)

Sambia Sexual Cultures: Essays from the Field (Chicago, 1999)

(ed.) Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (1993)

‘Representations of Homosexuality: An Essay on Cultural Ontology and Historical Comparison, Part I’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1 (1991), pp. 481-504

‘Representations of Homosexuality: An Essay on Cultural Ontology and Historical Comparison, Part II’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1 (1991), pp. 603-32

‘Notes and Queries on Sexual Excitement in Sambia Culture’, Etnofoor, 7 (1994), pp. 25-41

The construction of sexuality

There are sexual acts, and there is sexuality. Sexuality is the term we use to give meaning to the sexual acts. It concerns the desires, choices, behaviour, feelings and thought that attach to the sexual acts we engage in. The variety of human sexual behaviour and erotic desires ensures that sexuality is invariably complex and will vary considerably from individual to individual, but for most people sexuality is understood according to a straightforward distinction, commonly expressed in terms of sexual orientation, between homosexuality and heterosexuality—gay or straight.*

Interesting questions can be asked about sexuality. To what extent is an individual’s sexuality fixed? Can sexuality change or be altered? Why is sexuality considered an important part of an individual’s identity? What have sexual acts got to do with sexuality? What is the relationship between sexuality and morality? Is sexuality biologically determined, or is it socially and culturally constructed?

Historians are particularly concerned with the last of these questions—but answers to the other questions follow from dealing with it. The issue concerns whether we take an essentialist or a constructionist view of sexuality. According to an essentialist view, sexuality is a fixed, essential part of human nature. Humans are ‘wired’ in ways which determine their sexuality. Whether that wiring is the result of, for example, genetic or hormonal factors, the key point is that sexuality can be explained according to biological and evolutionary causes. An essentialist would maintain the following when considering sexuality: biological factors determine whether an individual is heterosexual or homosexual; heterosexuality and homosexuality are, therefore, two distinct categories and individuals will belong to one or the other; an individual’s sexuality, because it stems from biological factors, is fixed and will not vary over the course of that person’s lifetime; and because there is a biological foundation to sexuality, there will be no cultural or historical variation of these essences (i.e. homosexuality and heterosexuality exist in all cultures and at all times).

However, several criticisms can be levelled at the essentialist model. First, no biological factors determining sexuality have ever convincingly been identified. Second, there is extensive historical and anthropological evidence for widely different understandings of sexuality, raising questions over the existence of essences. Third, there is a powerful alternative model of sexuality: constructionism.

Constructionism is a social and cultural theory, underpinned by some general principles: humans typically order their experience of reality; their sense of that ordered reality is expressed through language; language involves social interaction, and hence involves sharing and shaping the ordered way in which humans perceive reality; this sharing tends to become institutionalized so that common and predictable forms of behaviour arise which facilitate social activity; social expectations and assumptions follow from this institutionalization, and means of social control (both explicit and tacit) develop to ensure its perpetuation. In short, we construct our view of reality.

According to constructionists, therefore, sexuality is not a universal essence, unvarying over time and across cultures, but is socially and culturally constructed. Most constructionists accept that all humans innately have a sex drive; but how that sex drive is channelled stems from culture rather than biology. We cannot divorce sex from the society and culture in which it is performed, thought about, spoken about and felt. Language, culture, social organization and norms, moral and legal codes, traditions—all of these shape how we behave, interact, think and even feel.

An example of how essentialists and constructionists may disagree can be considered in relation to sexual attraction. An essentialist would say something like this: human males are biologically programmed to select sexual mates based on health and fertility, since they wish to ensure the survival and flourishing of their offspring; hence they are programmed to select young women who have physical indicators of good health; as a result they generally desire women with such things as a good hair, skin and figure, all signs of good health. A constructionist might say that it is obvious people choose to mate with someone they find attractive, but precisely what is considered attractive varies across time and cultures. Not all cultures, for example, regard slim women as attractive. In some cultures non-physical features (social status, wealth, intelligence, personality) may have a high value attached to them. Therefore, in this constructionist view, sexual attraction is historically and culturally specific; it is not universal and unvarying.

In relation to sexuality, the constructionist view entails that neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality can be said to exist in all cultures and at all times. Most people tend to think of heterosexuality and homosexuality as ‘natural’ categories; the constructionist, however, maintains that both have been constructed within a specific culture and society. This is not to say that there have not always existed what may be termed ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ acts—as far as we can tell, such acts are common across all times and cultures. But sexual acts are not the same as sexuality. By way of illustration, an extremely brief and simplified historical model of this constructionist theory might go something like this (and it is not to be taken as historical fact, rather as an illustration of how a constructionist view of sexuality might work):

In the distant past there was no sexuality. People had sex and with a wide range of partners, including same-sex partners. Some of those sex acts met with social disapproval and occasionally punishment; others were deemed socially acceptable; but nobody thought to make the leap from the acts themselves to a system of categorizing as sexual types the people who engaged in those acts. Gradually, however, social and intellectual changes led to a growing interest in ordering the understanding of sex. Sex became an increased object of study, thought and discourse, and attempts were made to classify and, indeed, to regulate and control sexual behaviour. Politicians, moralists, writers, commentators, researchers and thinkers began to think of the acts no longer as simply acts but as signs of particular sexual types. A proliferation of books and studies began to classify people according to different sexualities. As these ideas took hold, so they became reinforced through society and culture—through, for example, media, popular literature and other cultural forms, and psychological and scientific writings. Individuals began to internalize these categories, so that they came to see themselves as belonging to one or another category. This process of social and cultural reinforcement of these new categories, alongside their internalization, shaped behaviour, thought and feelings. Individuals began to behave, think and feel in ways that fitted categories that had been constructed. The perpetuation of these categories led to their entrenchment and to the belief that the categories were natural and internal to individuals rather than (what they in fact were) constructed and external.

One of the most famous constructionist views on sexuality is that of Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality. According to Foucault, sexuality was a nineteenth-century construction. For example, in his (much debated) view, it was only in the nineteenth century that the homosexual emerged as a specific type:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature… Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. by Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 1979), p. 43.)

The essentialist versus constructionist debate is unlikely to be resolved definitively one way or the other; and there are various positions within each side of the argument which add complexity to the issue. But the debate is important, and not just to the way we think about the science and history of sex. It is relevant to the way we think about sex in our lives and in our society today: it relates to questions about what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ about sexual behaviour; to the issue of moral and social regulation of sexual behaviour; to concepts of repression and liberation of sexual behaviour; and to our sense of our own sexual desires, thoughts and behaviour.

Some people recoil at the idea of categorizations; others revel in being able to identify with the larger group that categorization creates. But we could take a step back and question whether the categories with which we are so familiar even really exist.

*Bisexuality could, of course, also be added. In the following discussion it would be perfectly possible to include bisexuality; however, in the interests of simplicity I have chosen to focus on the most straightforward distinction, that between heterosexuality and homosexuality. If anything, the existence of bisexual behaviour probably weakens the essentialist position since it suggests the possibility of a fluid spectrum of sexual desires which resists the type of neat categorizations typical of the essentialist argument.

Further reading

John D. DeLamater and Janet Shibley Hyde, ‘Essentialism vs. Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality’, Journal of Sex Research, 35 (1998), pp. 10-18

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. by Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 1979)

Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality, 3rd edn (Oxford: Routledge, 2010; first published 1986)

Why do humans have sex?

Humans have sex in order to reproduce, but hardly anyone would say that this is the only reason for it. What might be the other reasons? Most people would say that pleasure is an important motivation. Relieving sexual tension is another obvious reason. So we’re up to three, all of which concern physical and biological features of sex. Clearly, however, sex is about more than just the physical; there are emotional and psychological factors at work too. It is not hard, therefore, to think of some other likely reasons: to express love; to affirm a bond; to please a partner; to boost one’s own confidence. The more we think about the question, the more we are likely to find the number of reasons growing. For example, people have sex to make money, or to gain experience, or to hurt somebody, or to get revenge, or because they were coerced, or because they were simply bored.

Indeed, the number of reasons why humans have sex is almost certainly much higher than would initially be assumed—237 according to recent research by two American psychologists, Cindy Meston and David Buss, based on studies conducted at the University of Texas. The list of reasons makes for fascinating reading. Alongside the common reasons—pleasure and reproduction, for example—are many others that reveal just how psychologically complex sex is. Among them are:

‘I wanted to intensify my relationship’; ‘I wanted to feel young’; ‘I was drunk’; ‘My regular partner is “boring”, so I had sex with someone else’; ‘I wanted to break up another’s relationship’; ‘I wanted to burn calories’; ‘I wanted to get rid of a headache’; ‘I wanted to welcome someone home’; ‘I wanted to get a promotion’; ‘I wanted to say “I’m sorry”’; ‘I wanted to get the most out of life’; ‘The person was famous and I wanted to be able to say I had sex with him/her’; ‘I was married and you’re supposed to’; ‘I wanted to increase the number of sex partners I had experienced’; ‘I wanted to defy my parents’; ‘I wanted to give someone else a sexually transmitted disease’; ‘Because of a bet’; ‘I wanted to punish myself’; ‘I didn’t know how to say “no”’; ‘Everyone else was having sex’; ‘It’s considered “taboo” by society’; ‘I wanted to “gain control” of the person’; ‘I wanted to feel closer to God’.

Meston and Buss organized the 237 reasons into four large factors and thirteen subfactors: physical reasons (stress reduction, pleasure, physical desirability, experience seeking); goal attainment (resources, social status, revenge, utilitarian); emotional (love and commitment, expression); and insecurity (self-esteem boost, duty/pressure, mate guarding). They also correlated the reasons with psychometric data of the participants in the studies in order to ascertain differences, such as between men and women, in the expressed reasons for having sex. For example, their findings seemed to support some gender stereotypes: men were more likely to state physical attractiveness, opportunity and experience-seeking as reasons; women were more likely to express emotional motivations for having sex. On the other hand, some traditional assumptions were contradicted: Meston and Buss found that more men than women had utilitarian reasons for sex, such as ‘to change the topic of conversation’, ‘to get a favour from someone’, or ‘to improve my sexual skills’, challenging the stereotype that women are more likely to use sex to obtain favours or special treatment.

The study is therefore valuable as evidence for the psychological complexity of human sexual behaviour. It supports the view that humans adopt various sexual and mating strategies, encompassing long-term (e.g. romantic partnerships), short-term (e.g. casual sex) and extra-pair mating. Within these strategies any one of the factors and subfactors may provide reasons to have sex.

Perhaps the greatest value of the study for historians of sex is the recognition by Meston and Buss that sex occurs within a social and cultural context, i.e. it cannot be viewed solely as an act between two (or more) individuals. As they state:

[The] broader social and cultural context [has] implications for prestige, status, and reputation. Having sex with a high status individual, for example, might raise a person’s status within the group. Within some groups, having sex with numerous partners might enhance a person’s reputation, providing the motivational impetus for initiating sex. Sex, of course, can sometimes damage a person’s status and reputation, providing reasons for avoiding it or concealing it from others in the group. In sum, because sex has consequences for status and reputation that can act as incentives (or deterrents), a person might be motivated to have sex for social reasons that have nothing to do with the personal relationship within which it occurs. (p. 478)

Society and culture change over time; hence the social and cultural context of sexual activity also changes over time. Different notions of social prestige, status and reputation can be found in, for example, ancient Greece, seventeenth-century England and twenty-first century America. Similarly, the cultural understanding of marriage, gender relations, love and reproduction varies widely over time and place. It is likely, therefore, that sexual motivations and behaviour has also varied widely in accordance with the different societies and cultures within which they occur.

The reasons for having sex are multifaceted and rarely straightforward. The psychological study of sex tends to confirm this. As a complex area of human behaviour there are clearly good reasons why historians should study it. Moreover, by studying sex in history our understanding of this behaviour—the way it may vary, for example, according to age, gender, social status, or cultural background—will almost certainly increase.

Further reading

Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, ‘Why Humans Have Sex’, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36 (2007), pp. 477-507

Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between) (London: Vintage, 2009)

Is sex a suitable historical subject?

Should historians study the history sex? For many people it is not immediately obvious that sex is an appropriate historical subject. Several reasons might be raised against it. Addressing such objections is a way of sharpening our understanding of just why sex is a valid and important topic for historical consideration. I will pose three potential objections and my response to each of them.

1. Sex belongs to biology rather than history

The assumptions lying behind this objection are: (1) sex is an unchanging biological human characteristic; (2) historians deal above all with change over time. Although it might be acknowledged that sex is an essential feature of humanity (for without it there would be no human beings), from an historian’s point of view it is uninteresting since it is a biological constant: sex and human reproduction remain fundamentally the same acts and processes today as they have done for many millennia and hence there is little to be learnt about sex by studying it in history.

The problem with this argument is that it is founded on an extremely narrow understanding of what sex is. Manifestly sex is crucial to human reproduction, but to consider sex solely in terms of its reproductive role would be absurdly reductionist. Humans have sex for many reasons: pleasure and attraction are examples of physical reasons; there are emotional motivations such as to strengthen the bonds of a relationship or to affirm love; there are reasons associated with power, either expressing it, exerting it or gaining it; sex may amount to a transaction, for example as a means to gain money, a job, experience, confidence, status, reputation or prestige; sex may be used to retaliate against someone, to punish somebody, to gain revenge, or to stake a claim over someone; it may result from social pressure, emotional or physical coercion, boredom, or a wish to have a spiritual experience. In short, human sexual behaviour stems from various and highly complex factors, and these are not limited to biology and psychology—they also encompass social and cultural factors. (Further consideration of the reasons why humans have sex can be found here.)

Sex is (typically) an act performed alone or between two or more individuals, but it is always occurring within a social and cultural context. Hence it is loaded with social and cultural meaning. To masturbate, for example, is to engage in an act about which there is a large body of commentary over such things as its supposed relationship to individual sexual and psychological health or its wider social and cultural perception. Society and culture change over time, and hence the meaning attached to human sexual behaviour, and indeed the behaviour itself, also changes. For example, the social acceptability of same-sex acts or casual sex varies according to time and place; at certain points in history such acts were viewed as sinful and those committing them subject to punishment, whereas at other points they may be socially acceptable (although stigma may still attach to them). Layers of meaning accompany sex—sex is never simply a biological necessity, any more than eating can be reduced solely to a biological necessity (restaurants, dinner parties, seating arrangements at the dinner table, etiquette, the use of cutlery, recipe books, cookery programmes, dieting, feasting, fasting, forbidden foods—these are just some of the signifiers of social and cultural meaning that accompany the basic necessity that humans need to eat). And, as examples of how both eating and sex may constitute complex behaviour and strategy, it may be remarked that paying for an expensive meal may a strategic means to have sex; or sex may be the strategic route to receive an expensive meal.

The recognition that sex is a complex form of human behaviour, that it always occurs within a specific social and cultural context and that it is loaded with social and cultural meaning opens the way to its historical study. Historians concern themselves with all forms of human behaviour and all human groups (long gone are the days when history was primarily about kings, queens, wars and high politics). And we are particularly interested in the study of society and culture, social change and cultural change. Various historical questions arise from these concerns when considering sex. Above all, we may ask what the impact on sexual behaviour has been by, among other things: changing technology, the emergence of mass culture, urbanization, improvements to medical care, increased knowledge about sexual diseases, the decline of the Church, increased literacy, the advent of contraception, feminism, multiculturalism, capitalism, and widening geographical and social mobility.

The multifaceted social and cultural meaning attached to sex suggests that sex is more than just an act. It is also thought; indeed, most sex takes place in the head, and far more time is spent thinking about sex than engaged in its act. The way we think about and reflect upon sex is shaped by various factors: social background and upbringing, education, morality, law, media, culture, peer groups, to name a few. Again, all these are subject to historical change, and hence the way humans think about sex is also subject to historical change.

To regard sex as a biological (or psychological) constant is clearly to take an excessively limited view of it. Indeed it may be the case that by far the most interesting and useful study of sex is sociological and historical.

2. There is insufficient evidence for sex to be the subject of historical inquiry

There are clearly obstacles to understanding sexual behaviour: most sex is private, and few people leave any record of their sexual behaviour beyond the obvious evidence of offspring. For students of modern (above all, twentieth-century) sexual behaviour the situation is actually very promising: sex has been the subject of extensive social, anthropological and psychological research over the past century (examples include the Kinsey Reports on male and female sexual behaviour (1948 and 1953) or the various reports of Shere Hite). Furthermore, in the relatively more ‘open’ culture of the contemporary world, it is not hard to find numerous frank accounts of sexual behaviour in diaries, memoirs, media interviews, etc.

For the historian interested in pre-twentieth-century sex, however, there are obvious difficulties. The occasional diary or memoir recording sexual behaviour is the extremely rare exception, and as such is of questionable value as evidence typifying the wider society from which it comes. In most cases historians lack any direct evidence of the behaviour, thought or feelings of the overwhelming majority of people who lived in the past. But this is not an unusual problem confronting the historian; if historians were deterred by lack of direct evidence then much of the past would remain forever a blank.

There are in fact various sources the historian may consult. In addition to the occasional diary, letter or biography, evidence of sexual behaviour can be found in the records of both secular and ecclesiastical courts. Other administrative documents (such as parish records in England) provide evidence for marriages and baptisms, and can often help in our knowledge of the prevalence of pre-marital sex. Arguably richer evidence can be found when we turn to understanding in greater depth the social and cultural meaning of sex. Images such as prints and paintings, as well as other cultural artefacts, can be interpreted as expressions of the values and beliefs about sex; so too literary texts, moral and legal treatises, and theological and philosophical works. The cultural and intellectual historian is well-versed in the interdisciplinary use of a variety of evidence in order to reconstruct the mentalities, assumptions, value- and belief-systems of the past.

Sex is no more hampered by a lack of evidence than many other historical topics; indeed, the fact that sex is such an essential and universal aspect of human behaviour means that there are probably more evidential traces of sexual behaviour, and more examples of thought about and representation of sex, than is the case for many other subjects.

3. Sex is an indelicate subject

Undoubtedly many people find sex an embarrassing or uncomfortable subject. It would have occurred to very few people before the mid twentieth century that sex might be an appropriate topic of historical inquiry; most scholars would have considered sex to be an indecent focus of intellectual inquiry. That in itself raises interesting historical questions: why was sex regarded as a distasteful subject by historians (and indeed by most other scholars)? And why are courses on the history of sex now to be found in most history departments? What has brought about this striking shift in attitudes?

However, for those who do regard sex as an indelicate subject and feel that an apology needs to accompany its study, it is worth quoting an aphorism from Francis Bacon’s Novum organum (1620), a philosophical treatise concerned with how knowledge and understanding can be advanced:

But with reference to the vileness or even the ugliness of things, which (as Pliny says) must be brought in with an apology, such things must be taken into natural history no less than the finest and most precious. For natural history is not thereby defiled. For the Sun enters sewers as much as palaces but still stays clean. Besides, I erect and dedicate no Capitoline pyramid to human pride, but lay in the human intellect the foundations of a sacred shrine to the pattern of the world. And that is the pattern I follow; for what is worthy of existence is worthy of knowledge which is the image of existence, and things vile subsist as much as fine ones do. Indeed, just as the finest perfumes are sometimes produced from putrid substances such as musk and civet, so too are splendid light and information sometimes given off by vile and sordid instances. But that is quite enough of that, since this kind of squeamishness is manifestly childish and effeminate. (I.120; trans. by Graham Rees)

Fortunately we live in an age in which few people demand such an apologetic justification for studying sex.