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)

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.