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)

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