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Heterosexuality is a sexual identity in which sexual and erotic desires are directed exclusively toward members of the opposite sex. The term heterosexuality emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century in the context of the rapidly expanding field of sexology: the medical, psychological, and social study of sex. The origin of the term is closely linked to the pathologizing of sex that occurred during that period; the concept of heterosexuality came into being largely to distinguish the perversion of homosexuality (also known as sexual inversion or the contrary sexual instinct) from other-directed sexuality. In its early usage the word heterosexuality often was allied with notions of perversion both by its close association with abnormal sexuality and by its frequent use to denote unnatural, or nonprocreative, sexual inclinations. By the 1889 publication of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, along with its influential 1892 English translation, however, heterosexual often was used also to connote normal sexuality, thus setting up a heteronormative understanding of human sexuality that persists today.

Although the term heterosexuality has been dated with some precision; tracing the concept of heterosexuality in the genealogy of human sexuality has been much more difficult. Because heterosexual union requires the coming together of two differently sexed biological bodies and because human procreation depends on the mating of those bodies, the study of heterosexuality has been complicated by the tendency to consider heterosexuality a natural biological fact rather than a cultural or historical construction.

Beginning in the 1970s, most notably with Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality (1976), gay and lesbian historians began interrogating the naturalness of human heterosexual desire, often as part of a project of recuperating an alternative queer history. Foucault's argument that human sexuality is a culturally constructed concept that emerged from the discourse of the nineteenth century was crucial to the project of rethinking heterosexuality as a cultural specific rather than a biological fact. Debates raged, however, about whether sexuality is completely constructed or whether modern sexual identities were visible in other forms in earlier epochs. Thus social constructionists argued that before the emergence of homosexuality and heterosexuality in the nineteenth century, sex was understood in terms of the type of sexual act performed rather than in terms of sexual identity. A sodomite in earlier times was a person who committed a criminal sexual act; after the nineteenth century a sodomite was a person whose very identity was bound up in an exclusive desire for sexual relations with other men.

Researchers with a more essentialist outlook argued that although homosexuality might have been understood differently, identifiable subcultures of men who had sex with other men and who constructed their sexual identities around certain types of clothing, manners, and behaviors have existed throughout history. Those cultures, according to some, prove the prior existence of identities (such as homosexuality and heterosexuality) structured around the choice of sexual object.

Social constructionists have critiqued more essentialist theories on the grounds that they unfairly impose a modern understanding of sexuality on a sometimes remote past. Social constructionism, however, has been criticized for its tendency to regard the physical body as a blank slate on which culturally specific notions of biology, sex, and gender are constructed. In some cases this has led to a modified social constructionism that envisions the physical body as limiting the possibilities for social constructions of sexuality.

In the 1980s and 1990s many studies of sexuality concerned its imbrications in constructions of gender and gender relations. For feminist and queer scholars the ways in which heterosexuality structures, informs, and legitimates genders norms has been problematic and thus has been a focus of attention. Until recently those studies tended to focus on challenges to heteronormativity, such as alternative sexualities and the explosion of gender norms. Increasing attention, however, has been paid to the question of heterosexuality itself. Recent scholars have begun to examine the means by which the assumption of heterosexuality has rendered it monolithic and invisible. Those scholars have studied the degree to which the heterosexual ideal underlies social structures and institutions, public policy, power structures, and matrices of personal identity.


Sexuality in Antiquity

The prevalence of male sexual relationships in ancient Greece and Rome has been held up as evidence for the long history of homosexuality. Some researchers have highlighted the ways in which certain subcultures constructed a social identity that was based on a sexual object, arguing that such subcultures are proof of Greek and Roman analogues to the modern notion of homosexuality. Others, however, have contended that same-sex relationships in antiquity were conducted as a performance of social dominance: What was important was not the choice of sexual partner but the act that was performed. Penetration was understood as an assertion of power that was performed by an adult male citizen. To be penetrated was the purview of women, slaves, and adolescents because it connoted a passivity that was at odds with ideas of citizenship. Sexuality thus was understood in terms of action and passivity rather than sexual difference. Sex required an active partner and a passive one rather than a male and a female.

This understanding of sexuality is mirrored by ancient conceptions of gender difference. Rather than being possessors of radically different bodies and sexual organs, men and women were thought to have similar bodies in different stages of development. A woman's body was not substantially different from a man's—merely less developed. Because gender was conceived as essentially undifferentiated, it mattered little what kind of body a citizen had sex with, only whether a sexual act was a fitting assertion of the powers of an active citizen. Sex in antiquity produced not heterosexuals and homosexuals but citizens and noncitizens.

There is some historical evidence for a category of effeminate men in antiquity that preferred the passive position. Some historians have argued that the existence of such groups refutes the contention that Greek and Roman cultures had no concept of exclusive same-sex desire that correlates to the modern notion of homosexuality. Opponents have argued, however, that such men took both active and passive roles in sex and that social intolerance reflected their flouting of gender norms rather than the choice of a sexual partner.

Christian Sex

In both Christian and pagan cultures the early centuries of Christianity saw a rise in the importance of sexual austerity. In contrast to the understanding of sex as a means of asserting social dominance in the classical period, sex in late antiquity became a means of relating to the self. Thus Roman society saw an increased focus on self-control and the ill effects of overindulgence. That concern was mirrored in early Christian society, which placed great emphasis on self-control and the regulation of sex. Christian theology regarded sexual desire as a manifestation of evil and the primary site of sinful temptation; overcoming sexual desire thus became central to transcending the material world and attaining the world of the spirit.

Christian faith thus idealized celibacy and chastity and regarded marriage as a second-best alternative for those who were unable to remain chaste. Appropriate sexual behavior within the confines of marriage thus became a primary site of the regulation of sexuality by the Christian Church. In Greek and Roman societies of antiquity, sex between men was regarded as an improvement over nature. Adolescent boys were considered to express an ideal of youth and beauty, and to copulate with a young man was thus an idealized form of sexual behavior that was enabled by a civilization's advances over nature. By the year 1000, however, in the Christian Church nature had come to serve as a legitimating mechanism, a touchstone that helped determine whether a sexual act was sanctioned by God and nature or was perverse and unnatural. In that purview natural sex was construed as procreative; unnatural sex was sex done solely for pleasure or without a chance of procreation. Certain forms of heterosexual sex thus were condoned by the Church, whereas masturbation, anal sex, and homosexual sex were deemed to be unnatural and therefore sinful.

The act of confession and penitential handbooks were used to aid the Church in its regulation of sexuality. Parishioners were encouraged to name and describe their sins of the flesh, providing a discursive framework for the regulation of sex. In tandem with the religious regulation of sex, however, there was a flourishing literary culture of romance and seduction that encouraged a more liberal view of sexuality. Despite the proscriptive nature of Church guidelines for an ideal marriage, historical evidence suggests that premarital sex, adultery, concubinage, and prostitution flourished and that in secular culture, sex and sexual desire were considered normal.

Because of the emphasis of the Church on nature as a legitimating mechanism for sexual desire, heterosexual vaginal sex—the only sort that could result in procreation—within the bonds of marriage was the only type of sanctioned sexual activity. There is some disagreement, however, about whether that emphasis on heterosexual sex correlates to the conception of heterosexuality as it is understood in the early twenty-first century. Some historians have interpreted the existence of an early Christian framework for acknowledging exclusive male unions as evidence for a medieval homosexual culture. Evidence suggests, however, that this was one of many ways in which the early Christian Church tolerated and accommodated the social and sexual mores of lay society even as it officially encouraged sexual renunciation. By the end of the first millennium ce, the Church had consolidated its hold on the religious and social life of Europe. Attitudes toward women had taken the form of a binary opposition in which women were idealized as the Virgin Mary or viewed as corrupters of the flesh. In either case sex between men and women was always fraught, and homosocial male friendships were encouraged as an ideal form of intimacy.

By the early Renaissance the regulation of sodomy had become a matter of increased concern to both Church and secular authorities. The term sodomy, which previously had connoted unnatural sexual acts of any variety, increasingly was applied to sex between men, and legal documents suggest that there was widespread practice of sodomy in certain regions in Europe. Some scholars have argued that the increased concern with regulating sodomitical behaviors and the sometimes widespread prosecution of men for those actions suggest the existence of communities of men structured around a homosexual identity. Others, however, contend that such men routinely engaged in sex with both men and women; this suggests that a sexual identity structured around exclusive desire for a particular sex had not arisen.

The Creation of Heterosexuality

With the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, religious communities began to rethink the relationship between sex and marriage. Protestants differentiated themselves from the Catholic Church, in part by insisting on marital sex as a natural and normal part of marriage. Sexual intimacy was considered desirable in a marriage because it strengthened and solidified the relationship between a man and a woman. Although sexual renunciation no longer was considered necessary to spiritual enlightenment, Protestant churches continued to exercise regulatory influence over the types of sexuality permitted in a spiritually correct marriage.

In the eighteenth century the single-body notion of gender that had been prevalent throughout the Middle Ages was replaced by the notion that men and women are biologically different. The prevailing idea of sex as an act between passive and active partners thus was replaced by the notion of sex as an act occurring between males and females; sex was redefined as the mating of difference rather than sameness. In tandem with that biological reconceptualization of gender difference, women's roles in the eighteenth century were undergoing a certain amount of redefinition. Women increasingly were vocal on the subject of their political rights and were beginning to demand inclusion in the rising democratization of Western European societies. In response, social norms reflected an increased emphasis on the domestic and childbearing responsibilities of women, duties that appeared to be legitimated by new understandings of biological gender difference.

The eighteenth century saw an increase in fertility rates after centuries of relative stability. Although the reasons for increased fertility were various, some scholars have suggested that in societies that increasingly were extending political power beyond the bounds of the nobility and the upper classes, the ability to define women in terms of their difference from men provided a scientific, biological justification for their exclusion from political participation and their relegation to the domestic sphere.

The eighteenth century also saw the cementing of the notion that sodomites preferred sex exclusively with men as well as the belief that those men were necessarily effeminate. By the end of the seventeenth century a group of men who arguably could be considered a third gender had appeared. Those men, known as mollies, adopted mannerisms and styles of dress that marked them as effeminate in the public eye. Public concern with and prosecution of sodomites—a term used almost exclusively to refer to sex between men—rose sharply in that period, and mollies, who were visibly different, were scrutinized and condemned.

The degree to which mollies constituted a definable subculture created around a sexual identity has been discussed by scholars who argue that sodomy was an accepted sexual activity among the upper classes. Nonetheless, sodomy increasingly was policed during that period, and men who dressed and behaved effeminately often were persecuted as sodomites, creating a link between effeminate behavior and sodomy. That construction of male sexuality encouraged the expression of proper masculinity to coalesce around the exclusive sexual preference for women. In place of centuries of relative tolerance of sexual interest in both genders, the eighteenth century saw the rise of an emphasis on sexual desire directed exclusively toward one gender or the other. What the nineteenth century would term heterosexuality thus arose in response to the link established between disrupted gender norms and exclusive same-sex desire.

In the Victorian era of the nineteenth century, family life increasingly was conceived of in terms of two interdependent spheres. The private sphere was the realm of female domesticity and was understood as the moral training ground for children and the primary source of emotional and domestic support for the male head of the household, who sallied forth into the public sphere of business and politics. In contrast to an earlier Protestant emphasis on the importance of sex to a harmonious marriage, bourgeois Victorians were schooled in the importance of self-control, moral rectitude, and sexual restraint.

Sexuality in that period was highly gendered. Men were thought to be driven by a natural animal appetite and sexual instinct that had to be controlled rigidly by the man and tamed by his wife. In contrast women often were thought to be passionless and devoid of interest in sexual pleasure. Even among dissenters who contended that women did experience passion, the nature of that passion conformed to the gender norms of the period: Male sexual desire was forceful and active and required constant vigilance and mastery; female passion was thought to be gentle, nurturing, and passive and often was referred to as a passion for motherhood and family. Properly masculine behavior thus was characterized by mastery of the sexual instinct, whereas femininity required reticence and decorum with regard to sexual matters.

Victorian sex increasingly was thought of in medical and biological terms, and that period saw a marked increase in public discourse about appropriate sexual behavior. Some doctors believed that sexual energy is finite and cautioned against sexual behaviors, such as masturbation, that might deplete it. In a culture that valued thrift and self-control, masturbation was viewed as licentious, wasteful behavior. Much literature was published on the dangers of masturbation and infant and childhood sexuality, which were believed to sap the nervous system. Doctors and charlatans alike prescribed elaborate remedies for spermatorrhea, or the excessive loss of semen, which was characterized by impotence, lethargy, and frailty of the nervous system. In women masturbation was believed to worsen natural nervous tendencies and undermine interest in bearing children.

Coupled with medical discourse surrounding the anxieties of proper sexuality, the Victorian era saw pervasive prostitution, venereal disease, and pornography. Although those social problems attracted the attention of social reformers and public policy makers who wished to contain sexual expression in its proper place and modality within the family, prostitution and pornography often were regarded as a necessary evil. Because men were believed to possess an overwhelming animal sexual instinct and because the Victorian marriage was designed to control rather than allow the expression of that instinct, many considered it inevitable that a significant number of men who were unable to exercise sufficient self-restraint would resort to prostitutes to relieve their urges.

Mainstream Victorian society thus included multiple levels at which the topic of sex was addressed. Proper sexual behavior was viewed in the context of bourgeois family structure, moral restraint, and appropriate gender roles. Because the sexual passions of men and women were so distinct, appropriate sexual behavior automatically was coded as coitus between two different sexes. Rising interest in the study of perverse sexual behaviors, including homosexuality, cemented that association. The nineteenth century was marked by an interest in medical solutions to social problems such as crime, alcoholism, prostitution, and vagrancy, and the study of sexual deviancy progressed with the same interest in finding a medical solution. The rise of sexology in the nineteenth century thus was influenced by the notion that sexual perversion was a disease that required a cure.

That understanding of sexuality as pathology was crucial to the way in which heterosexuality was constructed as an identity. The interest in treating or reforming (rather than simply deterring or punishing) deviant or socially problematic populations allowed for the establishment of numerous insane asylums, prisons, orphanages, and juvenile reform schools. Scientific disciplines such as criminology, psychiatry, and sexology were born out of the availability of the inmates of those institutions as objects of study. The identity of the inmates increasingly was constructed by the institutions in which they resided and the scientists who observed them. As Foucault (1976) and others have suggested, it was the gaze of the criminologist that created people who were identified as criminals.

That equation of behavior and identity became increasingly important to sexology in the nineteenth century. Same-sex erotic behavior earlier had been seen as a sign of sexual inversion, or the display of characteristics of the opposite gender. A woman's sexual attraction to another woman thus was considered to be a sign of gender confusion because she was displaying a masculine desire for the female sex. In the course of the nineteenth century, however, the terminology of sexual inversion was replaced by that of sexual identity, such as homosexual or heterosexual. Sexual preferences increasingly were thought to be expressive of some internal essence, and the choice of sexual object or the preference for particular sexual acts thus was believed to indicate something fundamental about one's personality.

That understanding of sexuality involved a certain reconfiguration of previous understandings of same-sex friendships. Female friendships in the nineteenth century, for example, were considered by contemporaries to be both normal and desirable. Confinement to the domestic sphere enabled intense friendships among women, and letters of that period reveal the degree to which those relationships were expressed in terms of love and romantic passion consistent with Victorian romanticism. In some cases the women in those relationships lived together, conducting their domestic arrangements as though they were married. Such friendships were accepted by the friends and families of those women, regardless of whether the women occupied a traditional household or were single women living together.

Some researchers have suggested that Victorian understandings of female sexuality, which posited a passionless female whose only desire was directed toward procreation, allowed a great deal of leeway for women to explore intense female friendships without social opprobrium. Some historians have claimed that even in cases in which one member of a couple adopted more masculine clothing, sexual contact was rare. In the course of the nineteenth century, however, as discourse about sexuality began to focus on deviance and perversion, such friendships between women were viewed with increasing suspicion. As late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexologists came to regard the mannish woman in terms of sexual identity—as a lesbian who must necessarily exhibit unnatural, voracious sexual instincts and a have corrupting influence on innocents—women's friendships became more constricted.

Heterosexuality Normalized

The understanding of sexual identity in terms of object choice in the late nineteenth century was developed through an interest in defining and treating perversity, including same-sex desire, fetishes, and other sexual fixations. Those desires, however, inevitably were compared with normal sexual function, which already had been defined as male-female vaginal sex. In the early twentieth century Sigmund Freud (1989) conceived of sexual dysfunction in terms of overall mental health, advancing a theory of consciousness and human development that posited certain types of psychological disorders, such as hysteria and neurosis, as indicative of abnormal or problematic sexual development. Although Freud also focused his studies on perverse or abnormal sexual behavior, he utilized his research to help articulate a theory of normal sexual behavior.

In the 1920s and 1930s sexologists became increasingly interested in exploring normal sexual function. Criminologists, psychiatrists, and other researchers studied the connections between abnormal sexual development and a person's propensity for criminality, prostitution, delinquency, and other deviant behaviors. Queries about the sexual mores of the lower classes raised the question of whether those mores were substantially different from middle- and upper-class norms. Additionally much of the medical practice of sexology was dedicated to improving and normalizing sexual relations between married persons. Many reformers argued for the importance of education in establishing desirable sexual behavior, thus opening a discourse of sexuality that was founded on the notion that appropriate sexual activity was heterosexual and involved vaginal penetration. Studies of sexual dissatisfaction in marriage assumed the importance and centrality of vaginal intercourse, and theories of sexual pleasure espoused the necessity of the vaginal orgasm, conceiving female sexual pleasure solely in terms of vaginal stimulation. Even as sexual culture in the early twentieth century was liberalized by notions of sexual freedom and pleasure, ideas of normal sexual behavior were narrowed and increasingly assumed to be self-evident.

In the 1940s and 1950s sex research in the United States was revolutionized by the work of Alfred Kinsey (1948, 1953), who conducted interviews with an enormous sample of the American population. Kinsey's work was groundbreaking in the degree to which it demonstrated that many sexual practices that were considered morally or socially unaccepted were commonplace. Although his work placed great emphasis on the orgasm as a marker of sexual satisfaction, Kinsey denounced the vaginal orgasm as a myth. He also provided evidence that many men and women had engaged in same-sex practices at one time or another, illustrating that homosexual behavior was not confined to a deviant subclass.

Kinsey and other researchers of that period noted a widespread liberalization of sexual attitudes in men and women born after the turn of the century. The practices of dating and premarital sexual experimentation became widespread. In the 1960s and 1970s sexual liberation proceeded along multiple fronts: Young men and women adhered to an ethic of sexual pleasure and permissiveness that allowed for multiple sexual partners before or instead of marriage. The invention of the contraceptive pill and the availability of reliable contraception in the 1960s, as well as abortion reforms in the early 1970s, enabled permissive heterosexual relationships that apparently had no adverse consequences. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s began to examine the political nature of the private sphere, arguing that norms of sexual behavior, marriage and domesticity and child rearing had material impacts in the struggle for women's rights and equality.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw increasing political and social agitation for gay and lesbian rights. Gay and lesbian activism became highly public and involved a certain consolidation of homosexual identity. Activists asserted their right to express same-sex affection free from police harassment and social discrimination and insisted that older notions of homosexuality as a disease be overturned. Gays and lesbians often framed their arguments in terms of sexual identity, claiming that homosexuality was more than a sexual orientation; instead, it was an identity and a lifestyle with intrinsic validity and value. For some, asserting the right to a gay or lesbian lifestyle entailed an implicit rejection of heteronormative assumptions about the proper course of a life that placed great value on marriage, family, and homemaking.

In spite of the liberalization of sexual behaviors, however, such heteronormative assumptions remained largely unexamined and often difficult to discern. Early feminist criticism of the social roles of marriage and family, for example, often assumed the normality of a heterosexual union even as it critiqued the means by which that union was conducted. Movement toward a more sexually explicit cultural milieu was initiated and furthered by men's magazines such as Playboy, Esquire, and Penthouse, which promoted a sexually licentious bachelor culture that centered on stimulating and fulfilling heterosexual male desire. Thus, although lesbians and gay men increasingly were encouraged to form their own identities around the question of sexual orientation, heterosexuality remained an identity that necessarily existed counter to homosexual identities but was itself rarely interrogated.


The gay liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s prompted an interest in exploring histories of sexuality. Early examinations of sexuality, however, tended to assume the immutability of sexual desire and object choice; sexuality often was considered a natural instinct that was historically and culturally constructed. Foucault's work on sexuality in the 1970s proved to be seminal in its understanding of sexuality as the product of power and discourse in a specific time and culture. According to Foucault (1976), sexuality was constituted in the Victorian era through a proliferation of discourses about sex; those discourses did not, as Freud later claimed, repress a natural sexuality but instead brought sexuality into being as an object of inquiry. Sexual identities, then, arose from new discourses that classified and studied sexual behavior.

That understanding, which suggested that heterosexuality is not a biological given, provided a lens for understanding the structuring of sexual relations in other cultures. Jonathan Katz (1995), for example, listed several social orders for which sexuality was not the primary structuring principle, including early Puritan society in America; for the Puritans, Katz argued, sexual behavior was understood not in terms of what gender one had sex with but according to whether the act in question had procreative potential.

Many scholars have critiqued the degree to which heterosexual norms help further patriarchal power. Kate Millett (1970) and Gayle Rubin (1975) examined the ways in which heterosexuality underpins the patriarchal power system and male dominance over women. Adrienne Rich (1980) argued that heterosexuality is a political institution that establishes and legitimates men's physical, economical, and emotional power over and access to women. Women, she claims, may have no innate preference for heterosexuality, but heterosexuality is imposed and enforced by a multitude of social, cultural, and political mechanisms that constitute heterosexuality and its institutions (marriage, motherhood, family, etc.) as natural and efface alternatives such as lesbian or women-identified households and communities.

Building on Rich's attempt to denaturalize heterosexual identity, Judith Butler (1990, 1993) utilized Foucault's notions of discourse and power to formulate a theory that accounted for both sexuality and gender. In Butler's conception gender and sexuality are always produced; heterosexuality is not a norm against which the abnormal homosexual is contrasted but instead is always being constructed by performances that establish its norms and limits. Those performances have the effect of establishing as natural something that is always constructed.

Although earlier work on sexuality often treated heterosexuality as a monolithic construction against which to examine other forms of sexuality, more recent scholarship has attempted to examine the different ways in which heterosexuality exists and functions. Some scholars have noted the degree to which heterosexual identity is taken for granted and rendered invisible even as it underpins other identities that are available to both men and women (husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter). Other scholars have continued to examine the ways in which heteronormative assumptions underpin gender roles, family structure, social institutions, public policy, cultural forms, and sexual behavior.


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Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge.

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Rich, Adrienne. 1980. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs 5(4): 631-660. Available at http://links.jstor.org.

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Rubin, Gayle. 1975. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex." In Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

                                           Maureen Lauder