Sexual Orientation

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As Nietzsche noted, "[O]nly that which has no history is definable" ([1887] 1968, p. 516). This observation is clearly supported by the dramatic changes in the ways in which sexual orientation has been conceptualized over the last quarter century and, in particular, the last decade. As a result, the concept of sexual orientation may be difficult to define with any assurance of general agreement. It is currently mired, and surely will continue to be mired, in conflicting interpretations of the history of the behaviors that are assumed to be the expression of specific sexual orientations. The question of sexual orientation remains a conceptual battleground where many of the most critical issues regarding the nature of human sexuality, if not the human condition itself, are debated.

Sexual orientation generally can be described as the integration of the ways in which individuals experience the intersection of sexual desires and available sexual social roles. For some people, this intersection is experienced happily as an unproblematic confluence of personal and social expectations. For others, it is experienced as a persistent conflict. For still others, issues of sexual orientation are experienced as an occasion for experimentation, compromise, and sometimes change in how they see themselves, how they present themselves to others, and how different segments of social life respond to such outcomes.

Sexual orientation is also part of the conceptual apparatus of contemporary scientific and popular discourse; it has become a way in which people recognize and "explain" sexual behavior. It is as if establishing an individual's sexual orientation, however inaccurately, were enough to explain most of what has to be known about that individual's sexuality. As a result, the discourses of sexual orientation often become a point of contact with the discourses of age, gender, morality, and law.


Following Freud's distinction between the "object" (the "who") and the "aim" (the "what") of sexual desire ([1905] 1953), current conceptions of sexual orientation can be said to focus primarily on the nature of the object defined in narrow terms of gender. This almost exclusive distinction derives from the dimorphic nature of the human species, that is, two genders giving rise to three possible categories—homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual—although within each of these categories there is a wide range of variations in both sexual and nonsexual attributes of individuals and there are many aspects of sexual preference that are shared across these categories. Among such aspects of desire would be the other's age, race, social class, and ethnic status; the nature of the emotional bond; and the conventions of physical beauty. Important differences regarding sexual aims, such as sadomasochism, pedophilia, hebophilia (sexual attraction to postpubescent minors), and transvestism, are most often subsumed within each of these gender-based categories. Most often, they become adjectives modifying the label "homosexual" or "heterosexual."

The continuing significance of gender may reflect the fact that within modern Western societies, gender is possibly the last fully pervasive aspect of identity that provides cohesion among the increasingly complex components of multiple social roles. Gender serves this role in a social context of continuing change because of its seeming permanence and seemingly ascriptive character. As a result, the gender of the object of one's desires continues to dominate the meaning of sexual orientation almost to the exclusion of all the other attributes of potential partners that contribute to or preclude sexual interest or excitement.

This emphasis on the gender of the object of desire may be a culturally specific development. Some, for example, have argued that in other cultural or historical contexts, gender may be less significant in defining categories of legitimate sexual access than are other social distinctions. Thus, the acceptability of same-gender sexual contacts among males in ancient Greece was contingent on differences in age (mature adult versus youth) and social status (free citizen versus slave). Respect for those distinctions in social status required that there be no direct reciprocity, that the "active" role (the seeking of sexual pleasure) and the "passive" role (the providing of sexual pleasure) remain respectful of social status (Halperin 1989). Men engaging in such behavior were viewed as conventional so long as those rules were maintained. Such examples indicate that not all persons engaging in sexual acts experience their participation as erotic or experience those activities in the context of what might be termed sexual excitement. By the same token, they also indicate that not all motives for engaging in specific sexual acts derive from intrinsically sexual motives.

Through much of the twentieth century, the question of sexual orientation would not have appeared problematic. In a range of theoretical positions, from Freud's assumption of an inherent bisexuality ([1905] 1953) to those postulating an exclusive heterosexuality, sexual orientation was taken as being so firmly rooted in the "natural" process of human psychosexual development that it was treated as a transcultural phenomenon (Simon 1996). This was true for heterosexuality, which often was, and for many people still is, viewed as being phylogenetically programmed as a requirement of species survival (Symons 1979; Wilson 1978). Homosexuality and bisexuality were viewed as a disturbance of "normal" development (Freud [1905] 1953), an inherited decadence (Ellis 1937), a gender-discordant development (Krafft-Ebing [1896] 1965), later as a normal but minor genetic variant (Kinsey et al. 1948), and more recently as a sociocultural construction (see below). This social constructionist position has been extended to the treatment of heterosexuality as well (Katz 1995; Richardson 1996).

Explanations of sexual orientation currently might be described as a continuum anchored at one polar position by the assumption of an entirely biological or phylogenetic source (essentialism) and at the other polar position by sources reflecting the adaptation of specific individuals within given sociocultural settings (constructionism) and still more recently as the reflection of the sociocultural construction of gender as a binary phenomenon (queer theory).

Essentialist Perspectives. The extreme essentialist position leads to a view of sexual orientation (as gender preference) that is potentially present in all human populations, varying only in its manifest expression as a result of differing qualities of encouragement or repression (Gladue 1987; Boswell 1983; Whitam 1983; LaVay 1996). Other biologically oriented explanations link biological developments with experiential adaptations. Typically, those approaches link variations in phenomena such as prenatal hormonal chemistry with critical but often unpredictable postnatal experiences in the shaping of sexual orientation (Money 1988).

The essentialist end of the conceptual continuum assumes that at some basic level of character or personality, there are objective, constitutional sources of sexual orientation (Green 1988). It is almost as if such approaches viewed different categories of sexual orientation as different species or subspecies, as if all those included within a specific category of sexual interactions shared a common origin. A commitment to such permanent distinctions is often evident in the use of a concept such as latent homosexuality, which implies that even when such differences fail to be manifested or are manifested late in life, this orientation is viewed as the "real" one.

Constructionist Perspectives. At the other end of this continuum are constructionists, who view sexual orientation as the product of specific historical contingencies, as something to be acquired or perhaps even "an accomplishment" (Stoller 1985a). Most of those holding this position reject the idea of a sexual drive or at best see such a drive as an unformed potential that is largely dependent on experience to give it power and directionality. "Every culture has a distinctive cultural configuration with its own 'anthropological' assumptions in the sexual area. The empirical relativity of these configurations, their immense varity, and luxurious inventiveness, indicate that they are products of man's own socio-cultural formations rather than a biologically fixed human nature" (Berger and Luckman 1966, p. 49).

For most constructionists, sexual orientation is a reflection of the more general practices of a time and place and is expressive of social power (Foucault 1978; Weeks 1985; Padgug 1979; Greenberg 1988; Halperin 1989). Others would add concern for the specific contexts of interaction and the management of identities and social roles (Simon and Gagnon 1967; McIntosh 1976; Plummer 1975; Ponse 1968; Weinberg 1983), and still others would add concern for the experiences that constitute primary socialization (Gagnon and Simon 1973; Stoller 1985b; Simon and Gagnon 1986; Mitchell 1988).

From a constructionist perspective, the concept of sexual orientation itself is viewed as an aspect of the very cultural practices that sustain the differential evaluations of the sexual behaviors the concept purports to explain. The focusing of attention on something that can be called sexual orientation is seen as signifying an importance to be assigned to the sexual that may not be intrinsic to it but may derive from the evolved meanings and uses that constitute the sexual in specific sociohistorical contexts.

Whereas essentialists tend to view the sexual as a biological constant that presses on evolving social conventions, constructionists view the sexual as the product of the individual's contingent response to the experiencing of social conventions. For essentialists, the sexual might be said to develop from the inside out, whereas for constructionists, the sexual, like most other social practices, is learned from the outside in. A middle ground is taken by many who view sexual behavior as the outcome of a dialectical relationship between biology and culture (Erikson 1950).


If only in recognition of the enormous diversity of sexual practices in different cultural and historical settings despite the relative stability of human physiology, almost everyone who has approached the study of human sexuality admits the need for some degree of sociological explanation of specific patterns of sexual interaction and the significance accorded to them (Gregersen 1983). The question of homosexuality was the dominant issue in most discussions of sexual orientation until relatively recently. Heterosexuality, insofar as it was viewed as doing what came naturally, seemingly required no "explanation" unless it was expressed in unconventional ways. Instead, it was homosexuality that was viewed as problematic, if not pathological, and whose explanation was more urgent. The medicalization of same-gender sexual preference, which preceded the initial public use of terms such as "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" in 1880 (Herzer 1985), involved the "disease" model of seeking a specific cause as well as a mode of prevention and possible cure. This implicitly homophobic commitment persists in some of the scientific community's considerations of homosexuality (Irving 1990).

The acceptance of homosexuality as an alternative life-style, however, did not necessarily require the abandonment of a concern for explaining its appearance; it merely made it more obvious that heterosexuality cannot be taken for granted but requires explanation (Katz 1990). One characteristic of the modern Western condition is that it has made sexual orientation and the closely related issue of sexual identity problematic. The question, What will I be when I grow up? is asked of an ever-growing number of dimensions of life, including the sexual, and is asked with increasing uncertainty regarding the possible answers.

Heterosexuality. Heterosexuality, defined as cross-gender sexual intercourse, has been a preference in all societies, though not necessarily an exclusive preference in all societies. Nor does the universality of this preference establish the full range of definitions of with whom, when, where, or in what manner it should occur. Thus, outside of incest taboos involving immediate family members and a variable list of other close relatives, different cultures and periods of history have defined legitimate and illegitimate sexual contacts in dramatically contrasting ways (Bullough [1978] 1980). These differences involve not only what might be called the mechanics of sexual acts, that is, matters of relationship, time, place, costume, sequence of gestures, and positions, but also the determinants of their relative significance.

The potential reproductive consequences of heterosexual genital intercourse inevitably led to a linking of the desire for sex with a conscious or unconscious desire for reproduction. This view has been criticized as resting on the questionable assumption of a biologically rooted commitment to species survival (Beach 1956). Valid or not, such views constitute a cultural legacy that gives credence to many current norms regarding sexual acts, norms that enhance the social regulation of reproduction in the name of an assumed natural mandate.

More specifically, expectations regarding gender and family, influenced by many aspects of social life, generally have shaped the social meaning of sexual acts. Current language for describing cross-gender sexual contacts explicitly assumes a relationship to the family—marital, premarital, postmarital, and extramarital sex—and implicitly evaluates behaviors in terms of their "distance" from location within the family.

Similarly, genital intercourse still is viewed commonly as the ultimate or purest form of sexual exchange, as the "fulfillment of nature's intent." As a result, it continues to serve as the measure of the "normality" of alternative forms of sexual contact. This was reflected in the historical, but declining, practice of criminalizing not only sexual acts occurring outside of marriage but also those involving oral or anal contact or in viewing masturbation as pathogenic when practiced by the young and symptomatic when practiced by adults, although recent research (Lauman et al. 1994) indicates that masturbation occurs in North America among significant segments of postpubertal individuals at all stages of the life course.

Many of the conventions surrounding gender expectations also directly reinforced the "scripting," or construction, of heterosexuality. This involves presenting images of the sexual that both naturalize and normalize evolved Western heterosexual practices, making them appear unquestionably proper. The labels "active" and "passive," terms that had applications in many domains of social life, virtually became synonymous with "masculine" and "feminine," respectively. Even physical positions in sexual intercourse—"Who is on top?"—have often had to pay homage to prevailing patterns of social domination.

The nineteenth century witnessed the elaboration of images of the female as fragile, domestic, nurturant, receptive, and either only minimally sexual or capable of insatiable lusts. These images of femininity were complemented by images of the male as strong, given to exploratory curiosity, possessively protective, and aggressively lustful. Although applied diffusely, these implicit norms were not always applied equally. The restraint and fragility of the female found a common application in the parlors and bedrooms of the urban middle class and rural gentry but was applied far less in the fields, factories, servants' quarters, and brothels of the day.

While the images of heterosexuality reinforced patterns of family life and gender differentiation, it is equally appropriate to speak of the ways in which patterns of family life and gender differentiation reinforced prevailing concepts of the "naturalness" of heterosexuality. This same gender-based division of labor within the family was taken for granted by mid-twentieth century sociological theorists (Parsons and Bales 1955), as it was inscribed in the most widely held views regarding "normal" human development (Erikson 1950).

From the late nineteenth century on, concepts of the family became substantially more voluntary and egalitarian. However, those modifications further empowered the heterosexual scenario, which now plays an even more important role in the creation of marital bonding and the preservation of the nuclear family. Heterosexuality, given the assumption of its powers as a basic drive, simultaneously became a nearly constant threat to and vital aspect of family life. This in turn gave rise to various methods, both formal and informal, of restricting nonmarital expressions of sexual activity.

The emphasis placed on the heterosexual scenario led in turn to a greater emphasis on the subjective aspects of one's sexual orientation. Faith in the mute logic of "nature's" intent gave way to concern for the fashioning and maintenance of individual desire. Women increasingly were expected not only to be receptive but to desire as well as to be desirable. Men increasingly were expected to use the sexual to affirm their masculinity not only by their ability to find sexual pleasure but also by their ability to provide pleasure to their partners. Heterosexual preference continued to be taken for granted while heterosexual competence was being placed on the agenda in new and unanticipated ways.

In recent years, evident trends have called into question many of these practices, challenging many earlier basic expectations regarding family and gender. The conjugal family is no longer the exclusive social address for heterosexuality. Premarital sex has become statistically normal at all social levels, and it approaches becoming attitudinally normative. Moreover, the age at which sexual intercourse first occurs has declined, particularly for females. By age 18, over half are no longer virgins, which is more than double the proportion of nonvirgins reported two generations ago. This suggests that most of what occurs by way of sexual activity among adolescents and young adults can be described as pre-premarital, as much of this early sexual behavior occurs outside the context of family-forming courtship, where much of the premarital experience of older generations took place.

Similarly, at the premarital and postmarital stages, there has been increasing acceptance of nonmarital cohabitation in the sense that it tends to be more openly acknowledged with little anticipation of social rejection or stigmatization. While the number of middle- to upper-middle-class females who have deliberately borne children without marriage or an acknowledged male partner is not great, the fact that this practice has achieved considerable visibility and implicit legitimacy is significant.

Reflecting the diffusion of feminist values, support for women with regard to sexual interest, sexual activity, and especially sexual competence, with the latter measured by the capacity to achieve orgasm, has visibly increased (Ehrenreich et al. 1986). As a result, gender stereotypes with regard to sexual behavior have experienced changes that for the most part have served to blur many of the gender distinctions that previously appeared to give heterosexuality its distinctive complementarity.

Specific behaviors, such as oral sex, that once were associated with devalued sexual actors, homosexuals, and prostitutes in recent years have become a conventional part of the heterosexual script. This is particularly true at higher social class levels, where oral sex tends to occur regularly, often substituting for genital intercourse (Gagnon and Simon 1987; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983; Simon et al. 1990).

Heterosexuality remains the dominant erotic imagery of Western societies. However, changing concerns for reproduction, continuing changes in the organization of family life, and the constraints describing gender presentations indicate that present trends toward a pluralization of the ways in which heterosexuality is experienced and the contexts within which it is expressed will continue into the imaginable future.

Homosexuality. Same-gender sexual interactions have been reported in a sufficient number of social settings to suggest that they fall within the normal range of human behaviors (Ford and Beach 1951; Gregersen 1983). As Kinsey and associates (1948) observed, "The homosexual has been a significant part of human sexual activity ever since the dawn of history, primarily because it is an expression of capacities that are basic in the human animal" (p. 666). This essentialist view implies that a predisposition to same-gender sexual acts is an immutable fact of nature like gender and race and as such is totally independent of personal preference and societal values (Green 1988).

The fact that same-gender sexual involvements fail to be reported or occur as atypical behaviors in sufficient numbers suggests that there is little about them on which to predicate a universal or singular explanation. Where homosexual behavior occurs, the specific forms it takes, and the kinds of sexual acts and the relations within which they occur, as with most aspects of heterosexuality, vary so much that a full understanding must be sought in terms of the contingent features of specific social contexts. In other words, apparent uniformity of acts, such as members of the same gender engaging in sexual acts, allows one to assume very little, if any, uniformity of actors, their development, their motives, or the social and personal meanings of their behavior. When constructionists assert that the homosexual is an invention of the modern world, they are not suggesting that same-gender contacts were unknown in earlier periods of Western history or in other cultural settings. What they do suggest is that the processes that constitute the behavior, that give it meaning, and that transform otherwise identical forms of "behavior" into different forms of evaluated "conduct" may be of a fundamentally different character.

The variety of meanings given to same-gender "sexual" contacts is as wide as that given to cross-gender contacts. "Sexual" is placed in quotation marks as a reminder that while genital contact and orgasm may be present, in many instances the behavior is not necessarily experienced as sexual in the contemporary Western sense of that word. Such same-gender contacts range from those which are incidental to religious rites or rites of puberty, to those specific to certain statuses that may be temporary and that are not in themselves significant aspects of the individual's social identity, to those in which same-gender contacts are defined as permanent features of the individual's character.

An example of age-specific sexual contact can be found among the Sambians of New Guinea. Male children at about age 6 are removed to the men's hut, where they ingest semen, a practice that is viewed as necessary for full masculine development, by engaging in fellation with older, unmarried fellow villagers. At puberty, such males enter the role of semen donor by making their penises available to their younger fellow villagers. During early adulthood, they enter arranged marriages and are expected to practice heterosexual sex exclusively for the remainder of their lives. Observers report a nearly universal absence of fixation with regard to the activities of earlier stages or a reversal of age roles (Herdt 1981; Stoller 1985a).

This of course stands in dramatic contrast with the modern Western experience, in which the imagery of the behavior is associated with powerful meanings whose very invocation is often capable of exciting intense emotional responses of all kinds. Thus, negative images promote strong feelings of homophobia and at times cause "homosexual panic" in which the fear of being or becoming homosexual generates highly charged nonrational responses. At the same time, the possibility of same-gender sexual contacts often generates responses sufficiently strong to allow many individuals to experience and accept themselves as being homosexual despite the homophobic character of their immediate social settings (Bell and Weinberg 1978; Weinberg 1983).

In the examples of both the Sambians and the contemporary Western experience, the biological processes associated with arousal and orgasm are undoubtedly the same. What vary are the meanings and the representations that occasion arousal. As Beach noted, "Human sexual arousal is subject to extensive modification as a result of experience. Sexual values may become attached to a wide variety of biologically inappropriate stimulus objects or partners" (1956, p. 27).

Patterns of homosexual behavior, like those of heterosexual behavior, have manifested persistent change. While same-gender sexual contact was known in premodern Europe and was severely sanctioned, often treated as a capital offense, it was not viewed as being the behavior of a different kind of person but as a moral failing, a sin, to which all might be vulnerable (Bray 1982). Some have argued that a conception of homosexuality as a sexual orientation involving a distinct kind of person was a correlate of many of the changing patterns and values associated with the emergence of urban, industrial capitalism (Adam 1978; Hocquenghem 1978; Foucault 1978).

Within the category of male homosexuality, different styles of homosexual activity predominated in different periods of history and different social settings. If the concept of homosexuality is to have any meaning, such variations suggest that modern forms of homosexuality reflect an eroticization of gender, not a fixation on a specific form of sexual activity. In other words, it is the gender of the participants that generates and sustains sexual interest and only secondarily the specific form of sexual activity (Gagnon 1990; Simon et al. 1990).

The significance of gender in considerations of homosexuality has marked much of its recent history. Initial nineteenth-century views defined and implicitly explained homosexuality as an inversion of gender. Lesbians often were viewed as "men trapped in women's bodies," and gay men the reverse. Consistent with this, a common designation was "invert." Despite this early view, more recent research indicates that in many respects lesbians and gay men tend in their sexual development and subsequent behavior to approximate their genders. This suggests that sexual development tends to follow gender socialization: Gender roles and gender role expectations influence sexuality more often than sexuality prompts changes in gender identity (Gagnon and Simon 1973; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983).

Change in sexual patterns has been a critical aspect of recent social history. Whereas heterosexual practice might be described as being increasingly privatized and dissociated from the major institutions of society, homosexual practice has moved from the margins of society to sharing the central stage. Whereas the family becomes less and less the exclusive legitimate context for heterosexual activities, the appearance and survival of bonded relationships among homosexuals, particularly gay men, has visibly increased. Whereas the larger community appears increasingly anomic, gay communities (which once were limited to bars, discreet networks of friends, and, for gay men, locations for anonymous sexual contacts) now rival even the most solidary of ethnic groups. There is a flowering of recreational, religious, welfare, political, and other affinity groups and organizations as well as of areas of residential dominance (Epstein 1987; Escoffier 1998; Levine 1998).

Homosexuality remains negatively valued, remains stigmatized. Discrimination in employment and housing, instances of "gay bashing," and criminalization of same-gender sexual activity in some jurisdictions speak directly to continued homophobic practices and fears. However, on the whole, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s witnessed increasing acceptance of both homosexuality and the homosexual. Even the identification of gay men with transmission of the HIV virus, which initially was associated with an incipient moral panic and occasioned expressions of antihomosexual attitudes, became an occasion for sympathetic representation in the major public media and broadened understanding of gay men, their life-styles, and the many roles they play in and contributions they make to the larger society.

Currently, possibly owing to the heightened visibility of lesbians and gay men, the homogenizing of identities has been called into question. What once was viewed as a singular phenomenon is now more generally seen as pluralized. It now encompasses different developmental histories, affording different ways of incorporating a homoerotic commitment within a specific life history. The same is true for the development of a heterosexual orientation (Murray 1984; Stoller 1985a). As a consequence, the major questions that previously dominated issues of homosexuality (What is the cause? How many are there?) have become incurably cloudy as claims for a "biology of identity" conflict with what has been called the "politics of identity." Same-gender sexual interactions remain a characteristic of a minority of persons (Lauman et al. 1994), but the actual number cannot be established without resolving the question of what a homosexual is. Reflecting the complexity of these questions, Lauman et al. (1994) distinguish between three critical dimensions: same-gender sexual behavior, same-gender sexual attraction or desire, and identity as a homosexual. They found that among the 10.1 percent of the men in their survey who reported any adult same-gender sexuality, only 24 percent reported positive responses on all three dimensions and among the 8.6 percent of the women reporting any adult same-gender sexuality, only 15 percent were positive on all three dimensions. (p. 298)

What is clear is that there may be many more reasons for developing a homosexual orientation than there are ways of giving it expression. Aspects of development such as variations in the development of a gender identity may be significant in the development of homosexual orientations for some individuals (Harry 1982; Green 1987), but these aspects may have to be reconsidered as society modifies its more general beliefs and practices regarding gender identity. For example, the question must be asked, On what basis should "effeminacy" in male children be treated as symptomatic of some pathology any more than comparable displays of "effeminacy" in female children? Or the reverse, regarding what is commonly referred to as "tomboyishness" among young females?

Individuals with a marked homosexual preference appear in virtually all social contexts: different types of community settings; at different class levels; in all racial, ethnic, and religious categories; and from all manner of family backgrounds (Gebhard and Johnson 1979; Bell et al. 1981). There are differences between such categories, but in the absence of unbiased and comprehensive data, it is difficult to determine with any confidence whether significant effects are associated with possible differentials. There is reason to suspect that such statistics can provide only an approximation of current populations and a poor guide to future developments, developments that depend more on society's conceptions and uses of sex and gender, which appear to be in continuing transition.

Whether rooted in biology, social experience, or some combination of these elements, homosexuality as a concept, as a class of persons, and as social groups will persist into the twenty-first century. However, factors such as the greater visibility of representations in the media that challenge prior negative stereotypes and folk psychologies, the depathologizing of homosexuality by medical and social science communities, and its greater acceptance by conventional major institutions may be in the process of transforming what was once a closeted, isolated group into one that that is different but is seen as neither abnormal nor threatening. Indeed, one may be observing a process of the normalization of homosexuality. Some, in effect, have raised the question of the disappearance of homosexuality through its assimilation into mainstream social life as minor variant. (Bech 1997; Seidman et al. 1999). Alternative arguments suggest that this ultimate assimilation is an unrealistic and undesirable possibility based on conceptions of gender (queer theory) that are ethnocentrically biased in their narrow emphasis on the North American and Western European experiences (Murray 1996).

Bisexuality. Bisexuality is a complex concept and, like homosexuality and heterosexuality, has become more complex in recent years as the framing concepts of gender have become less arbitrarily complementary and distinct (Butler 1993; Weinberg et al. 1994). Bisexuality can refer to behavior (those who have had both homosexual and heterosexual experience), psychic response (those capable of being erotically aroused by both homosexual and heterosexual imagery), and either social labeling or self-labeling. Substantial numbers of people have had, if only incidentally, both homosexual and heterosexual experiences while retaining a firm self-identity as being one or the other (Lauman et al. 1994). Even larger numbers have or can be assumed to have experienced sexual arousal in association with both heteroerotic and homoerotic imagery (Kinsey et al. 1948, 1953; Bell and Weinberg 1978; Bell et al. 1981). The mere experience of having sex with members of both genders may not be sufficient to justify the application of the term "bisexual." What can be called "situational same-gender, sexual contacts," such as those which occur in single-gender penal institutions, may represent little more than conventionally styled heterosexual orientations expressed in restrictive circumstances (Gagnon and Simon 1973).

Relatively few people conceive of themselves as bisexual or can be labeled as such, particularly if the concept is defined as an attraction to both genders and an attraction for the sexual behaviors commonly attributed to both genders. However, bisexual identification probably has increased as an expression of an increase among younger cohorts of "open gender schemas" (Weinberg et al. 1994).

Many people whose sexual histories involve interaction with both genders still see themselves as being either homosexual or heterosexual in orientation. This may be a reflection of the fact that outside of relatively few "bisexual support groups," until recently neither heterosexual nor homosexual social worlds appeared to accept or validate such an identity. The very concept of bisexuality, when used to refer to a specific type of person, was viewed with skepticism (Tripp 1987). Having bisexual interests often was viewed as a mask or apology for an underlying orientation. Undoubtedly, for some people the bisexual label served as a transitional phase in the complicated task of identity transformation. Although a large number of the psychotherapeutic communities accept bisexuality as a distinct type of psychosexual development (Hill 1989), even among those who identify themselves as bisexual there are some who tend to have patterns of sexual behavior that are "amazingly diverse and that [their] day to day life roles are greatly different from one another . . . [and] it is clear that people come to bisexuality in an incredibly diverse number of ways" (Blumstein and Schwartz 1976, p. 180).

Bisexuality as denoting a special orientation tends to be a recent conceptualization, that reflects the increased recognition of gender as a crystallization of erotic responses that are not necessarily coded by the logic of an excluding complementarity. Prior images of bisexuality reflected the assumed differences of masculinity and femininity such as the persistently masculinized dominant sexual actor and the individual who could switch between stereotypical presentations of gender. Increased recognition of a bisexual possibility follows the recognition of the possible absence of complementarily, that is, with each participant providing what is absent in and desired by the other, within many heterosexual and homosexual relationships and the calling into question an implicit complementarity within existing conceptions of gender (Garber 1995).

Transvestism and Transsexuality. These two concepts do not represent discrete categories so much as a continuum describing the degree to which an individual biologically of one gender desires and enacts the identities or aspects of the identities of the other (Feinbloom 1976). For an unknown number of people this is limited to using the clothing of the other gender to elicit sexual excitement, with little more being directly involved. For most, however, more is involved; for most it involves adopting and enacting, if only for an audience of oneself, aspects of the identity and selected roles of the other gender, not merely cross-dressing but cross-gendering. However, for transvestites, cross-dressing is temporary, and they do not abandon their primary gender identity; they play at being the other (Newton 1979).

At the other end of the continuum is the transsexual who ideally seeks to adopt permanently the gender, costumes, and roles of the other gender (Green 1974). While an absolute realization of this aspiration is impossible, combined modern surgical and pharmacological techniques and permissive bureaucracies (the former cosmetically "redesigning" the body, while the latter allow for a redesigning of one's identifying credentials) have brought about the possibility of coming close to allowing some people to more fully realize their aspiration to live their lives, as fully as possible, in the costumes and roles of the other gender (Bolin 1988; Lothstein 1983).

The desirability of supporting transsexuality remains a matter of continuing contention that involves issues of mental health and gender. Several medical centers that once maintained programs of "surgical gender reassignment" have suspended those programs after reporting results that were too mixed to justify their continuation. Additionally, feminists have criticized such programs as catering to the desire to enact some of the most extreme forms of gender stereotypes (Irving 1990).

Midway between these extremes, between the erotic fetishizing of the clothing of the opposite gender and the desire to become the opposite gender, are those who prefer the costumes and behavior roles of the opposite gender without wanting to or needing to abandon their own initial gender or genitalia. This ranges from those who deliberately blur costumes and the coding or semiotics of gestures to obscure distinctions—women who have masculinized or men who have feminized their presentation of self—to those who experience a continuing conflict between a "masculine self" and a "feminine self," feeling that each of these components of a divided self requires its own costumes, vocabulary of gestures, and social space. (Bullough et al. 1997)

Again, as is true for most forms of stigmatized behavior, estimates of how many individuals are involved in such practices are virtually impossible to determine with any accuracy. Across this continuum of cross-gendering, both males and females can be observed. Most researchers speculate that more males than females are involved, generalizing the apparent tendency for significantly more males than females to be involved in various kinds of sexual deviance.

This speculation is made additionally plausible by the manifest tendency for violations of gender by men to generate more nervousness and be more heavily sanctioned than are comparable violations by females. It is possible for many females to mask their transvestic desires through the broader range of fashion available to women. For example, female cross-dressing in film and literature often involves the beginnings of romantic investment, while male cross-dressing is almost entirely restricted to the comic mode.

These two concepts, transvestism and transsexuality, perhaps more than any other, speak to the powers of gender and its multiple correlates They speak as well to the complex relationship between gender and sexuality. For relatively few people are gender presentations altered to facilitate a specific sexual aim; more often the sexual is organized to facilitate desired gender effects. Little that is manifestly sexual appears in the cross-gendering of some people, as in the case of many male heterosexual transvestites. In the case of the transsexual, surgical procedures often diminish orgasmic capacity. However, confirmation is often one of the major motives for engaging in sexual behavior and a major source of its capacity to gratify, a capacity that may go well beyond the narrow physicalist emphasis on orgasm.

However, conflict between the sexual as genital involvement and the sexual as gender confirmation has been seen by some as an expression of the application of a socially constructed arbitrary binary system that coercively mutes existing heterogeneities of desires and identity themes. This recently articulated perspective views transgendering as a moment of potential liberation from an arbitrary binary gender system, allowing individuals to give fuller expression to the totality of their eroticized and noneroticized desires (Stone 1991).


Sexual orientation is a complex construct rather than a simple thing. While it tends to identify individuals in terms of commitment to similar sexual preferences, it also has the capacity to mask differences among those who appear to otherwise share identical orientations. This is not surprising. Sexual behaviors, like many other aspects of human experience that are linked in critical ways to biology, are also historical and subject to change and as such reflect the very connections of the sexual ultimately to the total fabric of social life.

At the same time, concepts of sexual orientation are aspects of the cultural apparatus of a time and place and are used to explain the behaviors of others as well as one's own behavior. As such, they have the capacity to influence the very behaviors they appear merely to describe. Thus, to view the sexual in isolation from the continuing dynamic of social life, which until recently has largely been its fate, is to run the risk of unself-consciously transforming the science of social life into an oppressive disciplinary instrument of social life.

(see also: Alternative Life-Styles; Heterosexual Behavior Patterns; Sexual Behavior and Marriage)


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William Simon