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Where did the ideas of homosexuality and heterosexuality come from?

This was previously published here, on Pornhub’s Sexual Wellness and Education site.

Too often it is taken for granted that everyone in the world falls into the different camps of heterosexual/straight or homosexual/gay/lesbian. Whether it’s when you’re signing up for Facebook or a dating app, you’re asked to choose on the spot if you’re into men or women. It splits the sexual world down the middle.

Then there is “everyone else” on the sexuality spectrum – which includes groups who use terms as far-ranging as bisexual, asexual, or others that make people feel like they fall outside of the two ‘accepted’ sexualities and which can lead to struggles with identity. For a long time in the West, and still in many places in the world, it is not seen as okay to be homosexual – you’re only allowed to be straight.

But what if I told you that for the vast and overwhelming majority of the human race throughout history, and even throughout the history of Western civilization, this was not the case?

In fact, these ideas about sexuality are only about 150 years old—that’s a whole 100 years after the founding of the United States!

The terms heterosexual and homosexual weren’t even invented by a professional: they were first used by an Austrian poet in 1869 to describe people he saw as being perverts. Our understanding of heterosexuality and homosexuality is overly dominated by a group of men working in the late 1800s that called themselves sexologists, including Sigmund Freud, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Havelock Ellis.

These sexologists believed that the only proper sort of sex was sex between an aggressive and dominant man, and a “normal and properly educated woman” who would ideally have no sexual desire of her own. According to them, any sort of sex that was not meant to make babies – fellatio, cunnilingus, masturbation, homosexuality, BDSM and anything else – was perverted and the people who practiced these activities were to be treated by psychologists. This is why today, we are sometimes scandalized by talking about these things or being interested in them, even though there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with them.

Before the sexologists, there was a much more casual acceptance of what we would call bisexuality, and very few defining factors or terminology when it came to sexual identity. Men who chose or preferred to sleep with other men would be seen as sinning against the church and some of the rules of society, that is true, but there was no such thing as homosexuality as it came to be understood – things fell more on a spectrum, like the Kinsey Scale.

It was seen as common that a child’s first sexual experiences might be with people of his own gender, or in the case of men, between an older man and younger boy. When puberty hit, and the boy became a man or a girl a woman, it was then that they were expected to perform like regular heterosexuals.

Not until 1895 with the trial of Oscar Wilde, was the idea of a “homosexual man” developed. After this period of time, there was a new understanding of homosexuals who had a homosexual identity, personality, and did exclusively what were categorized as homosexual activities (not just sexual). Wilde was seen as flamboyant, interested in interior design, acting like a woman, and everything a man should not be. This is where many of the stereotypes of a gay “type” of person came from.

At the turn of the 20th century, many psychologists and therapists saw homosexuality as a choice and as something that could be cured, and they tried all sorts of horrible ways to ‘fix’ people that were, in retrospect, not broken at all.

We have come a long way since the early 1900s, and have established that it’s completely normal to be homosexual or heterosexual, and there is an increasing acceptance in society of people of different sexualities. We too often forget that these categories of homosexual and heterosexual are more or less made up or disproven ideas, and that there is a lot of room for the various flavors and types of sexuality out there!

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Brian M. Watson
Brian M. Watson
Archivist, Historian, Digital Humanist