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History of sexuality

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Historiographic Considerations


Various aspects of sexuality have been taboo in many times and places and there is therefore often a lack of explicit and accurate evidence on which to base a history. There are a number of sources that can be collected across a wide variety of times and cultures, including the following:

  • Statements of legal prohibition and/or encouragment
  • Religious and moral texts expressing disapprobation and/or approval
  • Medical textbooks treating various forms of heterosexuality as a pathological condition
  • Literary sources, sometimes unpublished during their authors' lifetimes, including diaries
  • Linguistic developments, particularly in slang.
  • More recently, studies of sexuality

Interestingly, while the reverse is often not true, much of the history of different-gender sexuality and romance may be read from the history of same-sex sexuality and romance. The term "homosexuality" was invented in the 19th century, with the term "heterosexuality" was invented later in the same century in contrast to the earlier term. The term "bisexuality" was invented in the 20th century as sexual identities became defined by the predominate sex to which people are attracted and thus a label was needed for those who are not predominately attracted to one sex. This points out that the history of sexuality is not solely the history of different-sex sexuality plus the history of same-sex sexuality, but a broader conception viewing of historical events in light of our modern concept or concepts of sexuality taken at its most broad and/or literal definitions.

Historical personalities are often described using modern sexual identity terms such as like straight, bisexual, gay or queer. Those who favour the practice say that this can highlight such issues as discriminatory historiography by, for example, putting into relief the extent to which same-sex sexual experiences are excluded from biographies of noted figures, or to which sensibilities resulting from same-sex attraction are excluded from literary and artistic consideration of important works, and so on.

However, many, especially in the academic world, regard the use of modern labels as problematic, owing to differences in the ways that different societies constructed sexual orientation identities and to the connotations of modern words like "queer." For example, in many societies same-sex sex acts were expected, or completely ignored, and no identity was constructed on their basis at all. Academic works usually specify which words will be used and in which context. Readers are cautioned to avoid making assumptions about the identity of historical figures based on the use of the terms mentioned above.


Throughout history, many sexual and romantic relations took the form of pederasty, that is, they were characterized by a marked age difference and the fixed assignment of sexual roles. In recent times this has been mostly commented upon in or associated with same-sex relationships, however many, including the late historian John Boswell, argue that this is a current misconception or exaggeration facilitated by modern conceptions of sexuality and historical heterosexist censorship. Boswell notes the current usage of terms such as boyfriend and girlfriend to refer to adults in relationships with age peers and gives historical examples of such usage.


AIDS has profoundly changed sexuality. It was first noticed spreading among gay men and intravenous drug users in the 1970s and 80s. Today, the majority of the majority of victims are heterosexual women, men, and children in developing countries.

Sexuality in the West

Judaism and Christianity

Taboo and approval surrounding sexuality in Jewish and Christian culture appears to date back to at least the time of Moses and Mosaic law. Jewish and Christian culture and religion have had a profound effect on modern conceptions of sexuality and morals.

The Hebrew Patriarchs

The taboo surrounding same-sex sexuality in Jewish and Christian culture appears to date back to at least the time of Moses and Mosaic law. In the book of Leviticus we read that

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
Leviticus 18:22

Which is followed by a statement on suitable punishment.

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Leviticus 20:13

However, Jewish law also regulates different-sex sexuality.

The Early Christian Church

Christ's Teachings

It is notable that the accounts of Christ's teachings in the Gospels make no reference to homosexuality. This is likely due to the fact that first century Jerusalem still practiced the Mosaic Laws.

Council of Jerusalem

The Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 decided that although Christ may have admonished Jews to keep to their traditions and laws these were not required of gentiles converting to Christianity, who did not for instance need to be circumcised, and could continue to enjoy shellfish. The Council's final communication to the various gentiles churches was,

That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
Acts 15:29

It seems to be a matter of opinion whether fornication, translated in more modern versions as sexual immorality, would include all forms of homosexuality, or applied only to unfaithfulness, promiscuity, and incest.

Saint Paul

St Paul Paul, in his epistle to the Romans verified that God had not changed His mind about homosexuality. In Romans 1:27 he wrote: "And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another: men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet."



Ancient Greece

The earliest documents concerning same-sex pederastic relationships come from Ancient Greece. However, Kenneth J. Dover has claimed that such relationships did not replace marriage between man and woman, but occurred before and beside it. A mature man would never have a mature male mate, one notable exception being Alexander the Great , but he would be the erastes (lover) to a young eromenos (loved one). In this relationship it was considered improper for the eromenos to feel desire, as that would not be masculine. Driven by desire and admiration, the erastes would devote himself unselfishly to providing all the education his eromenos required to thrive in society. In recent times, the research by Dover has been questioned in light of massive evidence of love poetry which suggests a more emotional connection than earlier researchers liked to acknowledge. Some research has shown that ancient Greeks believed semen, more specifically sperm, to be the source of knowledge, and that these relationships served to pass wisdom on from the erastes to the eromenos within society.

Ancient Rome

The deification of Antinous, his medals, statues, temples, city, oracles, and constellation, are well known, and still dishonor the memory of Hadrian. Yet we remark, that, of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.
Edward Gibbon

The Middle Ages


Chaucer's Pardoner [1]

19th Century

Early Twentieth Century

For events in Germany see the articles on Magnus Hirschfeld and Homosexuals in Nazi Germany.

Wolfenden Report

Main article: Wolfenden report


Freud, among others, argued that neither predominately different- nor same-sex sexuality were the norm, instead that what is called "bisexuality" is the normal human condition thwarted by society. A 1901 medical dictionary lists heterosexuality as "perverted" different-sex attraction, while by the 1960's its use in all forums referred to "normal" different-sex sexuality.

In Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, popularly known as the Kinsey Reports.

Homosexuality was deemed to be a psychiatric disorder for many years, although the studies this theory was based on were later determined to be flawed. In 1982 homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in the United Kingdom. In 1986 all references to homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder were removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.

Sexual "Revolution"

The different-sex sexual ideal becomes completely separated from procreation, yet at the same time is distanced from same-sex sexuality. Many people view this freeing of different-sex sexuality as leading to more freedom for same-sex sexuality.

Gay-rights Movement

See Gay Rights

Stonewall Riot

Main article: stonewall riots

The stonewall riots were a series of violent conflicts between New York City police officers and the gay men and transgender women at the Stonewall Inn, a gay hangout in Greenwich Village. The riot began on Friday, June 27, 1969. "Stonewall", as it is often called, is considered the start of the modern gay rights movement in the U.S. and worldwide. It was the first time any significant body of gays resisted arrest. For many, this is the primal scene of the modern gay rights movement.

Sexuality outside the Western Ambit




See also

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45