Heterosexuality Socially Constructed


‘Heterosexuality is socially constructed.' Discuss

Not only heterosexuality, but the very word, has changed in the way it is understood. I begin this essay with a clarification of terms, discussing what is understood by sexuality and gender and the implications of constructivist views. From this it is natural to move on to a discussion of labelling theory, of the effects of heteronormativity and of homovisibility, noting Foucault's recognition of positive implications in terms of difference. Finally, I consider how arguments against heteronormativity might be answered, in part, by Foucault.

Constructionists hold human behaviour is socially constructed, by the environment in which people live. They do not consider human behaviour to be innate or immutable, as they believe human behaviour is shaped by their social context throughout their lives. They hold that sexuality is also socially constructed and sexual behaviour to be a product of socio-cultural conditioning. Sexual meanings are not universal absolutes, but are subject to historical and cultural variation. (DeLamater, Hyde, 1998, p.16)

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Constructionists regard the meaning of a sexual act as dependent solely on the cultural, historically specific context in which it occurs; they believe that sexuality is expressed in many different forms across a variety of different cultures in many countries. A sexual act in one country might not be construed as sexual in another. (Weeks, 1991. p. 20)

This is evident in the anthropological study of a tribe in New Guinea. It is part of this tribe's cultural belief that masculinity can be transmitted by insemination of semen to a young boy, either anally or orally, by an older male. (Herdt, 1984 p.165) In western society this could be perceived as a homosexual act, or, for essentialists, used as evidence of universality. But for constructionists this behaviour cannot be generalised to the larger population; constructionists suggest that labelling these acts as homosexual is incorrect as the tribe do not apply the same meaning to these acts as in western culture: to impose the same understanding as in the west would be ethnocentric. (Gergen, K. 1999. p. 26)

Social constructionists want to chart ways that the meanings of sexual desires shift throughout history. Social constructionists regard sexual desire as contingent, not biologically determined as viewed by essentialists. (Warner, 1993 p.45)

Michel Foucault (1981) works analyzed the history of sexuality from ancient Greece to the modern era. Foucault articulated how profoundly understandings of sexuality can vary across time and space. This is demonstrated by how the prevalence of what we now term heterosexuality has varied over the centuries and also from culture to culture. This is discussed by Foucault, who also notes that, although sexual behaviours in ancient societies resemble what we today see as homosexual/ heterosexual behaviour, the terms are not congruent with ancient societies. For example the ancient Greeks did not have terms or concepts that correspond to the contemporary dichotomy of ‘heterosexual' and ‘homosexual' therefore to this different historical context the modern terminology cannot be accurately applied. (Foucault, 1981, p.89)

Constructionists aim to gain a deeper understanding of sexual phenomena and are not primarily interested in the first cause of sexual orientation: they look at understanding the ways in which differences in sexual behaviour are ‘produced' by social processes in a particular social context. Constructionists aim to understand how we express and organise sexuality and why labels of difference in specific areas have been invented in some cultures and not others; why a particular culture accepts one form of sexual expression and not another; and how heteronormativity has come to dominate modern western society. (DeLamater, Hyde, 1998, p.10) These important questions I will investigate in my essay.

Constructionists can identify many historical contexts where individuals have engaged in same-sex relations, but it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that terminology labelled categories of sexual acts as specifically either heterosexual or homosexual. They suggest, therefore, that these terms contributed to the construction of sexuality in the western modern era. (Katz, 1995, p.45)

Ned Katz is an important figure in the sexuality studies and he supports the constructionists' argument. In The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995) he looks at how the meaning of the term heterosexuality changes throughout time. Katz notes that the term 'heterosexuality' (Heterosexualität) was first used in 1868 by German-Hungarian journalist, Karl Maria Kertbeny, not long after the term 'homosexuality' was coined by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. 'Heterosexuality' made its first published appearance in English in a medical publication in 1869. (Katz, 1995, p.40) At first, the term heterosexuality was not used as homosexual's binary opposite but was used to describe "abnormal manifestations of the sexual appetite", either same sex or opposite sex, which did not conform to social norms that held that sex was 'for' procreation. At one time the term ‘sodomite' had a similar meaning, this term was applied to people engaged in specific non-procreative sex acts, and related to the activity rather than their holistic sexual identity. (Katz, 1995, p.45) This distinction between the activity performed by someone who, among many other things, does that (a baker bakes, and a sodomite sodomises) and a person defined in a particular way regardless of activity (a woman, a Jew) is now largely lost in contemporary use of gender labels, which now seem inescapable.

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Furthermore Katz suggests that in the 1920s the term was revisited in the second edition of the publication: ‘heterosexuality' was then used to describe a "manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality." (Katz, 1995, p.42) This term became well established and was used by Freud to describe 'normal' sexuality. However this adaptation, used by scientists and physicians, signifies the start of heteronormativity as it suggests that sexual passion for the opposite sex was 'normal', healthy and superior influencing the rise of what Rich terms 'compulsory heterosexuality'. (1994, p.45) Creating this distinction between normal and abnormal sexual preferences encouraged scientists and physicians to seek 'cures' for those considered abnormal, thus compromising the liberty of the segregated and aggrandising the professional who diagnosed deviance. (Rivkin and Ryan: 1998, p.670) This was supported by Foucault, who writes that “it was this categorisation of homosexuality that first exposed the hitherto unfettered and unmonitored human sexual desire to scientific scrutiny and classification” (Rivkin and Ryan, 1998, p.677). Katz suggests that "If homosexuals were to win society-wide equality with heterosexuals, there'd be no reason to distinguish them." (Katz, 1995, p.52) Furthermore, he holds that if homosexuals and hetrosexual do "win society- wide equality […] the homosexual/heterosexual distinction would be retired from use, just as it was once invented." (Katz, 1995, p.52)

The term 'heteronormativity' was coined by Michael Warner, to contest "the elemental form of human association" (Warner, 1993, p.21). This term describes how society has been dominated by heteronormative behaviour through the prevalence of ‘compulsory heterosexuality'. Warner suggests that heterosexuality has become an institutionalised form of normative social practice. (p.22)

Heteronormativity describes the dominating societal norms that shape individuals' behaviour, pressuring the individual to conform to accepted cultural forms. This suggests some discomfort and constraint, finely distinguished from Foucault's suggestion that “the individual is not repressed by social order; the individual is in fact formed by it" (Foucault: 1981, p.217).

Heteronormativity has consequences for that minority who do not comply with normative society, for example homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, and intersexual people; individuals who deviate from atypical accepted heteronormativity are liable to heterosexism as they face prejudice and discrimination by some in the conforming proportion majority. (Warner, 1993, p.23) Heteronormativity has been reinforced by religious beliefs, partly through the prevalence of Christianity in western culture. The major western faiths reject homosexuality and elevated heterosexuality as the only accepted sexual preference. Although there have been disagreements on interpretation of the bible, the influence of institutional faith has largely underpinned heteronormativity. (Warner, 1993, p.27)

Heteronormativity is demonstrated at the moment of birth: individuals are quickly assigned to a sex category dependent on their sexual organs and therefore expected to conform to social gender roles. The power and dominance of heteronormativity is apparent when intersexual babies, with both male and female sex organs, are born. Intersexuals do not conform to 'normal' categories and this deviance generates such anxiety that some intersex babies have surgery shortly after birth to assign their sexual organs and their gender to either a male or female sex category - obviously without their consent. (Dreger, 1998, p.45) This demonstrates the extent in which heteronormativity has come to dominate modern western society. This type of operation has been reported to cause problems with sexual pleasure in later life. This begs the question, is conforming to heteronormativity necessary if it conflicts with personal preference or if it has negative implications for the individual? Hetronormativity can be challenged by increaseing homovisability, Societal visability of gay couples, gay teachers, or even open conversation about homosexuality can reduce the dominance of hetronormativity (Dreger, 1998, p.44)

Judith Butler (1991) challenges heteronormative views in her publication Imitation and Gender through challenging binary sexual (and gender) categories, thus demoting heterosexuality's dominance, reducing its normative power by increasing homovisibility and awareness of alternative sexual orientation, which in turn makes alternative sexual preferences more socially acceptable. She holds that sexual identities and desires are constantly changing: sexual expression is intertwined with societal power relations. (p.727) For example, in ancient Greece, in determining sexual preference the gender of a partner was less significant than whether or not someone took the active or passive role in sexual relations. This demostrates how power relations are intertwined into sexuality. Similar influences are also at work in contemporary stereotypes as womon are frequently portrayed as the passive sexual partner and men the active partner, however this perception is changing. (Dover, 1989. p.89).

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Butler suggests that hetronormativity is reinforced through socio-cultural conditioning and also via the transmitting of visual culture which promotes hetero-visability and homo-invisability. This notion is supported by Richard Dyer (1993), who holds that contemporary cinema plays a vital role in maintaining heteronormativity (p.726)

Butler also investigates gender categories, and the implications categories of difference have on gender identity and gender roles. Butler argues that men and woman are essentially the same apart from different organization of sexual organs and, as a feminist; she defends individuals' rights to equality. Foucault would support this as he would argue that our habit of categorising the world in a ‘gendered' way is itself a social construction. He states that "when you view the world through the lens of gender differences, gender differences will be found." (McNay, 1992, p.121)

Butler (1991) believes that gender - like sexuality - is socially constructed. She suggests that gender is not something we are, but something we do. She holds that individuals play out a role that is socially enforced upon them through social conditioning. Gender roles assigned at birth are based on individual's biological sex; this gender role is played throughout individuals' lives. (p.720) Furthermore, Butler like Katz, holds that heteronormativity could not exist without the categorisation made by terms of difference and therefore questions the whole purpose of their invention. (p.723)

While the theories already discussed recognise the power of categorisation and a 'norm' Foucault is more explicit about the political effects of consciousness. Foucault, in History of Sexuality (1981), challenged essentialist assumptions, and his ideas have been important in the constructionist approach to sexuality. Foucault suggests that the way that individuals are categorised by difference is part of a larger social discourse that is representative of the power relationships within society. Foucault holds that these power relations are constantly changing depending on historical and cultural context and that there are also positive implications to the generation of terms of difference. These terms can provide recognition and power to people otherwise invisible, and provide leverage for visibility, a source of pride and political power in order to fight for their right to equality. He suggests that segregating homosexuals in this way heightens homo-visibility, and homosexuals feel part of a collective who can create their own subcultures, fighting the dominance of heteronormativity. (p.67) Increased homovisability can be demonstrated by the gay liberation movement in the Stonewall protests, and the extent of popular support for the London Lighthouse.

All constructivists hold that heterosexuality is socially constructed: indeed, all behaviour is product of socio-cultural conditioning. Similarly, all hold that heterosexually is a social construct that is culturally and historical dependent on the social context in which the term is used. Ned Katz, in particular, looks at the evolution of the term heterosexual and demonstrates the way the meaning of the term has changed throughout time, supporting the constructivists' claim that sexuality is historically and culturally contingent. (Katz, 1995, p.52) With such consensus, what evidence is there to the contrary?

Firstly, essentialists suggest that homosexual and heterosexual acts are historically consistent. This argument seems to be supported by Darwin's evolutionary theory that holds heterosexuality is essential for reproduction and the continuation of the species, and that there is regularity and consistency in some patterns of sexual behaviour, displayed across space and time. This might seem a strong criticism of the constructionist position as it suggests that sexuality is rooted in our biological nature rather than a product of social conditioning. Secondly, another question that must be asked of constructionists is that, if those who are considered deviant face heterosexism and discrimination, why would they choose to 'come out' and face the negative implications of a homophobic society? Also, the constructionist suggestion that all behaviour is a product of social conditioning can also be questioned, as it fails to explain why transexuals seek gender reasignment. Finally, the constructionist argument cannot account for those who generally believe that they are born with the biological sex organs that do not correspond with their psychological sex.

Paradoxically, perhaps Foucault provides an answer to the final two questions as, although he agrees the terms heterosexual and homosexual are of modern construction and therefore cannot be used to describe same sex or opposite sexual relations that have existed before the modern era, he also suggests that labels of difference have positive implications for the segregated: a shared label is a collective identity, providing them with the public visibility need to fight for equality. People might suffer prejudice, but the reality of their experience is recognised and endorsed by the labels of difference.


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