A Brief History of Sexuality

A Brief History of Sexuality

In my final year of university, I took a module called Sexualities in History, which explored all aspects of sexuality – from homosexuality, to sex work, to pornography, and more – across different periods of history around the world. It was hands down one of my favourite modules of my entire degree, and it really challenged me and the way I thought about sex and sexuality.

Today I thought I’d share with you five of the (many) things I learned throughout the course of the module – some of which you may know, some of which you may not.

Sexuality is natural… or is it?

Being of the liberal persuasion, I was always a firm believer in the idea that human beings were born with their sexualities. For some people, that sexuality is heterosexual; for some, homosexual; for others, bisexual; and for others still, asexual (plus a whole host of other sexualities that I don’t have space to list here).

I had always kind of assumed that this was the general belief of most people who had done any kind of research into sexuality, and that it was only people like Mike Pence that insisted homosexuality was ‘caused’ by something – be that God’s wrath, child abuse, or any number or other things.

Turns out I was wrong. A huge number of scholars of sexuality – and I mean like, proper scholars who have PhDs and articles published in prestigious journals – firmly believe that sexuality is an entirely socially and historically constructed phenomenon.

The argument goes that since sexual practices and sexuality have changed so dramatically over time, and since concepts of sexuality vary so much between different cultures, there is little evidence to suggest that sexuality is a biological thing.

That’s not to say that people choose their sexualities, or can choose to stop being whatever sexuality they identify with. Indeed, you sexuality is determined by such a vast number of things, most of which you have no control over. The historian Edward Stein sums it up nicely:

Just as one might not be able to choose to be a member of any social or economic class, even though membership in such a class is a cultural artefact, so too might it be that sexual orientation is determined, even though sexual orientation is a social construct.

The Ancient Greeks were hella gay – but not in the way you think

There’s a common belief that the ancient civilisations – but especially the Greeks – were extremely open-minded about sexuality; that they didn’t care who you had sex with; and that homosexuality was pretty much the norm.

Whilst it is true that the Ancient Greeks did engage in a lot of homosexual behaviour, it is not as simple as saying that they were totally fine with homosexuality.

In fact, they probably didn’t know what homosexuality was. Indeed, homosexuality is an incredibly recent concept, dating back only to the nineteenth century. So whilst the Greeks did engage in same-sex activity, they would not have classified themselves as homosexual. Or any sexual identity for that matter.

Furthermore, sex in Ancient Greece was less about desire and attraction, and more about power relations. Men had sex with men not as a way of expressing their sexual desires, but as a way of asserting their power. Indeed, elite men were really only socially ‘allowed’ to engage in homosexual activity with men who were of a lesser status – i.e. young boys who weren’t yet considered adults, and slaves who weren’t considered citizens.

Sexuality isn’t a private affair

It’s a common mantra that sexuality and sex are individual, private phenomena – that what goes on between two consenting adults in the bedroom should stay between those two consenting adults in the bedroom.

But sex and sexuality is a lot more political, and a lot more public than that. Indeed, sexuality has always been tangled up with politics – you need only look at the history of LGBT+ activism to understand that.

Whether it’s the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the fight for trans rights in the 21st century, the repression of sexuality by the Church from the Middle Ages onwards, or the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon in the 16th century, politics and sex have always gone hand in hand.

Sexuality is deeply entangled with racism

The subjugation of other races by the European empires brought with it a whole host of new ideas, practices and control surrounding sexuality.

For example, the rape of colonial women by European was a way of asserting European (read: white), supremacy; and the banning of interracial marriages and relations was brought about by fears that non-white ‘subjects’ were sexually contaminated, and that they could ‘taint’ the white bloodlines.

Moreover, there is a theory that European colonisation was brought about precisely because of sexuality. The theory goes that European men in the nineteenth century were so frustrated by the apparent repression of sex in Europe, that they went to the colonies to release their sexual energy. Colonisation, therefore, was simply the manifestation of the repressed sexual desires of European men.

Freud was really fucking weird

There’s not really a lot more to say on this one.

So there you have it, five things I learned about sex and sexualities during my time at university. If you’re currently at university, or thinking about pursuing higher education, and you get offered a module on sexuality (whether its in history, psychology, literature, biology, or any other discipline), I highly recommend you take it.

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