Jonathan Ned Katz: The Social-Historical Structure of Sexual Activity

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A Model for Studying the Construction of Sexualities

with Special Reference to Heterosexuality



The Social-Historical Structure of Sexualities and Genders

The Social-Historical Construction of Sexualities and Genders

This essay is intended as a contribution to understanding the social and historical construction of sexualities and genders in all their diverse and specific manifestations.

I argue that our present understanding of the great variety of sexualities and genders over time, and of change in their social-historical construction, is impeded by a long, earlier tradition in which sexualities and genders were conceived of as ahistorical -- as an unchanging, essential, ahistorical "sexuality," or as a stable, static, essential "femininity" or "masculinity."

According to that earlier and still influential model, a fundamental, universal, singular sexuality was expressed or repressed by changing social-historical conditions, but it, itself, remained basically unchanged. A timeless femininity and masculinity were thought of as natural, biological, undifferentiated from physiological sex differences.

That model of sexuality posited, for example, as an unexamined starting assumption, the existence of an essential, ahistorical "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" that remained basically the same as they encountered changing social-historical conditions.

If we give up that traditional, ahistorical model and its assumptions, we are faced with the necessity of constructing a new analytic framework that will enable us to see and understand the full range of historical sexualities and genders0. To compare and comprehend important differences in the social-historical character of different sexualities and genders, and differences in their modes of construction, we need, I argue, a general model of the social-historical structure and construction of human sexual activity and gender behavior.

In the following essay, I suggest the basic elements that constitute the social-historical construction of sexualities and genders. I end by indicating some of the implications of this analytical model.


In the early 1970s, a number of scholars, inspired by the burgeoning feminist movement, and the movement for gay and lesbian liberation, began to research the history of sexuality and gender. Though substantial work in sexual history and society had preceded ours, we brought to this research a new, overtly personal concern – we often made it clear that we were researching for our lives. We also worked then with a concern about what Kate Millett called "sexual politics" -- the ways in which the the sexual was deeply imbedded in power relations between sexes, genders, classes, ethnicities, and races. We researched with a serious, dedicated concern to understand the historical diversity of sexuality, and about how changes in sexuality came about over time. We began to study the the historical diversity and construction of femininities and masculinities.

As I write in June 2013, more than 40 years into researching the history of sexuality, we’ve made great progress in data recovery, in the complexity our analyses of this data, and in clarifying our starting assumptions. But we’re still struggling mightily, I believe, against a powerful ahistorical idea of sexuality and gender. This clouds our understanding of the erotic and gender as fully historical. Our new understanding of a sexuality and gender that is constructed by people over time, and that is various and changing, is still colliding with a hugely powerful, older, time-stopping paradigm of a natural, essential, universal, static, ahistorical sexuality and gender.

For example, historians of sexuality now often claim something like the following: “Sexual acts, among them, heterosexual acts, are universal. But sexual identities, among them, heterosexual identities, are historically specific, time-bound phenomena.” Such statements assert the transhistorical, universal, essential character of sexual and, specifically, heterosexual acts in order to stress the historical character of sexual identities – the phenomena of people experiencing themselves, or being defined by others, as sexual or, specifically, heterosexual beings.

To claim that sexual acts, among them heterosexual acts, are not universal and did not exist until their construction at a particular time, in particular societies, completely defies today’s common sense. Did not women and men always participate in erotic acts with each other? The assertion that they did not now seems so strongly counterintuitive as to qualify as crackpot. Despite the danger of appearing bonkers, I’ll argue in this essay for that supposedly crackpot idea.

Our difficulty understanding sexuality and gender as fully historical is illustrated by a second example: The present modern concepts that dominate our thinking about sexuality -- heterosexuality and homosexuality -- assume a basic link between eroticism and gender. Hetero and homo posits the universal existence of a "different-sex and "same-sex" distinction in the experience and enactment of sexuality. But my own research and that of others suggests that it was not until the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that gender difference was thought of as linked to sexual difference.

Researchers now commonly recognize the fact that different societies have organized sexuality in substantially different ways, fostering substantially different historicaly-specific, time-bound forms of sexual expression. Scholars now often recognize the distorting effect and problem in understanding that arises when we apply our terms and concepts heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality to quite different time-bound and/or culture-limited forms of sexuality.

manifested in the fact that the terms heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality were not used to characterize acts, desires, relationships, or persons before a particular date in a particular society (though they argue about what date and what society).

The same researchers then often pay further lip service to the problem of terminological, conceptual, and even, sometimes, a more profound phenomenological anachronism. That is the problem of the distorting effect produced when later terms and concepts are used in the present as though they were used to refer to the sexual forms of the past. Having cited the problem of anachronistic distortion, many of these same writers then immediately go on to use present terms and concepts (heterosexuality, for example) as though the sexuality to which they refer has existed eternally and everywhere.

A third problem in understanding a fully historical sexuality manifests itself this way: In order to study the history of heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality, or to ask questions about other historical forms of sexuality, we now necessarily start by positing the existence of an essential, universal sexuality -- that which takes different historical forms. But historians have begun to demonstrate that sexuality, the term, concept, and the phenomenon, are all historically specific and time-bound. If we want to explore this possible, fundamental historicity of sexuality, asking whether or not sexuality is an unchanging, essential, ahistorical phenomenon, we can’t start by positing its existence as ahistorical. That’s precisely the sort of common conceptual hypothesis we need to question if we are to develop a more fully historical understanding of sexuality and its changing forms. But if we try, from the start, to reject the idea of an essential, ahistorical sexuality our object of study begins to flicker ominously and vanish. The problem of the disappearing sexual object of study is one to which I will return.

A fourth and last problem in understandinga fully historical sexuality: If we want to explore the degree to which a past form of sexuality was similar to or different from our present heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality we need a historical model of sexuality that will allow us to compare the same elements across times and cultures --we need a transhistorical model of sexuality. But a transhistorical model starts by positing the existence of an essential sexuality that crosses time and cultures, just the ahistorical hypothesis we were hoping to reject. All these conceptual and analytical problems are daunting.

The basic issue, as I see it, is that all of us, even those most dedicated to developing an understanding of a socially produced, historically specific sexuality and heterosexuality, are having serious trouble thinking ourselves out of and beyond today’s dominant conceptions of sexuality and its most famous variants, heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. To move conceptually beyond our own society’s historical forms of sexuality, to think ourselves beyond our own society’s powerful, dominant ahistorical ideas of sexuality, we need new intellectual tools. We need those new mental tools in order to imagine a fully historical sexuality, and to begin to solve difficult conceptual and analytical problems I’ve described.

If we are to continue to historicize sexuality, or better, if we are to continue to expand our understanding of sexuality as historical, requires us, I think, to develop a clearer vision of sexuality as a whole. In order to better understand sexuality in its historically specific manifestations we need a macroscoplic, transhistorical vision of sexuality, its basic elements, their relationships, and structure. Today, historically oriented researchers of sexuality are working pragmatically, as best they can, making their way through the unknown land of sexuality without such a framework or map to guide them. A major goal of this essay is to schematically outline such a paradigm, a model of a fully historical sexuality. Ultimately, as my subtitle hints, I’ll argue that, to study a fully historical sexuality, we need a historical model of pleasure. But more about pleasure later.

3 <ONGOING CONCERNS: POLITICIS AND POWER> Though I focus here on my own struggle to theorize the history of sexuality, the work of sexual history research and analysis has certainly been a collective labor, stimulated, as I’ve said, by mass political movements, and encouraged by the existence of audiences eager, even desperate to understand their place in the social and historical world. It was, for example, at a meeting of the media committee of New York City’s Gay Activists Alliance, in the winter of 1971, in an apartment on west 16th Street, in then unfashionable Chelsea, that we were discussing ways to publicize the existence of our new, militant gay and lesbian liberation movement. I then made a vow to look for documents of gay and lesbian American history and to develop a theater piece based on the evidence I supposed I could find. I was inspired by Martin Duberman’s documentary play, “In White America,” by my own radio documentaries on Black American history, and by the books by feminists on women’s history just then beginning to be published. From the start, work on Black history and women’s history encouraged research on the gay and lesbian past.

I stress that a political meeting led to my first research on homosexual history and the theater piece, Coming Out!, presented at the Gay Activists Alliance Fire House, in then unfashionable SOHO, in June 1972. The fact that my and other’s work on sexual history owes its existence directly to an organized, in-your-face, sexual liberation movement can be forgotten as this intellectual work is professionalized within academia and recedes in time from its clearly political origins. Our work on a history of sexuality was, from the start, and continues to be a political struggle, as well as an intellectual labor. My continuing interest in the changing power politics of sexuality is evident in this essay in my discussion of the means of action and power used to create radically different social organizations of sexuality, some of them humane, tolerant, and friendly to diverse forms of pleasure, others downright hostile.

As I write this in 2005, looking back on the thirtythree years since that meeting, it’s clear that the concerns informing the present essay have been ongoing. In the early 1970s, a major concern of mine was to document, to demonstrate that sufficient amounts of evidence could be found to create a rich, plausible account of the lesbian and gay past. My collections of documents, Gay American History (1976) and Gay/Lesbian Almanac (1982), showed that no lack of evidence had caused the lack of interest in the gay and lesbian past. My continuing interest in evidence, and in the empirical grounding of theory, is manifested in this essay by the illustrations offered to clarify abstract points.

A third concern has been to think about how we think about a historical sexuality. The concern has been to historicize, to understand the conceptual assumptions and analytical implications of a fully historical sexuality. That long-range, ongoing goal is evident here in my effort here to outline the elements and structure of a new thought tool, a model of fully historical sexuality, and, finally, a historical model of pleasure.

Fourth, my long-term interest in sexual history is certainly related to a personal concern to understand how people, in particular past societies have managed to combine, or failed to combine, sexuality with intimacy. (Gay American History contained a chapter on “Love” that considered the historical varieties of eros and affection. And, twenty-five years later, my book Love Stories (2001) explored the same theme, studying sexual and intimate relations between men in the nineteenth century.) My long-term concern to understand the fate of sexuality and affection under different historical conditions is certainly one prime motivation for this essay.

A fifth concern that developed surprisingly, without premeditation, was to understand heterosexual history, a subject first discussed in Gay/Lesbian Almanac, and most fully studied in my book The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995). As readers of this essay will already have gathered, the examples offered will focus on heterosexuality, and only secondarily on homosexuality and bisexuality. For, among those three contemporary sexualities, heterosexuality is still most often and most emphatically thought of as ahistorical. The history of heterosexuality thus provides the most striking insights into the temporal, changing character of sexuality in general.

A sixth continuing interest has been to comprehend the role of words and ideas in the making of sexualities, a subject to which I also return.

Rationale NEXT?

Rationale But why should intellectuals and scholars of varied interests, not just historians of sexuality, be interested in a model of a socially and historically constructed sexuality?

(1) Because sexuality has been and is influential in society and a valued part of personal life; understanding its historical varieties is therefore a worthy endeavor.

(2) The model of a historically constructed sexuality can help us all break with the still powerful, ahistorical conception of sexuality as a monolithic, unchanging, timeless, essential thing.

(3) A historical model can assist us in putting sexuality systematically into question, and in clarifying sexuality’s changing historical forms.

(4) This model can provide a general overview of sexuality’s basic elements and social organization, and a map and guide to studying it.

(5) A historical model can help us see how the elements of a constructed sexuality are socially organized, and related to constructions of gender, race, ethnicity, politics, the economy, culture, and social life.

(6) Such a model can assist us in asking clear, revealing questions about sexuality’s making and change over time.

(7) This model can help us to new insights about heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality, and aid us in distinguishing other historically specific sexualities.

(8) Researchers need this conceptual tool to help them make systematic comparisons across time, and to elucidate continuities and discontinuities in sexual systems and the forms of sexual expression.

(9) A model of a fully historical sexuality can help us clarify what, exactly, we are interested in researching when we set out to study sexuality or pleasure.

(10) Even disagreements with this model’s basic assumptions can help us to better understand history’s sexualities, and to formulate clearer, revised, or alternative frameworks.

(11) Given the surprising way that the new history of homosexuality contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from criminalizing homosexual activity, a more developed, nuanced history of sexuality might just turn out to contribute to the global movement for everyone’s sexual rights, civil and human.

(12) In my more grandiose moments I imagine that clarifying the social and historical construction of pleasure-sex can help us to collectively construct a more pleasurable life on earth.

TRANSITION? Recent research on sexual history provides striking evidence that past forms of sexuality have differed substantially from the twentieth-century’s standard threesome: heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. The sexual systems of early-colonial North America, the early-nineteenth century U.S., and the twentieth century U.S., for example, were organized in substantially different ways and produced substantially different forms of sexual expression.

A growing number of researchers now understand the varied forms of sexuality as “constructed” or “produced” at particular times, under specific social conditions. But these researchers lack an explicit conceptual model of the basic elements and structure of a socially and historically constructed sexuality. They lack a macroscopic paradigm of sexuality as historical. In this essay I will therefore propose a general model of the elements and structure of a historically constructed sexuality. I will discuss the hypotheses on which this model is based, this framework’s character as a conceptual and analytical tool, and I will provide some illustrations of how I’ve used this schema in my own conceptualizing and analysis of sexual history.

Hypotheses The construction of this conceptual model involves numbers of hypotheses about the social and historical character of sexuality, all of which I will try to make explicit. The proposed model builds upon the sociological idea of a constructed sexuality, first formulated in the 1960s by John Gagnon and William Simon. It builds also on the analytical tools formulated by Gayle Rubin, Kate Millet, and other feminists in the early 1970s -- the idea of sexuality as a "sex/gender system" and a changing social-historical "institution." This model of a historically constructed sexuality is also inspired by the Marxist idea of changing productive orders organized by human beings in fundamentally different ways. And lastly, this model clarifies and makes explicit theoretical hypotheses, methodological procedures, and analytical practices that have sometimes remained implicit or only partly developed in recent work in sexual history, including my last three books: Gay/Lesbian Almanac (1983); The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995); and Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality (2001), from all of which I will borrow illustrations.

Heterosexuality as Example The examples offered here will focus on heterosexuality, and only secondarily on homosexuality and bisexuality. For, among those three contemporary sexualities, heterosexuality is still most often and emphatically thought of as ahistorical. The history of heterosexuality thus provides the most striking insights into the temporal, changing character of sexuality in general.

Application of Model To answer specific questions about a particular sexuality’s historical production of sexuality or pleasure, the proposed model must be applied to empirical data. It is a conceptual and analytical tool, and its usefulness can only be established in practice – in application to evidence.

The Dominant Ahistorical Model The model of sexuality dominant today in the U.S. hypothesizes that an unchanging, eternal, natural, biological sexual essence moves through time and social structures without being fundamentally effected by them. This sexuality lies outside of history and society. Within the terms of this ahistorical model we can study changing attitudes towards a supposedly static sexuality, but we cannot hypothesize fundamental historical changes in sexuality, produced under different social arrangements.

Within the terms of the ahistorical model, heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are assumed to be biological, universal, essential variations of the assumed, original, essential sexuality. Within this model’s terms heterosexuality may be suppressed or expressed, encouraged or discouraged, and we may, without significant retrospective distortion, meaningfully refer to heterosexual desire in ancient Greece, or in the early American colonies. The ahistorical model of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality, and of sexuality in general, is actually anti-historical, since it forecloses any deep-going, substantial historical investigation.

The Semi-Historical Model A second model of sexuality has been constructed in practice, in recent work in sexual history. This model posits substantially different historical forms of sexuality, for example, ancient Greek pederasty, nineteenth-century American sodomy, and twentieth-century American heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. This model maintains the idea of a universal, essential sexual essence. But it allows that this sexual essence has taken qualitatively different, historically specific forms under different social conditions. Within this model the sexual desires and acts, distinguished as heterosexual are still understood as historical forms of an essential, universal, ahistorical sexuality. Within this semi-historical model a change-denying sexual essentialism remains powerful, despite recent attempts to critique and transcend it, and to develop our understanding of a more fully historical sexuality.

The Proposed Historical Model Within the terms of the proposed historical model neither sexuality in general, nor heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality remain assumed, unexamined starting points. Rejecting the sexual and sexuality as an unexamined first assumption forces us to ask exactly what we want to know about the past. What, exactly, is our object of historical inquiry? When we set out to research past sexualities, I suggest, our object of study is actually the changing social and historical forms of human pleasure.

Specifying human pleasure as our object of historical research provides us a conceptual tool that allows us to step outside of sexuality and analyze it as one historical form of pleasure. Positing pleasure as our object of study encourages us to analyze how sexuality was constructed historically as a preeminent, twentieth-century form of pleasure. In order to study a fully historical sexuality, in order to explore whether sexuality is essential and universal or historically specific and time-bound, we must stop assuming an essential, ahistorical sexuality. In order to study a fully historical sexuality we must reject sexuality as our object of research and take up a more fundamental, essential phenomenon – the social and historical construction of human pleasure. By positing pleasure as our essential object of study, we become free to posit a historically specific, time-bound sexuality. Pain and anxiety associated historically with pleasure in general and sexual pleasure in particular.

Within the proposed model neither sexuality in general nor any specific sexuality is conceptualized as outside of society, as timeless, universal, or essential. Sexuality in general, and all specific sexualities are hypothesized as changing, historically contingent and specific phenomena. The axiomatic idea of sexuality as a monolithic, ahistorical, essential thing is rejected as a starting assumption. <What phenomena are considered sexual in a particular historical society are basic objects of historical inquiry, as are the institutions, terms, concepts, and judgments referring to that sexuality.> Within this model (and this essay’s presentation of it), sexuality is always understood provisionally, as a short-hand way of referencing an object of study whose exact character is hypothesized as historically constructed, fundamentally changing, and otherwise unknown. The basic object of sexual history research is understood to be fundamentally in question, subject to empirical research and analytical inquiry.

What I propose is that we assume a strategic naïvite and carry the idea of a socially and historically constructed sexuality to its logical conclusion. Let us take completely literally the idea of different sexualities as products of historically constructed social systems.

About any such historically specific, constructed, provisionally-conceived sexuality we can ask:

1 Who were this sexuality’s constructors? 2 What were these constructors’ desires (aims, goals, intentions, or objectives)? 3 What preexisting materials did these constructors employ in this sexuality’s construction? 4 What means did these constructors use in this sexuality’s construction? 5 What specific acts constructed this sexuality? 6 When in time was this sexuality constructed? 7 Where in space was this sexuality constructed? 8 What, exactly, was produced when this sexuality was constructed? 9 How was the construction of this sexuality socially organized? 10 What were the relations of all the above elements to each other and to the elements of other socially and historically constructed systems (the economy, the polity, the military, the culture, etc.)?

In this first outline of a complex subject, I will offer a few words about each of this model’s elements, and provide some examples of the empirical evidence and analyses this model suggests are central. I will then elaborate further upon some basic assumptions and implications of the proposed model.

1 Constructors First, by asking about a specific sexuality’s constructors, I focus on the role of particular groups of human beings in the historical construction of this eroticism.

In The Invention of Heterosexuality I suggested how, by the nineteenth-century’s end, the birth limiting acts of the middle class meant that it was pursuing sex for pleasure, creating, in practice, a new sexuality without a name. In 1910, sexologist Havelock Ellis’s complained that we “have no simple, precise, natural word for the love of the sexes.” By 1915, however, Ellis was using word “heterosexual” as the “simple, precise,” natural-sounding word for the sex-love of the sexes.<Katz, Invention, 88> The middle-class’s non-procreative, sexual pleasure practices, I argued, created the need for a term, concept, and ideal that would help to institutionally legitimize such activity, making it seem normal, natural, and respectable. Countering the earlier, dominant idea that the sexual intercourse of women with men was only properly for reproduction, the new idea of a sexuality that was hetero and good filled the bill. The shift in respectable, middle-class practice from sex for reproduction to sex for pleasure constituted an epoch-defining break in how men and women understood and judged their desires, pleasures, acts, bodies, and relationships. The simultaneous change in the American economy from a focus on the production of means to the production of consumption goods, and the change from a work ethic to an ethic of pleasurable consumption, accompanied the shift from reproduction to sexuality.

But did middle class women and men both serve equally and similarly as heterosexuality’s constructors? Evidence suggests that women played a particular role in seeking out forms of contraception that made it possible to separate reproductive activity from pleasure-directed, specifically sexual acts. That change in the historical organization of human reproduction had far-reaching effects, creating a new, modern organization of pleasure.

In my book on heterosexual history I detailed the influential work performed by men like Karl Maria Kertbeny Benkert, Richard von Kraft Ebbing, and Sigmund Freud in creating the heterosexual term and idea. I provided evidence that heterosexuality, in its original conceptual formulations, was a word, idea, and ideal produced by men. So it seems pertinent to ask, “Does heterosexuality, in its earliest formulation and character reflect specifically masculine interests and display a specifically masculine character?” Did women and men participate at the same time in the construction of heterosexuality? Or was the idea and ideal of a normal heterosexuality of human females a later development than the idea of a normal male heterosexuality? Feminist publications of the 1960s and ‘70s, indicate that women in general , and heterosexual women in particular, have struggled to affirm their right to sexual pleasure in a way that has not been true of men, perceived, historically, as more “naturally” sexual.

Focusing on heterosexuality’s constructors raises questions about the identities of these human beings as sexed, gendered, eroticized, raced, ethnic, and culture-laden beings, and how such identities may have effected the sexual relations and ideologies produced under their influence. I refer here to an identity imposed by a present day researcher (like “constructor”), and identities self-proclaimed by past subjects (like “lover” and “friend”), and identities attributed by their contemporaries (like “true man,” “pansy” or “sodomite”).

By speaking of heterosexuality’s “constructors,” I impose a present analytical identity term on people who may or may not have had their own historical ways of identifying themselves, and of being identified by others. How women or men came to identify, and be identified, specifically and explicitly as heterosexual or homosexual is a historical phenomenon that can be traced empirically. Around 1918, for example, a young Englishman, A. J. Ackerley, met a “mocking and amusing fellow” who soon asked him: “Are you homo or hetero?” Ackerley reports: “I had never heard either term before; they were explained and there seemed only one answer….” Ackerley identified as “homo.” His testimony documents an early-twentieth-century man at the very moment he is introduced to the imperative of a hetero or homo identity.<Katz, Invention, 91>

The history of public heterosexual identifications is partly defensive, I argued, enacted when persons experienced the need to distinguish themselves from the perception of a homosexual or bisexual identity (see, for example, the 1989 declaration of New York City’s bachelor mayor, Edward Koch). <Illustration: “Koch: ‘I’m Heterosexual’,” New York Newsday, front page, March 16, 1989, front page.> The political history of public declarations of heterosexual identities is yet to be seriously explored.<CHECK>

In Invention, I discussed the heterosexual identity publicly and defensively asserted by the actor, Cliff Gorman, creator of the “definitive screaming queen” in The Boys in the Band, the macho excess of which was conveyed wickedly and hilariously in a New York Times interview, in 19XX<?>.<Katz, Invention, 109-11> The private claiming for oneself of a specifically heterosexual identity is also a twentieth-century phenomenon that can be studied empirically when recorded in diaries, letters, and memoirs.

While we in the present may identify a specific sexuality’s constructors as particular sorts of actors we should not assume the universal existence of a sexual identity, either one affirmed by sexual actors or attributed to them by others. The constructors of particular historical sexualities may or may not have identified themselves as such, or been identified as such by others. Whatever the case, the analytical term constructor points us to the particular historical agents of any particular, historical sexuality, as a major, initiatory, creative element in its production.

Desire Second, asking about the desire (aim, goal, intention, or objective) of sexuality’s constructors, I refer to a subjective aspect of human productive activity, and the feelings, ideas, language, and value judgments basic to that creative process.

For example, in 1868, Kertbeny Benkert is first known to have privately used a number of new terms coined by him, among them “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” He first used his word homosexual publicly in 1869, in a leaflet against the adoption of an “unnatural fornication” law throughout a united Germany. His aim was to oppose the extension of the law against sexual relations between men (sexual relations between women were not criminalized). The first public use of Benkert’s word heterosexual occurred in Germany, in 1880, in a published defense of homosexuality.<Katz, Invention, 52-54>. So the term heterosexual was invented and first used in the cause of homosexual emancipation.

Kertbeny Benkert’s term heterosexual did not, in its original formulation, signify the virtuous, so it was appropriated and modified later by Sigmund Freud and others to name a good, normal, final stage of human sexual development. That normalizing and naturalizing, at least, unconsciously, served Freud’s and other men’s aim of legitimating their own sexual pleasure.

By positing desire (aim, goal, intention, or objective) as a basic analytical element of a historical sexuality, I hypothesize that this subjective element is central to any sexuality’s production. By pointing, for example, to the human desire behind heterosexuality’s construction, I reject the idea of any inborn, natural heterosexual “drive,” “instinct,” “want,” or “need,” the major terms by which biological and evolutionary models of heterosexuality frame this subjective aspect of human sexual activity.

Materials Third, asking about the preexisting materials out of which a specific sexuality is constructed, I focus attention on earlier social-historical arrangements and practices of sexuality and on the ideologies that supported them.

For example, in The Invention of Heterosexuality I stressed how the earlier reproductive standard of proper intercourse explained the now startling tradition, recorded as late as 1923, in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary, in which “heterosexuality,” perceived as not-necessarily procreative, was defined as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” This judgment of heterosexuality as sick or perverted was by no means a misconception, as an early edition of the Oxford English Dictionary suggested, but a definitional tradition based on an absolute reproductive standard. Understood according to this standard as not necessarily reproductive, a sexuality that was hetero was morally condemned.

I suggest that the preexisting practices, institutions, and ideologies out of which any sexuality is constructed constitute the raw materials upon which that production of sexuality is built.

Means Asking, fourth, about the means used in a specific sexuality’s production, I refer to bodily and biological means, among others. A useful model of a historically constructed sexuality certainly needs to affirm the physical, bodily materiality of sexual desires and acts, and of genes, hormones, brains, organs, orifices, and physiological responses. But a historical model of sexuality can help us to locate the human body and its biological processes within the larger social and historical system in which a particular sexuality is produced.

Considering the biological means of sexual activity within the context of a larger social-historical organization of sexuality allows us to see how particular bodily means function and signify differently within different sexual systems. For example, Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur discuss how the “same” sexual organs have been conceptualized in qualitatively different historical ways. They analyze how a penis was once thought of as the original and paradigmatic sexual organ and a vagina considered an inverted penis. <CHECK AND EXPAND UPON and give more examples: e.g. “reproductive organs” vs. “pleasure tools”>

<Add section on bodily energy as another important means of sexual activity. Discuss: (1) the masturbation theorists’ idea of a fixed amount of bodily energy that, if used up on non-reproductive pleasure, would be squandered, wasted, lost; (2) the masturbation theorists’ hydraulic theory that if sexual energy is damned up, and not given outlet in reproductive acts, it will burst forth in uncontrolled and perhaps criminal ways; (3) Freud on “libido”; (4) Wilhelm Reich on “orgone”; (5) compare with Marx on “labor power,” the energy that workers contribute to production, which, under capitalism, and earlier forms of social organization, is alienated in their product and appears to them as foreign, animating, dominating power.>

The means used in sexuality’s production are also the words, concepts, and judgments used to hypothesize a sexuality’s existence as a particular sort of thing, as, say, heterosexuality, or homosexuality, or bisexuality. The means of heterosexuality’s production include the media used to distribute the word heterosexual and the idea around the globe. Among those means of heterosexuality’s production and distribution are fiction and non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines, movies, plays, and songs. The Invention of Heterosexuality specifies the means used in the U.S. to produce and distribute the heterosexual idea and ideal, and to normalize practices called heterosexual, as the standard model of twentieth-century sexuality.

Within the proposed model, I include both material and ideological means as among the major tools used to construct particular historical sexualities as distinct sorts of phenomena. (I elaborate on this later.)

Acts Fifth, by asking what specific acts construct a particular sexuality, I draw attention to what people do in bed (and elsewhere, as far as it is documented), how they and others conceive of that practice, with what words they name it, how they feel about it, how they judge it, and how they respond socially to it. I refer here to material, bodily practices, as well as the conceptual acts, language acts, judging acts, and visualizing acts that defined heterosexuality, for example, as the normal, natural eroticism of the twentieth century.

In my book Love Stories, about men’s sexual and intimate relations with men in the nineteenth century U.S., I discussed how the common idea of penis-vagina intromission and male orgasm as the defining act of reproductive intercourse excluded oral-genital and anal genital contacts, as well as a wide variety of other bodily contacts. Good reproductive acts were distinguished morally and conceptually from bad acts for sexual pleasure. The construction of a good, natural, sexual act that was hetero (enacted by so-called “opposite sexes”) represented a major, qualitative change in how sexual practice was socially organized, named, conceived and judged.

<ADD: 1. on the ideology of sex that said the “male sex drive” must be realized in the act of orgasm or be frustrated and unhealthy 2. Discuss whether acts that were pleasurable and desired by men also pleasurable and desired by women? 3. Study Abelove essay on “intercourse,” a particular sort of sexual activity. Ask: What makes an act specifically “heterosexual” as opposed to “intercourse” or “sex” between women and men? “Intercourse” is part of a different historical, conceptual, ideological framework than “heterosexuality.” 4. Discuss: Are acts specifically heterosexual if they are not named or conceived as such? I stress the importance, influence of sexual ideologies in historically specifying the character of particular sexual acts. 5. Discuss: Acts have social and historical identities as much as persons!!! Identity is a phenomenon and an analytical concept that does not just apply to persons, though the identities of persons have been stressed in recent work in sociology, anthropology, and history. Identity analysis has focused on persons. What does it mean to extend identity analyses to acts, desires, relationships, sexual systems, etc.? Acts have identities attributed by others in a particular time period and society. Acts also have self-understood identities. Sometimes the identities of acts are understood privately, sometimes proclaimed publicly. (Walt Whitman.) There are also identities attributed to acts by later researchers. “Constructor” of sexuality, for example. “Heterosexual,” “homosexual,” and “bisexual” are often used this way, as universals, applied to societies in which precisely these terms and concepts did not exist. If the researcher uses the term heterosexual as a universal term for all sexual acts between women and men that researcher is acceding to a particular historical understanding of heterosexuality as universal. I think that that idea of heterosexuality needs to be questioned. 6. What does it mean to speak of heterosexual acts, for example, as “constructed” or “invented” by the acts of human beings? Why is this a provocative idea? The answer tells us lots about the alternative model of heterosexuality and sexuality in our heads. 7. Early in sexual history analysis, Jeffery Weeks distinguished between homosexual acts, which he said were universal, and a homosexual identity which he said was historically specific. (QUOTE?) I reject that distinction. Did Weeks modify it later? CHECK> 8. Does this historical model of sexuality focus on sexual acts, activity? If so, why? Sexual practice as focus counters the idea of sexuality as a thing, a portmanteau term-concept that needs to be unpacked>.

By speaking of sexual “acts,” rather than “behaviors” or “functions” (and “dysfunctions”), I reject the biological and evolutionary framework associated with those terms, a framework that posits human sexual activity as physiologically determined and mechanistic (“plumbing” is a popular term expressing that mechanistic view). At the same time as I posit acts as one of the major elements of a constructed sexuality, I stress that the character and meaning of any particular acts are by no means self-evident, and must be established by appeals to evidence and analysis.

Time Sixth, by asking when a particular sexuality was constructed, I stress the need to locate this creation, and its ongoing production, precisely in time, the defining element of a historical model. In regard to heterosexuality, for example, this temporal element needs to be further specified by asking when heterosexuality was constructed in the actual social lives and consciousness of women and of men, when in particular individuals or particular nations or cultures, when in the experience of different ethnic and racial groups, and classes. We need to analyze time in the life of a particular actor-constructor of heterosexuality, and time in the life of the constructor’s partner. Questions about time and sexuality also point us to the ages of sexual partners. Time also refers us to the length of time it took to construct, heterosexuality, for example, as the dominant form of social-sexual organization, and the length of time of particular heterosexual acts. (During World War II, a soldier’s allotted few minutes with a prostitute was commemorated in the phrase “Slam, bam, thank you, ma’m.”) Do particular societies believe there are proper times for particular kinds of sexual acts or desires? <?MORE>

How time influences the construction of each element of a particular sexual system is central to a historical model of sexuality.

Space Seventh, asking about the space in which a particular sexuality is constructed posits geographic location as a central element in its historical production. I refer to specific national spaces, urban versus rural spaces, class-, race-, and ethnically-specified spaces (“ghettos”), domestic spaces (particular rooms in the family home), commercial spaces (particular rooms in a whore house), and particular locations in the automobile (for example, the notorious back seat). I refer also to divisions of space into “private” locations (meaning, usually, inside the family home) or “public” spaces (meaning, usually, outside the home).

Where, for example, was heterosexuality primarily constructed? Was it within the space of middle class family homes? Did it originate earlier within the bohemian sections of urban cities, and the locations inhabited by the relatively unpuritanical, uninhibited cultures of the working class and African Americans?

In John D’Emilio’s analysis of the construction of a homosexual identity and culture, he stresses the move from small rural locations to big, anonymous cities, where men and women could enact their socially unsanctioned desires outside the view of censorious family members and neighbors. The spatial location of a particular historical sexuality’s construction is a major element in its production.

Product Eighth, asking what was produced by the historical construction of a particular sexuality raises basic questions about what, exactly, is constructed. The terms heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality suggest that both gender distinctions and eroticism are central to these particular phenomena. But in social and historical practice has that been the case? Do we really know what heterosexuality is as a phenomenon? Is it one monolithic thing or are there many heterosexualities? Is heterosexuality not a thing at all? Asking what was produced when heterosexuality was constructed makes “What is heterosexuality?” a basic, open question. Asking such “obvious”-seeming questions about heterosexuality’s character counters a hundred year history in which heterosexuality’s ideological dominance assured it an axiomatic place among modern sexualities, as that which was already known, that about which it is too obvious to ask questions, that which needed relatively little ideological rationale. But lots of evidence demonstrates that heterosexuality has been thought of in very different ways. Heterosexuality has been understood as perverse or normal, biological or psychological, personal or political, as ahistorical or historical, as centrally about companionate marriage and the equality of partners or centrally about hierarchy and inequality. Heterosexuality has been conceived as basically about reproduction, or gender, or pleasure. Historical research suggests that heterosexuality is a system that divides people, their desires, and acts, into normal and deviant, majority and minority, good and bad. A historical model puts into basic question what it means for researchers and a society to identify some persons, desires, acts, and relationships as, specifically, heterosexual, and some as homosexual, or bisexual.

Ascertaining what exactly is produced when a particular historical sexuality is constructed is by no means obvious, and requires reference to evidence and its analysis.

Organization Ninth, asking about a particular sexuality’s social and historical mode of construction, the proposed model focuses on the character and elements of the system in which this construction takes place. What are those elements and what kind of a system is this? Is the heterosexual system, for example, necessarily hierarchical, as some feminists have maintained? Have not men and heterosexuals had greater power within this system than women and homosexuals? If the organization of heterosexuality is hierarchical, what is the basis for those power and status distinctions? How are such power differences systematically created and maintained? If heterosexuality names one particular historical way of organizing sexuality, how do we name and conceptualize earlier systems, and different contemporary systems? And how do we envision and name new and different future ways of organizing sexuality?

Within the original social organization in which heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality were constructed and distinguished that system appears to have been hierarchical, and unequal. Heterosexuality constituted the dominant form of sexuality against which others were judged as “deviants” or “variants” of lesser worth. Gay and lesbian rights activists have attempted to equalize all sexualities, to democratize the sexual system, and that struggle is still underway.

<CLARIFY FURTHER the idea that there are particular, historical institutional organizations of sexuality. Compare early colonial American organization of reproduction and sodomy, with the organization of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Add summary sentence>

Relations Tenth, the proposed model asks about the relationships among all the elements that contribute to the historical construction of a specific sexuality. This question stresses the relational character of each element, how its operation and meaning within the process of a sexuality’s construction is influenced by its connection to other elements.

For example, is there any necessary relationship between a woman identifying explicitly as heterosexual and that same woman’s sexual activity with men? Are there not women who have sex with men but do not identify as heterosexual? Under what conditions does an explicit identification as heterosexual occur, and what does that identification mean to a woman? What is the history of women’s explicit heterosexual identification, and what does it tell us? Is identifying as heterosexual based on desire, or activity, or a response to overt assertions of homosexual identity, or some other factor? These are all relational questions.

The complex relationships between and among each of the elements of this model, in their specific, empirical manifestations, is one of the major elements in the construction of any specific sexuality.


1. An Essentialist, Transhistorical Model The model proposed is, I stress, a tool to help researchers specify the exact, historically specific character of particular sexualities. It is meant to help researchers make assessments across time of comparable elements of different era’s sexualities, to reveal discontinuities and continuities. That a transhistorical model is proposed for the historical specifying of sexualities may at first seem paradoxical. For this model hypothesizes that certain essential, unchanging, universal elements form a structure in which different historical sexualities are constructed. But the proposed model does not prescribe any particular sort of structure (as do the terms heterosexual and homosexual, for example).

Researchers need some elements to remain fixed and stable in order to establish what may be changing and what fixed in the history of constructed sexualities. We need some elements to remain stable in order to meaningfully compare sexualities across time and cultures. We need to compare the construction of the same element in different era’s and societies. For example, it does not clarify if we compare acts with identities, for example. It does not make sense to compare incommensurate elements of the sexual construction process.

The essentialism of this model is strategic, a move, paradoxically, to enable more systematic historical specifying than researchers have accomplished so far. <Diana Fuss on strategic essentialism?> But this strategic essentialism is a different essentialism than that which takes as a starting assumption the essential uniformity of sexual forms and systems across time. This model’s essentialist assumptions refer only on the most general, abstract level to actual, historical sexual systems. The essentialism I propose is strategic to the construction of a conceptual tool that can potentially be used to enable us to more clearly understand the historically specific character of actual, empirical sexual systems and forms. The proposed essentialism does the opposite of what essentialist models of sexuality (and heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality) have done in the past.

2. Ontological Claims The proposed model does make ontological claims about the elements and structure of a constructed sexuality, but only at the most general, abstract level. This differs from the ahistorical, essentialist model of sexuality that claims that certain phenomena (sexuality, heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality) are universal.

What are the general ontological hypotheses of the suggested historical model? (1) That there is something called, variously, sexuality, eroticism, lust, sensual desire, libido, orgone, bodily pleasure, etc. This basic object is always in question within the proposed model. (2) That some essential element of one of these phenomena have existed across time, manifesting different characteristics, and organized in different ways. <??> (3) The model claims that there are certain essential elements of every sexual system, but the claim is at such a high level of abstraction that it allows for extremely wide historical variation, unlike the usual essentialist model of sexuality. (4) The model hypothesizes that sexuality in general, and all specific sexualities, are constructed in time and social space, and organized in historically specific ways. The model posits a sexuality that is constructed, not naturally given. Implications? Constructed things have a different character than naturally given things. (5) Gender, like sexuality, is an essential, ahistorical, abstract term and concept that has proved to be useful as an analytical tool for studying the various historical constructions of the masculine and feminine. Likewise, in this essay I have used the term “sexuality” for an essential, unchanging phenomenon, but I use it with the proviso that that assumption is open to question. (Is there a way around this assumption of “sexuality”?) As an alternative, how about the past object of research as defined by the present interest of the present researcher? For example, heterosexuality can be studied as a system of sexual pleasure (and displeasure) or as a gender system, or a reproductive system, depending on what the researcher is interested in. Distinguish sexuality as pleasure, from sexuality as gender or reproduction. Discuss the interest of the present researcher, descriptively defined, as the starting point of research v. a researchers hypothesis about the character of some certain past “sexual” phenomenon. (6) This model does make ontological claims, for example, that sexuality is constructed, that it consists of certain recurring elements, and that its particular forms have different social organizations. But this historical model is NOT just one of several possible, divergent but compatible perspectives on sexuality in society and history. Such different perspectives or frameworks are legitimate and can be constructed on the basis of the specific interests of any present researcher. Researchers can undertake studies focused on the history of sexuality, its biology, sociology, anthropology, and cultural expressions. The model is suggested by, the embodiment of an ontological theory of the elements and organizational structure of sexuality. This theory asserts: there are certain basic elements of sexuality that constitute its changing historical structure.

3. Sexuality as a Changing Object of Historical Study (Maybe I have already discussed this enough.) Within the terms of the proposed model, the phenomenon called “sexuality” needs to always be in question, a basic object of historical inquiry. We need to question the very idea of sexuality and see it as historical and changing. Early-colonial American “carnal lust” is different from today’s “sexual orientation.” The concept of “sexuality” posits a monolithic thing. (When, historically, was that idea constructed?) In response to the idea of sexuality as a monolithic entity, a pluralizing strategy has been adopted that posits “sexualities,” suggesting the historical varieties of sexuality. The problem with this pluralization is that it does not go far enough. We are still stuck with the various forms of one essential thing. How to get around this?

4. Continuity/Discontinuity in Sexual History The dominant, ahistorical model of sexuality posits the essential identity of sexual forms over time – a fundamental continuity. In response, proponents of a historical constructionist model of sexuality have stressed the fundamental breaks and discontinuities between sexual forms and systems, the better to illustrate and prove their point about the existence of historical variation and difference. Foucault, for example, stresses radical breaks in what a particular society considers common sense knowledge of sexuality -- the sexual certitudes of a particular time, place, and culture. My own work has stressed discontinuity in sexual forms and systems. But the historical model proposed here, unlike the ahistorical framework, can actually help researchers facilitate and systematize the comparison of various historical sexual forms and systems, and clarify the extent of their similarities and differences, their continuities and discontinuities. The proposed historical model has no inherent interest in valuing continuity or discontinuity, similarity or difference in sexual forms or organizations. Assuming a basic, unchanging identity of sexuality over time, the ahistorical model builds in a basic essentialism. The historical model that I propose assumes nothing about continuity or discontinuity of sexual forms and systems over time. <The word “sexual” does assert the essential, universal existence of a sexual thing. How about making pleasure the basic object of research, as opposed to “sexuality”? Why not break completely with “sexuality.” Why not research pleasure historically? And pain? And their social construction and shapes.

5. Material and Ideological Elements in the Construction of Sexualities (This is important to elaborate upon) The suggested model does not distinguish between the influence of “material” and “ideological” objects. This model thus differs from the model suggested by one tradition of Marxism that distinguishes between a material, productive base and a reflective, ideological superstructure. The proposed historical model of sexuality rejects a material base versus ideological superstructure analysis. This has practical impact on the analysis performed under its influence in that ideological and material practices are considered, potentially, equally important tools in the construction of any particular sexuality. That is why my own work has paid as much attention to the social-historical organization and forms of sexuality as to the specific historical language and conceptions of sexualities.

The ideological elements I refer to are (1) written words, and other visual images (2) spoken words and other aural expressions, (3) feelings, emotions (as historical: Whitman, for example) (4) systems of judgments -- moralities/ethics.

The historical discourse on het, for example, is one of the things that we humans use in constituting heterosex as a particular historical form of sexuality. Nothing is heterosexual in and of itself. It has to be named and/or thought about as heterosexual if it is to function, precisely, socially and historically, as heterosexual. That is, we constitute a desire, act, or person as specifically heterosexual by using that word and the associated, changing concept. This is an example of how practice and ideology are different but linked phenomena.

But are there ideologies that more closely correspond to, represent, the social-historical character of sexuality than other ideologies (for instance, constructionist ideas versus naturalistic, biologistic ideologies of sexuality)? Is not the idea of a socially and historically constructed sexuality presented here, claimed to be a more accurate framework than a universalistic ideology? So there are more or less accurate frameworks, models.

6. Determinism I do not think of this as a deterministic model, like biological determinist or social determinist models of sexuality. People make this history of sexuality, but they do not make it in any pre-determined forms and arrangements. They may or may not create a sexuality imagined in practice and consciousness before it exists in social-historical life. Add examples: women lacking power to construct a safe sexuality -- not being able to insist on the use of condoms to avoid the spread of disease, to prevent conception, and to make possible their enjoyment of sex as pleasure.

Am I proposing a functionalist model or structuralist model? The elements of the model do not function independently of the human beings who set a particular historical construction of sexuality into motion, who initiate it and construct it and distribute it. The elements of this structure do not, on their own, perform determinative acts, people do – people with different access to the means of action and power. So I reject any sort of structural determinism. I think that people with different degrees of power, based on their relationship to a particular society’s means of construction and action, determine the kinds of sexualities that are created. The structure of sexuality does not do things, apart from the different classes of people who establish that structure, and construct particular sexualities within it.

In talking of heterosexuality’s human constructors, I aim here is to pull this sexuality out of the mystified, fetishized realm of the biologically and naturally determined into the realm of phenomena made by people. It seems to me that social-historical arrangements of sexuality and gender, institutions produced by people, have a character and structure fundamentally different from phenomena produced by nature over time (like the big bang, the universe, and our moon, sun, and earth). Asking about heterosexuality’s constructors posits a heterosexuality that is made by people over time and in specific social contexts. The constructors of heterosexuality, for example, play an initiatory role, and have an influence that is different from other “elements” in the structure of construction.

I understand the process I discuss and the framework I propose as non-determinative, a system in which opportunities for human agency, or blocks to such agency, are registered by the differential access of various individuals and classes to the means of sexuality’s construction. There are different historical modes of determination (or construction) built into different organizations of sexuality. But do I think that the particular mode of construction “determines” the character of the sexuality constructed within it? Or do human constructors, agents determine, construct the character of the particular social-historical organization of sexuality. Clarify.

I explicitly reject discourse determinism and mode of construction determinism, and other social and historical determinisms. Instead, as I see it, people, based on their perceived interests, and their relations to the means of action and power, determine by their acts particular outcomes, effects, results. There are historically changing areas of freedom within each system.

To paraphrase Marx: people make their own sexual histories, their own sexual forms and systems. But they do not make these sexualities just as they please. They make them on the basis of the past, and on their own present access to the means of constructing sexualities, the means of action and power. Future sex is not fated. It is up to all of us to create it.

Each major organization of sexuality has its own mode of determining what sort of sexuality is constructed within it. A mode of construction or production of sexuality is a mode of determining. Whitman and today’s gay liberationationists argue for sexual democracy. Discuss sexual citizenship. Sexual rights, as part of civil rights and human rights. Different systems of power convey different powers to different constructors of sexuality. Explore.

6. The Construction of Sexuality and the Production of Social Life The construction of a historically specific sexuality is only one kind of production, only one sort of creative human activity. What I am proposing here is actually a model of human social action and construction/production in general. Do I want to get into that here? Perhaps footnote its relation to Talcott Parsons’ ideas and Marxist ideas.



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