Heterosexuality is ubiquitous to modern Western sensibilities. It is often seen as the natural, timeless, and logical arrangement of the mating pair bond. For most people, trying to describe the role of heterosexuality in life is like trying to describe walking upright or using opposable thumbs; you never really think about it until it is challenged. Heterosexuality is not even questioned unless the concepts of homosexuality or bisexuality are mentioned. However, as recent as a little more than 100 years ago, if you had asked someone if they were heterosexual, they would either not know what you were asking or be highly offended.
The term heterosexuality has it origins in pathology. It first appeared in print in medical journals as a malady related to the obsession with nonprocreative sexual activities, just as homosexuality was mentioned as obsession with same-sex (obviously nonprocreative) activities. It was not until the 1930s that heterosexuality began to lose its stigma and take on its mainstream position in the Western consciousness.
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Even though the term heterosexuality may have a recent and varied history, the concept is older than recorded history itself. As soon as men and women began to divide themselves into separate spheres of activity and the realization that sexual intercourse was how procreation was achieved, the concept of heterosexuality was born. This concept is rooted in sexual duality of the binary sexual categories of male and female.
Originally tied to reproduction and division of labor, heterosexuality has grown to encompass attraction or desire, behavior, and identity.
Heterosexuality is often currently defined as “sexual orientation toward persons of the opposite sex.” This definition starts with the premise that there are only two sexes, male and female. However, in nature, there are many species of plants and animals that are hermaphroditic, possessing the gonads and sex organs of both sexes. There are also some insects and reptiles that are single sexed. Even in the human population, we find that about 1 in 2,000 births has some form of sexual ambiguity that makes it difficult to determine the child’s sex at birth.
However, for most humans and animals, there are just two sexes. Based on the sexual reproduction paradigm, roughly half of the species carry gonads that produce eggs, and the other half carry gonads that produce seeds or sperm necessary to fertilize the eggs and produce genetically variant new offspring. It is this drive to reproduce that is at the center of the heterosexual paradigm. To reproduce, an animal (or human) with the egg-producing gonads must unite with a partner who carries the sperm-producing gonads and join in a sexual union. Likewise, the same drive exists in the sperm-producing creature to locate and secure an egg-producing partner to accept his sperm and thus produce the next generation.
For many animals, the quest stops there. Once the eggs are fertilized, interest in the opposite sex ends. However, in most warm-blooded animals, at least one partner (usually the egg-bearing one) remains behind to nurture the offspring. In other cases, the partners form a pair bond; the pair either takes turns in caring for the offspring, or one partner cares for the young while the other gathers resources such as food and provides protection for both the partner and the offspring.
This pair bond is what is central to the concept of heterosexuality. Among humans, the pair bond exists even when procreation is not the central concern. Human pair bonds can develop before procreation is possible and continue long after reproduction has ceased. Even when reproduction is a prime concern, the heterosexual union is often more than just the matching of gonad-producing organs; there is also a balance of sexual energies that is frequently sought.
Thus, the attraction of a mate takes on the quest for certain physical and relational traits that one would find desirable in a mate. Interestingly, even in modern information age societies, many of the traits that are considered most desirable in a mate are those traits that would be advantageous in producing and rearing offspring. Often men are attracted to physical attributes that indicate a woman is healthy and likely to be able to bear children. These include things like clear skin, youthful appearance, widening at the hips, developed breasts, and so forth. Women also seek attributes in men that might indicate good genes but also attributes that indicate that the male has access to resources that could make him a good provider for her and her offspring. Women will also look for men that make good companions. Although these markers of attraction may be conscious or unconscious, they are central to heterosexual attraction.
If the most common definition of heterosexuality is sexual orientation toward the opposite sex, the second most common definition could be “sexual activity with the opposite sex.” Originally, this activity focused on the procreative nature of sex; that is, sex was for reproduction. Thus, activities associated with sex were supposed to be for producing offspring. There were (and still are) many ancillary activities that go along with producing and rearing offspring that have led to a division of labor between the sexes. Because bearing children is the sole province of the female, the male then has been relied on to assist by providing food, shelter, and protection for the mother and offspring. In fact, during the gestation period, or pregnancy, the human female becomes more incapacitated and thus more dependent on the male or at least the extended family.
Even when she has recovered from the delivery and has regained much of her strength, the human female still needs assistance in caring for the newborn, owing primarily to the immature development of the human offspring. It takes several years before the human child can function independently, and even then the child still requires protection and guidance in social and intellectual development.
Because nurturing this young child typically falls to the female, providing resources and protection falls to the male. This has led to different realms of activities for each sex tied to the maintenance of the child and the social unit, the family. As humans advanced from wandering hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian ones, the realms of activities remained, even as the activities themselves changed. The main difference is that in agrarian societies, the activities occurred closer to home, and thus the male was around more often. Also, because the types of activities changed, some no longer requiring brute strength, the lines between male and female behaviors also began to change.
It is at this point that division of labor took on a more sociological meaning, rather than being based primarily on physical abilities and attributes. Thus, activities of men and women became proscribed as inappropriate for one sex or another. This gave rise to the concept of gender role—that is, the assignment of a set of activities to males and calling it masculinity and another set of activities to females and calling it femininity. From this time to the present, the division of heterosexual behavior has taken on hegemonic overtones concerned not with simply providing for the family but also with maintaining the social structure of the family and larger society (as locally arranged).
Each society has its own definitions of which activities are relegated to women and which to men. In most patriarchal societies, men who engage in work deemed “women’s work” are mocked, and it is considered an affront when women venture into areas reserved for men. In both cases, the person’s status as a man or woman is frequently called into question when this occurs. This is true even when the behaviors have little or nothing to do with the reproduction or rearing of children.
Even in today’s postindustrial society, the vestiges of this distinction remain. Although men and women can engage in activities previously deemed inappropriate, they do so at threat to their status as masculine or feminine and, in some cases, as a direct threat to their very lives. In the United States, it is considered perfectly masculine for a man to cut men’s hair for a living and be called a barber. However, if a man chooses to focus on women’s hair and be a beautician or stylist, his masculinity will be called into question. Likewise, a woman, if she is strong enough, can do construction work or even drive 18-wheeled delivery trucks, but there will certainly be questions raised about her femininity.
This is true for a whole host of activities, even leisure activities. Men are still encouraged to engage in high-energy, even dangerous, leisure activities, whereas women are often relegated to the role of observer and supporter. Leisure time activities that are more home centered are still the realm of women. Even though it has been some 40 years since a retired professional football player mentioned publicly that he enjoyed knitting as a form of relaxation, there has been no mass movement of heterosexual men to take up the craft. Likewise, quilting, cross-stitch, and beadwork are still seen as feminine, and males who participate in these activities have their masculinity questioned. The same could be said of women who engage in woodworking and metal die and tool work. Woman can and do participate in these activities, but not in large numbers and not without questions being raised about their femininity.
Finally, when we move back into the area of sexuality, the appropriate roles for men and women are also dictated. The influence of Victorian era mores still lingers in modern ideals about appropriate sex behavior. Men are supposed to be the pursuers and women the prize. Men are to be the aggressors and women more passive. Men who have many sex partners are raised in esteem, whereas women who engage in similar behavior are looked down on. These attitudes are changing slowly but still persist.
Throughout much of Western history, it was assumed that boys grow up to be men and girls grow up to be women. Occasionally, there would be a notable person who attempted to buck this trend, but for the most part, men were considered men and women considered women. Even if they engaged in what would be considered by today’s standards homosexual behavior, they were still considered to be men and women and for practical purposes heterosexual. That is to say, that merely participating in certain acts did not change one’s identity.
It was not until the late 19th century when science turned its eye to the study of the human mind that the discussion of individual differences emerged and that homosexual behavior began to be seen as more than just activity but an identifiable malady. Thus, males with a propensity toward same-sex erotic behavior were seen to be suffering from sexual introversion. As with the naming of many diseases, the person soon became the disease. Men with this “condition” soon became known as “introverts.” The focus was still on behavior, but the behavior now defined the man.
Recall that during this time, even heterosexuality or nonprocreative sex was considered a malady. It was the expansion of the “sex for pleasure” ideology and possibly one entertainer’s play on words that helped to usher in the modern heterosexual identity. By proclaiming to be a raging heterosexual in a vaudeville routine, a comedienne helped bring heterosexuality out of the closet, so to speak. The drive and growth of the identity was probably more as a reaction to the growth of homosexuality as an identity. After the Kinsey report revealed that a large number of men have participated in at least one homosexual act in their lifetime, many men felt driven to proclaim their heterosexuality and deflect any doubt by engaging in masculine activities and establishing a solidly heterosexual lifestyle.
This pressure greatly increased after 1969, and the Stonewall riots gave rise to “gay pride.” This, along with the women’s liberation movement, challenged men who were not gay, or who greatly feared even the remote possibility of being mistaken for homosexual, to assert their heterosexuality. During the past 40 years, there has been a decided shift in which activities are considered masculine and which activities are considered feminine. Thus, it has become increasing difficult for males in the United States to firmly establish their heterosexual identity. For women, too, there has been some confusion in this area. Does she really want to give up the privileges that came with being able to stay at home with the kids or the other benefits of the previous gender role expectations? Does he want to take on the roles that men have played for the past 150 years of the industrial age and join the “rat race”? One response for both sexes is to retreat to the standards of an earlier day. Try to reestablish the nuclear family with mom at home and dad in the workplace. In some cases, this has caused men to become misogynistic and shun all things feminine. In other cases, society has had to redefine what it means to be a man. Taking care of one’s family has become a hallmark of “manhood” on par with obtaining sex from several women, being strong and athletic, or earning lots of money.
As the earning power of women has grown and some women have moved into becoming the chief wage earners in their households, some men have become the caretakers of children. These men fight a daily battle to maintain their identity as virile heterosexual males. It is not enough to say that you are married and that you have fathered offspring (although for some men that is enough), men in the 21st century are having to reestablish what exactly is the masculine identity. In similar manner, women are having to decide just how far they are willing to encroach on previously defined male territories and how much traditional femininity can they bring along and how much they have to give up. In these days of diminishing division of labor, sex for pleasure versus procreation, and individuals even deciding not to procreate, the definitions of heterosexuality may have to revert to the orientation toward the opposite sex. As acceptance of other forms of sexual relating (e.g., homosexuality, bisexuality, transgenderism) continues to grow, maybe even the ubiquitousness of heterosexuality will wane to the point at which it is just one option among many.
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