Homosexuality generally refers to sexual and/or emotional attraction to members of the same sex. Homosexuality is considered to be a sexual orientation along with heterosexuality, or attraction to members of the opposite sex, and bisexuality, or the potential for attraction to members of both sexes. In addition to attraction, sexual orientation may also refer to the practice of sexual relations with members of the desired sex.
The term homosexuality is a relatively recent Western creation. It was initially used by European scientists who considered sexual relations among members of the same sex to be abnormal. Western views of homosexuality have had an impact on the ways in which anthropologists and other scientists have studied the topic. Changing societal attitudes in the past century have allowed for more in-depth research on homosexuality. This research, in turn, has influenced social changes.
Cross-culturally, there are diverse ways in which people perceive their attraction to members of the same sex or engage in sexual relations with them. In many cases, same-sex relations exist in addition to opposite-sex relations. They are sometimes limited to particular contexts, such as rites of passage, certain periods of life, or specific age-based relationships. In other cases, same-sex behavior is connected with gender variance, where an individual takes on the social role of the opposite sex. There are also cases where same-sex acts that would be labeled as “sex” by many Westerners do not qualify as “sex” to the local participants.
Although it exists in human societies around the world, as well as in some other animal species, homosexuality is often an issue of great contention. Its existence is considered natural or tolerable in some cultural areas, and in some cases, unions between members of the same sex are legally or socially recognized. In other locations, this is considered unnatural and is prohibited, sometimes to the extent that individuals thought to have transgressed this taboo are severely punished by imprisonment or death.
Western Notions of Homosexuality
Nineteenth-century Europe was characterized by tensions between scientific and Christian thought. However, even scientists who tried to break from religious teachings to explain human existence and behavior were influenced by their ideological upbringing when it came to matters of sexuality. Ideas about what constitutes normal and moral sexuality are heavily influenced by religious ideology in any society, and the religious teachings in Europe at the time taught people that sexual relations between members of the same sex were immoral. Therefore, scientists rarely questioned the assumption that this behavior was abnormal and unnatural.
In addition, important research regarding human evolution during this time concerned natural selection, which is directly concerned with reproductive success and the transmittal of adaptive genes as forces of physical and behavioral change in living species. With an emerging scientific worldview that considered reproduction to be a driving human force, any behavior that appeared to deviate from it was unsurprisingly viewed as counterproductive and unhealthy in terms of the individual or group that participated in such acts.
This view of homosexuality had an impact in the field of anthropology. Physical anthropologists, concerned with human evolution, rarely considered the possibility of the existence of homosexual behavior in early human societies. In addition, early ethnographers and other observers of worldwide cultural behavior had a tendency to project Western values and ideas upon other societies. The existence of same-sex emotional attachments or sexual behavior in many areas was therefore frequently overlooked, since the evidence was not visible to Westerners who had predetermined criteria for what constituted this behavior.
In the 20th century, scientists from various disciplines, including anthropology, began to seriously question the scientific validity of this view of homosexuality. One important contribution to a more comprehensive study of homosexual behavior was the work of Alfred C. Kinsey and his research team, which included anthropologist Paul H. Gebhard. Their research brought to light a spectrum of sexual behavior among American males and females that is far more complex than the binary opposition between exclusive homosexuality and exclusive heterosexuality that existed in Western scientific and popular ideologies. Due in part to these findings, there is now a greater acknowledgment of the existence of bisexuality.
Today, there is still dispute in the scientific world regarding the causes of same-sex attraction. While some biologists continue to seek genetic sources, some cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists focus on the function and meaning of same-sex attraction and sexual relations, in particular, social structures and contexts. Some scholars in all fields disagree upon whether homosexuality is a choice or a biological predisposition. However, there is a tendency among many anthropologists to recognize an interplay between biology and culture.
These scientific disagreements are representative of the general social and ideological tensions in Western societies that have been ongoing since the 1960s. Movements for the rights of homosexuals and bisexuals have been ongoing in various Western nations. Among the rights sought by these groups are the inclusion of sexual orientation in antidiscrimination hiring policies, the right to have a same-sex partner as a beneficiary for insurance purposes, the right to adopt children, and, more recently, the right to legally recognized marriage. However, in these same nations, segments of the population are opposed to the advancement of these rights. In many cases, they perceive homosexuality and bisexuality as an affront to their religious and moral beliefs. Others cite economic reasons for their opposition to the recognition of same-sex social benefits.
To avoid the pitfall of projecting Western ideas about sexuality upon the subjects of anthropological research, ethnographers examine sexual practices, including same-sex attraction and sexual relations, with reference to the cultural contexts in which they take place.
There is a growing acknowledgment that Western categories such as “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “bisexual,” and “sexual orientation” are inadequate for explaining sexual behavior cross-culturally. While same-sex attraction and sexual behavior are frequently used as markers of identity or selfhood in the West, they are not used this way in all societies. In fact, individuals’ sexual relations with members of the same sex sometimes have no bearing on their social identities. Accordingly, references to homosexuality in anthropological literature tend to imply actual homosexual behavior rather than homosexual identity.
More is known by scholars about male than female homosexuality. Explanations for this disparity in the anthropological and historical literature are manifold. Historians point out that societies that left behind documents describing social customs and daily life, such as Ancient Greece and Rome, were male dominated. The resulting information therefore contains a focus on male activities in general.
Some ethnographers have claimed that female invisibility in general ethnographic material was due to women’s confinement to the domestic sphere. Information about women’s sexuality is therefore said to be difficult to obtain. Feminist anthropologists point out that most early ethnographers were men, who often conversed primarily with male informants, either by choice or because of local norms regarding male-female relations, and who focused mainly on women’s reproductive and productive roles.
For both males and females, homosexual behavior is frequently associated with particular life stages. Where sexual experimentation is permitted for children and youths, it sometimes takes the form of same-sex activity. Among the Ju/’Hoansi of the Kalahari desert in Africa, for instance, the first sexual contact a child has is often with members of the same sex.
In some cases, the connection between homosexual activities and life stages are more formalized. One well-documented example is that of some Melanesian societies where boys go through a series of initiations over the course of several years. The first two initiation stages include the practice of ingesting sperm by performing fellatio on older boys. Sperm is thought to help boys become big and strong and to combat the feminizing effect of mother’s milk and womb. From the third stage of initiation onward, boys contribute to the initiation of younger boys by being fellated. This practice continues until fatherhood. The boys therefore go through a bisexual period where they engage in both homosexual and heterosexual acts.
There are contexts other than initiation where homosexual contact may be limited to individuals that are differentiated by age. This was the case in Ancient Greece, where upper-class warrior men would form homosexual relations with males in their teens. Homosexual relations among men of similar ages were frowned upon. Furthermore, men were eventually expected to marry women and create families. More recently, Azande warriors of Central Africa took boy-wives, who would accompany them during warfare, in addition to their female wives.
Another example of age-based homosexual relationships is that of the “Mummy-Baby” game among girls and young women in Lesotho, South Africa. This is a form of relationship where young women become “mummies” to younger “babies.” These relationships resemble courting relationships, with the “mummy” buying gifts for the “baby” and the presence of emotional bonds and sensual affection. These bonds occasionally last into adulthood.
An important aspect of various homosexual activities cross-culturally, including the examples described above, is that they often coexist with or are a precursor to heterosexual activities. The Western definition of homosexuality then becomes limiting, since it implies exclusive homosexual activity. Furthermore, this aspect of homosexual behavior calls into question the assumption that homosexual behavior is a maladaptive force that preempts reproduction.
Another aspect of many of the homosexual activities documented in the ethnographic literature is that they are sometimes not classified as sex by local participants. Where the cultural definition of sex is limited to coitus and is perceived as a reproductive act by nature, acts such as same-sex genital-genital rubbing, digital-genital, oral-genital, digital-anal, or genital-anal contact may not be considered to be sex. It is partly for this reason that homosexual behavior has little bearing on the identity of the participants.
There are also examples of homosexual behavior that is related to identity, especially gender identity. Where sexual behavior contributes to the construction of gender identity or where it is an important component, engaging in homosexual behavior may be an indicator of an alternate gender identity.
One example is that of several Latin American societies where there is a strong male-female dichotomy. The act of sexual penetration comes to symbolize a power relationship, where the male penetrator possesses the penetrated female. This symbolism extends to homosexual penetration. The man who penetrates another sexually maintains his status as an active male, whereas he who allows himself to be penetrated assumes the status of a passive “nonmale.” Although he is not considered to be female, the passive “non-male” is expected to take on other aspects of femininity, such as dress and demeanor. In some cases, he may ingest female hormones to modify his body. In this example, it is not the act of homosexual behavior itself that alters the gender identity of the participants, since the active partner maintains his social status. Rather, it is the act of being penetrated that alters one’s identity.
Another example of homosexual behavior that is associated with a change in gender identity is that of Native North American gender variants. A gender variant is one who assumes the social role of the opposite sex. While more documentation is available for male gender variants, or biological males who take on female social roles, female gender variants do exist. For both male and female gender variants, there is a range of the degree to which they take on the characteristics of the other sex. In some cases, they may take on some of these characteristics while keeping some that are appropriate to their biological sex, whereas in other cases, they may take on the entire range of characteristics of the other sex.
In cases where the gender variant takes on the entire set of characteristics that are socially ascribed to the opposite sex, he or she will also practice sexual relations with members of the appropriate sex as defined by his or her social role. Therefore, the female gender variant in this situation will engage in sexual practices with women, since she is socially a male. In cases where there is a combination of gendered traits that are adopted, the gender variant may or may not engage in homosexual activities. In this example, homosexual behavior does not lead to an alternate social identity. It is, instead, a product or component of it.
Homosexual behavior is not always limited to particular life stages or contexts of gender variance. There are recorded cases where long-term same-sex arrangements were socially validated and recognized. One prominent example is that of formal lesbian relationships among Azande women. In some cases, these relationships were formed among cowives within polygynous households, where two or more women were married to one man.
There are societies where homosexual behavior of any kind is forbidden and the transgression of this norm can lead to heavy legal or social penalties. This is often the case in nations that have a strong Judeo-Christian or Muslim influence, since the various religious systems encompassed by these general categories tend to have an unfavorable view of homosexuality. For many participants in these religious systems, homosexual behavior goes against basic moral values.
Even within various religious organizations, there is disagreement about the acceptance of homosexual and bisexual identity and behavior. Recent events worldwide, such as transnational movements to appropriate the right to marry for same-sex couples, have created divisions within the Anglican Church, for example.
Various societies where homosexual behavior is considered to be immoral also differ with respect to the social sanctions leveled against transgressors. In some cases, social stigma may result, whereas some nations have legal penalties for individuals thought to engage in homosexual activities. These penalties range from fines to imprisonment to death.
Homosexuality and the Modern Human Experience
Regardless of the various social perceptions of homosexual behavior that exist in the world, people continue to participate in same-sex erotic activities. Although there is enormous variation in the way these activities are defined and explained cross-culturally, there have been waves of large-scale cultural diffusion contributing to the spread of Western ideas about homosexuality.
Colonization by Europeans in the past few centuries initially spread Christian ideas about sexuality and the belief that homosexual acts are immoral to parts of the world where homosexuality may have had a positive or neutral value in previous times. More recently, globalization has propagated other ideas about homosexuality throughout the non-Western world, including former colonies. Some of these ideas stand in contrast to the belief systems that were previously instilled through colonization, while others support them.
While movements for the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals, and other categories of people who are often connected with them, such as transsexuals, are assuming transnational proportions, religious and political groups that are opposed to these rights are doing the same. Given this current circulation of ideas, it is difficult to assess the actual extent of homosexual behavior around the world. Homosexuality becomes a delicate topic of discussion for many anthropological informants.
The only thing that can be stated with certainty is that homosexuality is a part of the human experience and that human cultures vary widely in the ways in which they interpret and give meaning to this behavior. Indeed, there is no unique way to understand homosexual behavior, and it may be the case that there will always be a struggle between those who consider it as a form of deviance and those who perceive it as a positive aspect of human relations.
- Herdt, G. H. (1984). Ritualized homosexuality in Melanesia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Middleton, D. R. (2002). Exotics and erotics: Human cultural and sexual diversity. Prospect Heights, Il: Waveland Press.
- Nanda, S. (2000). Gender diversity: Crosscultural variations. Long Grove, Il: Waveland Press.
- Suggs, D. N., & Miracle, A. W. (Eds.). (1993). Culture and human sexuality. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.