Art: Jesús Amado, Angelus Novus (Green) (2017).

A Brief History of Sexuality

Understanding the Complexity of Sexuality Theories and their Necessity

By Chris Bryant, M.A., M.Ed.

Humanity relies on sex as a means to sustain human life on our planet. Yet, if we are to understand the complexity of sexuality, we must move beyond the simple notion that its sole justification is procreation. In other words, sexuality does not exist solely on the heteronormative end of the continuum; rather sexuality is a complicated phenomenon. Our understanding of sexuality is historically and culturally determined.

Before we can begin to discuss theories of sexuality, it is necessary to understand how sexuality, as we know it, came to be. Prior to the advent of sexuality studies, our understanding of sexuality was derived from cultural observation, mythology, morals, and even magic. Early civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China collected data about anatomy and sex. Some 2000 years later, classical Greeks built upon this, eventually creating the base of Western knowledge of sexuality. What has complicated sexuality studies, and still does, is the notion that sexuality is tied to morality; thus, negating the physiological and psychological components of sex and desire. The imposing view of morality has necessitated a need to classify sex as abnormal or normative. In this respect, a vast array of theoretical perspectives has emerged to explain and categorize sexuality: to aid in understanding, explaining, and defining the seemingly gray murkiness of sexuality for the benefit and betterment of society.

The imposing view of morality has necessitated a need to classify sex as abnormal or normative.

As Central Europe sought to understand sexuality, the creation of classifications within sexuality emerged. In 1868, journalist and gay rights activist Karl Maria Kertbeny coined the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” in a letter to Richard von Krafft-Ebing (a gay rights activist, researcher, and psychologist). As the terms gained wider circulation, Krafft-Ebing used the terms in his fourth edition of his publication Pyschopathia Sexualis in 1889. What Kertbeny had hoped for was the creation of terms that could politicize the shared struggle of the queer community and create a platform to gain rights and equity. However, these classifications, and a growing understanding of sexuality, also led to discrimination, pathologizing, and criminalization of certain behaviors and acts. Traditional sexuality theorists placed sexual orientation within the context of an individual’s sexual identity. According to this paradigm, heterosexuality was the norm and deemed “appropriate,” whereas homosexuality was viewed as an inversion of sexuality.

The work of Krafft-Ebing paved the way for future researchers and scholars. Most notable are Magnus Hirschfeld, Havelock Ellis, and Sigmund Freud. While Hirschfeld and Ellis were empirical data gathers, Freud created a system to help those afflicted with sexual and other problems. Freud’s system became so popular that in the early twentieth century, Freud dominated the field of sexuality studies. Freudian ideas, of sexuality and development, became the gold standard for medical practitioners in America until at least the mid-twentieth century. Freud’s impact on sexuality and medical practice created a shared need for medicine to work with psychiatrists and the desire to “fix” sexual inversions. While Freud’s theories emerged over his lifespan, his central views did not and thus the view that homosexuality was an inversion of sexuality persisted. When Freud died, research in Central Europe tapered off and the medical community in the United States started to take the lead on sexuality studies and research.

Art: Jesús Amado, Angelus Novus (Green) (2017).

[T]here exists a plethora of sexuality theories all with varying perspectives that are each shaped by culture and ideology.

In the 1950s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson conducted research on the physiology of human sexual response. Through their work, they created the human sexual response cycle, outlining what happens to the body during sex. There are, however, limitations to their findings, as their studies failed to consider homosexual relations and saw Freud’s ideology of heterosexual sex as the only way to achieve orgasm. In the same vein as Masters and Johnson, Alfred Kinsey completed research and collected data on the sexual practices of individuals, motivated by the belief that sex was something that people should be open about. Kinsey’s eponymous scale created a new way of conceptualizing sexuality as encompassing a broad spectrum between the poles of the traditional heterosexual-homosexual binary.

In the 1970s, researchers started to develop post-structural theories, which challenged the idea of any universal, absolute “truth” of sexuality through critical analysis of systems of power and grand explanatory narratives about the human experience. Increased analytical sensitivity to subjectivity lies behind Teresa De Lauretis’ pioneering of queer theory. Queer theory is founded on the three interrelated intellectual positions: (1) rejecting heterosexuality as the standard basis of understanding sexuality; (2) positing that sexual subjectivity is shaped through race and gender; and (3) moving away from singular understanding of lesbian and gay studies. Unlike its predecessors, queer theory is in flux rather than static (meaning that queer theory adapts and changes with the individual) and De Lauretis felt that this was not being addressed in academic studies.

Throughout history, sexuality theories and perspectives have been in constant flux and growth. The onset of scientific methodology in the late 18th century saw the concept of sexuality grow from biologically determined perspectives, to theories that incorporate psychology, physiology, and behavioral science. Suffice to say that there exists a plethora of sexuality theories all with varying perspectives that are each shaped by culture and ideology. Ultimately, there is no one theory that serves as a better indicator of what constitutes sexuality; however, I would argue as Barker and Scheele note that context is everything. Thus, the historical period of the day has influenced how sexuality and research are understood—while sexuality studies have evolved and developed over time, there still leave much for researchers and scholars to explore.

The field of sexuality studies allows for a multitude of ways in exploring sexuality and gender. Therefore, many of the theoretical frameworks of sexuality studies serves as a historical lens in shaping the future of the field and our understanding of the complexities of sexuality. While many early theories may no longer be widely understood or known, it is the past that has influenced our future. Sexuality studies still has a long way to go and time will only tell if more theories will emerge.

Art: Jesús Amado, Angelus Novus (Green) (2017).
Chris Bryant

Chris Bryant, M.A., M.Ed.

Chris Bryant, MA, MEd, is the Graduate Administrative Coordinator for CIS and Adjunct Professor at Temple University. Chris’ research interests are centered on LGBT administration/student experiences in higher education settings, sexual decision making of men-seeking-men, body image in the gay-male community, and hegemonic masculinity.