Professor Marshall

LESSON 8: Historical Attitudes toward Sexual Orientation

Attitudes Toward Sexual Orientation


It may seem to us that our sexual identities develop as a result of internal drives or urges (an ESSENTIALIST perspective). We also may assume that our sexuality is stable and consistent (such as being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual), meaning that we see these identities as static parts of ourselves which do not shift or change as we age. Contrary to these common assumptions, sexual identities are a complicated mixture of shifting and often dichotomous desires, fantasies, behaviors, and relationships. It is possible, and highly probable, that your own behaviors and fantasies do not tell a clear and consistent story of your sexual identity, yet you are expected to make sense of these inconsistencies in order to place yourself into the limited range of sexual categories that are available. Why is this the case?

All identities--sexual and otherwise--are constructed in relationship to one another, usually in some sort of dualism. Defining oneself as straight, for instance, is accomplished through acting in opposition to and rejecting what is considered gay. As a result, when a straight-identified person experiences desires for someone of the same-sex this person will most likely not act upon these feelings in order to maintain a straight identity. This lesson explores the role sexual identities play in shaping our sexual behaviors. Recall that sex and gender, while intimately linked, are not interchangeable: "sex" refers to a person's biological traits while "gender" encompasses one's life experiences that result in a certain set of characteristics. In other words, sex is associated with nature, while gender is associated with nurture. Biology also influences the hormones with which the brain interacts. Sex differentiation in the brain is often responsible for gender-typical behaviors and possibly for sexual orientation.

Sexual Cultures

A sexual culture is defined as a set of practices, principles and norms, related to sex, that is shared by a group or community. Often perceived as subcultures, differing sexual cultures emerge when individuals share practices or tastes that diverge from the wider society. These shared practices may be criminalized or stigmatized by the mainstream culture but this isn't necessarily always the situation. Internet dating, for instance, has become commonplace and is usually taken as a necessary adaptation to an increasingly technological lifestyle, but when it began, those who participated were seen as deviating from expected dating norms. Sexual cultures may also materialize around a specific style or art form, for example, as is seen in the realm of hip-hop. With the proliferation of alternative sexual communities, one might imagine that these real or virtual spaces offer unrestricted freedom of sexual behavior and expression however, even though sexual subcultures deviate from the mainstream, they are usually organized around nuanced standards of what are considered acceptable and unacceptable sexual practices and expressions of self.

Sexual Culture in the United States

Not all people who share divergent sexual tastes will be a part of a sexual (sub)culture. Some will choose to remain unidentified and/or unaffiliated with a larger group. A few examples of larger sexual subcultures in our society:

LGBT Culture

LGBT culture varies widely in a variety of ways. Geography, personal identity, and personal convictions are some of the primary concerns that delineate LGBT people. Nonetheless, elements which are often identified as being common to LGBT culture include:

  • The work of famous LGBT artists and political figures
  • Historical LGBT figures
  • An understanding of LGBT political movements
  • An ironic appreciation of things linked by stereotype to LGBT people
  • Identities present in the LGBT community, such as the gay village, drag kings/queens Gay Pride events, and the rainbow flag.

Polyamorous Sexual (Sub)Cultures

The social practices of being romantically connected or involved with more than one person are considered to be designators of the polyamorous sexual (sub)culture. Another, more neutral term which you may find in research on polyamory is "consensual non-monogamy" (CN). CN is defined as a relationship in which one or both members have permission to venture outside of the relationship to look for love or sex.

Polygamy is a form of polyamory and while it is illegal in the United States, it has not stopped the formation of communities and sub-cultures that practice polyamory and informal polygamy. For the vast majority in our society however the practice of forming multiple simultaneous romantic relationships is controversial. Mostly reports of polygamist communities in North America have been sporadic and most of these known polyamorous communities have eventually disbanded.

In Western culture there is no widespread acceptance of polyamory--this does not mean that polyamorous relationships in Western culture (and subcultures) do not exist. No one knows how many Americans are in polyamorous relationships, but by some informal/anecdotal accounts, the figure is somewhere in the range of 5-10% of the population. Polyamory exists mainly as isolated instances in which those in relationships have made agreements with their significant other(s), but you can be sure that many variations of polyamorous relationships exist.

We have discussed sexual scripts in a previous lesson. Recall that sexual scripts are "shared gender-specific expectations that our society uses to guide our beliefs, attitudes and values about sex." Essentially, sexual scripts:

  • provide a framework for normal sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, within a given culture
  • provide directions on how to think, feel, and act when we find ourselves in sexual situations
  • determine the age and gender of our sexual partners, the sexual positions we will engage in, how often we have sex, where we have sex, why we have sex, as well as many other factors.

The Creation of Masculine and Feminine Identities

Because gender is a social concept, culture largely determines what is deemed "feminine" or "masculine." A repetitive exposure to what is culturally appropriate for a male or female causes people to internalize such behavior. Different cultures often polarize gender, making masculine and feminine traits opposites, causing problems when a person deviates from the perceived norm or when a person finds him or herself somewhere along the gender continuum, rather than at one end or the other.

Sex and Gender Diagram

From the Center for Gender Sanity Website:

Biological sex, shown on the top scale, includes external genitalia, internal reproductive structures, chromosomes, hormone levels, and secondary sex characteristics such as breasts, facial and body hair, and fat distribution. These characteristics are objective in that they can be seen and measured (with appropriate technology). The scale consists not just of two categories (male and female) but is actually a continuum, with most people existing somewhere near one end or the other. The space more in the middle is occupied by intersex people (formerly, hermaphrodites), who have combinations of characteristics typical of males and those typical of females, such as both a testis and an ovary, or XY chromosomes (the usual male pattern) and a vagina, or they may have features that are not completely male or completely female, such as an organ that could be thought of as a small penis or a large clitoris, or an XXY chromosomal pattern.

Gender identity is how people think of themselves and identify in terms of sex (man, woman, boy, girl). Gender identity is a psychological quality; unlike biological sex, it can't be observed or measured (at least by current means), only reported by the individual. Like biological sex, it consists of more than two categories, and there's space in the middle for those who identify as a third gender, both (two-spirit), or neither. We lack language for this intermediate position because everyone in our culture is supposed to identify unequivocally with one of the two extreme categories. In fact, many people feel that they have masculine and feminine aspects of their psyches, and some people, fearing that they do, seek to purge themselves of one or the other by acting in exaggerated sex-stereotyped ways.

Gender expression is everything we do that communicates our sex/gender to others: clothing, hair styles, mannerisms, way of speaking, roles we take in interactions, etc. This communication may be purposeful or accidental. It could also be called social gender because it relates to interactions between people. Trappings of one gender or the other may be forced on us as children or by dress codes at school or work. Gender expression is a continuum, with feminine at one end and masculine at the other. In between are gender expressions that are androgynous (neither masculine nor feminine) and those that combine elements of the two (sometimes called gender bending). Gender expression can vary for an individual from day to day or in different situations, but most people can identify a range on the scale where they feel the most comfortable. Some people are comfortable with a wider range of gender expression than others.

Sexual orientation indicates who we are erotically attracted to. The ends of this scale are labeled "attracted to women" and "attracted to men," rather than "homosexual" and "heterosexual," to avoid confusion as we discuss the concepts of sex and gender. In the mid-range is bisexuality; there are also people who are asexual (attracted to neither men nor women). We tend to think of most people as falling into one of the two extreme categories (attracted to women or attracted to men), whether they are straight or gay, with only a small minority clustering around the bisexual middle. However, Kinsey's studies showed that most people are in fact not at one extreme of this continuum or the other, but occupy some position between.

For each scale, the popular notion that there are two distinct categories, with everyone falling neatly into one or the other, is a social construction. The real world (Nature, if you will) does not observe these boundaries. If we look at what actually exists, we see that there is middle ground. To be sure, most people fall near one end of the scale or the other, but very few people are actually at the extreme ends, and there are people at every point along the continuum.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are resistant to change. Although we don't yet have definitive answers to whether these are the result of biological influences, psychological ones, or both, we do know that they are established very early in life, possibly prenatally, and there are no methods that have been proven effective for changing either of these. Some factors that make up biological sex can be changed, with more or less difficulty. These changes are not limited to people who change their sex: many women undergo breast enlargement, which moves them toward the extreme female end of the scale, and men have penile enlargements to enhance their maleness, for example. Gender expression is quite flexible for some people and more rigid for others. Most people feel strongly about expressing themselves in a way that's consistent with their inner gender identity and experience discomfort when they're not allowed to do so.

The four scales are independent. Our cultural expectation is that men occupy the extreme left ends of all four scales (male, man, masculine, attracted to women) and women occupy the right ends. But a person with male anatomy could be attracted to men (gay man), or could have a gender identity of "woman" (transsexual), or could have a feminine gender expression on occasion (crossdresser). A person with female anatomy could identify as a woman, have a somewhat masculine gender expression, and be attracted to women (butch lesbian). It's a mix-and-match world, and there are as many combinations as there are people who think about their gender.

This schema is not necessarily "reality," but it's probably closer than the two-box system. Reality is undoubtedly more complex. Each of the four scales could be broken out into several scales. For instance, the sex scale could be expanded into separate scales for external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, hormone levels, chromosome patterns, and so forth. An individual would probably not fall on the same place on each of these. "Biological sex" is a summary of scores for several variables.

There are conditions that exist that don't fit anywhere on a continuum: some people have neither the XX (typical female) chromosomal pattern nor the XY pattern typical of males, but it is not clear that other patterns, such as just X, belong anywhere on the scale between XX and XY. Furthermore, the scales may not be entirely separate: if gender identity and sexual orientation are found to have a biological component, they may overlap with the biological sex scale.

Using the model presented here is something like using a spectrum of colors to view the world, instead of only black and white. It doesn't fully account for all the complex shadings that exist, but it gives us a richer, more interesting picture. Why look at the world in black and white (marred by a few troublesome shades of gray) when there's a whole rainbow out there?

In prior lessons, we have discussed the problems with the gender binary. In today's society however we do have more accurate understanding of gender identity as being a continuum. Rarely do people fit neatly and perfectly into proscribed social categories of male or female:

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation isn't just about sex—it includes the emotional, physical, sexual, and romantic attraction a person feels toward a specific gender or genders. There is much contemporary research into the field of sexual orientation, but it's important for us to understand that this body of research is highly theoretical — that is to say, theories about sexual orientation abound but no substantive proof points to how, when, or why sexual orientation develops in the way that it does.

  • Essentialist theories maintain that there is a biological basis for sexual orientation. Non-representative research has found a slight size difference in the hypothalamus of homosexual and heterosexual men, and limited twin studies have shown that identical twins are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than fraternal twins are.
  • Neurohormonal theory and research on birth order suggest that biological factors can influence sexual orientation even while a child is still developing in the womb.
  • Constructionist theories argue that sexual orientation is a learned behavior reinforced by a child's environment throughout his or her life. Modeling experiences can affect expectations, leading a person to develop an orientation based on outside influences.
  • Queer theory is a sociological model that proposes that sexual orientation is constructed based on society's expectations. Proponents assert that this orientation is a product of a given culture at a given time, and our views on homosexuality or heterosexuality now are not the same as they were 200 years ago.

Homosexuality through the Lifecourse

Some of the early sexologists were the first to advance the idea that sexual orientation and gender are not the same thing but rather two distinct categories that can differ widely from each other. In addition, they began to explore the idea that each of these constructs can exist on a continuum. Alfred Kinsey reemphasized this point when he created his Kinsey Sexual Orientation Scale. After Kinsey, improved models for examining sexuality included distinct categories for both behavior and attraction, recognizing that these are also two separate dimensions which occur on a continuum. For example, many people will identify themselves as exclusively homosexual, but may also be attracted to opposite sex individuals. They may never act on opposite sex attraction. This highlights the difference between behavior and attraction.

Kinsey Scale

Assessing sexual orientation is an area of ongoing research and there are many still unanswered questions. Understanding our sexual orientation is not simple and cannot be reduced to easy answers – attempting to oversimplify or reduce our sexual orientation to labels is problematic for many people in our society.

Understanding that sexual orientation is a very difficult concept to qualify and quantify helps us see how difficult it is to actually know how many people in the United States identify with various sexual orientations. Data on sexual orientation is difficult to collect. Studies tend to concentrate on small populations which may not be representative of the whole and often rely on volunteers who are willing to talk about their sex lives. These views may not represent the views of our general population. In addition, most of these studies rely on self-reported data and this presents a problem with regard to the types of questions that we ask. In some research, people are okay with identifying as having had same-sex sexual experiences, but are reluctant to report that they are or may be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Meaningful and unambiguous question construct is essential with this type of research, however even when questions are constructed in a clear and concise way, understandings of sexuality may continue to be unclear. Due to all of these factors, there is a lot of ambiguity with regard to defining an understanding sexual behavior and attitudes. This makes it challenging to understand what percentage of our population identify as "gay," "straight," or "bi." But what does the research tell us?

Kinsey's research in the 1940s and 50s indicated that about 3% of our population was homosexual, and many contemporary research projects have revealed roughly the same percentages. Recent polls, such as those that may have been conducted after presidential elections also affirm that about 4% of the population self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Studies from countries around the world confirm this information. What is interesting however is when we differentiate between self-identification heterosexuality and self-reporting of our sexual behaviors. While most studies indicate that between two and 4% of our population self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, a much higher percentage of people self-report having had same-sex attractions or sexual experiences. This just goes to reaffirm the differences in meanings for people with regard to behavior and beliefs.

Another factor which may prohibit people from self-identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual relates directly to discrimination in our society.

Discrimination and Heterosexism

Being gay in a heterosexual world may cause turmoil for some people. Being stigmatized by others can lead to higher than average suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse, and other behaviors which may be harmful to individuals. Stigma, as researched and explained by sociologist Erving Goffman, refers to the shame or disgrace that is attached to something which is regarded as socially unacceptable. Being gay and the sexual prejudice that often accompanies it may cause a person to feel stigmatized. Of course, in general, our society's attitudes about homosexuality have shifted dramatically in the last few decades. There continue to be however many people in our society who are not supportive of GLBTQIA individuals. Thus homosexual individuals may experience general discrimination against their sexual orientation, known as heterosexism.

You may have heard the term "homophobia." This term is generally used to refer to individuals who hold anti-gay attitudes and beliefs. It also encompasses behaviors against the GLBTQIA community. Today however the emerging term "sexual prejudice" is gaining use. Sexual prejudice encompasses all types of sexual orientations including heterosexuality.

Sexual prejudice is rooted in culture, that is to say, is rooted in the structural elements of our society. Sexual prejudice encourages crimes against GLBTQIA individuals, housing and employment discrimination, and verbal and physical harassment. Overall, research suggests that gay men are more likely to be targets of sexual prejudice than are lesbians and bisexuals.

Hate Crimes

GLBTQIA individuals also be subject to hate crimes by sexually prejudiced people.

Hate crimes involve verbal and/or emotional denigration as well as physical violence against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Since the 1990s, the US Department of Justice has required the collection and reporting of hate crime statistics based on various sociodemographic characteristics, including sexual orientation. Law enforcement agencies around the country are required to send this data to the Justice Department annually as well as publishing this data for the public. In recent years thousands of a crimes motivated by sexual orientation bias around the country have been reported to the Department of Justice but it is important to remember that many hate crimes go unreported because of fear and stigmatization.

Gender Bending

Many homosexual people recall experiences of gender bending in their childhood.

Gender bending is referred to the different types of play and behavior that cross traditional gender lines. There is a bit of research to support the gender nonconformity and homosexuality are closely related. In other words, when they were children, gays and lesbians did not generally adhere to strict, traditional gender roles. On average, gay men, when they were children, tended to lean toward somewhat more feminine role-play and toys, while lesbians, when they were children, tended to gravitate towards somewhat more masculine role-play and toys. This does lend some support to the biological influence of homosexuality. It's important however for us to note that the link between homosexuality and childhood behavior is not causal, rather it is co-relational.

Gender bending seems to be amplified throughout middle childhood and teen years and often culminates in coming out.

Coming Out

All, regardless of sexual orientation, must face a process of coming out, in which they begin the development of a positive sexual identity. For heterosexuals, the process of sexual identity development is somewhat invisible and the structure of our heteronormative society as well as many processes of socialization and accepted gender norms and rules support heteronormative coming of sexual age. For GLBTQIA individuals, the process may be difficult or challenging.

When and individual comes out it is not a singular point in time. Rather, the term "coming out" refers to a lifelong process in which a positive sexual identity is developed. Research shows that there are many ways in which coming out happen. No matter which model we use, the final stage of all research models about coming out include the process of integration. Identity synthesis is the most important aspect of coming out. While it's important for us to note that the development of any sexual identity is an individual and personal process, coming out generally involves three basic experiences:

  1. Opening up to one's own self about the possibility of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (think of this in terms of coming out to your own self)
  2. Coming out to others
  3. Living openly as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individual

Because there are many legitimate fears which individuals must face when coming out, we may ask, "why come out at all?" We all want to be viewed as a whole and complete individuals in all aspects of our lives, with our friends, our family and our intimate partners, regardless of our sexual orientations. Being viewed as living an authentic life which is true to our own selves allows us to have personal and professional integrity and to make statements about our own personal well-being. According to the Human Rights Campaign, it is also important for young GLBTQIA individuals to see older GLBTQIA individuals who are out, proud, and fully integrated into society. In research, when younger gays are able to embrace their sexuality they tend to be more well-adjusted in their communities and within their personal relationships. Therefore as a process, it is important to allow GLBTQIA individuals to experience coming out in their own ways and on their own time frames; support systems for gay and lesbian youth, more common in today's society than in the past, are important components to supporting young people in the process of coming out. There are several national and international organizations which work to advance human rights in general, and to help individuals with issues related to understanding their own sexuality and the coming out process as well as civil and political rights:

  • The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: a national progressive organization which works to protect the civil rights of GLBTQIA people and which works to build a powerful political movement for this group
  • The Human Rights Campaign: a bipartisan organization that works to advance issues related to sexual orientation, gender expression and identity, and the quality among GLBTQIA individuals, at home, at work, and in the community
  • Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG): promote the health and well-being of GLBTQIA individuals through support, education, and enlightenment.  An advocacy group which works to support civil rights while ending GLBTQIA discrimination
  • Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD): dedicated to promoting ensuring fair, accurate and inclusive representation of GLBTQIA people and events in the media in order to eliminate homophobia and discrimination

It's probably hard for heterosexual individuals to imagine how much fear there may be in the process of coming out. Coming out however can result in a variety of reactions from others:

  • Rejection or complete changes in interpersonal relationships
  • Harassment, both verbal and physical and other forms of abuse
  • Being disowned by family or friends
  • Being thrown out of your own home
  • Loss of standing in the religious community, shunning, or refusal of the church/mosque/synagogue to allow your participation
  • The process of conversion "therapy" to try to change a person's sexual identity and orientation (unsupported by all credible scholarship)
  • Loss of financial support and/or employment
  • Interpersonal relationship disruptions, and personal feelings of vulnerability with in interpersonal relationships.


Sexual orientation is a very complex thing. We do not have clear-cut developmental, sociological, or biological evidence as to what determines a person's sexual orientation. It may be that we never really completely know the origins of sexual orientation. Rather than focusing on sexual orientation as a dichotomous presentation of the nature/nurture argument, instead we should probably try to understand sexual orientation as a combination of both biology and environment which is influenced by genetic information, developmental factors, socialization processes, and many other social forces. If we can wrap our minds around all of these things as having some level of contribution to our sexuality, then we can also see how complex understanding sexual orientation can be. You are encouraged to do additional research — this lesson is definitely not exhaustive, it barely scratches the surface and gives you some "food for thought" with regard to issues related to sexual orientation and the experiences of non-heterosexual individuals in our society today.


"Diagram of Sex and Gender." Gender Sanity. N.p. N.d. 15 December 2015.