What Does It Mean to Have a Sexual Identity?

For all its ancient, primal beginnings, sexual orientation is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Perhaps “phenomenon” isn’t the right word. What I mean is, the concept of sexual orientation, as we understand it today, is relatively recent. The word “sex” was coined sometime in the sixteenth century, at which time the word was specific to male/female interactions, which were of course the norm. It wasn’t until 1868 that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were invented, by a group of Germans speaking out against a proposed “unnatural fornication” law which would prohibit any non-reproductive sexual act. If you’d like to read more about this, check out The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz. Or, for those of you with short attention spans, you can find a much briefer history here.

Now, obviously, for as long as there have been people, they’ve been populating the earth by having sex. But in different cultures and time periods, ideas about sex have varied wildly. Even within a single culture, there are plenty of groups of people with differing ideas—today, we have throwbacks to a more religious era believing that sex is wrong outside of marriage, as well as people who celebrate their freedom to have unattached sex. But the concept of sexuality, this idea that all one’s sexual deeds and desires and whatever else create a definable whole, some basic instinct to have sex with x kind of people from which so many other things sprout, has only been around for a little more than a century. Continue reading