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Ashley Nelson


Social Construction of Sexuality

Contrary to popular belief sexuality is something that is socially constructed,
something that is imbedded in every distinctive culture in different ways. There is no
biological reasoning behind our sexuality, it is not something that we are born with.
Sexuality is more than just a matter of whom were sexually attracted to and the basis on
which sexuality is constructed can be seen through sexuality and gender roles, identities
and behaviors. We, in the United States, live in a hetero-normative world, where
heterosexuals are the normative yard-stick to which all other sexualities are measured.
Institutionally, sexuality was socially constructed and invented, through early
medical, religious, and political institutions. The Christian church had a firm opposition
to homosexuality. In the early 19th century laws of sodomy remained enforced. (Heyl, pg.
155) It during this time then when homosexuality was invented as a means to define a
disorder or abnormality and to label the homosexual as a different category of person.
(Heyl, pg.157) Almost as quickly as homosexuality emerged as a difference, a condition,
medical professionals declared homosexuality as pathology, a disorder, something that
can be cured. (Heyl, pg. 157) In this way homosexuality is medically proven to be
different, essentially making homosexuality a biological abnormality, and therefore
justified heterosexism for decades to come.
During this same time period was the emergence of a new economic opportunity
and men, specifically went out to capitalize on this opportunity. (Heyl, pg. 157) As
theorized by Greenberg and Bystryn (1984) During this time period there was a high

demand for sexual segregation in employment, and the very idea of a hetero-normative
family was born. (Heyl, pg. 157) Gender is one of the soul components in constructing
sexuality. (Schwartz & Rutter, pg. 448) By understanding what gender is as biologically
is different than understanding gender in terms of the roles they uphold and the identities
were obligated to, either femininity or masculinity.
Instead of deciding whether or not someone is male or female by inspection of
their genitalia, we base their gender off of how masculine or feminine that person is.
(Schwartz and Rutter, pg. 449) Almost as soon as were born we are forcefully spoon fed
notions of our gender and sexuality, both how we identify with them and what roles they
entail. (Schwartz & Rutter, pg. 449-450). This is can be put in to terms by Adrienne Rich,
(1980) as something called compulsory heterosexuality. (Heyl, pg.161) This immense
amount of pressure put on us to be normal or heterosexual from the moment were
born. In western society to have no sexuality is to be heterosexual, you only have a sexual
orientation if it is something not of the norm.
These gender roles are something that has been embedded in society for a long
time. These roles give each gender specific expectations for how they should act and
behave as females (feminine) or male (masculine.) (Heyl, pg. 162) So as a male youre
expected to be attracted to women, as women youre obligated to be attracted to a male.
Both gender roles are expected to carry out hetero-normative practices. From birth those
roles are expected of you and failure to produce can almost certainly lead to the
assumption of youre homosexuality.
A huge part of sexuality is to define what youre not instead of what you are. In
terms of masculinity the very idea of being a man is to not be a women. (Kimmil, 85) To

be masculine is to not be feminine, to not be a sissy, to not find desires among the samesex. By following these rules of masculinity and femininity were expected to pair with
the opposite gender, its the norm of our society. Failure to comply can lead to life of
ridicule and rejection. For one to maintain their masculinity they must be heterosexual
and they must reject the very idea of homosexuality entirely. (Kaufman, pg. 492)
Man is the dominant; therefor he, along with heterosexuality, is the baseline to
which other genders and gender identities are measured. (Carbado, pg. 402) Without man
there is no woman. To define what manhood isnt is to define what femininity is. Rather
than heterosexuality being something that has been normalized, it is homosexuality that
has been, in essence, abnormalized as a way to create normal sexual behaviors and
desires, that society is expected to uphold. (Carbado, pg. 402) Failure to play into these
gender norms of society is to challenge your heterosexuality. (Carbado, pg. 406)
From this fear of homosexuality the idea of a tough guise is developed. The
very mask that men put on in order to maintain their masculinity, in a sense, repress any
and all femininity. As Jackson Katz puts it in his film Tough Guise, this mask or guise
that men put on (hyper-masculinity) is a way in which to cover up their non-manly
attributes as a way to maintain power and control over women and other men. In a sense,
keep their presumed heterosexuality in tact. (Katz) And this is for good reason, the test of
manhood is one that is relentless, given over and over again not only by institutions but
by other men. (Kimmil, pg. 85)
There is this notion of either being male or female and those genders correspond
with sexual attraction towards the opposite sex. There is this unbreakable dichotomy in
which youre either this or that and there is simply no in between. According to Frueds

theory ones anticipated sexual preference is directly related to ones gender identity, ones
own sense of being male or female. (Heyl, pg. 162) Freud terms this as gender
inversion. Put simply, youre sexual preference should be a direct inversion of your
gender identity, but more specifically your biological sex (which is expected to
correspond with your gender identity) to be considered normal.
In the western world heterosexuality has become the norm; hetero-normativity is
the dominant societal expectation. Sexuality and more specifically heterosexuality is
constructed in fear of being homosexual (Kimmil, pg 87) Something that for centuries
weve been taught and expected to conform to is this notion of being sexually driven
towards members of the opposite sex. Homosexuality is perceived as an essence rather
than an attribute of sexual desire. (Heyl. Pg. 163) Homosexuality is not something we are
born with in the same way that we are not born heterosexual. These behaviors are taught
through youre culture, institutions and arbitrary societal norms. In a hetero-normative
world were creating an opposition from the other, the homosexual.
In order to maintain your presumed heterosexuality you must reject
homosexuality as well as repudiate femininity. (Kimmil, pg. 85) To define yourself in
terms of what youre not instead of what you are. In addition institutions have kept
heterosexism in tact and instill hetero-normativity in the western society, those who fall
outside the lines of hetero-normative behavior face becoming a cultural other, or
outsider. To fall within the social constructs of sexuality one must identify with the
gender their assigned to at birth, find sexual attraction to the opposite sex, and remain
blind to the hetero-normative privileges you possess. Thus sexuality has been socially
constructed from institutions, cultural practices and assigned gender roles. Sexuality is

complex in nature, and should not exist with a 50/50 dichotomy, but rather a fluid
presence that is constantly changing and not concrete.


Carbado, Devon. Straight out of the Closet: Men, Feminism and Male Heterosexual
Privilege in Lisa Hedke and Peg OConnor (Eds.) Oppression, Privilege and Resistance:
Theoretical perspectives on Racism, Sexism and Heterosexism. New York McGraw Hill.
2004. pp. 395-419.


Michael Kimmel. Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the

Construction of Gender Identity in Paula S. Rothenberg (ed.) Race, Class and Gender in
the United States: An Integrated Study. New York: Worth Publishers. 2004. pp. 214222.


Sherman Heyl, Barbara. Homosexuality: A Social Phenomenon in Karen E.

Rosenblum. and Toni-Michelle Travis (Eds.) The Meaning of Difference: American
Constructions of Race, Sex, Gender, Social Class and Sexual Orientation. New York:
McGraw Hill. 1996. pp. 155-165.


Video: Tough Guise