Is There a History of Sexuality? The cultural shifts of sexuality over time

Author: Natasha Tan

Subeditor: Charlotte Allan

Sexuality, specifically non-heterosexual attraction, is proposed as unnatural and perverted by proponents of heteronormativity. Modern society perceives sexuality as an innate foundational aspect of the human body; thus, non-heterosexuals are seen as deviations from what is ‘normal’. In contrast, queer theorists argue that based on the constructivist theory, sexuality is constructed through shifting societal expectations that have made the notion of sexuality appear natural. As Halperin discusses, sexuality is not somatic, but rather a result of cultural constructions. Under those circumstances, sexual identity is not an expression of biology; instead, it is a product of a cultural shift within recent history featuring existing implications and repercussions.

Before Imperial-era Europe, there was no association between sexual acts and the identity of those committing them, nor was there a distinction between those who did and did not commit sexually deviant acts. As Europe entered the Age of Imperialism within the eighteenth century, there began a rise in the medical, psychological, and taxonomy of sexual attraction. Sexology, coined later in the nineteenth century, methodically studied human sexual life and relationships, focusing on non-normative sexual variations, their aetiologies, and how they can be identified through phenotypic expressions of the human body. The methods utilised by sexologists mirrored the methodologies used by taxonomists of the time as they categorically sorted the physical differences observed in the countries imperial Europe was occupying. As these sexual variations were not widely accepted and considered perverted, it was believed that biological factors, as well as aetiologies of non-normative sexual variations, were needed to detain and selectively breed out deviancies. Despite their best efforts, no biological factors, or aetiologies to predict and explain sexual deviancies were discovered, yet the newly dubbed identity of homosexuals was deemed a subpar degeneration of the human race. Nevertheless, imperial European countries instilled these new ideologies and identities, alongside a sense of Western cultural superiority, within the countries they came into contact with and colonised.

This is exemplified by the rapid shift in cultural ideologies within twentieth century China as they came into contact with European countries. Homoerotic sexual acts were normalised in everyday culture and commonly perceived as a sign of the upper class. The 相公 (xianggong) were men who played feminine roles in operas that only accepted men as their audience; those who attended the opera were seen as incredibly cultured and wealthy. However, as the Eight-Nation Alliance entered Beijing in the early twentieth century, the elite homoerotic subculture began to decline as criticisms of it based on Western views increased. As children of affluent families ceased studying for the Imperial Examination system and instead studied at European universities, they returned heavily influenced by Western moral perspectives. This exacerbated the decline of traditional Chinese culture as these children would inherit their parents’ influence over the sociocultural space and alter it to fit foreign Western expectations. The large shift in culture showcased previously unseen words within the Chinese lexicon that were significant within the Western culture (e.g., citizenry, dignity, human nature, etc.). Correspondingly, perspectives of homoerotic acts, especially the xianggong, were condemned based on the newly introduced concepts, with criticisms from prominent societal figures such as:

“To be referred to as ‘the likeness of a woman’ is completely contrary to human nature.”- Wu

“In future [Chinese citizens] should consider [performer and prostitute] separately. … There was no awareness of the contribution [they] can make to the advancement of social morality. In Western nations, actors and singers are fêted by society …” -Wu

The acts and practices themselves were left as is, it was the people whose identities aligned with the acts that were socially and economically persecuted. The persecution intensified during the 1960s, during which then-president of China Mao Zedong conducted a cultural revolution to ‘abandon tradition in favour of modernity’, explicitly moving away from describing homoerotic acts from the passion of the cut sleeve (斷袖之癖; duànxiù zhī pǐ), to the formal modern homosexual identity, the homosexual person (同性戀者; tóngxìngliàn zhě). This shift could only occur because the Chinese society was introduced to a comparable culture that provided an ‘exemplary alternative’ and a ‘vision of social progress’, as was portrayed by the Imperial West’s vision of a ‘universal modernity’. Through this cultural imposition, the ‘homosexual’ identity did not exist until it was purposefully constructed.

The cultural construction of the ‘homosexual’ identity shifted the societal view of non-normative sexual acts into sexual identities, expanding said acts into non-normative identities. Consequently, given that these actions were brought into the public sphere, those who were known to participate in said acts were deemed sub-human – as the acts themselves were no longer deviant, the people who identify with them were. By making a society believe that non-normative sexual identities are harmful and degenerative, it is then possible to create moral righteousness through denial of wrongdoing when mistreating those who are sexually deviant. Through understanding the historical aspect of sexuality, it denaturalises the concept of sexuality as an innate foundation of human identity. Sexuality is not a universal concept, as it does not naturally appear in non-Imperialist European countries, it is an intentionally created product of that culture, that is then further expanded to fit within new cultural contexts. Moreover, the categorisation of human sexual attraction highlights the differences between people, allowing room for discrimination to arise against minority groups. This was purposefully done to benefit those in seats of power.  The majority of those who held and currently hold positions of power fit within the heterosexual matrix and therefore, further shift societal norms to their benefit. The normalisation of heteronormativity and the creation of sexuality led to the establishment of the sex hierarchy, where those who adhere to normative ideals were considered superior.

In short, sexuality has never been an expression of biology, instead, it serves as a product of Imperialist European cultural construction. Before the eighteenth century, non-heterosexual acts were seen as a private choice that stemmed from individual cultures; yet the same acts are now deemed an inherent ‘symptom’ of non-normative sexual identities. Sexuality is now a universally normalised concept due to the deliberate actions imposed during Imperial-era Europe to further cement their influence over global culture. By understanding the history of sexuality, it de-normalises sexual categories and supports the constructive nature of sexual identities. Without this understanding, it becomes impossible to escape the shadow of Imperialist European impositions.


Bancroft, John. “Biological Factors in Human Sexuality.” The Journal of Sex Research 39, no. 1 (2002): 15–21.

Bauer, Heike, editor. “Part I. Introduction.” In Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters across the Modern World, 15-18. Philadelphia; Rome; Tokyo: Temple University Press, 2015.

Crompton, Louis. “Imperial China.” In Homosexuality and Civillization, 213-244. Cambridge, Mass:Harvard University Press, 2003.

Foucault, Michel. “We Other Victorians.” In The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 1-13. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Halperin, David M. “Is There a History of Sexuality.” In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 416-431. Routledge, 1993.

Kang, Wenqing. “The Language of Male Same-Sex Relations in China.”In Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900-1950, 19-40. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Maine, Alexander. Same-sex Marriage and the Sexual Hierarchy: Constructing the Homonormative and Homoradical Legal Identities. Northumbria University Press, 2019.

Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader, edited by Parker P. & Aggleton P., 2nd ed., 143-187. London: Taylor and Francis, 2006.

Somerville, S. “Scientific Racism and The Emergence of the Homosexual Body.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 2 (1994): 243–266.

Wu, Cuncun & Stevenson, Mark. “Male Love Lost: The Fate of Male Same-Sex Prostitution in Beijing in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” In Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation and Chinese Culture, 42-59. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.

Zuo, Jiping. “Political Religion: The Case of the Cultural Revolution in China.” Sociological Analysis 52, no. 1 (1991): 99–110.

Image: Macht, I. David and Dorothy Lubin. Effect of Menotoxin. 1923. Photograph. Originally in journal article “Phyto-pharmacological study of menstrual toxin” in Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 22, no. 5 (1923): 413-66. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s