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People with a History: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* History Sourcebook

Paul Halsall:

A History of Heterosexuality (1998)

If there can be a history of homosexuality, why not a history of heterosexuality? The answer of course is that heterosexuality does have a history, as do heterosexuals, whether they realize it as not. Increasingly this history is being studied.

Modern "heterosexual identity" seems to be a modern social construction [see Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality]. Certainly the word "heterosexual" is of recent invention, and until the 1930s was listed a disease by dictionaries. One can be fairly certain, however, that heterosexual activity and heterosexual relationships existed in the past!

The great difference between past heterosexualities and past homosexualities is that, more often than not, heterosexual relationships were both statistically and culturally normative. One of the problems with normativity is that it may seem to be unproblematic, unconstructed, and indeed "natural". One does not have to inquire very far, however, to discover an enormous variety of heterosexual identities and heterosexual "normativities" in the past. Three examples:-

  • Within living memory the socially expected age of marriage has risen by about five years [from 19-21 for women in early 1950s America to 25-27 in the 1990s]. What was normal in 1950 would now be scandalous.
  • In numerous societies polygamy is a social norm, even if not statistically frequent [e.g. Old Testament Israelite society, various Islamic societies, traditional Chinese societies, some African societies]. In others monogamy is given a unique moral validation.
  • In many pre-Industrial societies the age of commencement sexual activity was close to age of sexual maturity. Industrial societies, while continuing to endorse a mythology of the "normal", have tended to delay the onset of permitted sexual activity.

The sources for a history of heterosexuality are comparatively abundant. Unlike with "deviant" sexualities, where we are certain that suppression of texts took place, and that many records are coded in some way, the "normativity" of heterosexualities ensures that sources survived. It is merely a matter of considering them and subjecting them to historical analysis.

As well as heterosexual normativities, there is also a history of heterosexual social deviance. In a number of societies some individuals have rejected the sexual rules and explicitly adopted "libertine" identities. Since one often can get a better picture of a society's structures by look at the limits of those structures, the whole phenomenon of libertinism is worthy of some study.

What is suggested here then, is that heterosexuality is both worthy of study, and is in fact being studied. It is not, however, the focus of this People With a History project to do so. For those who want to pursue the subject further, I offer suggested topics, and a minimal starting bibliography.

Suggested Topics for Consideration

  • The social construction of "normality"
    --How codes of "normal behavior" are established in different societies.
  • Types of heterosexual relationship
    --Status different [almost universal]
    --Age dissonant [A common pattern in which the male partner is considerably older than the female]
    --Co-equal [Extremely rare patter of heterosexual relationship, seen mostly in some hunter-gathering societies, and a result of modern industrial social atomism]
  • Types of heterosexual activity
    --Activity is perhaps the most complicated of all aspects of sexuality on which to get information. While pregnancy is pretty good evidence of vaginal penetration, other forms of heterosexual activity [sexual position; oral sex; anal sex; eroticization of the breast/legs/buttocks; insertive tongue-kissing] are known to be highly variable from society to society.
  • Marriage
    ---The most important of all heterosexual social institutions. How its patterns change and vary.
  • The heterosexualization of property transfer
    --a distinct aspect of heterosexuality is its connection with property transfer. In some societies this is so important that the affective aspect of heterosexual relations becomes insignificant.
  • Heterosocial Friendship
    --How possible is it in a given society for a man and woman to be "just freinds".
  • Child-rearing patterns
    --Involvement of fathers in child rearing; female co-operation.
  • Heterosexual mythologies
    --Nature of incest taboo; mythologies of menstruation; fear of the other.
  • Sexually transmitted disease
    It is widely understood that AIDS is central to consideration of gay male history in the 1980s and 1990s. In other periods, however, sexually transmitted diseases, especially syphilis, have been closely associated with heterosexual activity. The social impact, and social mechanism of spread, is worthy of study.
  • Prostitution
    --Heterosexuals of both genders have long employed prostitutes. There is already quite a lot of literature on this, although most focuses on female prostitutes, and not much on the history of the gigolo.
  • The sexual double standard
    --A recurring theme in heterosexual culture is the comparatively greater social and sexual freedom given to males.
  • Heterosexual libertinism
    --Libertinism is a recurrent theme in the history of heterosexuality: think, for example of:- Bacchanalia rituals in classical antiquity; the early modern figure of the "rake"; the heterosexual bathhouses of 1980's San Francisco and New York [Plato's retreat].


Starter Bibliography

Some consideration of the history of heterosexuality has already begun.


Bullough Vern, Dorr Legg, Barry Elcano et al, eds., ,An Annotated Bibliography of Homosexuality and Other Stigmatized Behavior, (New York: Garland, 1976)

Elcano, Barry, & Vern Bullough, Bibliography of Prostitution, ed. (New York: Garland, 1976)

See also the Bowdoin College Library research guide for the course History 15: One Hundred Years of Heterosexuality in America


Journal of the History of Sexuality: Homepage

Journal of Sex Research


Bullough, Vern L., Sexual Variance in Society and History, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976)

Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality, Vol I: An Introduction, (New York: Pantheon, 1978)

Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality, Vol II:

Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality, Vol III:

Fradenburg, Louise, and Carla Freccero, Premodern sexualities, (New York : Routledge, 1996)

Katz, Jonathan Ned, The Invention of Heterosexuality, (New York: Dutton, 1995)

Kinsman, Gary William. The regulation of desire : homo and hetero sexualities, 2nd ed., rev., (Montreal, Que., Canada ; Cheektowaga, N.Y., USA : Black Rose Books, c1996),

Padoug, Robert, "Sexual Matters: On Conceptualizing Sexuality in History", Radical History Review 20 (1979). 2-23, reprinted in Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vincus and George Chauncey, eds. Hidden From History, New York: NAL, 1989), 54-66

Thorssen, Marilyn, J., "Varieties of Amourous Experience: Homosexual and Heterosexual Relationships in Marlowe and Shakespeare", in Human Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. D. Radcliff-Umstead, (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Publications on the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 1978), pp. 135-152


From: original essay

This text is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project. The Sourcebooks are collections of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to all aspects of history.

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© Paul Halsall, 1998

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