Questioning the Homo-/Hetero-/Bi-/Asexual Taxonomy – Part One of Four: The Evidence of History



There is reason to doubt the veracity of our current taxonomy of sexualities: a person (we think) is by nature homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual. Admittedly, this system has an intuitive appeal: there are two genders (basically); one may be attracted to one, the other, both, or neither. There are no other possibilities. This satisfying quality of logical completeness is misleading, however.

The first and most important piece of evidence against our system is that people never thought of sexuality in this way prior to the 19th century. For ancient Greeks and Romans (and nearly all other non-Jewish cultures of the ancient world, according to Dennis Prager), homoerotic expressions were generally considered normal and carried no moral stigma, and they were not thought to express a different type of sexuality. Plato’s Phaedrus, for example, which deals with the nature of romantic love, takes as its central examples what we would call “homosexual” relationships. But the same-gendered-ness of the lovers does not seem significant enough to the interlocutors to even warrant comment. Romantic love was a sort of divine madness (according to Socrates) that one person contracted towards another. He evidently felt that gender played no essential role in the process. Similarly, in other dialogues of Plato, the character Socrates sometimes refers to the beautiful [male] youths and the lovely women who inspire sexual impulses in his interlocutors, lumping the two types of attraction together and presuming that his interlocutors experienced both. Per our current taxonomy, we might say that the Greeks were apparently predominantly bisexual. But they did not think of themselves that way. There were simply sexual, and their sexuality could be expressed with persons of either gender. Significantly, even in this society, where there was no moral stigma attached to “homosexuality,” marriage was exclusively male/female. Why? Presumably because only male/female unions produced children, and therefore only such unions involved a strong social interest in the stability provided by marriage.

Nor did the medieval world divide sexuality as we do. Christianity was the dominant moral and intellectual system, so there was a strong moral stigma attached to behavior we now call “homosexual.” They called it “sodomy,” and it was generally both a crime and a sin—but it did not make the perpetrator “homosexual.”

Thus, both the classic and medieval worlds are united in declining to divide sexuality into categories based on the gender(s) towards which sexual attraction was oriented.[1]

The classic and medieval worlds had no concept of “homosexuality,” but is there really any difference between saying, as they did, that a person is simply sexual (and that sexuality may be directed towards either, both, or neither genders), and saying, as we do, that a person may be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual? Yes. It goes from being a characteristic of one’s behavior to being a characteristic of one’s nature—from a part of one’s history to a part of one’s identity. One “is” homosexual—note the to-be verb.

This shift from behavior to identity is, in my opinion, wholly bad.

I believe that the ancient and medieval system is more natural and healthy, while ours is more artificial and problematic.

If I am right, it goes without saying that Justice Kennedy was flatly wrong when he announced in Obergefell that sexual orientation is an “immutable characteristic.”

If I am right, Denis Prager (a Jewish commentator whose essay on Jewish sexual doctrine and the rise of Western civilization is quite possibly the most interesting writing I’ve ever read on sexual topics) is correct when he says,

Human sexuality, especially male sexuality, is polymorphous, or utterly wild (far more so than animal sexuality). Men have had sex with women and with men; with little girls and young boys; with a single partner and in large groups; with total strangers and immediate family members; and with a variety of domesticated animals. They have achieved orgasm with inanimate objects such as leather, shoes, and other pieces of clothing, through urinating and defecating on each other . . . ; by dressing in women’s garments; by watching other human beings being tortured; by fondling children of either sex; by listening to a woman’s disembodied voice (e.g., “phone sex”); and, of course, by looking at pictures of bodies or parts of bodies. There is little, animate or inanimate, that has not excited some men to orgasm.

If I am right, the potentiality for sexual interest in either gender is natural in nearly all people in some degree, and particular actualizations of that potentiality (whether I fall in love with X,[2] for example) can to some debatable degree be effectively encouraged or discouraged by the individuals themselves, the social groups to which they belong, and their society as a whole.


[1] Foucault (himself leading a “gay” lifestyle) gives us a persuasive explanation about how the current taxonomy arose. No doubt there are other theories as well, and I would like to learn about them if anyone can point me to a good source. As to Foucault’s explanation, you can read it in his History of Sexuality or cheat (like me) and just read the Wikipedia page. It is interesting but not especially pertinent here.

[2] Readers should not assume from this example that I believe that falling in love is reducible to sexuality. I don’t. But sexuality is generally a part of it.

10 thoughts on “Questioning the Homo-/Hetero-/Bi-/Asexual Taxonomy – Part One of Four: The Evidence of History

  1. So, are you saying sexual response is not a genetic inclination nor predeliction, but merely a trained sexualized preference? Foucault’s explanation indicates a sexual fluidity in the human animal and that would indicate what I would call a choice.

    1. I’m not saying that sexual response is any one thing. I am saying that it is not exclusively genetic. Foucault’s explanation indicates that social context and categories make a huge difference–but I’m not sure he would agree that his explanation entails personal choice. As far as I can tell, Foucault doesn’t really believe in free will–but I’m no expert on Foucault.

  2. Did they really have no concept of homosexuality (as in identity)? I feel like someone further down the scale (and definitely a six) would be noticed. If not, why do you think it would not have been?

    1. If there were any people who identified that way, I am unaware of them. But let us suppose that there were “sixes” who were not identified. I would guess that the reason would be that their romantic/sexual behavior, even if primarily homosexual, would not be extraordinary, and they would still likely have a wife and kids just because that is what one did.

      1. Interesting. So sexual desire and fulfillment was one thing, and family was another. This is particularly interesting as I remember some reading I did on “courtly love.” According to some scholars of medieval England, romantic love was adulterous and normally unfulfilled (or it was without sex). It was just “knights” wooing married women, normally the queen. And then family love was sexual and procreative. So romance and sexuality were not even necessarily connected.

  3. I think that’s right. BUT I also think that the Greek culture encouraged what we would call “bisexuality,” and that the vast majority of people therefore actualized the potentiality for sexual interest in both genders that I have argued is natural in most people.

  4. I love the series Brian. I know I’m a week late reading them — sorry about that. I was at a conference last week and I’m still catching up.

    I can see conversations are happening both on FB and here. Not sure if you have a preference where the conversation takes places. So I may comment in both places. : )

    Your main point in Part 1 seems to be that you believe sexual attraction is fluid, and I fully agree. Though from what I can observe it ranges. Some people claim to be completely fluid in their sexual attraction, and I believe them. Others claim to be not fluid at all, and I believe them too. I can picture fluidity on a spectrum.

    As far as the words we use to categorize sexuality, I would say I agree with you that they are not always accurate. Though I think the 4 terms currently in use (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and asexual), are a massive improvement over the way the world worked say 30 years ago when it was generally assumed that everyone was heterosexual.

    I can easily imagine those 4 terms being replaced with a simple “sexual” but to me it’s looking forward instead of looking to history.

    In the future, I can imagine there would be no other categories than “sexual”, and there would be an understanding that sexual attraction and sexuality in general is very fluid for some people, and not at all fluid for other people. And no one would care about any one else’s particular sexuality, because it’s none of their dang business.

    As long as you aren’t having sex with kids or animals — since neither group can truly consent — then I don’t care who you are attracted to or who you are having sex with.

    1. Gabby, thanks so much for responding–and I’m pleased that you largely agree with my main points. I think I prefer here as a forum for discussion, because I want readers who aren’t my Facebook friends to see the conversation. I like the idea of sexual fluidity as a spectrum, and agree that some people’s sexuality probably tends more or less towards fluidity than others. I remain of the opinion that most people are by nature capable of some degree of fluidity/”bisexuality,” and that if they don’t experience that, the explanation is likely at least partly cultural and psychological rather than exclusively biological.

      It seems that our main point of disagreement concerns whether or not society has a legitimate interest in sexual norms beyond the requirement of consent. I agree that we shouldn’t “care who you are attracted to,” but I think we should care about “who you are having sex with.” I think society does have a legitimate interest in promoting (among other things) abstinence before marriage, faithfulness during marriage, stable families, freedom from sexual addiction, and general emotional and sexual health (which, I think, requires sexual restraint). I am sympathetic to traditional sexual norms because I think they benefit all parties (or, at least, have a large net benefit). Now, that doesn’t mean I agree with the ostracization of those who violate those mores. I like the way everyone reacts to the Lydia/Wickham scandal in Pride and Prejudice (with compassion and a rescue effort that largely succeeds in saving Lydia from social and economic ruin). I don’t like the way they react to Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

  5. I hear you on traditional sexual norms. I can say I’ve personally benefitted in measurable ways from the traditional sexual norms of abstinence before marriage and faithfulness during marriage. But I think there’s enough room in the “traditional sexual norms tent” for gay marriage too. I think all of the norms you name would benefit any type of couple regardless of sexual orientation.

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