Crosscultural Perspectives on Sexual Orientation
Same sex relations have existed alongside heterosexual relations throughout history. In Western cultures, it is widely believed that same sex behavior is an innate, physiological characteristic that cannot be changed. Nevertheless, sexual orientation as a concept is difficult to define. Throughout history, medical science, theologians, legal doctrine and cultural norms have all played a role in influencing how sexual orientation and/or same sex relations are perceived.
Keywords Bisexual; Culture; Gay Rights Movement; Heterosexual; Homophobia; Homosexual; Lesbian; Reparative Therapy; Same Sex Relations; Sexual Orientation; Sexual Relations; Transgendered
Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation is defined as one's sexual preference for men, women, or both. Although history is replete with literary and religious references to same sex relations as well as to relations between members of the opposite sex, some societies have not always accepted these different relations, or the sexual orientations of the people who engage in them, as equal (Asia-Europe Foundation, n.d.; Herek, 1997-2008). Indeed, same sex relations have often been condemned, and those who claim a preference for these relations have been subjected to punishment and discrimination. While attitudes toward homosexuality and bisexuality have become more accepting, the treatment of individuals with sexual orientations towards members of their own sex remains controversial within some cultures.
Defining Sexual Orientations
Defining sexual orientation is not as simple as it seems. While there are common categories used to describe sexual orientation: heterosexual (prefers opposite sex), homosexual (prefers same-sex), bisexual (enjoys both), for researchers, it is more difficult to define who fits into each category. This is because an individual desires and attractions may not always match observable or reported behavior. Take the following cases as examples:
• Interviews have indicated that some men who consider themselves to be heterosexual have had sexual relations with men (Stokes, Miller & Mundhenk, 1998).
• Some men and women who are attracted to members of the same sex marry a member of the opposite sex in order to fulfill cultural demands or to avoid stigmatization. Sometimes, they have same sex relations on the side.
• In some cultures, men have reported having same sex relations in their youth, but as adults, they reject these relations to enter into heterosexual marriages (Cardoso, 2008).
How should individuals in these cases be defined? Should a self-definition as heterosexual be considered accurate when a man says he prefers women but only has sex with men? If one has sex with both men and women, but prefers one over the other, what classification should be given? And what about experimentation in adolescence with members of the same sex? Does sexual orientation change over time? These are some of the complex issues that can arise when defining sexual orientation for the purposes of research and which may cause confusion when individuals are struggling to define their sexual orientation or identity (Stokes, Miller & Mundhenk, 1998).
Choice vs. Innate Quality
The question of whether people have same sex relations as a result of a biologically determined and innate sexual orientation or as a choice made due to environmental factors which prohibit heterosexual relations or encourage opportunistic behavior is one of the core issues underlying controversies over same sex relations. Because self-definitions do not always match behavior, and because behavior may be influenced by cultural attitudes towards same sex relations, answering this question is not easy. Throughout history, theologians, medical professionals, and legal scholars have provided guidance on why people engage in same sex relations and/or on how cultures should respond to individuals who engage in them. Despite this guidance, and perhaps because of it, today, there is no worldwide consensus on the roots of homosexual and bisexual behavior and even less agreement on how individuals who engage in such behavior should be treated.
One reason that many people around the world may view same sex relations as a product of choice is that in many cultures, same sex behavior appears to be connected to a lack of gender diversity. In cultures where women are secluded, young men may first experiment with sex through same sex relations. The reasoning, perhaps, to explain this behavior is that men need to learn about sex in order to function as husbands; once married, this would no longer be necessary and the behavior would be deemed inappropriate. Evidence for this perspective comes from many studies, and was reported in a round-up by Cardoso (2008) that is partially summarized here and which illustrates the many reasons that cultures use to justify same sex behavior.
• Melanesia - Serves to develop masculinity
• Azande - Compensates for the lack of women
• Brazil - Increases sexual options for poor fishermen
• India - Allows for the discharge of body tension among truck and taxi drivers
• Morocco - Comprises a stage of sexual development among boys 9-17
While the relative unavailability of women seems to account for some instances of same sex relations among men, throughout all cultures there are women and men who choose homosexual relationships even when heterosexual partners are available. This fact has forced cultures around the world to grapple with what their attitudes should be towards homosexuality in general. Many religions have condemned same sex relations as being sinful and against the will of God (Asia-Europe Foundation, n.d.; Exodus International, 2005; Myers & Scanzoni, 2005). The natural order of the world, these religions contend, is for man to mate with - and in many traditions considered superior to – women.
In some cultures, the violation of traditional gender roles is enough to condemn anyone who considers themselves homosexual to disgrace or punishment. Toro-Alfonso (2007) writes that for Latinos, the "machismo" ideology, which grants males superiority in the culture, is widely accepted. At the same time, the myth is held that gay men want to be women and lesbians want to be men.
In other cultures, a distinction is made between the active and passive actors in same sex relations, and those who are passive may be considered differently than those who are active (Cardoso, 2008; Stokes, Miller & Mundhenk, 1998). For instance, in some cultures, only the passive actor is considered homosexual. Thus, in Brazil, Turkey, and Thailand, social categories exist for poor, working class boys who have sex with homosexuals that do not concur with tradition conceptions of homosexuality. Attitudes toward the passive actor are generally more negative in cultures that make such a distinction. While contemporary western sociologists have separated sex from gender with sex being a biologically determined characteristic and gender being socially constructed - meaning that for a man to display "feminine" characteristics is not necessarily unusual – this separation is not always recognized outside of academia or in non-Western cultures (Jandt & Hundley, 2007). Thus, gay men who demonstrate effeminate behaviors may be perceived as passive and as accepting the lower female status. While they may be socially tolerated, they are likely to be viewed more negatively than a masculine gay man whose blends into the heterosexual crowd (Cardoso, 2008).
The distinction between active and passive homosexuals is a widespread phenomenon. Other countries which have created a social role for "heterosexual men" who like to have sex...
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