The commonly accepted definition of a heterosexual is a person who is sexually oriented to persons of the opposite sex.
The intent of this article is to clarify the relationship between heterosexuality, sexual orientation and sexual behavior, while discussing their relationship in terms of social constructionism (that is, the consideration of how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts). Moreover, we will touch on a variety of activities and lifestyles that are practiced by heterosexual persons that may fall somewhere outside the realm of ‘straight’ behavior.
In terms of demographics, heterosexuality is still the most common sexual orientation. However, the incidence of homosexuality and bisexuality in large urban areas is double that of elsewhere. Part of the reason could be due to the size of the community; a larger number of residents offer the opportunity and anonymity that can be conducive to a broader diversity of culture and beliefs. Less attention gets paid to non-stereotypical behavior because probability is that these residents have had exposure to a wider array of lifestyles.
Heterosexuality and Sexual Orientation
There are a variety of theories that account for the origins of sexual orientation. Current scientific research is disproving the belief that it is merely a lifestyle choice. Because of significant advances in scientific technology, researchers have access to more tools to analyze the impact of genetics and hormones on human development. As a result, it has become apparent that sexual orientation is pre-wired into the mind and any sexual preference that falls outside of heterosexuality is not to be considered a ‘deviation’ or ‘perversion’. Most scientists now agree that sexual orientation is based on the interaction between social, genetic and cognitive factors.
Currently, a debate exists among theorists as to whether or not gender is a social construct and to what degree is it biologically determined. One of the major theories that many researchers now agree on (that of Alfred Kinsey), is that sexual preference can be likened to a sliding scale; heterosexual is on one end and homosexual on the other. Each individual falls naturally somewhere in between these extremes, but all have more-or-less inherent bi-sexual tendencies. Therefore, non-heterosexual behavior is merely considered to be a variation in the sexual preference scale; people are therefore in no more control over being homosexual than they are of being heterosexual. However, social conditioning may often steer a person away from experiencing what feels natural, so they tend to not explore their true inclinations and stay instead within the boundaries of the more socially accepted heterosexuality.
Sexual behaviour doesn’t necessarily determine an individual’s orientation; the two are different from one another in many ways. Sexual orientation refers to one’s beliefs, preferences and sexual self-concept; sexual behavior relates to one’s actions as an actual expression of that orientation. Individuals may, or may not, automatically express their sexual orientation in their behaviour. For example, a person could believe that they are gay or straight without ever actually having sex with someone. Alternatively, a person could become intimate with someone of the same gender and still consider themselves to be essentially heterosexual. Human sexuality continues to evolve as a person ages, but in almost all individuals researchers agree that it is established at an early age and rarely digresses from that early determination.
There is an enormous range of sexual behavior and activities that don’t necessarily fit with conservative models of heterosexuality, and that are often (wrongly) associated only with homosexuality. This includes some of the following: anal sex, casual sex, metrosexuality, role-playing, pet-play, polyamourism, voyeurism, swinging, fetishes, auto-eroticism, erotic fantasy, group sex, pornography, cross-dressing, bondage, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism. These are all practices that are also conducted by heterosexuals, but can raise eyebrows in traditionalist circles. The point is to illustrate that that humans are sexual and their desire to express it can manifest in a number of ways – irrespective of their gender or orientation.
Social Constructionism and the Heterosexual
Sexual identity and our society’s understanding of gender are both naturally and socially constructed. Social constructs are considered to be the unconscious product of human beliefs. Social contructionism illustrates how the concept of ‘normal behavior’ develops and becomes established in various societies. The heterosexual exists comfortably within the evolved expectations of society. Due to human nature, many people accept an established belief without verifying its validity. The fact that institutions such as government (legislation), the courts, religious groups, etc., embrace heterosexuality as ‘the norm’, ensures that there is little likelihood that heterosexuality will ever be under direct threat as the mainstay of human sexuality. However, culture does change over the long-term and that dominance is currently under erosion. For those who doubt this one only need look back over history to note how heterosexuality as the absolute norm has been accepted or rejected at different times.
Social Acceptability of Heterosexuality
The notion of appropriate male or female preferences and behaviour elicits a strong set of gender-based expectations and stereotypes. Crossing gender barriers, or even boundaries within heterosexuality, can have the effect of threatening peoples’ own understanding of gender identity. Gender identity represents peoples’ beliefs about themselves, how they represent themselves in society as male or female, and the way they interact with others.
There is a safety and freedom that accompanies heterosexuality; you are usually subject to less judgement and scrutiny, especially if your sexual behaviour is less than ‘respectable’. Societal pressure may cause some individuals to adopt a particular social gender, one that is perceived to be most suitable to the established norms that they conduct themselves in socially; however, in private they may maintain a somewhat different identity and lifestyle.
If individuals feel pressured to fit into specific gender constructs, will they withstand the burden or will they break? If a person subscribes to an alternate sexual inclination, they experience pressure to ‘manage’ their orientation or sexual behavior in a public setting. Furthermore, significant discrimination occurs in an un-accepting community that can restrict and marginalize those who do not conform to the dominant behavior. Finally, the pressure to have children in a traditional male/female family construct is significant, often placing great pressure on individuals to conform to the heterosexual lifestyle.
Regardless of a person’s orientation or proclivities, it is important to encourage people, especially children, to express themselves and their identities as authentically as possible – whether that be heterosexual, homosexual – or somewhere in between. Maintaining healthy self-disclosure with friends and family is essential to healthy development. If we can prevail over the effects of fear, misunderstanding and intolerance, it will be easier to give people the opportunity to express their gender identity in a safe and supportive environment. By doing so, we can get to know the true nature of heterosexuality.