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Sexual Orientation

Cross-cultural Sexual Diversity

Cross-cultural data shows that sexuality changes its form and meaning in accordance with cultural context. The evidence reveals a wide range of sexual Members of the University of Sussex Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Society participate in a gay-pride march in Brighton, UK. HOWARD DAVIES/CORBIS behaviors, even if the society itself may legitimate only a limited range of sexual expression. Many non-Western societies allow for some form of homosexual practice. In the early 1950s a survey found 64 percent of societies sampled considered homosexual behavior to be normal and socially acceptable (Ford and Beach 1951). More recent work has found homosexual practices and relationships play an acknowledged role in both the social and religious domains (Blackwood 1986).

Transgenerational homosexual relations are found in a number of societies such as has been found in some African groups where soldiers were given young boys to provide domestic and sexual services for them. Ritual homosexuality is found in New Guinea based on a belief that boys do not develop strength or masculinity until inseminated by older males (Herdt 1984). This belief supported a similar practice in ancient Greece, although the terms did not exist to describe it as we do today. Neither the term heterosexuality nor the term homosexuality existed before 1890.

In societies where women have control over their productive activities, both formal and informal lesbian relations may occur. Where women lack control over their lives, particularly in male-dominated class and caste societies, only informal lesbian ties, unrecognized by the larger society, may form. A formal lesbian relation is one that is recognized as part of the social structure and includes a bond of friendship. Azande women, or co-wives, in Sudan formalize their relationship with ritual. Chinese sisterhoods exist in the province of Kwangtung, where groups of women take vows not to marry and to live together. There are examples of age-defined relations among blacks in South Africa and in the Caribbean between older married women and younger women who are usually not married. Woman-marriage is a type of marriage in some parts of Africa in which a childless woman marries another woman to bear her a child (Evans-Pritchard 1970; Gay 1986; Sankar 1986; Smith 1962). Native North Americans called individuals who expressed both masculine and feminine attributes two-spirited people. They often co-habitated and had sexual relations with someone of the same sex but different gender (Williams 1986).

As the above and other research shows, sexual behavior and gender are social constructions, but sexual orientation probably is not. It is important to note the distinction between these related but distinct concepts.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsSexual Orientation - Essentialism Or Social Construction, Early Sex Research, Family And Social Relations, Cross-cultural Sexual Diversity