Chris Cooper PhD

Origins of Sexual Orientation I: Historical Overview

This is part of a paper written in 1992, and discusses historical views (up to 1992) about why people experience same-gender or different-gender attraction. An up-date (1993-present) is in process. See also “Origins of Sexual Orientation II – Biological Views,” “Origins of Sexual Orientation – Psychological and Sociological Views” and “Origins of Sexual Orientation – Synthesis”

Most discussions of sexual orientation have taken heterosexuality as a given and focus on explanations of why a minority of people deviate from heterosexuality (Bell, Weinberg and Hammersmith, 1981; Ellis and Ames, 1987). Similarly, bisexuality is not really discussed, but is viewed as a type of or degree of homosexuality (Garnets and Kimmel, 1991). Discussions of “normal” sexual orientation, then, become moot and the “not-normal” is described. For this reason, a discussion of historical views of sexual orientation becomes a discussion of views of homosexuality. In addition, less attention has been paid to lesbian women than to gay men in research (Saghir and Robins, 1969; Stevens and Hall, 1991) and in other areas. According to John Money, “Homosexuality and bisexuality in females … have always been of far less concern to the church, to law, to medicine, and to research than have their male counterparts” (Money, 980, p. 60). Thus most of this historical discussion will necessarily concentrate on male homosexuality.

The historical discussion here is limited to a brief overview. A more complete history can be found in a number of sources (for example, Boswell, 1990; Bullough, 1990; D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988; Duberman, Vicinus and Chauncey, 1989; Faderman, 1991; Greenberg, 1988; Lewes, 1988; Stevens and Hall, 1991).

From Behavior to State
Until comparatively recently (the mid-19th century) the question of sexual orientation was not even considered. The focus was on acts or behavior–not identity or essence. Legal prohibitions and church sanctions were directed at specific sexual acts (for example, sodomy). The problem was what people did, not who did it to whom (Boswell, 1990; Greenberg, 1988).

The term “homosexual” was first used in the 1860s by a Hungarian physician named Benkert who considered homosexual behavior to be congenital and trait-like. This was a transition period in which homosexuality was considered to be present only if the homosexual acts were accompanied by a homosexual mentality (Hirschfeld, 1948; Greenberg, 1988). The term homosexual was adopted by Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1906/1931) whose widely read work served to popularize the usage and to widely introduce the idea of a genetic basis for homosexuality. With this, sexual activity between members of the same sex was superseded by attraction, and homosexuality began to be perceived less as a behavior and more as a trait or essence.

From Morality to Biology
From the late 1600s to the early 1800s the majority view was that homosexual acts were vices, although there were some efforts to attribute homosexual behavior to biology. In the late 1700s, coincident with the zenith of phrenology, there were also some people who associated a certain brain shape with excessive attachment between men (but this was not extended to sexual acts). By the mid 1800s discussions of instinct and heredity achieved increasing prominence as the biological development of sex organs from initial primordial tissue was recognized. A primordium with the potential to become either male or female led to a biological view of development of sexual orientation–or inversion–in which the male invert was biologically feminized (Greenberg, 1988).

In the late 1800s and early 1900s there was an enormous interest in the study of sexual orientation with more than a thousand works on the subject appearing in the scientific literature in the decade between 1898 and 1908 (Hirschfeld, 1948). At this time Magnus Hirschfeld established the Institute for Sexual Research in Germany and attempted to investigate the phenomenon of sexual orientation and de-stigmatize non-heterosexual orientations. In his theorizing he proposed that the male homosexual was actually a member of a third sex. Hirschfeld is remarkable from a contemporary point of view in his belief that homosexuality develops differently in men and women, that “physiological bisexuality” is more pronounced in women than in men, and that there appear to be fewer lesbian women than gay men only because women play a secondary role in social life and therefore their activities are not “recorded with the same zeal as those of men” (Hirschfeld, 1948, p. 238). Although Hirschfeld began to do his work in a reasonably accepting atmosphere because of homosexual and women’s rights movements in Europe in the early 1900s, the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany soon put an end both to Hirschfeld and his work (Duberman, Vicinus and Chauncey, 1989; Plant, 1986).

Meanwhile, the work of writers like Krafft-Ebing, the interest of physicians, and the changes in the political climate in Europe led to a medicalization of sexual orientation. This medical view was aimed at learning about the causes (medical and psychiatric), prevention and treatment of non-heterosexuality (Greenberg, 1988). In Krafft-Ebing’s view homosexuality was a sign of degeneration–a manifestation of a neuropathic and psychopathic state. The degenerate state, according to Krafft-Ebing, is usually congenital (that is, hereditary), however, it can also be acquired after the individual experiences some “injurious influence” (Krafft-Ebing, 1906/1931, p. 285). This view, in an era influenced by Darwin and Mendel, was quickly adopted by others. It took hold especially in the United States where Calvinistic/Protestant religion welcomed it and where urbanization and the depression laid fertile ground for theories of degenerate/different others (Greenberg, 1988). At this point “reformers” concluded that in order to prevent these hereditary degenerates from influencing others or having children, they should be locked up or sterilized.

The perspective of psychoanalysis gave Sigmund Freud a somewhat different view. Freud regarded all people as originally bisexual, and argued that “inversion” was decidedly not a matter of degeneracy. Further, he believed that both biology and environment were involved in the development of adult sexual orientation, with environment playing the larger role (Freud, 1905/1986). This is described more fully in the section about Psychoanalytic Theory in Sexual Orientation – Psychological Views. Another very influential figure, Havelock Ellis, saw homosexuality as based on a hereditary, biological predisposition, however he cast it in a different light by pointing out that homosexual men have been prominent in “moral movements” and in religion. Included in their numbers, he pointed out, are great historical figures and statesmen. In describing some of the prominent homosexual men of the Renaissance, he uses the term “superior invert” and he states that inversion is often accompanied by high intellectual ability both in women and men (Ellis, 1915/1942, pp. 31 & 196). Ellis, not unlike Freud, believed that all people of both sexes contain in latent form the “character” of the other sex, but that a congenital predisposition for inversion must be present in order to become homosexual. Such a predisposition was not usual, but it was not pathological. Further, if homosexuality is not expressed until late in life it is because of retardation of that congenital predisposition, not because the homosexuality was acquired via environmental factors. With regard to “female inverts,” Ellis assures us that there are at least as many of them as there are male inverts–perhaps more. He speculates that inversion is less pronounced in women than men, but more prevalent. An example he gives as support for the greater prevalence of homosexual acts among women is a report from a Catholic priest who was his friend and who told him that three times as many women as men confessed to him about homosexual acts (Ellis, 1915/1942, p. 195).

Current Views (last half of the 20th Century)
The 1940s and 1950s brought the first systematic, statistically analyzed data collection in the investigation of sexual orientation. Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker were prominent researchers in the field were whose important and courageous work is described in detail elsewhere (McWhirter, Sanders and Reinisch, 1990; American Psychological Association, 1992). Suffice it to say that Kinsey was the first to collect large amounts of data from numerous subjects selected from the general population–not from hospitals and institutions. His findings are still controversial, however, it is clear that he opened the way for more research and that he began the removal of stigma from homosexual behavior by showing that gay men and lesbian women are more numerous than previously believed and that heterosexual men and women may often have homosexual fantasies or engage in homosexual acts without relinquishing their status as heterosexual (Boswell, 1990; Friedman, 1988).

Evelyn Hooker’s research further removed stigma by demonstrating that (1) test protocols of homosexual and heterosexual men on the Rorschach, TAT and MAPS revealed no inherent connection between pathology and homosexuality, and (2) experts could not determine sexual orientation from the Rorschach protocols of matched non-patient homosexual men and heterosexual men (Hooker, 1957). She thus inflicted irreparable damage to the theories that postulated male homosexuality to be either a pathological condition or the expression of a disturbed personality.

By the 1960s there were a variety of views from which to chose. Labeling theorists and sociologists were beginning to look at non-heterosexuality as a role created by society which could be automatically filled (Greenberg, 1988). By the late 1960s in the United States a new Gay Liberation Movement was asking people to take another look (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988).

In spite of the numerous more tolerant views available, the medical establishment still saw homosexuality as a disease. In the 1950s and 1960s the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a disease or disorder, and listed it under the heading “sociopathic personality disturbance” (Snyder, 1980). In West Germany, physicians were claiming to have located the site of the “problem” in the brain and had devised surgical methods to correct it (see Sigusch, Schorsch, Dannecker and Schmidt, 1982). Not until 1973 did the American Psychiatric Association, by a small margin, decide that homosexuality was no longer a disorder unless the homosexual person was uncomfortable with that orientation and wished to change. Thus, In the original printings of DSM-II homosexuality was listed as a disorder (302.0). Printings of DSM-II subsequent to the 1973 vote of the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality per se as a disorder and substituted a new category (Sexual Orientation Disturbance) which was reserved for those people who were “disturbed by, in conflict with, or wish to change their sexual orientation” (American Psychiatric Association, 1980, p. 380). In DSM-III this category was modified and called Ego-Dystonic Homosexuality. The modifications specifically limited the category to people disturbed by their homosexual orientation–the DSM-II version did not specify with which orientation a person might be displeased. DSM-III-R has been further revised so virtually no mention is made of sexual orientation, however, distress about one’s sexual orientation (not specifically homosexual orientation) is listed under “Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” (American Psychiatric Association, 1987).

The views presented in medical textbooks in the 1980s take no strong position about the origins or nature of homosexuality, but focus on the fact that research has produced equivocal results in terms of biological and endocrinological origins, and that psychiatry and psychology have put forth a number of theories, none of which is clearly substantiated (Adams and Victor, 1989; Wilson and Foster, 1985). Meanwhile, the popular press appears to be focusing on biological research, and although there may be no clear statement that biological origins have been proven, the implication is that biology reigns supreme (Gelman, 1992). The move towards biological explanations may not have been motivated solely by scientific progress. Some authors believe it politically safer to conclude that sexual orientation is a matter of biology (Bailey and Pillard, 1991; Ellis and Ames, 1987; Money, 1988). Further, it appears that a biological explanation of the propensity to engage in homosexual acts waxes and wanes throughout history with its strongest emergence in Aristotelian times, the Middle Ages, and currently (Greenberg, 1988). (In this light, one might note the move toward biological explanations of sexual orientation gaining prominence in Europe as the Nazi party became a force.) It has also been shown that biological views of gender differences emerge during conservative political periods (Tavris, 1992)–a theory that might appropriately be applied to biological views of sexual and affectional differences.


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