Sexuality is the broad term that refers to categories of sexual desire. Although heterosexuality is considered by most the “normal” and “natural” sexuality and all other sexualities are unnatural and deviant, sexual desire manifests itself in a variety of ways. In the history of scholarship regarding sexuality, much attention has been given to the subject of what determines or creates one’s sexual desires. In its most simplified form, it is referred to the “nature vs. nurture” debate. On the one hand, does sexual desire occur naturally, that is, is it a part of the genetic and biological makeup of each of us? On the other hand, later thinkers asked, is there such a thing as sexuality at all? Or, as they propose, do we have pleasures that have been socially organized into a discipline that we call “sexual?”


With the rise of scientific method in the late 1800s and early 1900s came the sexologists: biologically trained scientists who studied human sexuality. The sexologists maintained that sexuality is a natural human drive, as essential and amoral as the need for food, water, sleep, or self-preservation. They assumed that males and females are naturally attracted to one another and aimed to prove that sex between men and women is healthy and normal. Sexology, like most scientific research, was driven by ideological concerns. For example, the assertion that a good and robust sex life within a marriage strengthens that relationship is still a strong and central claim found within contemporary writers who use the content, if not the data, of the early sexologists. The underlying mission in the valorization of sex between married couples is ostensibly to bolster the institution of marriage itself.

The claim that sex is normal and natural was extended in the twentieth century to include homosexual couples as well. A few sexologists were able to use their work to argue against civil rights offenses against homosexuals. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Havelock Ellis, for example, worked toward a decriminalization of homosexuality by arguing that it is a naturally occurring condition.

The most notable theorist coming out of the field of sexology was, of course, Sigmund Freud. Freud practiced in Vienna with the notable sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, but later departed from Krafft-Ebing and formed his own practical theories. Although Freud remained tied to the notion that sex is biological and occurs naturally in humans, his work proved to be groundbreaking and opened the doors to the complexity of human psychosexual development.

Sigmund Freud.

Freud was the first to formulate a psychosexual theory of human development. Freud’s theories, although androcentric, heterosexist, and biologically based, laid the foundation of sexual theory to which countless others later responded. To his credit, Freud recognized the complexities of all sexualities, that one’s environment can influence one’s sexuality, and posited that every single person’s sexuality has a myriad of sexual objects and desires at varying degrees.

Freud lays the groundwork for human psychosexual development in “Three Essays on Sexuality.” In his conception of sexuality, one could say that Freud had a Darwinian approach: he begins with the notion of “normality” and seeks to explain anomalies, or deviations from that norm. However, although Freud is heavily criticized for his focus on normal sexual development, Freud adamantly and frequently stresses the idea that whatever sexual aberrations one might conceive of, every perversion, every deviance, is present in every individual’s sexual development. In other words, although Freud uses the word “normal” frequently, he includes “perversions” under the umbrella of normal sexuality, that the sexual life of normal adults is beset with perversion. Still, the definition of normal sex for Freud is genital-centered, heterosexual intercourse with a monogamous, romantic partner.

For Freud, sexuality has two main components: (a) the sexual objects onto which we (b) direct our desires. In its most basic form, sexuality seeks pleasure (not reproduction, as the sexologists argued), and that pleasure seeking begins when we are born. As an infant develops, it (or we) goes through a series of phases in which the foci of desires, and the desires themselves, evolve. First there is the oral phase, in which the center and fulfillment of all sexual desire emanates from oral contact with the mother’s breast. With the pleasure that comes from lips-to-nipple contact, we at first connect erotic pleasure with nourishment. Then we learn that we can “invert” this pleasure, that is, we can fulfill our own sexual desires by sucking our thumbs, and at that point, pleasure becomes a distinct sensation no longer connected to necessity or to another person. Our first sensations of erotic pleasure, Freud notes, are ones without an object.

After experiencing pleasure via our mouths, we next discover the anal erogenous zone at the approximate age of two to four years old. The locus of pleasure is the stimulation of the mucus membrane (through defecation mainly) and the control and release of the sphincter muscle. Pleasure is both passive and active (or sadistic and masochistic). Again, Freud sees this phase as an inversion—there is no “other” object of our desire. The pleasure derived from defecation is connected to the pleasure of creating something unique—a pleasure that Freud asserts that normal women would transfer to child bearing in later development.

At around the age of four to seven, we enter the “phallic” phase. The pleasure within this stage is first experienced through the necessary act of urination, but that pleasure is also traumatic as the subject (imagined as male by Freud) begins to notice that not everyone has a penis and develops a fear of being castrated. The fear of castration results, in part, from being reprimanded for touching our genitals or for masturbating. In this phase, according to Freud, we begin to understand that we cannot be sexually satisfied by our mother because of the incest taboo, and we begin the process of resolving the “Oedipus complex,” Freud’s famous dilemma which posits that we go through a phase in which we seek to kill our father so that we can acquire our mother. We resent our father because he stands between the subject and the object of desire, and “his” prohibitions (against incest and murder) take the form of a fear of castration—the father will castrate the son to guard the sexuality of the mother. Women experience this as well—girls desire the mother and envy their father’s penis (which represents access to the mother). Girls feel inferior because of their lack of a penis and set about to acquire one, or rather to acquire the privilege that comes with a penis.

The Oedipus complex must be resolved in a way that orients the girl and the boy toward a socially acceptable (i.e., not incestuous) heterosexual desire. Women resolve the Oedipus (Electra) complex by earning the phallic social privilege by giving birth. Boys resolve their fear of castration by turning their desire away from their mother and onto appropriate female bodies.

The genitals are easily and often aroused and remain, in normal maturity, the source of pleasure. After a latent phase (between the ages of seven and fourteen) in which we learn to let go of the mother as object of desire and to reconcile with the father, we enter the final genital phase.

Freud sees perversion (and specifically “inversion,” or homosexuality) as the product of being stalled (unable to resolve the Oedipus complex) in one of these nongenital phases or a regression back to those phases in later life. Inversion in women (lesbianism), according to Freud, is the result of never successfully navigating through the oral phase or reverting back to it and consequentially never shifting the object of desire from the mother to the father. For homosexual men, Freud posits that infantile sexual development is delayed by never fully moving through the anal stage and from shifting the desire from the mother onto the father.

For Freud, “abnormal” sexuality is a result of not being able to negotiate the balance between one’s own pursuit of sexual pleasure and the social acceptance of such. If one is overly focused on the pursuit of erotic pleasure, the result is perversion and social deviance. If one restricts or represses erotic pleasure, the results are equally perverse. Although Freud continuously and emphatically stresses that all perversions are present in some degree in each and every individual, it is impossible not to see the development of sexuality as a heterosexual, androcentric, and triumphalist narrative in Freud’s work.

To his credit, Freud’s theories of sexual development are the foundation for every important work on sexuality thereafter: Freud believed that pleasure, not reproduction, is the primary sexual drive; he understood that the development of sexuality is social (although sex itself, according to Freud, is a biologically based drive); and Freud maintained that sex is not only a physical sensation but also one that is simultaneously a product of the mind and body. And the mind is, of course, culturally influenced.

Jacques Lacan.

Where Freud placed so much emphasis on the body and on physicality in psychosexual development, Lacan’s emphasis resides firmly upon language. Freud saw sexual development as a natural and thus normal process that culminated (in the healthy and normal person) into a properly constructed (and normal) heterosexuality. Lacan, on the other hand, understood this development entirely within a linguistic, culturally constructed realm (following mainly the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, a French semiotician). Our sexual desire, according to Lacan, is dependent on others—we learn who and what to desire based on culturally generated cues. Lacan theorized ideological structures that allow every individual to understand his or her relationship to both the self and others. Lacan posits that there is a “real” existence to which, once we acquire language, we forever lose access and expressibility.

The way in which we develop as we lose access to “the Real” closely resembles Freud’s stages of development. Lacan divides the formative years into three groups: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. We begin with no delineation between ourselves and others. We are a part of our mother’s body, still joined to her primarily with mouth to nipple, with the beginnings of the fragmentation of our body into pleasure areas: the vagina, the penis, the anus, because of the focus of attention to those areas. Lacan sees this as a shift from the Real into “the Imaginary”—as specific parts of our body begin to feel pleasure, we begin to associate that pleasure with something outside of ourselves; desire has a source and an object: the mother’s nipple, her gaze, the sound of her voice. In this phase, famously known as the mirror phase, we see a reflection of our self; we know that we are both self and other. We are beginning to move away from a sense of wholeness, from a self-identity whose desires are fundamental and somewhat simple.

Our self in the mirror is “other” in that it is “me” over there. Yet, it is a perfect image, one that we despise because it is better, but one that we love and desire because we want to be it. The image in the mirror is uncomplicated, light, and joyful, not full of the complexities and psychic disturbances we feel as we progress toward acquiring language and forever rupturing the connection to our self. The locus of desire and sexual fulfillment has moved from a place within us, from a site of comfort and recognition. At once internal and external, the mirror image becomes the object of desire; it is an object that is no longer real, is constructed and imagined as perfection, and is simultaneously in and out of our control. But the crucial distinction between this stage and the Real is that the object of desire (the I/other in the mirror) has become unobtainable. And at the same time, we begin to realize that all objects of our desire are unobtainable, beyond our realm of influence, and, most important, are a product of the world around us.

At this point language erupts and displaces reality. Everything finds its definition only in relation to an other—language (as it represents the real) is only intelligible through an internal logic of its own that plays out in a dualistic system and only makes sense in relation to another word: mother/father, I/other, or male/female. And because all language is symbolic (hence this phase’s designation as “the Symbolic”), these words represent (or are signifiers of) categories of the Real. For example, the phallus is not the penis (as Freud would assume); for Lacan, the phallus represents the arenas of power bestowed upon the phallic sign.

In the same sense, “I” is no longer a “real I,” but an I that is defined only over and against something else. That entrance into the Symbolic is, as Lacan remarks, a traumatic event; I is an empty signifier. We forever lose access to and comprehension of the Real. We cannot know a real I, merely an I that is externally determined. Likewise, the Lacanian theories of psychosexual development reinterpreted Freud’s Oedipal crisis as a relative signifier as well.

Freud described the Oedipal complex, as explained above, as a crisis generated toward an actual father. For Lacan, the “phallus” and the “father” are symbols; the phallus symbolizes all of the knowledge and power that is lost from the move from the Real to the Symbolic; it is all of the socially constructed power that accompanies the penis. The father signifies the external, cultural locus for all of the power, sanctions, and control that culture places upon the subject.

In his turn from Freudian biology to Saussurian linguistics, Lacan creates what has become the bedrock of poststructuralist theory on the social construction of sexuality: although he never explicitly asserts that all sexualities have the same beginnings, are culturally driven, and could, all things being equal, be equally valued, his work implies all of this as it locates the development of sexuality within the interaction of the subject with the society. Lacan’s theories of psychosexual development have been the impetus for all poststructuralist thought concerning the formation of sexuality.

In addition to shifting from a biologically based theory of sexuality, Lacan diverges from Freud by saying that women’s sexuality develops differently from that of men. Freud claims that women and men develop in a similar way in that the clitoris (in psychosexual development) is a small penis, so that women also develop a castration complex, which manifests as “penis envy.” Lacan, on the other hand, saw women as having, simultaneously, a sense of “lack” (manqué) and a sense of joy (jouissance). The sense of lack comes twofold: for (1) not having a penis, which precludes having access to power (as it is manifested in the symbolic) and (2) forever losing identity, or one’s being. Joy comes about in the absence of not having a penis to lose (no castration complex). Lacan’s theories of psychosexual development, as were Freud’s, are not entirely satisfactory for women either. Following closely and building upon Lacan is Julia Kristeva.

Julia Kristeva.

Whereas Lacan explained Freud in terms of “the signified,” Kristeva introduced “the abject” into the mix. “The abject” is Kristeva’s term for those things that cannot be completely subsumed into the Lacanian “symbolic order.” The abject (blood, pus, and other corporeal oozings) exists in the subject prior to its acquisition of language, sometimes at the end of one’s life, and within those persons who experience certain psychotic breaks (for example, certain types of schizophrenia) that render them external to the symbolic order. The crucial detail that Kristeva brings to the table here is that the body—although its articulation, and thus its reception, is shaped by society—maintains an essence that erupts and interrupts its own linguistic rendering.

The abject (horror) occurs at the time that we begin to leave Lacan’s Real and enter into the Symbolic; it is a mirror of Lacan’s mirror. The psychic panic that erupts when we are faced with losing the distinction self and other, or subject and object, becomes one of horror. There are, as Kristeva argues, corporeal realities that cannot be wholly subsumed by language, such as vomit, shit, or a dead body.

Kristeva’s work reflects one offshoot of sexual theory that struggles to hold on to a “real,” or essential body; she and others posit that traces of bodies destabilize order and resist complete linguistic erasure. It is in contrast to this notion that we see the most notable thinkers regarding the construction of sexuality: Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.

Michel Foucault.

In all of the early work on sexuality, there is an assumption that sex and sexuality are real things, that is, that every human being has desires that are uniquely sexual in nature and that certain pleasures can be perceived as purely sexual. The sexologists and Freud saw sexuality as biologically and genetically determined, basic to us and necessary for survival. Freud created a space within that domain that took into consideration the effects that family dynamics, communal perceptions, and other organizational systems have on psychosexual development. Lacanian expansions to Freud’s ideas produced a barrage of critique in the mid- to late twentieth century that questioned the “essential” nature (i.e., one that has an a priori existence, uncreated) of sexuality. The fallout from the Lacanian poststructuralist examination of sexuality was multidisciplinary and global. Jeffery Weeks, a British sociologist, and the American sociologists John Gagnon and William Simon argued that categories of sexuality are created; they are not naturally occurring entities, but rather, distinct categories of sexuality that are produced and maintained by cultural mechanisms. More, Gagnon and Simon questioned whether there are actually distinct feelings, desires, or touches that are sexual. In other words, how do we determine what counts as sexual? With its origins in Lacanian psychoanalysis and its continued examinations in the field of sociology, the idea that sexuality and sex are culturally produced is initially, and most clearly and brilliantly, articulated in Michel Foucault’s A History of Sexuality.

Foucault’s thesis is simple: we learn to be sexual beings. And we learn sexuality primarily through social institutions: the religious, the political, the juridical, the medical, the pedagogical, the economic, and the psychiatric. Each discipline articulates, defines, codifies, regulates, polices, and thus maintains and sustains sexuality. The feelings and desires do exist in our bodies prior to social articulation, but social forces organize all the various, disparate, and complex impulses into sexualities. The physical experiences are classified as sexual, and those sexualities are regulated and hierarchized, made moral or immoral, normal or perverse.

Foucault begins by examining the Victorian age, when, according to Foucault, the production of sexuality began. Foucault writes that the claim that the Victorians were sexually repressed is bogus, that everyone, everywhere talked about sex. From the innovation of the confessional in Catholicism to the detailed courtroom confessions and the sexologists, sexuality went from acceptable sexuality (what two monogamous, married heterosexuals did) and everything else to a plurality of sexualities. The myth of sexual repression was propagated and reiterated, according to Foucault, because that which is forbidden is desirable. By keeping sex repressed, liberation and transgression can then be linked to pleasure. Most importantly, sex becomes connected to truth, revolution, utopia, and happiness. All the world’s functions (politics, economics, cultural rules) are founded on the “myth of sexual repression” and are mutually reinforcing. The illusion that sex can and must be controlled set into motion all of these modern disciplinary social organizations with the single motive of keeping the uncontrollable (sex) controlled. Foucault (1986) writes,

"At issue is not a movement bent on pushing rude sex back into some obscure and inaccessible region, but on the contrary, a process that spreads it over the surface of things and bodies, arouses it, draws it out and bids it speak, implants it in reality and enjoins it to tell the truth: an entire glittering sexual array, reflected in a myriad of discourses, the obstination of powers, and the interplay of knowledge and pleasure. (p. 72)"

Thus, according to Foucault, humans are sexual, humans have somatically based desires, but the labels of sexuality (heterosexuality, homosexuality, cisexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, etc.) and the identification of sex and sexuality as a category are socially produced inventions. And what Foucault offers is that “sexualities” have been produced en masse; from the simple Victorian categories of “good” sexuality (married, monogamous heterosexuality) and “bad” sexuality (everything else), the nineteenth century and beyond has seen an explosion in the production of sexualities. Foucault’s point is this: the production of sexualities is to give the centers of control (the religious, the political, the economic, etc.) a reason to exist. As populations moved to urban centers and the industrial age required that people be literate for states to maintain economic prosperity, there needed to be, according to Foucault, greater and more rigorous control over bodies. Bodies had to be disciplined, and the way to control bodies is to control sexuality; if the body can be regulated, social forces can monitor whole populations. Thus, for Foucault, the production of sexualities is the way that contemporary societies control the masses.

Judith Butler.

Judith Butler begins with Foucault but shifts her focus from the production of sexuality to the production and maintenance of gender and sex itself. Whereas most theorists have uncritically accepted that there are naturally two opposing and genitally determined sexes, Butler maintains that gender regulation actually produces the sexes—that all of the social control that Foucault imagines to be at the base of the production, discipline, and maintenance of sex is aimed at gender. These social processes are ubiquitous and pervasive, yet invisible. The mechanisms that construct gender depend on the invisibility of the process to create the illusion that masculinity and femininity occur naturally. Butler recognizes that when sex is accepted as occurring naturally, apart from cultural processes, and that men and women are seen as sexually complementary, heterosexuality is recognized as the only appropriate and normal expression of sexuality.

Butler argues that we perform gender and that cultural forces dictate how, as women and as men, we are supposed to act. And when we step outside those tightly drawn gender roles and act in a way that would be inappropriate to our assigned gender, society punishes us. The disciplinary measures come in various forms: economic losses (limited or no employment options, housing restrictions, diminished opportunities for market interaction), a loss of civil rights, and often physical violence. Thus, although gender is a performative process, albeit an unstable one, one’s gender identity is not optional; society puts enormous pressures on each of us to conduct ourselves only in socially acceptable ways: gender-appropriate clothing, hair, mannerisms, colors of toys, language, employment, sexual partner, etc. The list of ways in which a culture requires its participants to conform to gender norms is literally endless and so comprehensive that it is uncritically accepted as natural.

Gender regulation, according to Butler, is the foundation and impetus for the creation of two sexes. Butler shows that sex (the cultural iteration of physical genitalia) is as unstable and no less culturally produced as gender. The very fact that some genitals are surgically altered to fit into the “either/or” of male/female indicates that sex cannot be reduced to a simple binary. The point is this: social structure (Foucault’s power) rests entirely on the organization of gender into two opposing and complementary binaries. To give the illusion that gender and all of its apparatuses are natural occurrences, gender is presumed to be an essential, biological expression of a body that is sexed either as male or as female, when in reality the body is shaped to fit a predetermined gender.

Biblical Studies in the Production of Sexuality.

Modern biblical studies became a discipline around the same time as the sexologists (and all the other disciplines) were producing sexuality (according to Foucault). Therefore, much of what Bible scholars have been doing is reproducing modes of “acceptable” sexuality, which is, of course, heterosexuality. Although the Bible (the Hebrew Bible more specifically) has countless examples of nonmonogamous heterosexuality, the prevailing narrative that has been delivered to twenty-first-century believers is that God has ordained (most notably in the creation story of Genesis 2—3, which features Eve and Adam) that one man and one woman should be joined together sexually with the sole purpose of reproduction.

The Bible interpreters’ understanding of sexuality has been much in line with the apostle Paul’s understanding of sexuality (and gender), in that gender and sexuality are naturally occurring, that God made male and female only, and that those two sexes are opposite and complementary with sexual desire only for one another in the intention of producing offspring. All other sexualities are deemed “unnatural.”

Biblical references to nonheterosexuality are sparse. The only sexuality explicitly presented in the Bible is heterosexuality. Except for a few brief prohibitions, the Levitical laws are concerned only with the details of heterosexual couplings. And the primary metaphors of the relationship between the deity and believers are of heterosexual couplings (husband and wife, man and prostitute, man and wanton woman, father and daughter, and bride and groom). Although there have been musings about the possible bisexuality of King David, or possibly Joseph, and some speculation about whether eunuchs would have been asexual or possibly homosexual, the Bible does not offer direct evidence, in its law, poetry, histories, or metaphors, of nonheterosexuality.

The fact that sex between two men warranted an explicit prohibition (Lev 18:22; 20:13) suggests that men did indeed have sex with one another. Likewise, Paul’s comments in Romans 1:26–27 suggest that women had sexual desire for other women, as did men for other men. As Bernadette Brooten has shown with her extensive research on female homoeroticism in the ancient world (specifically male attitudes toward female homoeroticism), Paul’s understanding of gender and sexuality was right in line with that of his contemporaries: because of the “naturalness” of the active male and the passive female, sex between women is unnatural because, Paul and his contemporaries assumed, one of the females would have to take on the active male role. Yet, these brief references in Leviticus and in Romans do not constitute our modern notion of sexuality. That we classify whole persons as being heterosexual, or being homosexual, or being any sexuality is a recent (since the nineteenth century) phenomenon.

In short, there is no discussion or understanding of sexuality in the Bible. There are simply appropriate and inappropriate sexual acts, and the degree of propriety or impropriety depends upon the prevailing social attitudes. The notion of sexuality has been inserted into the text. For example, modern translators and interpreters have understood Genesis 19 (the story of the destruction of Sodom) to be a condemnation of male homosexuality, but a close study of that text and its references in Isaiah 3:9, Jeremiah 23:14, and Ezekiel 16:49 does not support that reading. Likewise, sex between certain classes of males (between an older man and a boy or between an elite male and a slave, for example) was an acceptable practice for Greek and Roman males from at least the sixth century B.C.E. Yet, again, this would not be understood as a sexuality in the way that we understand the term today.

Another example of a misapplication of a biblical text to address sexuality is the use of 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul’s exclusion of men who are arsenokoites and malakos from the kingdom of heaven. This text has been used to say that homosexuals are condemned to hell. Again, a thorough linguistic exploration, as Dale Martin makes in his article “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences,” of these two Greek words which are commonly translated to mean homosexuals, suggests that whatever Paul means (and no one is quite sure), he does not have a whole class of people in mind. Rather, Paul, as did those who crafted the Levitical codes, condemned (presumed) specific sexual acts. As Martin argues, no one is quite sure what arsenokoites means, and even if the word has sexual connotations, it seems to be a condemnation of an economically based sexual injustice or exploitation. The second word, malakos, is used often by Paul’s contemporaries to refer to “effeminate” behaviors in males. Being effeminate, that is, behaving in a way that does not conform to what the prevailing society perceives as masculine, is not interchangeable with a modernist understanding of homosexuality.

A historical-critical approach to “sexuality studies” by bible studies scholars is an anachronistic misnomer. The various historical-critical methods, methods of biblical study given an inordinate amount of credibility and authority by general readers, have been understood as a discovering or an uncovering of sexuality in the ancient world. Rather, the biblical critical methods produce and reproduce sexuality for and with the modern reader. There is no concept of sexuality to be discovered in the Bible; we can only know how the Bible has been used in the production and maintenance of modern sexualities.




  • Brooten, Bernadette. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Foucault, Michel. A History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1986.
  • Gagnon, John, and William Simon. Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. Chicago: Aldine, 1973.
  • Gay, Peter, ed. The Freud Reader. New York: Norton, 1989.
  • Hornsby, Teresa J. Sex Texts and the Bible. New York: Skylight Paths, 2007.
  • Martin, Dale. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
  • Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger, edited by Carol Vance, pp. 143–178. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
  • Weeks, Jeffrey. Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800. London: Longman, 1981.

Teresa J. Hornsby