Homosexuality and Sexual Orientation

Traditional ideas about children and homosexuality depend upon a number of variables. One is what societal attitudes are toward same-sex activity among adults. This varied from culture to culture, but in Western societies where Christianity was dominant, such activity was regarded with considerable hostility. A second variable is what a culture determined should be the AGE OF CONSENT. Age of consent, the age at which individuals could legally come together in a sexual union, was for much of history something either for the family to decide or a matter of tribal custom. Probably in most cases this coincided with the beginning of PUBERTY, which is marked by physical developments that are clearly visible. In most cultures this was adjudged to take place between ages twelve and fourteen for girls and at a slightly older age for boys. Still another factor is how various societies break down sex and gender differences. In Western society there are only two different sexes or genders, while other cultures such as the Native American culture identify three, four, or even five, depending on how the individual researcher counts them. In some societies, those who do not conform to sex or gender stereotypes are regarded as special candidates to become a shaman or holy person. Sexual relations between two females are often regarded differently by a society than relations between two males, perhaps because in male-dominated societies what women did among themselves was not of much importance. In fact, much less is known about female relationships than about male, and much of what we do know about the female culture was disseminated through the eyes and voices of males for much of history.

In Western culture, much of what we know about youthful homosexuality comes from ancient Greece, where boys often entered into a relationship with an older man when they began to enter puberty. Studies suggest that this occurred earlier than was formerly believed, probably at an average age of about twelve. This early male initiation into sex was described in some detail by the classical writer Strabo in his account of the mock abduction and subsequent honeymoon of a youth coming of age. This consensual relationship between an adolescent and an adult male was institutionalized throughout Greek culture by the sixth century B.CE and survived well into the Roman period among some elements of society. Plutarch, in his On the Education of Children written in the first century of the common era, stated that though fathers might view the society of those who admired youth as an "intolerable outrage to their sons," he himself felt inclined to emulate such past followers as Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, and others in the practice.

The most influential force in changing such attitudes in the West was St. Augustine (354–430), the theological father of the Western Christian church. Augustine, who before his conversion had been living with a prepubescent girl to whom he was betrothed, became a strict advocate of celibacy after his conversion. He taught what became a basic doctrine of the Western Christian church, that the only justification for sexual activities was procreation. All nonprocreative sex was sinful. Essentially his idea of the sinfulness of homosexuality was written into Roman law and thus criminalized by the Emperor Justinian. Many religiously oriented groups in the Western world still adhere to this notion and for much of the twentieth century the American legal tradition was heavily influenced by it.

Despite the church's disapproval, homosexual activity did not disappear, and neither did same-sex relationships with and among children and adolescents. In the medieval Islamic world, as well as in medieval Judaism, there are a number of poems extolling same-sex relations with and among adolescents. Similar literary descriptions of adolescent homosexual relationships exist in the Chinese and Hindu traditions. In the West, both canon law and European civil law codes followed the Roman age of consent (twelve to thirteen) and generally regarded same-sex relations to be against the law. Thus most of our evidence of homosexual activity from this period comes through what law and society said about same-sex relationships, and does not necessarily indicate what individuals were actually doing. With the adoption of the Napoleonic legal code at the beginning of the nineteenth century in France, greater tolerance became possible, and more evidence of such relationships appears. The code established two standards, age and consent, to decide whether a sexual activity was criminal or not. Because the age of consent was thirteen, consensual same-sex acts were no longer criminal after that age. English and American common law were also revised in the nineteenth century, but same-sex relations were regarded with great hostility and homosexuality remained a crime until the last part of the twentieth century.

While hostility to homosexuality was well established in Western society for centuries, an important shift in attitudes occurred around 1900. Some physicians and other sex researchers began to claim that people were either homosexual or not. The idea that people could have a combination of both homosexual and heterosexual interests, which had been a common experience for some groups, was increasingly downplayed in favor of the new dichotomy. Further, homosexuality was now regarded by many as a disease, rather than simply a form of immorality. With this new approach, and with growing emphasis on the importance of heterosexual DATING and other activities for older children, concerns about signs of homosexuality among children increased. Parents and children themselves became increasingly anxious about homosexuality, and it became a major element of child rearing and socialization from the 1920s onward. While the most recent developments have loosened strictures about homosexuality, elements of this earlier tradition persist as well.

Children and Homosexuality

In the twentieth century more data became available and the study of childhood sexuality became systematized, although studies are very difficult to do except retrospectively, that is, through people's reported memories of their own childhood activities. We know that children learn early on what sex they are. In most cultures they are easily identified as a boy or girl by the clothes they wear and what their parents and others tell them. In fact, the sex of a newborn is usually the first question asked about it. Though children gain a gender identity sometime between one and two years old, they do not yet have a sense of gender constancy. A little boy may believe, for example, that at some later point in life he will be a girl. Even though the overwhelming majority of children soon realize this is an error, many keep wishing they were of the opposite sex and try to act like they are, and this seems to be a strong disposing factor for later transsexualism and homosexuality. Children's unwillingness to accept their assigned gender roles is often very difficult for parents and other adults to accept.

Most children, however, do learn a gender role, and this becomes their identification during preadolescence, which is considered to be roughly eight to twelve years old in Western cultures today. During this period they spend their time away from adults and generally in all-male or all-female groups if such groups are available. This homosociality, as it has been called, lessens the opportunities for heterosexual interactions at a period in which members of both sexes are learning the facts of life; it also facilitates homosexual behavior. Boys, for example, may participate in group MASTURBATION or exhibition of genitalia or competitive urinating contests, but such activities are not necessarily an indicator of later homosexuality. Preadolescent children who later become gay or lesbian are more likely to distinguish themselves not so much by their sexual behavior at this time but by gender nonconformity in a variety of nonsexual traits.

It is in this period of development that gender norms become much more strict not only in adult expectations but in peer group pressures as well. Social disapproval is generally more severe for nonconforming boys than girls, perhaps because a degree of "masculine" aggressiveness might help a girl gain a leadership position in her peer group. The "feminine" boy, however, might find himself excluded not only from other boy groups but also from the girl groups and thrown into the group of other misfits that exist in childhood. Studies of male adult transvestites, however, find that they conformed outwardly to their male peers but then retreated in secret to don clothes associated with girls or play as if they were girls. It is also in this period that children begin to experiment sexually. Alfred Kinsey found that a large number of preadolescents (between ages eight and thirteen) engage in what he called homosexual sex play. Nearly half (48 percent) of the older males who contributed their histories reported having engaged in homosexual sex play in their preadolescence. In his study of females, Kinsey found 33 percent of the preadolescent females engaged in some sort of homosexual sex play and many reported that such experiences had taught them how to masturbate.

ADOLESCENCE, between ages thirteen and eighteen, roughly corresponds with biological events associated with puberty, including the onset of menses in girls and first ejaculation in boys. At this age in earlier periods in history, a person would be classified as an adult. Adolescence in our society can best be understood as a social construction, designed to describe the ever-widening gap between reproductive maturity and the age at which society is willing to grant men and women full adult rights and responsibilities. It also is a period in which homosexual identity is most clearly formed. Girls in particular form strong emotional FRIENDSHIPS in adolescence; interestingly, however, there is generally much less social concern about homosexuality in such relationships than there is about boys' friendships. Such relationships among girls are widespread and are an almost normative part of many girls' psychosexual development. It has been suggested that girls need the support, LOVE, and affection of intense friendships to help them survive in a male-dominated world. Many of these friendships have strong homoerotic overtones.

Since both sexes in preadolescence play almost exclusively with members of their own gender, homosexual behavior is far more common among younger children than it is later in adolescence. In a 1973 study by Robert Sorensen, of those reporting homosexual experiences, 16 percent of the boys and 57 percent of the girls had their first homosexual experience between six and ten years of age. By the time they had reached their thirteenth birthday, 78 percent reported having at least one such experience. The number of boys exceeded the number of girls as they went into their teens. This difference in the teens was also found by Edward Laumann and his colleagues in the 1990s. Kinsey described homosexual play in females as mutual insertion of objects (including fingers) into the vagina, mouth–genital contact, rubbing, and close examination. In the male he defined it as exhibition of genitalia, manual manipulation of genitalia in groups or between two individuals, anal or oral contacts with genitalia, and urethral insertions.

In the 1980s and 1990s there was growing public acceptance for homosexuality as well as increasing peer acceptance of varying gender identities among adolescents. Many high schools, particularly in urban areas, have clubs for gays and lesbians, and the stigma of being different has lessened. Critics are concerned that such open toleration will encourage more individuals to become gay or lesbian. Studies show, however, that many preadolescents and adolescents who express nonconformity in gender identity do not continue to do so as adults. Others who conformed to traditional views in childhood broke away to identify themselves as homosexual or lesbian adults. There are still many unknowns in the complex study of the formation of gender identity.

See also: Gendering; Same-Sex Parenting; Sexuality.


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Kinsey, Alfred, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

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