It might seem strange to think that society can have an impact on something as intimate and personal as sexuality. Surely feelings of love and desire are natural responses that are triggered when someone feels romantically or sexually attracted to someone else? However, sociologists would say that sexuality, and indeed many other emotional responses and feelings, are strongly influenced by the society in which a person lives.

How does society influence human desire?

Society can influence human desire in a number of ways. It can indicate what is an acceptable way to begin dating someone. Do you send them flowers or just press a “like” response on a dating app? Society can also delineate which forms of sexuality are deemed acceptable at the current time, such as being straight or gay. It can even shape the expression of emotion and what can and should be said. For example, Valentine’s Day, which is celebrated in many countries around the world, brings a social expectation that people will express their love and affection for a partner, or for someone they hope will be their partner, on this day.

Is sexuality a fixed entity?

Sexuality is not a fixed entity that has always been the same throughout history. In ancient Greece and Rome, for example, people held quite different ideas about sexuality. It was not uncommon for men to have same-sex physical relations with younger men or with slaves. That form of sexual activity was not understood at the time as gay.

Indeed, the whole way of thinking that seeks to put people’s sexuality into boxes with labels such as straight, gay, or bi-sexual is something that is very much part of modern life. This idea that everything needs to be put into categories can be traced largely to a historical period known as the Enlightenment in the 18th century. In his work on human sexuality, French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault discovered that the category of “homosexual” only came into being in the 19th century. It was at that time that same-sex attraction began increasingly to be seen as something bad and wrong.

Why does homophobia exist?

One of the reasons homophobia exists in society is due to what sociologists call “heteronormativity”. This is the term for the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm. For example, when someone refers to a partner there is often an assumption is that he or she is of the opposite sex. Heteronormativity is often reinforced by culture and the law. It is worth noting that the right to marry someone of the same sex has only become law in many countries in the early years of this century.

Do we still need to put people into boxes? Really?

However, perhaps the need to put people in a box is gradually disappearing. Among today’s Millennial Generation (born in the 1990s or later) people are increasingly relaxed about their sexuality and sexual identities. That change in attitude among young people does not mean that all societies have become open and accepting of different sexualities. In many parts of the world, people who are attracted to the same sex or are openly gay or lesbian still encounter hostility and discrimination in the form of homophobia.