KeywordsSexual Behavior Sexual Orientation Sexual Relation Lesbian Woman Feminine Role
Same-sex attraction outside of Western Europe and societies principally characterized by its colonial legacies (e.g., North America).
Sexual orientation and homosexuality have been most prominently discussed in Western political and cultural spheres since the late nineteenth century. General understanding of same-sex attraction is thus limited by an absence of perspectives from societies with other cultural traditions and origins. For example, Western scholars and laypeople commonly describe same-sex attraction and sexual behavior using terms like “homosexual,” “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual,” these labels and concepts may not even exist among people living in the cultures to which they are applied (e.g., Nanda 2014). This entry reviews how same-sex attraction might manifest in cultures not informed by Western cultural, social, and linguistic traditions.
The Multitude of Same-Sex Attractions
Western conceptions of sexual orientation typically employ certain linguistic and culturally normative mental structures to generate representations of same-sex attraction and sexual behavior. Rarely do people in Western societies consider other expressions of same-sex attraction that may be more prevalent in other cultures (see below and Bailey et al. 2016 for examples). The term “same-sex attraction” is therefore a preferred means of describing same-sex relationships because it successfully summarizes the phenomenon of interest while subsuming various manifestations of its expression.
Indeed, although “gay men” and “lesbian women” may not necessarily exist in non-Western cultures per se (Blitzer 2011), expressions of same-sex attraction may exist worldwide. Scholars examining the prevalence of same-sex attraction have estimated that approximately 1.5–5 % of the contemporary world’s population is attracted to other members of the same sex (Smith et al. 2003; VanderLaan et al. 2013; Whitam and Marthy 1986). Given a large enough population, then, individuals oriented toward same-sex attraction should emerge though they may express this differently from one culture to another.
For example, hijras in South Asian cultures (Nanda 1998), berdaches in Native American cultures (Callender et al. 1983), and fa’afafine in Samoa (Vasey and VanderLaan 2014) all express nontraditional sexual identities that may or may not include same-sex sexual behaviors. Yet each case represents a relatively different expression of same-sex attraction and gender identity. Whereas hijras and berdaches occupy largely spiritual and religious roles that symbolize unification of male and female (exemplified in part through crossdressing), fa’afafine men are typically raised and socialized in feminine roles due to their more feminine childhood mannerisms and thus evidence greater pragmatism (Bartlett and Vasey 2006).
These differing expressions highlight two interesting phenomena. First, same-sex expressions in non-Western cultures often rely on “switching” between masculine and feminine roles such that the individual almost transitions in gender (e.g., hijras; see Tskhay and Rule 2015). Second, non-Western same-sex expressions largely stem from iterations on defined gender roles. For example, fa’afafine tend to be feminine men who have sexual relations with masculine men; it is rather unlikely that two fa’afafine would have sexual relations with each other (Bailey et al. 2016). Therefore, even when same-sex attraction is commonly acted upon, its expression still resembles the heterosexual sexual behavior typical between men and women (Tskhay and Rule 2015).
In sum, same-sex attraction appears to be a relatively universal phenomenon, though its expression may vary greatly from culture to culture. Its varieties of expression are clearly shaped by cultural norms, religious traditions, and practices. However, in most cultures, same-sex attraction still follows structures inspired by more demographically common gender roles, such as heterosexual attraction and behavior.
- Blitzer, W. (2011). Iranian President delivers controversial address at United Nations. The Situation Room. Transcript retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1109/22/sitroom.02.html. Accessed 19 Aug 2016.
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