The etymology of heterosexuality.
History sets the record straight.
Just like homosexuality, bisexuality, and our wide range of sexual orientations, experts argue over whether we’re genetically predisposed, hormonal, or socially conditioned. It’s not proven that heterosexuality is the most common orientation, or we may just think it is. (Although admittedly, the idea that humans might not be naturally straight and are simply taught to act that way is a pretty fringe and Freudian idea).
What we do know about heterosexuality is that the word for it has only been around as long as traffic lights and typewriters. It’s newer than we think. Below, a guide to its short history.
Before we thought about orientations or labels, people went about their sexual business without putting a name to it. “Sex has no history because it’s grounded in the functioning of the body,” writes the famous theorist David M. Halperin – in other words, we’ve always got our rocks off, it was no big deal – but sexuality does have a history as it is the cultural meaning we give to sex.
Our current scope started when the Austro-Hungarian journalist Károly Mária Kertbeny coined the term “heterosexual” in 1869, alongside “homosexual”, “monosexual” (someone who masturbates) and “heterogenit” (which refers to bestiality). For Kertbeny, the denomination was like a diagnosis – a medical rather than a cultural that referred to someone who had a deviant or “morbid” attraction to the opposite sex, an apparent precursor to “too straight to function”.
At the end of the 1800s, “heterosexuality” started popping up in the writings of sexologists, and in 1923 it was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” By 1934, the definition shifted to include the description “normal sex”, but oddly, “heterosexuality” wasn’t used regularly, in day to day conversation, until the 1960s.
The phrase “straight” came out of gay communities in the mid-twentieth century. At a time when gay sex was still illegal, it was slang for “going straight” – as in getting “back on the straight and narrow” after having sex with men. The word “straight” has also given us the concepts of “straight culture”, and perhaps most wild of all, the concept of Straight Pride. “If queer people have drag and disco, do straight people have Maroon 5”? jokes one gay journalist.
Today, research shows that more people are identifying as something other than 100% heterosexual than ever before. In an often-quoted 2017 UK survey of 18-24-year-olds, it was 50% of adults surveyed. Another study finds that only two-thirds of Gen Z identify as straight. Terms like “heteroflexible” (aka mostly heterosexual but openminded) are on the rise to describe this shift. While heterosexuality is far from extinction, there are major changes that suggest that one day, we might not think of heterosexuality as quite so dominant.