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Non-westernized concepts of male sexuality may vary considerably from concepts of sexual orientation prevalent in Western culture[1][2] Recent scholarship has questioned the applicability of Western concepts of sexual orientation and identity in non-Western cultures.[3][4][5]

The Western concept of sexual orientation is relatively recent in origin, coming into being during the last 150 years. In Western (and perhaps other westernized) cultures, a male who experiences sexual attraction to other men may be classified as bisexual or homosexual. (The use of such categories places him into the same classification as same-sex attracted males who cross-dress and engage flamboyantly in purportedly effeminate behavior.) In a number of other cultures, a male is defined by his (putatively internal) gender; in such a culture, a masculine gendered male (of any sexual orientation) might simply be labeled a man, and males putatively gendered as feminine (tranvestites of any sexual preference, flamboyantly effeminate males who are believed to indulge in receptive anal sex, and transsexuals) would not be considered 'men' but would be classified as members of what is sometimes called the third sex, i.e. partly male and partly female.[6][7][8]

Views regarding the concept of sexual orientation

Sexual orientation
Part of sexology


Sexual identities



Kinsey scale
Klein Grid


Non-human animals

See also
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The universal applicability of modern Western concepts of sexual orientation has been questioned by such scholars as twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault. The debate here is an instance of a broader conversation in social theory between social constructionists and essentialists.

Essentialists maintain that sexual identities reflect deeply rooted sexual desires which can be neatly classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or (sometimes) bisexual. Social constructionists argue that sexual identities are socially constructed. Social constructionists assert that these identities are specific to certain cultures and historical periods. Historian David Greenberg, for instance, argues that the concept of homosexuality did not exist prior to the mid-nineteenth century. He argues that "the production and dissemination of a medical discourse in the recent past ... gave birth not just to the concept of a homosexual person, but also to homosexuals themselves, and at the same time, to their antitwins, heterosexual persons."[9]

Some evidence suggests that not all people have found that the categories introduced, according to Greenberg, in the nineteenth century are helpful in characterizing their own sexual identities.[10] It has been argued by some researchers that the majority of males in Western(ised) cultures frequently engaged in same-sex sexual behaviours before the concept of 'sexual orientation' was introduced, but avoid doing so now because of social pressures generated by the way male gender and sexuality has been socially constructed in the West, post-'sexual orientation', with the result that men who do acknowledge sexual attraction to other men experience significant isolation.[11][12][13][14]

Ideas of gender and sexual orientation are closely linked. (The putatively homosexual identity exhibits some continuity with third sex identities[15] and is more closely associated by some modern Western stereotypes with putative femininity in males.[16] The contemporary heterosexual identity is arguably more closely associated with putative masculinity and may reflect earlier delineations of mainstream men's spaces). Gender provides a lens through which cross-cultural (and intra-cultural differences regarding male sexuality may appear particularly clear.

Cultural differences related to male sexuality

Strong men's spaces

As evidenced from published references from different parts of the traditional (non-westernised) non-western world (India, Indonesia, and certain countries in the Arab world)[17]), the society is often divided into men's, women's and third gender spaces.

The men's spaces are very strong in the sense that they guard against the process of heterosexualization—which has the effect of isolating and removing male-male sexuality from these spaces into a separate ghetto — and also provides men a lot of relief from pressures of social manhood (such as exaggerating one's sexual need for women, and suppressing one's sexual need for men). The strength of men's spaces can also be seen by the fact that these spaces resist the imposition of the western practice of isolation of same-sex male sexual bonds from these spaces, through the concept of homosexuality. Men's spaces refer to spaces which are exclusively for men, and where women are either not allowed or their entry is highly restricted. These spaces are extremely important for men and their manhood and very congenial to bonds between men, including sexual bonds. These sexual bonds are very open if the formal society is accepting, otherwise hidden to various degrees, depending upon how hostile the formal society is.[18]

Socially, men are extremely comfortable showing physical intimacy with other men, publicly, and its seen as masculine, something which according to the Western standards will be seen as gay and unmasculine, since only gays indulge in such intimacy in the West.[19]

It is said that before the heterosexualization of the West, similar openness about intimacy existed amongst who are today known as 'straight' men in the West.[20]

Perceptions of men’s sexual desires for other men as universal

Some anthropological research has suggested that in Afghanistan (Kandahaar), India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Morocco and elsewhere, men's sexual desires for other men is understood as universal, and not the characteristic of one or more sexual minorities. According to this research, a man's display of sexual interest in another man in social environments in which this understanding is shared may not be seen as a sign of difference from the societal mainstream.[21] Belief in the ordinariness and ubiquity of male same-sex desire may be freely acknowledged, as it apparently is in Kandahaar.[22][23] In other cultural settings, same-sex desire may be openly acknowledged in spaces socially defined as male but denied in mixed gender spaces (e.g., in India).

Similar universal sexual bonds between mainstream masculine men have been documented in ancient Greece which is said to be the precursor of modern Western culture.

Even in the modern West, similar universal sexual bonds between men have been documented before the society was completely heterosexualized and segregated between masculine 'heterosexual' and feminine 'homosexual'.[24]

Role of conception of “third gender” in shaping understanding and practice of male sexuality

See also: Third sex and Hijra (South Asia)

In regions including South Asia,[25] South-East Asia,[26] Arab, Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and Polynesia, more than two genders are acknowledged, and usually there are three sexes or genders of humans beings. Apart from the masculine and feminine genders, there also is a third gender which is considered to be both masculine and feminine at the same time (or in some societies neither masculine nor feminine; neutral). It includes feminine gendered males, who are considered to have male “outer” sex but feminine gender. While there is no division on the basis of the Western pattern of "sexual orientation", there is a strong division of the male population between masculine gendered males and feminine gendered males. While the former are referred to as "men", the latter are known as members of the third gender, regardless of (what might be referred to in the contemporary West as) their sexual orientation. The third sex is considered a separate gender category, and its members are not considered men or women but rather members of a neutral or intermediate gender.[citation needed] Thus, sexual relations between a man and another man are not treated as equivalent to sexual relations between a man and a member of the third gender.[citation needed]

Active vs Passive

Across the non-Western world, the western division of straight vs gay is seen in terms of active vs passive. Masculine males typically adopt active roles in sex with other males and are seen as equivalent to western straights, while third gender males typically adopt passive roles and are seen as 'gay'. Thus the issue between 'straight' and 'gay' here is not sexual orientation but (a) the masculinity or femininity of the male, and (b) whether he takes the active or passive role in sex with men.[27]

In private however, sex between two masculine males either does not involve anal sex at all or if it does, is likely to be mutual, while the sexual roles are strictly adhered to when masculine males have sex with feminine males.

Reaction to westernization

Westernized populations in India may follow both western as well as traditional concepts of sexuality.[28][29][30] However, when western constructs of sexuality are forced upon societies such as India in the context of AIDS activism, for example, it creates problems.[31]

Non-Western cultures often resent the imposition of these Western definitions on them, but may be rendered helpless due to the economic and technological powers of the West.[29][30]

See also

  • Human sexuality
  • Masculinity
  • Romantic friendship
  • Westernization


  1. Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World, Review of Joseph Massad’s book: Desiring Arabs from the site:
  2. Homosexual behaviour without homosexual identity: The case of Chinese men having sex with men (MSM); Winkelmann C.; Int Conf AIDS. 2004 Jul 11-16; 15: abstract no. WePeD6407;
  3. The Dictionary of Anthropology; By Thomas Barfield; Published 1997, Blackwell Publishing; Ethnology
  4. Struggles for sexual, gender liberation rooted in national liberation movements, Lavender & red, part 113, By Leslie Feinberg,
  5. Heterosexual Identity and Male-to-Male Sexual Activities: Implications for HIV Transmission and Prevention in India. Bhattacharya G; International Conference on AIDS. Int Conf AIDS. 2002 Jul 7-12; 14: abstract no. WePeE6483. Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL, United States BACKGROUND: This study examined the social and cultural contexts that shape the expression of sexual identity in India and the ways those contexts attach meaning to sexual behavior, including male-to-male sexual activities in various social arrangements and situations among heterosexually identified men in India. METHODS: This community-based study included in-depth audiotaped interviews with sixteen participants in India. A semistructured interview guide was used, and the text of the interview was transcribed, coded, and organized for descriptive presentation in this study. Empirical and scientific data on HIV infection and transmission, literature on Asian Indian culture, and theoretical frameworks for research complemented this study. RESULTS: Male-to-male sexual activities were reported common for having "fun" (masti) and or for initiating sexual experiences. Procreation determined the socially prescribed gender identity in heterosexual relationships. Married and heterosexually identified men may practice occasional or regular male-to-male sexual activities for sexual pleasure and satisfaction. Male-to-male sexual activities were not equated with sexual identity as "gay", "bisexual", or "homosexual". The Indian Penal Code 377 criminalizes "homosexual" behavior. CONCLUSIONS: For understanding the epidemiology of HIV transmission and for preventing the risks of the transmission of HIV that an individual may be exposed to in multiple social arrangements in India, interventions must target unsafe sexual behaviors and risks of HIV transmission, rather than relying on specific and delineated classification of self based on sexual identity. Acknowledgements: This study was supported by a grant from the International Council, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Gauri Bhattacharya: Principal Investigator, 2000-2001).
  6. Kuru, Selim S. 2000. A Sixteenth Century Scholar: Deli Birader and His "Dafi`ü'l-Gumum Ve Rafi`ü'l-Humum." Unpublished PhD Dissertation. Harvard University. P. 258
  7. El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arabic World, 1500-1800. p. 153
  8. Needs Assessment of Males whoe have sex with males in calcutta and suburbs prepared by:Research team of Male Sexual Health ProgrammePraajak ( formerly Naz Calcutta Project) It has been observed that MSS in developing countries generally adopt a gendered sense of identify which influencesthe role they take in male to male sexual activities. In Calcutta these gendered selves are expressed in the concepts ofdhurani, feminine man who takes the so-called “passive” role in sex with men, and parikh, masculine man of whatever sexual orientation, but who takes the so-called ‘active’ role in sex with men.
  9. Greenberg, David. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago, Illinois:University of Chicago Press, 486-487. ISBN 0-226-30628-3.
  10. Sexual Identity Development and Synthesis among LGB-Identified and LGB Dis-Identified Persons.; Journal article by Mark A. Yarhouse, Erica S.N. Tan, Lisa M. Pawlowski; Journal of Psychology and Theology, Vol. 33, 2005;jsessionid=H9hL2Qb2lV2kQnpGtXTrZzXGkMPhJ0TVXRzfT8hSw316CbPsWW8S!-1788132937?docId=5009356549
  11. Review of Book "Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume One: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, by Randolph Trumbach chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998. (xiv), 509 pp.; Reviewer: Lesley A. Hall of Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London.
  12. The Changing social construction of western male homosexuality: Association with worsening youth suicide problems: chapter: Male homosexuality: from commonality to rarity; By Pierre J. Tremblay & Richard Ramsay Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary.
  13. The Changing social construction of western male homosexuality: Association with worsening youth suicide problems: chapter: Male homosexuality: from commonality to rarity
  14. Picturing Men A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography by John Ibson, The University of Chicago Press
  15. Review of Book "Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume One: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, by Randolph Trumbach, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998. (xiv), 509 pp.; Reviewer: Lesley A. Hall of Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London.
  16. Mollies Arrested in London:
  17. Negotiating Gender: Calalai' in Bugis Society: Sharyn Graham; also, Bissu are gender transcendent, pre-Islamic priests. See Leonard Andaya, 'The Bissu: Study of a Third Gender in Indonesia', in Other Pasts: Women, Gender, and History in Early Modern Southeast Asia, ed. Barbara Andaya, Hawai'i: Hawai'i University Press, 2000:27-46.
  18. Worlds of Gender: the Archaeology of Women's lives around the globe by Sarah Milledge Nelson, published by Altamira press 2007
  19. Hold Another Man's Hand? Lessons from Adamu, Shashingo and Vincent Patrick Repp, MA, LP, LMFT
  20. Seeing Males Together: Brokeback Mountain and Picturing Men The Chicago Blog, Publicity news from the University of Chicago Press including news tips, press releases, reviews, and intelligent commentary
  21. Imams and homosexuality. A post-gay debate in The Netherlands (1) Quote: The traditionality of Moroccan culture and its ubiquitous but hidden homosexuality have very much contributed to sexual pleasures of white gay (Green, 1992) and local men in Morocco to this day.
  22. Tim Reid (2002-01-22). Kandahar Men Return to Original Love: Teenage Boys. Fox News. Retrieved on 2008-04-20.
  23. Brian James Baer (April 2007). Closely watched Pashtuns-a critique of western journalists' reporting bias about "Gay Kandahar". Pukaar, the journal of Naz Foundation International. Retrieved on 2008-04-20.
  24. Male Homosexuality: From Common to a Rarity Pierre Tremblay and F Ramsay,
  25. Peter A. Jackson (April 1996). Non-normative Sex/Gender Categories in the Theravada Buddhist Scriptures. Australian Humanities review. Retrieved on 2008-04-20.
  26. Kathoey: The term kathoey or katoey (Thai: กะเทย, IPA: [kaʔtʰɤːj]) generally refers to a male-to-female transsexual person or an effeminate gay male in Thailand.
  27. Imams and homosexuality. A post-gay debate in The Netherlands (1) Quote: Censure in traditional Moroccan society is directed mainly to those men who enjoy the passive roles. For them, Moroccan Arabic has several words such as zamel, m'haoui, hassass and attay but none for the active partners who do not lose their honour for fucking men or boys (id, 152).
  28. It's what you do: most of the men who have sex with men in the South probably don't identify themselves as `gay' or `bisexual'; Internationalist, Oct, 2000 by Jeremy Seabrook
  29. 29.0 29.1 Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan; by Mark McLelland; Murdoch University
  30. 30.0 30.1 Struggles for sexual, gender liberation rooted in national liberation movements, Lavender & red, part 113, By Leslie Feinberg
  31. The social construction of male ‘homosexuality’ in India: implications for HIV transmission and prevention Sheena Asthana, a and Robert Oostvogelsb; a Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, UK b AIDS and Anthropology Group, Anthropological Sociological Center, University of Amsterdam, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 185, 1012 DK Amsterdam, Netherlands; Abstract: Over the past 20 years, there has been a growing recognition of the relativity of sexual norms and of the difficulties of exporting Western conceptions of sexuality to different socio-cultural settings. This view has been most clearly articulated in studies of men who have sex with men (MSM) which suggest that the ways in which male–male sexual activity is shaped and constituted vary significantly from place to place. Despite this, ‘homosexuality’ continues to be treated as an unproblematic category in HIV/AIDS discourse, epidemiological studies of and HIV prevention strategies for MSM in widely different contexts being based on the North American/West European example of gay men. This paper, which draws upon ethnographic research in Madras, highlights important differences between India and the West, not only in the sexual identities and circuits of MSM, but in their sexual partnerships and practices. These differences, it is argued, are not only significant to the epidemiology of HIV transmission, but have important implications for the development and implementation of HIV prevention strategies.

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