Same-sex Behaviors Across Cultures

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Although “gay rights” can be seen as a contemporary issue in today’s society, history is abounding with same-sex behaviors and relationships across Western and non-Western cultures. The purpose of this essay is to review the status of sexual orientation across cultures. I review this from three different perspectives: (1) how age difference effects how same-sex behavior is viewed, (2) gender differences, and (3) role differences. I have concluded that although same-sex behaviors occur across various cultures, same-sex relations are still viewed negatively.

Keywords: Boy-inseminating rituals, Two-spirit roles, Mollys, Cross-dressing, Transvestite

Within the past few decades, across the globe, sexual orientation has gained more attention in the public eye (Herek, 2000a; 2000b). Especially in the United States, there has been more focus placed on the issues of gay marriage and military guidelines. In other geographical locations, political and religious bigotry against those of sexual minorities has led to the debate over laws aimed at limiting the freedom and liberty of non-heterosexuals (Herek, 2009). Whereas some societies have created laws that persecute homosexuality through various punishments, others have broadened their gender definition to be more inclusive and welcoming.

Ethnographies of different social and cultural groups frequently imply that heterosexuality is not the only form of sexual actions, and various reports suggest that sexuality goes outside of what people consider attractive (Blackwood, 2000). There are noteworthy works that describe facets of sexual orientation which are closer to cultural norms and traditions than to sexual interactions alone. While sexual ideas seem to change rapidly, they continue to affect gender identity and cross-cultural sexual orientation (Anderson & Fetner, 2008). A rigorous account of every example of non-heterosexual orientation cannot be provided and examining the continuum could be an academic book all by itself. Though, this short discussion of sexuality across cultures suggests that modern civilization is impacted via time, location, and heritage that form perceptions about sexual orientation that is still believed to this day.

Age Difference

In Ancient Greece, they allowed same-sex relations/behaviors between older men and men in their late teens and early twenties (Herdt & Polen, n.d). They believed that by doing this, it would create a war culture bring the mean virility, honor, courage, and nobility. Although they participated in same-sex behaviors, they did not classify themselves differentiate themselves as in a hetero norm or homo category (Herdt 2018). In today’s western culture, and even other societies, the gender of the sexual partner matters. In Greece, it is the sexual act that matters, meaning as long as the older male is the penetrator and still honorably engage in sexual activities with women, it is not seen outside of the norm (Herdt 2018). However, they did not accept same-sex behavior between men that were the same age. Those men were stigmatized and punished. Similarities can be found in Arabia, Korea, and China.

Pacific New Islanders had boy-inseminating rituals (Herdt & Polen, n.d). This is when a young male is inseminated in orally or annually to be considered masculine or strong (Herdt & Polen, n.d). Sometime afterward, marriages were arranged for them.

In Sambia of Papua New Guinea, older males were attracted to prepubertal males (7-13 years old) (Herdt & Polen, n.d). Once they grow facial hair, the attraction is gone, and those boys then get to inseminate other. This is opposite to the Greeks because they wanted males with facial hair, boys who have already gone through puberty. In Sambia, they have no homoerotic relations between adults. The practice of inseminating boys stops once the man becomes a father (Herdt 2018). It is not socially acceptable for two same-sex persons to live together sexually and socially throughout their lives, and therefore have no term for those who are homosexual (Herdt 2018).

Gender Differences

Many cultures in Asia and the Pacific, North and South American, and Africa permit same-sex behaviors by a male who would take on the gender of a woman (Herdt & Polen, n.d.). This is less frequent for women. The Palin Indians of pre-colonial North America has a term for those who identify outside of their gender. This is the two-spirit role. During the ceremony for a baby, the baby is placed in the center with a basket on one side and a bow and arrow on the other (Herdt & Polen n.d.). Depending on which item the baby chooses determines if the baby is two-spirited or not. For instance, if a female baby chooses the bow and arrow, that means she also has masculine qualities. The Polynesian Fa’fafina role among biological males who express feminine qualities is very similar to the two-spirited role and occurs widely across the Asian Pacific region (Herdt & Polen, n.d.). Surprisingly, cultures defined by gender roles tend to be more tolerant of same-sex relationships. Males who have same-sex attractions are socialized into women’s roles and vice versa.

Role Difference

Sexuality to closely linked to the societal definition of a man or a woman, and beliefs about what is “natural and normal” (Herdt 2018). Those who stray away from these norms are seen as seditious in the usual sense of political revolutionaries or religious hierarchy whose actions challenges the status quo.

In some complex societies, such as ancient Japan and Korea, as well as England during the period of Shakespeare, same-sex relationships were allowed for males who performed as actors in plays or on stage, as well as in certain religious institutions, such as monks in the Buddhist tradition in shamans in some traditional cultures (Herdt & Polen, n.d). In ancient Japanese plays, women played all roles and vice versa in Shakespeare’s plays. Even London, in those times, had pubs referred to as Mollys where men would dress as women and act sexually as women (Herdt & Polen, n.d.). People who are attracted to the same gender would refer to themselves by a variety of local terms such as Molly, queer, fairy, or in the last century homosexual in western societies. Outside of the western community, these cultural terms can even have secret or privileged meaning that has aspired people to express their same gender desires through experimentation (Herdt 2018).

In the beginning of the Pansy Craze in the United States, more gay and bisexual people began to perform as drag kings and queens in New York and other cities in America. For example. Gene Malin was well known for his impersonation of Mae West and was the highest-paid entertainer in New York’s nightclubs (Ong 2018). But by the mid-1930s, there was a moral panic about homosexuality that forced many of the gay-friendly clubs to go underground (Ong 2018).

In the Netherlands, women dressed in men’s clothing to gain position and status (Herdt & Polen, n.d.). This is known as cross-dressing. From this tern came transvestites, someone with a sexual interest in cross-dressing. In the United States, women also passed as men in some context in this era. During the Victorian Britain era, women were arrested for cross-dressing and were criminalized for fraud rather than indecency, which is the standard punishment for males (Ong 2018). Not all of the cross-dressing women were exploring their sexuality. Just like in the Netherlands, some women wore men’s clothing so they could do certain jobs, including the army (Ong 2018). Some were feminist protesting certain women’s clothing like the sorest. In England, some cross-dressing women were called Sapphists, after the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, who is believed to be Lesbian (Herdt & Polen, n.d.). Since the 1960s in the LGBTQ+ community, “butch” (male) and “fem” (feminine) are roles in homosexuality.


In this essay, I strived to demonstrate (1) in various cultures acceptable same-sex relations are allowed only between older and younger males, (2) gender differences allowed where men would take on women’s roles and vice versa, and lastly (3) how the arts and even clothing types can lend itself to same-sex behaviors. In sum, although various forms of sexual expression exist in the world and have been met with different levels of acceptance across different places and different times, sexual minority members are generally viewed negatively in contemporary global society. Part of the reason, it seems, is the predominant view that sexual orientation is a function of gender and sex. Thus, any violation of traditional sex norms tends to lead to sexual prejudice, discrimination, and negative life outcomes.


  1. Andersen, R., & Fetner, T. (2008). Cohort differences in tolerance of homosexuality attitudinal change in Canada and the United States, 1981–2000. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72, 311- 330. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfn017
  2. Blackwood, E. (2000). Culture and women’s sexualities. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 223-238. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00162
  3. Herdt, G. H. (2018). Same Sex, Different Cultures Exploring Gay and Lesbian Lives. Retrieved March 28, 2019. Boulder: Routledge.
  4. Herdt, G., & Polen, N. (n.d.). HUMAN SEXUALITY: Self, Society and Culture (Vol. 1). MCGRAW-HILL.
  5. Herek, G. M. (2000a). Sexual prejudice and gender: Do heterosexuals’ attitudes toward lesbians and gay men differ?. Retrieved March 28, 2019. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 251-266. doi: 10.1111/0022- 4537.00164
  6. Ong, A. (2018, March 23). Cross-dressing: A secret history. Retrieved March 28, 2019, from
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