What was the nineteenth century’s worst invention? Choosing just one isn’t an easy task, but one that should be near the top of the list is . . . sexual identity. Few modern creations have wreaked as much havoc on individuals and culture as this medical concept.
In a fascinating interview at Patheos, cultural anthropologist Jenell Paris discusses the history and implications of this relatively recent invention:
Was it also the 19th century when these labels gained currency in the broader culture?
Those didn’t really influence the general public until the 1930s, when those words became a more common part of American discourse. So in thinking about even my own family, just to take an example, we could say that my grandfather who came of age in the 1910s probably didn’t have a sexual identity. He was a fundamentalist minister, but he was a man, he was a Christian, and his sexuality got wrapped around those concepts, not his identity understood in terms of his sexuality.
My parents remember getting a sexual identity in the 1960s. So these ideas came a little late for them but they both can talk about realizing, “Oh, I am heterosexual; there is such a thing and I am going to claim one of those labels for myself.” I, growing up in the ‘80s, always had a sexual identity. So we can see across the 20th century there has been a deeper and deeper entrenchment of that concept in American self-understandings.
And these changes correspond to how different generations have understood the role and meaning of sex in human life?
Right. If anything, sex was considered a more communal element of life. It had to do with reproduction, with family, with extended family, and with church and community. Sexual identity categories radically individualized the meaning of sex in the human experience. So the meaning of sex is now located primarily within the individual and her private, innermost feelings.