Image of two men kissingA Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton


The social constructionists are convinced that ‘the sodomite’ is a modern concept, and that until relatively recent times ‘sodomy’ was simply a sexual act. The theory that ‘sodomy’ precedes ‘the sodomite’ is a major tenet of all the classic social constructionist texts, which all insist that homosexual identity is preceded and determined by the active or receptive role taken during anal intercourse, or by female role identification. As with so much social constructionist theory, the view that acts rather than persons were the important features of the discourse about homosexuality until modern times is historically and linguistically unsound.

In virtually every society and in virtually every period of history, nouns relating to persons have been more important than terms for disembodied acts. It is only in the English language that there has ever been a debate whether ‘homosexual’ is a noun as well as an adjective. In all other languages it is always both, i.e. it always has a noun form applied to persons. The view that ‘homosexual’ and equivalent terms are valid only as adjectives rather than nouns is a political/ideological position, not historical observation. Many such terms originally were nouns applied to persons long before they came to be adjectives applied to behaviour.

In the Latin language the word ‘sodomite’, sodomita, existed earlier than the word ‘sodomy’, sodomia. In linguistic terms the concept of the homosexual person preceded the concept of the homosexual act. The ecclesiastical phrases peccatum sodomitae or crimen sodomitae are usually translated as the sin or crime ‘of sodomy’, but it is more accurate to translate them as the sin or crime ‘of the Sodomites’: i.e. the sin or crime of a specific set of persons. Long before the term ‘sodomy’ became the word of choice, there were a large number of Latin-based words which relate to a generalized conception of homosexuality rather than to specific acts: for example, Saint Jerome employs the forms Sodoman, in Sodomis, Sodomorum, Sodomæ, Sodomitæ (Hallam 1993). Florio in an English-Italian dictionary of 1598 cites the following:

Sodomia, the naturall sin of Sodomie.
Sodomita, a sodomite, a buggrer.
Sodomitare, to commit the sinne of Sodomie,
Sodomitarie, sodomiticall tricks.
Sodomitico, sodomiticall

Florio uses 'Sodometrie' as an English word. Thomas Nashe referred to ‘the art of sodomitry’ in 1594. Today, sodomia and sodomitia and their equivalents in various romance languages are usually but inaccurately translated as ‘sodomy’, which is simply a specific sexual act, but the more accurate (albeit infelicitous) translation is ‘sodomiticalness’, which refers to a collection of characteristics encompassing licentious behaviour, i.e. a generalized (albeit negative) concept equivalent to ‘homosexuality’, rather than to anal intercourse specifically. Even Aquinas defined ‘the vice of sodomy’ as ‘male with male and female with female’ – which is a relational concept rather than descriptive of a specific act (Gilbert 1980), and which in his usage refers to lesbianism as well as male homosexuality – i.e. homosexuality tout court.

Sodom of course is the name of a town, apparently derived from Sadeh Adom, meaning ‘red field’ or ‘field of blood’, origin and derivation obscure. A Sodomite is a person who comes from Sodom, and by extension a person who exhibits the characteristics of the inhabitants of Sodom. The primary Christian and Jewish term for a queer is thus a national–cultural term rather than a sexual signifier. In the Middle Ages the term ‘sodomy’ could be used to describe anal intercourse, even heterosexual anal intercourse, but the word ‘sodomite’ invariably meant male homosexual, whether the sex he enjoyed was anal or otherwise. ‘Sodomite’ from the very earliest times conjured up an identity, an identity linked to the idea of same-sexuality and a group of identity characteristics rather than anal sex. The Christians viewed the Sodomite as a complete personality type whose whole being endangered the community, whose homosexual behaviour was symptomatic of his anti-social attitudes. It was the sodomitical sensibility that was the real danger. The basic theme of anti-sodomitic literature is that the Sodomite indulges in sodomy because that is the worst thing he can think of to express his fundamental perversity and his contempt for God and nature.

Greenberg’s (1988) statement that ‘medieval inquisitors were not concerned with homosexuals, but with sodomites’, not only sets up a false distinction, but is founded upon bad history. Surviving records of Inquisitions of sodomites (and occasionally lesbians) show that the Church was very interested in such issues as their background, when they first experienced their homosexual feelings, what their general moral and religious attitudes were – in other words, what their character was. Sodomy is merely one symptom of the Sodomite’s essential nature.

The ‘active’ homosexual

Social constructionists claim that there are no words for the active homosexual in ancient societies or indigenous cultures, that queer labels are always reserved for those who take the receptive role in anal intercourse, that those who take the active role are not stigmatized or labelled by their society, and that all of this demonstrates that the homosexual identity is culturally constructed as either the receptive sexual role or the female gender role. The classic example of this kind of role-playing is the ‘Mediterranean model’ in which, allegedly, the man who fucks youths has no homosexual identity or self-awareness differentiating himself from men who fuck women, and it is only the youth who gets fucked whose role is stigmatized and who consequently develops a queer identity in accordance with this label. Many social constructionists take this as a kind of universal paradigm, though it is specifically characteristic of the sexual peasant cultures of southern Italy and Spain, supported by the Roman Catholic dogma that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts (sins).

But this view that in ancient and indigenous cultures only the receptive rather than the active homosexual was labelled is grossly inaccurate, for there are scores of exceptions. For example, a great many terms come in pairs, one of which defines the active partner: for example bugger and berdache, or bugger and catamite, or paedico and pathicus; in Arabic Al-Fá’il, the ‘doer’, and Al-Mafúl, the ‘done’; in Nicaragua the machista and the cochón; in Greek erastes and eromenos. In the pedagogic pederasty of ancient Sparta the pair of partners were the older ‘inspirer’ and the younger ‘listener’ (these are certainly role labels, but they are not sex/gender roles except by inference, and in accordance with a modern theory about the ritual ingestion of semen which is by no means proven with regard to the Spartans).

In tenth-century China courting male couples consisted of the older ch’i hsung and the younger ch’i ti. In eastern Java where man/boy relationships nearly took the form of marriage, the teenage (effeminate) youth was a gemblakan, and his masculine adult (but still young) partner was a warok. In England the ingle, a word documented from 1532 in a translation of Rabelais, occurring more frequently from the 1590s, was a catamite, or kept boy, from Latin inguen, groin. The 'ingle' formed part of a pair, for the keeper of such a boy was also given a separate term, the ingler, recorded from 1598. In Spain, in Andalusia, effeminate queers are maricas, but there were also masculine queers, called guarrones, who were feared, and amaricados. In the famous Sacred Band of Thebes, the pairs of male soldier-lovers consisted of the older heniochoi, charioteers, and the younger paraibatai, companions. In ancient Rome male prostitutes were sometimes classified according to the roles they played and the image they projected: the exoleti were active, and the cinaedi were receptive. However, the latter term was often used with the broader generic meaning of ‘hustler’, and the cinaedus was often considered to be active rather than receptive despite the fact that the term derives from Greek kinein, 'buttocks'. This usage of the ‘tough’ cinaedus paired with the effeminate catamitus survived in several Romance languages, e.g. in sixteenth-century French. This figure is not often discussed by the social constructionists, because the Roman citizen who likes to be penetrated by young men does not fit in well with their theory about status and roles.

Sir Richard Burton in his famous essay on the Sotadic Zone cites several indigenous Hindu words for the active homosexual role in the 1840s, including Gánd-márá, anus-beater, and Gándú, anuser. The Albanian active homosexual or pederast is called the büthar, butt man. In Latin the pullus, chicken, was chased by the pullarius, kidnapper of boys, literally ‘poulterer’, the modern equivalent being ‘chicken hawk’. The ancient Greeks had other specialized, active, terms, such as philephebos, fond of young men, and philoboupais, fond of hunky young men, literally ‘bull-boys’. Although the majority of modern slang terms imply a receptive/effeminate sex/gender role, there nevertheless are many words for men taking the active role, e.g. arse-bandit, shitten prick (Irish), backgammoner, hock (Australian rhyming slang for cock). In French the word of choice for homosexual, pédérast, denotes the active partner. The English pederast is also the active partner, though today the term more narrowly means lover of boys. In French slang pédé, queer, can be either active or receptive. The bugger is the active partner; like sodomite, also active, it has a racial/geographical origin, derived from French bougre (and the sin of bougrerie), from the medieval Latin bulgarus in reference to the Albigensian/Cathar heresy of southern France in the early thirteenth century which is supposed to have been similar to the Bogomils in Bulgaria. The same word is the origin of the Spanish bujarrón, the Italian buggerone, and the German puseran(t), a word which survives in Eastern Europe. When Allen Ginsberg visited Prague in 1965 the Communist police called him a buzerant.

To sum up the point I am making in this section: there is a superabundance of terms characterizing a homosexual identity type which is active and masculine. The view that 'the homosexual' always indicates an effeminate, passive male in contradistinction to the heterosexual male is mistaken. To quite a significant degree, in ancient and indigenous cultures 'the homosexual' is distinguished from 'the heterosexual' in terms of sex object choice, rather than simply as if he were a 'woman' opposed to a 'man'.

The ‘Lesbian’

The social constructionist linguistic argument cannot account for the fact that the modern lesbian identity has had the label ‘lesbian’ well before the ‘queer moment’ in 1869. In fact, in English at least, the term had exactly the same meaning in the early eighteenth century as in the late twentieth. In Western cultures, women-loving-women have been called ‘lesbians’ and sometimes ‘Sapphists’ for hundreds of years. These are generic terms for ‘female homosexual’ rather than for specific sexual acts or even sex/gender roles. Lesbian sexuality generally is not perceived in binary penetrative terms, but as a matter of mutual genital rubbing. Most lesbian terms suggest a generalized female–female sexuality rather than specific sexual acts.

There do of course exist words denoting sex/gender roles: Spanish mal-flor, manflora, tomboy; marimacho, masculine Mary; pantalonuda, tomboy, trouser-wearer. But there are also many words, like lesbian and sapphist, that are linked to orientation and gender object choice (i.e. homosexual orientation) rather than to specific sex/gender roles: e.g. Spanish Donna con Donna, woman with woman; German mädchen Schmeker, girl-taste; Klamath tribe, sawa linaa, to live as partners; Mexican slang, tortillera, tortilla maker; French vrille, a gimlet (Richards 1990). The Chinese term for female homosexual couples is dui shi, ‘paired eating’; it was used to denote the bonding of two palace women as husband and wife in ancient China, and may suggest (mutual?) cunnilingus – but that is an inference rather than a known fact. Sometimes a specific sex act is indicated, other times it has to be inferred, and at other times unspecified same-sex desire is the fundamental meaning.

There is no particular pattern of historical ‘shifts’ in meaning beloved by the social constructionist. The tribas, lesbian, from Greek tribein, to rub (i.e. rubbing the pudenda together, or clitoris upon pubic bone, etc.), appears in Greek and Latin satires from the late first century. The tribade was the most common (vulgar) lesbian in European texts for many centuries. ‘Tribade’ occurs in English texts from at least as early as 1601 to at least as late as the mid-nineteenth century before it became self-consciously old-fashioned – it was in current use for nearly three centuries.

The argument that there is no language for erotic love between women is based on the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘which traces "lesbianism" [as a term relating to sexual orientation rather than to the famous poetess and her island] back to 1870, "lesbic" to 1892, and "lesbian" as an adjective to 1890 and as a noun to 1925. Similarly, the entries for "Sapphism" start in 1890, with 1902 given as the first date for "Sapphist"' (Donoghue 1993). I'm always surprised at how many historians and scholars seem to be unaware that the editors of the OED specifically excluded sexual slang from their remit, and relied mostly upon ‘literature’ rather than the kind of writings in which slang is recorded (scurrilous pamphlets, newspapers, diaries, etc.). The new edition of the OED will specifically aim to rectify this, and when it is published many of the first-usage citations for homosexually relevant words are going to be pushed back by 50 to 100 years, or even more.

Contrary to those who rely entirely on the OED, Emma Donoghue has established beyond doubt that throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the word ‘lesbian’ was used in the very same sense as today, and that lesbians were viewed as a distinct sexual and social group. To cite an example from a literary work that was excluded from the OED survey (either because it was libellous, or because it was published in Dublin), sexual relationships between women are described as ‘Lesbian Loves’ by William King in The Toast in 1732, where he explains ‘she loved Women in the same Manner as Men love them; she was a Tribad’; in the 1736 edition of King's book such women are called ‘Tribades or Lesbians’. Thus is is clear, as Donoghue points out, that ‘"Lesbian" could be used both as an adjective and a noun to describe women who desired and pleasured each other more than a century and a half before the OED’s first entry for that meaning.’

A 1762 translation of Plato’s Symposium uses the phrase ‘Sapphic Lovers’ to describe women-lovers. In 1773 a London magazine describes sex between women as ‘Sapphic passion’. Hester Thrale in her diary in the 1790s describes a ‘Sapphist’ as a woman who likes ‘her own sex in a criminal way’, so there is no possible doubt about its sexual usage. In France the terms fricarelle and fricatrice (from ‘friction’, sex-by-rubbing) were common, and were also used in English from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. There are also many indigenous words not derived from classical literature or language. In England throughout the eighteenth century sex between women was called ‘The Game of Flats’, a phrase which can be traced back to 1663. (This term refers to the rubbing together of 'flat' female pudenda, and it has been suggested [including by myself, Norton 1992] that the term employs a metaphor derived from playing with cards, which were called 'flats'; but the OED does not record the use of 'flats' as a cant term for playing cards earlier than 1812.) From the late eighteenth century through the late nineteenth century lesbians were called Tommies: ‘"Tom(my)" is just one example of how an unbroken slang tradition can go unrecorded by the OED’ (Donoghue).

In other words, Lesbian sexuality was neither silent nor invisible, it simply went unrecorded by compilers of those social constructs we call dictionaries. To base whole theories about the historical development of sexual identity upon the dates of ‘first citations’ given in dictionaries demonstrates only how far removed from empirical history and experience the intellectual academic ‘discourse theory’ has become.

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(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "The 'Sodomite' and the 'Lesbian'," 12 July 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <>

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