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Heterosexuality primarily refers to aesthetic, sexual, and romantic attraction exclusively between two individuals of opposite genders. It is characterised as a sexual orientation, contrasted with homosexuality and bisexuality.


Hetero- comes from the Greek word heteros, meaning “different” (for other uses, see heterozygote, heterogeneous), and the Latin for sex (that is, characteristic sex or sexual differentiation). The term “heterosexual” was coined shortly after and opposite to the word “homosexual” by Karl Maria Kertbeny in 1868 and was first published in 1869.

“Heterosexual” was first listed in Merriam-Websters’s New International Dictionary as a medical term for “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex”, but in 1934 in their Second Edition Unabridged it is a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality”. (Katz, 1995)



Sexual impulses in humans are generally thought to be the product of genetic, chemical, behavioural, sometimes other factors that produce an erotic desire that is generally trained to a particular sexual orientation. Human sexual behaviour routinely is not correlated to an individual’s actual or declared sexual orientation. Human behaviour may in fact involve emotional, cognitive, social and physical parts of the body, consciously or deliberately often (but not always), so that a clear label of a type of sexuality may be applied.

Applying the above definition to people complicates it, because there are several determinants that may or may not be important for categorization:

  1. Chromosonal indicators (XX, XY or unusual variations)
  2. Internal reproductive anatomy (immature, mature or “different”)
  3. Any of the several hormonal indicators
  4. External anatomy (commonly breasts & external genitals, but not always)
  5. Projected assumptions of sexuality at birth
  6. Projected assumptions of sexuality after birth
  7. Individually chosen assumptions after birth
  8. Assumptions from external appearances and clothing
  9. Assumptions from external behaviours (excluding visual appearances)
  10. Assumptions from reputation(s)
  11. Situational judgements; changing depending on environments, such as companions, clubs, etc.

The concept of heterosexuality as applied to humans is further complicated by the distinction between sex and gender in humans. Sexual orientation may be based on sex, gender, or some combination of both: for example, some heterosexuals are attracted only to people of the opposite sex, regardless of those people’s gender, and others are attracted to people of the opposite gender, even if they are of the same sex.

People who cannot be classified as “male” or “female” — in terms of either gender or sex — cannot have any sexual orientation as that concept is currently constructed; thus, their sexual behaviour cannot be heterosexual, homosexual, though certain types of behaviour can always be classified as autosexual.


In the animal kingdom, the vast majority of sexual reproduction results from heterosexual coitus between sexually mature partners.

History and demographics

The prevalence of exclusive heterosexuality has varied over the centuries and also from culture to culture.

Though there have always been individuals (sometimes in a majority, sometimes in a minority) who were exclusively attracted to those of the opposite sex, heterosexuality as an identity (just like homosexuality) has developed only since the middle of the nineteenth century.

The history of heterosexuality is part of the history of sexuality. That history and science derivative of it is far from complete. Owing to complications of human politics and prejudice, coupled with the maleable nature of human behaviour, it will be some time before the history and nature of all forms of human sexual behaviour are truly known.

Psychological factors relating to sexuality

Main article: Sexual orientation

A broad array of opinion holds that much human behavior ultimately is explainable in terms of natural selection. From this point of view, the shifting social balance between heterosexual and homosexual desire has evolved as a fitter survival strategy for the species than either an exclusively heterosexual or homosexual configuration of desire.

In traditional societies individuals are often under heavy social pressure to marry and have children, irrespective of their sexual orientation. In modern society, many homosexual people who wish to have children have found a way to satisfy their nurturing instincts, either through fostering or adopting children, or through artificial or natural insemination.

Not all people who are attracted to, or have sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex identify themselves as heterosexual: people who do not identify primarily as heterosexual may sometimes engage in heterosexual behaviour. Similarly, some people frequently have sex with members of the same sex yet still see themselves as heterosexual. (See also, bisexuality)

According to American Psychiatric Association (APA), there are numerous theories about the origins of a person’s sexual orientation, but some believe that “sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors”, and that genetic factors play a “significant role” in determining a person’s sexuality. The APA currently officially states that sexual orientation is not chosen and cannot be changed, a radical reversal from the recent past, when non-normative sexuality was considered a deviancy or mental ailment treatable through institutionalization or other radical means.


The term “straight” is a mid-20th century gay slang term for heterosexuals, ultimately coming from the phrase “to go straight” (as in “straight and narrow”), or stop being gay. One of the first uses of the word in this way was in 1941 by author G. W. Henry. Henry’s book concerned conversations with homosexual males and used this term in connection with the reference to ex-gays. Though not originally intended to refer to heterosexuals, like the meanings of many words, its primary usage has changed over time.

The term breeder, a word which is normally applied to animals, is a pejorative sometimes used to describe heterosexuals.


See also


  • Kinsey, Alfred C., et al., “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253334128
  • Kinsey, Alfred C., et al., “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female”. Indiana University Press. ISBN 025333411X
  • Musser, Trevor J., “Loving women”. Ohio University Press. ISBN 12243637134

External links