The word sexuality is first recorded in English at the end of C18. It is based on the adjective sexual, and ultimately on the noun sex. Sex came into the English language in lC14 as a borrowing partly from French and partly from Latin; for most of its history in English, its primary, default meaning has been “Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions”; until recently, it also commonly referred to such differences in their social and cultural aspects— uses in which gender is now the much more usual term. Already in C16 phrases such as “the fair sex” and even “the sex” are found referring specifically to women in literary and general discourse. The earliest uses of the corresponding adjective sexual (another borrowing from Latin) in eC17 are also specifically in the meaning “characteristic of or peculiar to the female sex; feminine” (uses which survived until eC19). However, sex and sexual were also important terms in the language of science, in reference to the reproductive differences between male and female animals and humans, and to their reproductive behavior. From this specialist discourse, expressions such as sexual intercourse (mC18) gradually worked their way into general usage; as Raymond Williams astutely noted in his entry for sex in Keywords, “this seems to be a case . . . of the relatively learned or scientific word being adopted and generalized in the period in which it became more acceptable to speak or write of such matters at all openly.”
Such a process appears to have happened at least twice in the interesting history of the derivative noun sexuality. This is an abstract noun formed on the adjective sexual, probably on the model of post-classical Latin sexualitas. This Latin word was probably also coined not earlier than the second half of C18, and, although it may not actually have been used by the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, it occurs early with reference to his work on biology, and especially botany. The corresponding English sense is defined by the OED as “The quality of being sexual or possessing sex. Opposed to asexuality n.” The earliest example for this sense comes from the third edition of John Walker’s Elements of geography, and of natural and civil history (1797): “The Linnaean system . . . is founded on the sexuality of plants.” This sense has remained in use by biologists ever since; the areas of contestation and ambiguity in the word’s contemporary use stem from its application to humans.
The earliest sense in OED used in reference to humans is attested in 1833, and defined as: “Sexual nature, instinct, or feelings; the possession or expression of these.” Sexuality as so defined is something usually assumed to be inherent in all normally functioning human beings, although usage differs considerably according to the user’s standpoint on a number of social and cultural issues. This sense has long been found in general as well as technical use; OED’s earliest example is from a collection of traditional tales from Scotland, Andrew Picken’s Traditionary Stories of Old Families (1833): “This, like most matters of love and sexuality, became the bitter bottoming of many sorrows.”
Before looking at this sense in further detail, the second major sense of sexuality as applied to human beings should be considered. This sense is first attested in 1897, and is defined in OED as “a person’s sexual identity in relation to the gender to which he or she is typically attracted; the fact of being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual; sexual orientation.” This use probably arose on the model of the words homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is not common in the first half of C20, and appears to have taken some time to break through into non-technical use. However, a use with this meaning in a New York Times book review from 1958, quoted by OED, points toward a characteristic pattern of contemporary usage: “Torn between his love for an intelligent, sympathetic French girl, Solange, and a haunting attraction to his top sergeant . . . he is held captive by . . . a brutal reality demanding that he define his own sexuality or face damnation.”
Two of the most frequent collocations of sexuality in general corpora of contemporary English tend to be (i) human sexuality and (ii) modified by a possessive pronoun, e.g., their sexuality, his sexuality, my sexuality. The collocation human sexuality correlates closely with the meaning defined as “Sexual nature, instinct, or feelings; the possession or expression of these.” The word is used with this meaning by people with a wide variety of different social, political, moral, and religious standpoints, and these differing standpoints will affect how different individuals conceptualize human sexuality. The term labels a concept that is at the center of a key battlefield in contemporary social and cultural debate. However, the mapping between word and concept is itself relatively uncomplicated: what is at issue is how different individuals define or conceptualize “sexual nature, instinct, or feelings,” as well as, crucially, what they take to be “normal,” “natural,” or part of the expected or accepted spectrum of human feelings and behavior.
In the case of use modified by a possessive pronoun, e.g., their sexuality, his sexuality, my sexuality, use of the word sexuality may map to either of OED’s main senses, “Sexual nature, instinct, or feelings; the possession or expression of these” or “A person’s sexual identity in relation to the gender to which he or she is typically attracted; the fact of being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual; sexual orientation.” However, there is an interesting tension among these uses. When used in the second meaning, the construction typically refers to a particular sexual identity to which a person is (usually if not uncontroversially) taken to belong categorically; uses typically refer to recognition, suppression, repression, or acceptance of one’s sexuality. Overwhelmingly, usage refers to homosexuality: if a man is described as “hiding his sexuality,” this nearly always means that he is hiding the fact that he is gay (however this is construed), not that he is hiding his heterosexuality.
But alongside this usage, sexuality modified by a possessive pronoun is also used frequently in the meaning “sexual nature, instinct, or feelings.” Examining contemporary usage shows that, for instance, “he/she [struggles/attempts/is obliged/is forced/is expected] to suppress/repress his/her sexuality” is found frequently in reference to gay people who attempt to “suppress” their sexual identity, but also not uncommonly in reference to heterosexual men who attempt to “suppress” or “control” their sexual instincts in a particular behavioral situation. Such uses are often, but not always, from contexts with clear echoes of psychoanalytical discourse, e.g.,: “Early on, he had learned to repress his sexuality in response to his rejecting wife” (from Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand, 2009); or “Eugène Rougon . . . attempts to repress his sexuality by finding other means of powerful sexual sublimation. He thus achieves the pinnacle of success . . . by avoiding the charms of a femme fatale” (from A. Gural-Migdal and R. Singer’s Zola and Film, 2005, 35).
Individuals (or perhaps, different individuals) are thus conceptualized as possessing a sexuality in two distinct but overlapping meanings: one is a matter of group membership (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual); the other a question of sexual urges or instincts and how these affect behavior. The expression sexual orientation exists as a synonym in the first meaning, but sexuality appears to be the term preferred by many (perhaps because of connotations it carries of an inherent, non-volitional quality). In the second meaning, sexual instinct is perhaps the likeliest substitute, but occurs only relatively rarely; however, the richly developed vocabulary of sexual desire and lust is only a small step away. Coexistence of the two meanings in parallel constructions is surprising, since the danger of ambiguity is real and the meanings occur in a semantic area that is generally regarded as highly sensitive, where ambiguity may lead to intense embarrassment or social difficulties. Whether the two meanings continue to coexist, and continue to occur in such similar constructions, may be revealing about changing social attitudes in coming decades.