One learns from society how to express one's sexuality. As such, sexual expression is part of socialization, the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs, and ideologies and providing an individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within one's own society. Socialization necessarily implies the inculcation of norms, or behaviors that society marks as valued as opposed to those marked as deviant.
In regards to sexuality, socialization in the U.S. and Western countries most notably adheres to heteronormativity, or the marking of heterosexual unions as normal and homosexual unions as socially abnormal and deviant. While homosexual unions are the types of unions most commonly marked in opposition to normative heterosexual unions, heteronormativity marks any type of non-heterosexual sexual activity as deviant, as heterosexual sexual acts are considered the norm.
There is extreme variation in sexual expression across historical periods and cultures. This indicates that there are no universal sexual norms. Rather, an individual is taught sexual norms of their particular cultural and historical moment through socialization. At the current moment in Western societies, sexuality is evaluated along a continuum of heterosexuality and homosexuality, with heterosexuality as the privileged mode of sexual expression. Obviously, this is a basic schematic; it does not capture all of the existing ways in which people behave sexually, but it is the basic rubric by which sexual behaviors are evaluated.
In contrast, the Ancient Greeks categorized sexuality not in terms of homosexuality and heterosexuality, but in terms of active and passive sexual subjects. What was salient for the Ancient Greeks was whether one took an active or passive sexual position, whether one was the penetrator or was penetrated. In this sense, biological gender was obviously relevant, but not in the same way as evaluating homo- or heterosexual orientation. Men could be either active or passive, but women could only be passive. It is misleading to say that homosexuality was tolerated in Ancient Greece; rather, the Ancient Greeks conceived of sexuality in completely different ways than the current Western norm.
So how is it that one becomes socialized into certain sexual behaviors and proclivities? The rest of this section seeks to explore how socializing agents impress sexual norms into their members by looking at three primary agents of socialization: religion, the law, and the media.
Given that most religions seek to instruct their followers on the proper and holy ways in which to live life, it follows that most religions seek to offer guidance on the proper ways to sexually comport oneself. For example, many evangelical Christians value abstinence and believe that men and women should wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity. The Catholic Church asserts that homosexuality is unholy. Leaders of the Jewish faith promote sexual activity between married couples to reinforce the marital bond and produce children. Like most of the other denominations of monotheistic religions, Islam encourages sexual activity so long as it is practiced by married partners. This is not to say, of course, that all adherents to a particular faith stringently follow the faith's guidelines, but rather that individuals growing up within a particular religion are instructed on how to behave sexually.
The legal system is another mechanism through which individuals are instructed on proper sexual conduct. The laws within a particular jurisdiction simultaneously reflect and create social norms regarding sexuality. For example, based on American law, Americans are socialized to believe that prostitution and rape are improper forms of sexual behavior. The interactions of homosexual sexual acts and their (il)legality provides an opportunity to see how the law both mirrors and molds American understandings of sexual norms. Sodomy laws, or laws prohibiting particular sexual acts between two consenting partners such as anal sex between two men, were on the books in most American states for decades.
The media is one final example of a cultural program through which individuals encounter normative discourses of sexuality. Individuals are socialized to replicate the sexual behaviors that they see on television, in movies, and in books. These representations are typically heteronormative. Pornography presents another way in which individuals are socialized towards particular sexual practices through the media. Over 70% of men ages 18–34 who use the Internet view at least one pornographic website a month. Follow-up studies show that many of these individuals—in addition to female pornography viewers—attempt to incorporate the actions they witness in pornography into their own sex lives.
Heterosexuality is a social norm.