Nothing seems more natural than the idea of “sexuality.” Sexuality is a term used to describe the state of being sexual and sexual activity and as an expression of sexual interest, especially when it is seen as excessive. In common parlance, the word sexuality can denote an individual expression of sexual desire or can mean one’s sexual preference or orientation. Yet critical scholarship has demonstrated that sexuality is far more complicated. Indeed, the idea that sexuality is a natural or purely biological trait is much more a product of history than one might imagine.

Sexuality studies, an interdisciplinary field of knowledge that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, argues that sexuality has always been a project of knowledge and power. It explores how states, institutions, and societies make knowledge about sexual forms, practices, and identities. Perhaps the most cited study on sexuality is French theorist Michel Foucault’s 1976 volume (English translation in 1978) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, volume 1. Foucault’s famous study has a deceptively simple title. His project, purportedly a history of the concept, gives no simple or easy definition of sexuality. Foucault subverts any commonsense understanding of Christianity and modern bourgeois societies as repressive of sexual pleasures and behaviors. Instead, he treats sexuality as a recent phenomenon linked to the rise of the individual and social identity, a term critical to understanding the complex history of state power and the radical transformation of the modern subject in western civilization. As Foucault shows in his lifelong project on the technologies of modern disciplinary knowledge and power, modern sexuality created an inextricable link between sexual desires and identities and facilitated them into a large-sale project of creating and naturalizing classifications for people as part of new forms of power that governed everyday life and death.

The critical study of sexuality has since proliferated across many fields—history, literature, sociology, anthropology, and the interdisciplinary fields of American studies; ethnic studies; Black studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; queer studies; transgender studies; and more. Scholars have investigated the emergence of heterosexual norms, the condemnation and regulation of homosexuality, asexuality as a radical critique of the scientific naturalization of sexuality, and the critical place of gender performance in the making of sexuality (G. Rubin [1984] 2011; J. Butler [1990] 1999). Gender and queer studies scholars have studied homosexuality and queer sexualities in relation to histories of urbanization, migration, capitalism, and identity.

In the history of the interdisciplinary fields of study that address sexuality, it is worth highlighting major theoretical interventions by women of color scholars who deepened the study of sexuality to focus on intersecting questions of race, class, gender, enslavement, and colonialism. Angela Davis’s foundational 1971 study of American slave societies demonstrates how sexuality and the undoing of kin networks are essential to understanding reproductive labor and exploitation at the heart of slavery in the United States (A. Y. Davis 1971, 1981). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—who in 1985 provocatively asked, “Can the subaltern speak?”—raises questions about the limits of recuperating marginalized histories of sexuality that are fragmented or occluded in dominant archives produced in the aftermath of colonialism (Spivak 1988; Arondekar 2009). Hortense Spillers, in her 1987 essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” places the origins of sexuality at the moment of enslavement, critically reframing the sexing and sexualization of enslaved peoples through the concept of “flesh” (Spillers 1987). Gloria Anzaldúa, in her 1987 Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, innovatively reconceptualizes queer Chicanx sexuality as a mutable idea across spatial, racial, and sexual formations. In her work in the 1990s and 2000s, Sylvia Wynter (1995, 2003) links sexual difference and sexuality to the Christian imperial project, settler genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the long-term effects of bondage on African diasporic peoples in their forced migration across the Atlantic. These feminist scholars have transformed fields by arguing that sexuality cannot be understood without critical engagement with territorial expansion and slavery, the gendering of bodies, racism, and power.

Contemporary gender and sexuality studies demonstrates that when sexuality is denaturalized as an ahistorical fact, what emerges instead are complex histories based in domination and the social construction of sexual and racial difference. These histories link sexuality to colonial state power and exclusionary projects of racial domination based in systems of normative heterosexuality, Christian morality, territorial possession, and forced labor systems of slavery and indenture. Scholars of settler colonialism, slavery, and modern imperialism have argued that sexuality was critically fundamental for modern colonial projects of imperial sovereignty, settler colonialism, and the forced subjugation and bondage of people (Stoler 1995; Wynter 2003; Arondekar 2009; Rifkin 2011). It is thus imperative to think globally, to critically engage the racial history of sexual difference and the multiplicity of gender formations, and to foreground race and colonial empires in the study of heteronormative as well as queer sexualities and their political formations (Arondekar and Patel 2016; Snorton 2017; Amin 2017).

These studies show how sexuality must be explicitly situated in histories of slavery and colonial knowledge projects about enslaved and colonized bodies. Yet in many studies, the colonial origins of the concept of sexuality itself have been overlooked. The colonial origins of sexuality can be found in the late eighteenth century in the British Empire, when the English term sexuality itself began to be regularly used and circulated, etymologically emerging as a distinct word in the 1770s and 1780s in the natural sciences. This period saw the height of the African slave trade across the Atlantic, initiated by the Portuguese and Spanish more than two centuries before and expanded by the British across the globe. To understand the colonial origins of the keyword sexuality, one might begin this history in the city of Calcutta, the capital of the British Empire, when William Jones (1746–94), a jurist and philologist, was learning the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Jones argued that learning Sanskrit was essential to rule the newly conquered peoples who lived in the Indian subcontinent. He insisted that ancient Sanskrit texts must be used by the British to create a new system of law to govern the timeless “Hindoo” people of the subcontinent (Mitra 2020).

In the 1770s, Jones decided to practice his Sanskrit translation skills by writing a poem 287 couplets long based on his interpretation of Mahabharata that he titled The Hindu Wife; or, The Enchanted Fruit. In it, Jones analogized a major character from Mahabharata—Draupadi—with Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the following excerpt, Jones animates the sexuality of Draupadi in mocking verses that caricatured Indian society for an English audience. He contrasted the polygamous Muslims of his time to the polyandrous story lines of Hindus in Mahabharata:

Preposterous! That one biped vain

Should drag ten housewives in his train,

And stuff them in a gaudy cage,

Slaves to weak lust, or potent rage!

Not such the Dwapar Yug! Oh then


True History, in solemn terms,

This Philosophic lore confirms;

For India once, as now cold Tibet,

A groupe unusual might exhibit,

Of several husbands, free from strife,

Link’d fairly to a single wife!

Thus Botanists, with eyes acute

To see prolific dust minute,

Taught by their learned northern Brahmen [Linneas]

To class by pistil and by stamen,

Produce from nature’s rich dominion

Flow’rs Polyandrian Monogynian,

Where embryon blossoms, fruits, and leaves

Twenty prepare, and ONE receives. (W. Jones 1876, 3)

The polyandry of the “Hindu” woman Draupadi was to be differentiated from “caged” Muslim women who were “slaves” of the polygamous Muslim men. Jones built on common tropes of oppressive sexuality used to critique colonized Muslims across Central Asia, South Asia, and North Africa and stereotyped Muslim women as oppressed by a perverse religion (Said 1978).

Jones utilizes the language of natural science to explain Draupadi’s “unusual” sexual whims. She is the pistil of the flower, the part of the plant that he genders female. The many men who sought to fertilize the Indian woman are the “stamen” essential for women to bear “fruit” (Subramaniam 2014, 2019; LaFleur 2018). Jones takes the ideas of a scientific sexual difference based in two distinct sexes from famed botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus’s (1707–88) taxonomy, who he cites in the poem’s footnotes. He explicitly combines Linnean Latin taxonomical terms used solely for plants—“Polyandrian” and “Monogynian,” many men for one woman (poly-, “many,” and andro-, “men,” paired with mono-, “one,” and gyno-, “woman”)—to categorize Indians by their polyandrous sexual excess where one woman held sway over and had sex with many men (W. Jones 1876). In contemporary scholarship, Jones is remembered primarily for “discovering” the link between Indo-European languages. He is not cited as a key thinker in the history of sexuality. Yet even this brief look at his knowledge project reveals critical insights into how the idea of sexuality was essential for the colonial enterprise of creating knowledge based in the rule of colonial difference (P. Chatterjee 1993).

The colonial translation project, based in moral claims about women’s subordination and the weakness of their will in the face of backward patriarchal “customs,” framed colonized peoples as ruled by unconscious sexual whims, overabundant sexual desires, and oppressive sexuality based in understandings of timeless “custom” (Mitra 2020). Jones’s 1782 critique of Indian society as naturally and perversely polygamous set forth an agenda of dramatic social and legal reforms against polygamy among both colonial officials and Indian reformers for the following two hundred years. Sexuality in this moment emerges as a concept that intimately linked European territorial expansion to the racial subjugation of peoples through pseudoscientific ideas of civilizational difference.

In the one hundred years that followed Jones’s knowledge project, much of the world experienced the intimate violence of European imperial domination, building on centuries of settler colonial domination and resource extraction across continents (Lowe 2015). The forced bondage of peoples and the settler colonial expansion and genocide of Indigenous peoples across the Americas had by the late eighteenth century expanded rapidly and spanned the modern world to many parts of Asia, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia (Du Bois 1945; Wynter 1995). Claims to sexual sovereignty became a primary domain for colonial critiques of colonized peoples as well as claims to autonomy and anticolonial claims to sovereignty by people of color around the world.

In the nineteenth century, multiple forms of knowledge flourished that built on the work of these colonial philologists. The natural and social sciences focused on sexuality based in ideas of racial difference, systematizing the comparative study of languages, texts, and civilizations. Perhaps the most significant among these fields is the nineteenth-century discipline of ethnology, often called “race science,” which centered sexuality as the primary marker of civilizational development. Ethnologists compared different societies and peoples by evaluating and placing them on a linear grid of evolution, from “primitive” sexuality (found in so-called tribal societies) to modern-day monogamy (found in Europe and its diaspora; Rusert 2017; Mitra 2020). Another field of knowledge associated with the historical study of sexuality is the field of sexology, or the idea of the science of sexuality, a discipline that emerged in the nineteenth century in Europe and across the colonial world. Sexology built on philology, ethnology, and the natural sciences to systematically study human sexuality (Doan and Bland 1998; Fuechtner, Haynes, and Jones 2017; Mitra 2019). A related discipline is psychoanalysis, a field invented by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Built on key ethnological ideas of sexual evolution, totemism, bride capture, and the incest taboo, Freud theorized sexuality as an individual’s “state of being.” With the emergence of the psychoanalytic study of the mind in 1896, sexuality emerged in new domains of study that saw it as key to an individual’s mental or personality traits rather than as a reflection of social structures.

These racist and patriarchal forms of knowledge were not only perpetuated in the domain of scholarly books. Ethnology was also disseminated and consumed by Europeans and Americans through the display of peoples as representative of stages of civilization. The nineteenth century was a foundational moment in modern race science, where the public display of people became a popular way to explain the excessive sexualities of “other” people. Early examples of human display can be found in the display of multiple Black African women, perhaps most famously in the example of a Khoekhoe woman who is recorded in archives through the Dutch name Saartjie Baartman (Qureshi 2004; Crais and Scully 2010; R. Mitchell 2019). The name Saartjie (anglicized as Sara) is a diminutive word, and Baartman, literally “bearded man,” also could denote a “servant” or “savage.” This woman was inscribed into history through a name with racist connotations, the “diminutive savage.” She was born sometime in the 1780s, just as Jones was characterizing Indian sexuality as nonhuman through botanical terminology. A woman from southern Africa who traveled to England and France, she was put on display to perform as the “Hottentot Venus,” an exaggerated, fake persona of hypersexual physicality invented for a European audience. She died in her midthirties in France, far from her place of birth. During her life, she was exploited as an object of public scrutiny and fascination, and after her death, she was dehumanized and scientifically objectified, studied as anatomical specimen by the famed French natural scientist Georges Cuvier, who, like Jones’s favorite naturalist Linnaeus a hundred years before Cuvier, utilized the natural sciences to create sexualized taxonomies of nonwhite people.

The exaggerated and profoundly racist understandings of sexuality that Saartjie Baartman came to represent for Europe in name and image shaped a system of knowledge that spurred ideologies in the natural and human sciences for years to come—including race theory, anthropology, history, and sociology, as well as biology, anatomy, and botany. In her life, she may have resisted or taken advantage of her systematic objectification. Yet the archives of her life give us little understanding of her choices and experience, as she is recorded into history only by those people who described and viewed her. Almost two centuries after her passing, South Africans after the end of apartheid repatriated the labeled remains of Baartman back to South Africa and conducted a burial ceremony that reflected a complex politics of decolonization (Crais and Scully 2010).

From Jones and the woman named Baartman, we learn not only of the racist ideologies that formed early scientific studies of sexuality but also of the challenge of writing histories of colonized peoples who fought to survive and endure a world of painfully racist and sexist exploitation and forced migration, whose perspectives are often erased from archives. The political afterlives of these colonial histories of sexuality are alive today in ongoing struggles for decolonization in societies permanently shaped by slavery and colonization. Told in this interlinking history of colonialism, this woman and the history of display and the repatriation of her remains appear as another critical origin for understanding the emergence of the keyword sexuality.

Sexuality was a project of knowledge for colonial travelers, administrators, sociologists, scientists, and slaveholders who argued that the social behaviors, forms of reproduction, and desire and will of Black and brown people—most of the people of the world—were outside of modern civilization. In European and American depictions in writings, art, and exhibitions, the bodily practices of colonized people consistently appeared as deviant and backward, from the “perverse” homosexuality in Orientalist depictions of the Arab world to racist understandings of women as promiscuous and submissive from India, China, Japan, to the Philippines; to distorted depictions of racial effeminacy and homosociality of men in East and Southeast Asia; to the dehumanization and hypersexualization of Indigenous, Latinx, African, and African diasporic peoples. These sexual ideologies were used to justify systematic structures of gendered and sexual violence.

Today, the word sexuality also denotes the idea of sexual identity, linked to ideas of sexual orientation and preference. The emergence of the concept of sexual identity is intimately linked to the rise of the concept of the individual from the eighteenth century, which emerges out of liberal political philosophy deeply invested in imperial expansion. By the second half of the twentieth century, sexual identity was seen as a natural—indeed, essential—way to understand one’s self. Ideas of sexual identity become particularly politically powerful in 1960s social movements, and by the 1980s, there were new categories and acronyms of sexual identity that were mobilized for social and political rights. For example, communities, activists, and eventually policy makers utilize the acronym “LBGTQI+” (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, intersex, nonbinary, and more) to designate historically marginalized and nonnormative, nonheterosexual sexualities. These politicized ideas of sexual identities have defined a powerful terrain of protest and social movements for rights through the twenty-first century, including ongoing work to decriminalize homosexuality in colonial-era laws, the persistence of the global HIV/AIDS crisis, advocacy for gay marriage, and urgent global movements for transgender rights.

Sexuality appeared as a word exactly in the moment when Europeans sought to secure their dominance through projects of territorial expansion and ideological control. From this brief sojourn into specific histories of the keyword sexuality, the term appears not as some natural trait or a matter of one’s sexual preference. From sexuality studies, we learn that sexuality is not natural at all. Rather, sexuality is a deeply politicized idea that is essential to systematic projects of difference and social exclusion in the modern world. At its most groundbreaking, scholarship today critiques knowledge projects that create norms of sexuality that naturalize whiteness, cis bodies based in constructed ideas of sexual difference, and heterosexual, patriarchal monogamy while simultaneously objectifying, condemning, and dehumanizing the sexuality of “other” people—be they Black, Native, homosexual, transgender, people in bondage, or people who continue to live under colonial conditions. Understanding the keyword sexuality through its colonial history helps one understand how modern societies define ideas of the individual and norms of sexual choice, pleasure, and identity in exclusionary terms while condemning most people as deviant, dangerous, backward, and incapable of appropriate forms of sexuality. Today, sexuality as a term remains a contested site of racism and decolonization. The continued investigation of its colonial origins in disciplinary thought offers new directions for scholars to think about how to decolonize sexuality. These histories also help us think anew about the critical place of sexuality in ongoing projects of social and political liberation.

Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay