Human Sexuality and Culture
Though biology plays an important role, the way in which sexuality is expressed and acted upon is highly influenced by culture.
Examine cultural and historical influences on human sexuality
- “Human sexuality ” refers to people’s sexual interest in and attraction to others; it is the capacity to have erotic or sexual feelings and experiences.
- Human sexuality can be understood as part of the social life of humans, governed by social norms, implied rules of behavior, and the status quo. Society’s views on sexuality have changed throughout history and are continuously evolving.
- Each society has different norms about premarital sex, the age of sexual consent, homosexuality, masturbation, and other sexual behaviors. Individuals are socialized to these norms from an early age by their family, education system, peers, media, and religion.
- With the advent of patriarchal societies, gender roles around sexuality became much more stringent, and sexual norms began focusing on sexual possessiveness and the control of female sexuality.
- The United States is relatively restrictive compared to other industrialized nations when it comes to its citizens’ general attitudes about sex when.
- The messages that children are taught about sex play an important role in how they will grow into their sexual selves and express (or not express) their sexual motivations. How, what, when, and by whom children should be taught about sex is a matter of great debate in sex education.
- sexuality: People’s sexual interest in and attraction to others; their capacity to have erotic experiences and responses.
- patriarchal: Relating to a system run by males, rather than females.
- sexual orientation: One’s tendencies of sexual attraction, considered as a whole.
- mores: A set of moral norms or customs derived from generally accepted and established practices of a society, rather than its written laws.
“Human sexuality” refers to people’s sexual interest in and attraction to others; it is the capacity to have erotic or sexual feelings and experiences.
Sexuality differs from biological sex, in that “sexuality” refers to the capacity for sexual feelings and attraction, while “biological sex” refers to how one’s anatomy, physiology, hormones, and genetics are classified (typically as male, female, or intersex). Sexuality is also separate from gender identity, which is a person’s sense of their own gender, or sociocultural classification (i.e., man, woman, or another gender) based on biological sex (i.e., male or female). It is also distinct from—although it shapes—sexual orientation, or one’s emotional and sexual attraction to a particular sex or gender.
Sexuality may be experienced and expressed in a variety of ways, including thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles, and relationships. These manifest themselves not only in biological, physical, and emotional ways, but also in sociocultural ways, which have to do with the effects of human society and culture on one’s sexuality. Some researchers believe that sexual behavior is determined by genetics; however, others assert that it is largely molded by the environment. Human sexuality impacts, and is impacted by, cultural, political, legal, and philosophical aspects of life, and can interact with issues of morality, ethics, theology, spirituality, or religion.
Sexuality Across Cultures
Throughout time and place, the vast majority of human beings have participated in sexual relationships (Broude 2003). Each society, however, interprets sexuality and sexual activity in different ways. Human sexuality can be understood as part of the social life of humans, governed by implied rules of behavior and the status quo. The sociocultural context of society—which includes all social and cultural factors, from politics and religion to the mass media—not only creates social norms, but also places major importance on conformity to these norms. Norms dictate what is considered to be acceptable behavior; what is considered normal or acceptable in terms of sexual behavior is based on the norms, mores, and values of the particular society.
Different cultures vary in regard to norms, including how they understand and perceive sexuality, how they influence the artistic expression of sexual beauty, how they understand the relationship between gender and sexuality, and how they interpret and/or judge particular sexual behaviors (such as premarital sex, the age of sexual consent, homosexuality, masturbation, etc.). Societies that value monogamy, for example, are likely to oppose extramarital sex. Individuals are socialized to these mores and values—starting at a very young age—by their family, education system, peers, media, and religion.
Society’s views on sexuality are influenced by everything from religion to philosophy, and they have changed throughout history and are continuously evolving. Historically, religion has been the greatest influence on sexual behavior in the United States; however, in more recent years, peers and the media have emerged as two of the strongest influences, particularly among American teens (Potard, Courtois, and Rusch, 2008).
Sexuality Throughout History
Sexuality has always been a vital part of the human existence. History shows an increase in the collective supervision of sexual behavior when agricultural societies emerged, most likely due to population increases and the growth of concentrated urban communities. This supervision placed more regulations on sexuality and sexual behaviors. With the advent of patriarchal societies, gender roles around sexuality became much more stringent, and sexual norms began focusing on sexual possessiveness and the control of female sexuality. How males and females were allowed and expected to express their sexuality became very different, with men having a great deal more sexual power and freedom. Different cultures, however, have established distinctive approaches to gender.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the United States, many changes in sexual standards have occurred. New artificial methods of birth control were introduced, leading to major shifts in sexual behavior. Social movements in the latter half of the 20th century, such as the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, and the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights have helped to bring about massive changes in social perceptions of sexuality. The American researcher Alfred Kinsey was also a major influence in changing 20th-century attitudes about sex, and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction continues to be a major center for the study of human sexuality today.
Culture and Religion
Most world religions have developed moral codes that have sought to guide people’s sexual activities and practices. The influence of religion on sexuality is especially apparent in many countries today in the long-debated issue of gay marriage. Some religions view sex as a sacred act between a man and a woman that should only be performed within marriage; other religions view certain kinds of sex as shameful or sinful, or stress that sex should only be engaged in for the purpose of procreation. Many religions emphasize control over one’s sex drive and sexual desire, or dictate the times or conditions in which sexuality can be expressed. Whether or not sex before marriage, the use of birth control, polyamorous relationships, or abortion are deemed acceptable, is often a matter of religious belief.
Sexuality and the Media
Mass media in the form of television, magazines, movies, and music continues to shape what is deemed appropriate or normal sexuality, targeting everything from body image to products meant to enhance sex appeal. Media serves to perpetuate a number of social scripts about sexual relationships and the sexual roles of men and women, many of which have been shown to have both empowering and problematic effects on people’s (especially women’s) developing sexual identities and sexual attitudes.
Sexuality in the United States
While the United States prides itself on being the land of the “free,” it is rather restrictive compared to other industrialized nations when it comes to its citizens’ general attitudes about sex. In an international survey, 29% of Americans stated that premarital sex is always wrong, while the average among the 24 countries surveyed was 17%. Similar discrepancies were found in questions about the condemnation of sex before the age of 16, extramarital sex, and homosexuality, with American total disapproval of these each acts being 12%, 13%, and 11% higher, respectively, than the study’s average (Widmer, Treas, and Newcomb, 1998).
American culture is particularly restrictive in its attitudes about sex when it comes to women and sexuality. It is widely believed that men are more sexual than women, and the belief that men have—or have the right to—more sexual urges than women creates a double standard. Ira Reiss, a pioneer researcher in the field of sexual studies, defined the double standard as, for example, prohibiting premarital sexual intercourse for women but allowing it for men (Reiss, 1960). This standard has evolved into allowing women to engage in premarital sex only within committed love relationships, but allowing men to engage in sexual relationships with as many partners as they wish without condition (Milhausen and Herold, 1999).
The manner in which children are informed of issues of sexuality, and at what age, is a topic of much debate in the United States today. People have very differing views about how, what, when, and by whom children should be taught about sex. The school systems in almost all developed countries have some form of sex education, but the nature of the issues covered varies widely. In some countries this education begins in preschool, whereas other countries leave sex education to the pre-teenage and teenage years.
The messages that children are taught about sex play an important role in how they will grow into their sexual selves and learn to express (or not express) their sexual motivations. Sex education covers a range of topics, including the physical, mental, and social aspects of sexual behavior. However, the topics covered are highly influenced by what the immediate dominant culture deems to be appropriate. According to TIME magazine and CNN, 74% of teenagers in the U.S. reported that their major sources of sexual information were their peers and the media, compared to only 10% who named their parents or a sex-education course. This illustrates how large a role society plays in shaping people’s views when it comes to acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and attitudes toward sexuality.
A person’s sexual orientation is their emotional and sexual attraction to a particular sex or gender.
Evaluate how society differently treats people identifying as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, and queer
- Sexual orientation is a personal quality that inclines people to feel romantic or sexual attraction (or a combination of these) to persons of a given sex or gender.
- Sexual orientation is defined in many ways, including heterosexuality (attraction to the opposite sex/gender), homosexuality (attraction to one’s own sex/gender), bisexuality, polysexuality, or pansexuality (attraction to two, multiple, or all sexes/genders respectively), and asexuality (no sexual attraction to any sex/gender).
- Research has examined possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, but there has been no evidence that links sexual orientation to one factor.
- Alfred Kinsey was among the first to conceptualize sexuality as a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy of gay or straight.
- The U.S. is a heteronormative society, meaning it supports heterosexuality as the norm. Gays, lesbians, and bisexual people regularly experience stigma, harassment, discrimination, and violence due to their sexual orientation, and as a result of institutionalized homophobia.
- Queer theorists reject the division of sexual orientations into two mutually exclusive outcomes (homosexual or heterosexual ), and instead highlight the need for a more flexible and fluid conceptualization of sexuality that allows for change, negotiation, and freedom.
- binary: A state characterized by two mutually exclusive conditions, such as on or off, true or false, male or female.
- sexual orientation: One’s tendencies of sexual attraction, considered as a whole.
- Heterosexism: A system of attitudes, biases, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. It can include the presumption that everyone is heterosexual or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm and are therefore superior.
- homophobia: Fear, dislike, or hatred of homosexuals.
- heteronormative: Of or pertaining to the societal practices and institutions that legitimize and privilege heterosexuality, heterosexual relationships, and traditional gender roles as fundamental and natural.
Defining Sexual Orientation
A person’s sexual orientation is their emotional and sexual attraction to a particular sex or gender. It is a personal quality that inclines people to feel romantic or sexual attraction (or a combination of these) to persons of a given sex or gender. According to the American Psychological Association, sexual orientation “also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.”
Sexual orientation can be defined in many ways. Heterosexuality (colloquially referred to as being “straight”) is attraction to individuals of the opposite sex/gender, while homosexuality (being “gay” or “lesbian”) is attraction to individuals of one’s own sex/gender. “Bisexuality” was a term traditionally used to refer to attraction to individuals of either male or female sex, but it has recently been used in a less binary model of sex and gender (i.e., a model that does not assume there are only two sexes or two genders) to refer to attraction to any sex or gender. Alternative terms such as “pansexuality” and “polysexuality” have also been developed, referring to attraction to all sexes/genders and attraction to multiple sexes/genders, respectively. “Asexuality” refers to having no sexual attraction to any sex/gender. Numerous other labels are increasingly being developed and used, and some people may choose to not use labels at all. In recent decades the term “queer” has been embraced as a non-binary view of gender and sexuality, embracing a spectrum and/or a fluidity of concepts that have previously been defined as having only two (binary) options (e.g., male/female, straight/gay, woman/man).
Development of Sexual Orientation
According to current scientific understanding, individuals are usually aware of their sexual orientation between middle childhood and early adolescence. However, this is not always the case, and some do not become aware of their sexual orientation until much later in life. It is not necessary to participate in sexual activity to be aware of these emotional, romantic, and physical attractions; people can be celibate and still recognize their sexual orientation. Some researchers argue that sexual orientation is not static and inborn, but is instead fluid and changeable throughout the lifespan.
There is no scientific consensus regarding the exact reasons why an individual holds a particular sexual orientation. Research has examined possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, but there has been no evidence that links sexual orientation to one factor (APA, 2008).
The United States is a heteronormative society, meaning it supports heterosexuality as the norm. Consider, for example, that homosexuals are often asked, “When did you know you were gay?” but heterosexuals are rarely asked, “When did you know you were straight?” ( Ryle, 2011). Living in a culture that privileges heterosexuality has a significant impact on the ways in which non-heterosexual people are able to develop and express their sexuality.
People who do not identify as heterosexual may have very different experiences of discovering and accepting their sexual orientation, simply because it is not the norm and is often considered unacceptable by society. At the point of puberty, some may be able to claim their sexual orientations, while others may be unready or unwilling to make their alternative sexuality known, since it goes against American society’s norms.
Kinsey’s and Sedgwick’s Research
Sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey was among the first to conceptualize sexuality as a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy of gay or straight. To classify this continuum of heterosexuality and homosexuality, Kinsey created a six-point rating scale that ranges from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. Research done over several decades supports this idea that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the opposite sex/gender to exclusive attraction to the same sex/gender.
Later scholarship by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick expanded on Kinsey’s notions. She coined the term “homosocial” to oppose “homosexual,” describing non-sexual same-sex relations. Sedgwick recognized that in American culture, males are subject to a clear divide between the two sides of this continuum, whereas females enjoy more fluidity. This can be illustrated by the way women in America can express homosocial feelings (non-sexual regard for people of the same sex) through hugging, handholding, and physical closeness. In contrast, American male behavior is subject to strong social sanction if it veers into homosocial territory because of societal homophobia.
The Impact of Homophobia
Open identification of one’s sexual orientation may be hindered by homophobia and heterosexism.
Homophobia encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). It can be expressed as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, or hatred; it may be based on irrational fear and is sometimes related to religious beliefs. Homophobia is observable in critical and hostile behavior such as discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientations that are non-heterosexual. Recognized types of homophobia include institutionalized homophobia (such as religious and state-sponsored homophobia) and internalized homophobia (in which people with same-sex attractions internalize, or believe, society’s negative views and/or hatred of themselves).
Gays, lesbians, and bisexual people regularly experience stigma, harassment, discrimination, and violence based on their sexual orientation. Research has shown that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers are at a higher risk of depression and suicide due to exclusion from social groups, rejection from peers and family, and negative media portrayals of homosexuals. Discrimination can occur in the workplace, in housing, at schools, and in numerous public settings. Much of this discrimination is based on stereotypes and misinformation. Major policies to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation have only come into effect in the United States in the last few years.
The majority of empirical and clinical research on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations are done with largely white, middle-class, well-educated samples. This demographic limits our understanding of more marginalized sub-populations that are also affected by racism, classism, and other forms of oppression. In the United States, non-Caucasian LGBT individuals may find themselves in a double minority, in which they are not fully accepted or understood by Caucasian LGBT communities, and are also not accepted by their own ethnic group. Many people experience racism in the dominant LGBT community where racial stereotypes merge with gender stereotypes.
Queer theory is a perspective that problematizes (or critiques) the manner in which people have been taught to think about sexual orientation. By calling their discipline “queer,” these scholars are rejecting the effects of labeling. Queer theorists reject the dichotomization (division) of sexual orientations into two mutually exclusive outcomes—homosexual or heterosexual. Rather, the perspective highlights the need for a more flexible and fluid conceptualization of sexuality—one that allows for change, negotiation, and freedom. The current system used to classify individuals as either heterosexual or homosexual pits one orientation against the other. This mirrors other oppressive systems in modern culture, especially those surrounding gender and race (black versus white, male versus female, etc).