Sociological Perspective on Sexual Behavior Research Paper

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This research paper considers social science research in the field of human sexual behavior since the start of the nineteenth century. Sexual behavior is understood here in a broad sense to include not just sexual acts but also the associated verbal interactions and emotions (most notably love), as well as sexual desires, fantasies, and dysfunctions.

1. Overview

The main disciplines considered here are the sociology and anthropology of sexuality, the psychology and psychopathology of sexual behavior, and sexology. These disciplines began to take form in the nineteenth century, and were influenced by other intellectual currents and areas of knowledge which, though not discussed in this research paper, need to be indicated:

(a) Eugenics, in the form given it by Francis Galton from the 1860s. Eugenicist preoccupations were shared by most of the leading sexologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (notably Havelock Ellis and Auguste Forel).

(b) The history of sexuality. This developed in the nineteenth century, initially as the history of erotic art and practices, and of prostitution; and later as the history of sexuality in the ancient world and in other cultural contexts.

(c) The ethology of sexuality. This emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, and has grown in influence since the 1960s, related partly to the development of sociobiology.

Three phases can be identified in the development of social science research on sexuality: the nineteenth century (when the emphasis was on the study of prostitution and the psychopathology of sexual behavior); the period 1900–45 (that of the great sexological syntheses, the pioneering anthropological monographs and the first sex surveys); and the period beginning in 1946 (marked in particular by an expansion of quantitative research on the general population).

2. 1830–99: From The ‘Pathological’ To The ‘Normal’

It would be inaccurate to portray the nineteenth century in the industrialized countries as uniformly puritanical. The period was, of course, characterized by a widespread double standard in sexual morality (much less restrictive for young men than for young women), repression of masturbation, hypocrisy over the expression of love and sexual desires, censorship of literature and erotic art, and so on. But the nineteenth century also saw the development of feminism, the struggle for the civil rights of homosexuals, and the introduction of contraceptive methods in many countries. It was in the nineteenth century also that sexual behavior emerged as a major subject of scientific study.

A characteristic of much work on sexuality in this period is how a concentration on the ‘pathological’ and ‘deviant’ was used to cast new light on the ‘normal’; that is, on the behavior most widespread in the population. For example, the quantitative study of prostitution preceded that of sexuality in marriage; the ‘perversions’ (referred to today as ‘paraphilias’) were examined before heterosexual intercourse between married couples; and the first scientific description of the orgasm (in 1855 by the French physician, Felix Roubaud) actually appeared in a study on impotence.

The first quantitative research on sexual behavior was conducted in the 1830s, much of it using the questionnaire technique being developed at this time. The first major empirical study in this field, based on quantification and combining sociological and psychological perspectives, was the investigation of prostitution in Paris conducted by the physician Alexandre Parent-Duchatelet (1836).

The second main current of research in the nineteenth century was concerned with the psychopath- ology of sexuality. The years 1886 and 1887 were a decisive period. In 1886 was published the first edition of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis which presented a systematic classification of ‘sexual perversions.’ In 1887, the psychologist Alfred Binet (Binet 2001) published an article with the title ‘Le fetichisme dans l’amour’ (‘Erotic fetishism’). Binet’s text was the origin of an intellectual fashion for labeling the various ‘sexual perversions’ as ‘isms’ (the psychiatrist Charles Lasegue had coined the term ‘exhibitionists’ in 1877 but not the word ‘exhibitionism’). By ‘fetishism,’ Binet referred to the fact of being particularly—or indeed exclusively—sexually excited by one part of the body or aspect of character, or by objects invested with a sexual significance (for example, underwear or shoes). He argued that the fetishism of any given individual was usually formed in childhood or adolescence, through a psychological process of association, during or after an experience that stirred the first strong sexual feelings. For Binet, many ‘sexual perversions’ as well as homosexuality should be considered as different forms of ‘erotic fetishism.’ Finally, he asserted that ‘pathological’ fetishism (such as obsessional fetishism for certain objects) was merely an ‘exaggerated’ form of the fetishism characteristic of ‘normal’ love (that of the majority of people). For a time this notion provided the unifying perspective for the psychopathology of sexuality, beginning with that elaborated by Krafft- Ebing in successive editions of his Psychopathia sexualis.

The years that followed saw the generalization of the terms ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’ (popularized by Krafft-Ebing), ‘narcissism’ (invented by Havelock Ellis and Paul Nacke in 1898–99), ‘transvestism’ (introduced by Magnus Hirschfeld around 1910). The psycho-analysis of Sigmund Freud integrated these various expressions and, most importantly, Binet’s ideas about the lasting influence of childhood sexual impressions. This period also saw the development— encouraged by Alfred Binet and Pierre Janet—of the analysis of the sexual content in ordinary daydreams. The first questionnaire-based surveys of what in the twentieth century came to be referred to as sexual fantasies were carried out in the United States in the 1890s, in the context of research on adolescence led by G. vs. Hall.

3. 1900–45: Large-Scale Sexological Syntheses, Pioneering Anthropological Monographs And The First Sex Surveys

The large volume of research conducted between 1900 and the end of World War II can be divided into three main currents (for a general view of the most significant contributions from this period, see E. Westermarck (1936).

The first current is that of sexological research. It was in this period that sexology acquired an institutional status. The first sexological societies were set up in Germany in the years after 1910, and in 1914 Albert Eulenburg and Iwan Bloch founded the period’s most important journal of sexology (the Zeitschrift fur Sexualwissenchaft). The first Institute for Sexual Science was opened by Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin in 1919. In the 1920s the first international conferences of sex research were held. This period also saw publication of large-scale works of synthesis, in particular those by Auguste Forel (Swiss), Albert Moll, Hermann Rohleder, Magnus Hirschfeld (German), followed later by Rene Guyon (French) and Gregorio Maranon (Spanish). In the 1920s and 1930s, sexology became more self-consciously ‘political.’ A stated aim was to advance the ‘sexual liberation’ of young people and women, a cause advocated in influential books by B. Lindsey and W. Evans, Bertrand Russell, and Wilhelm Reich. Also published in these years were a number of extremely successful works popularizing sexological questions (the best known being those of the Englishwoman, Marie Stopes, and of the Dutch gynecologist, Th. H. Van de Velde). The aim of these manuals was to promote an enjoyment of marital sex, and the emphasis was accordingly on sexual harmony, orgasm, sexual dysfunctions, and no longer—as had been the case at the end of the nineteenth century—on ‘sexual perversions.’ The most representative and influential expression of the various tendencies in sexology at this time were the seven volumes of Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1900–28) by the Englishman, Havelock Ellis.

The second current of research is in sexual anthropology. Broadly speaking these were either comparative studies of marriage and sexual life (E. Crawley, W. I. Thomas, W. G. Sumner, A. Van Gennep, R. Briffault, K. Wikman and, foremost, E. Westermarck) or anthropological monographs, in particular those by B. Malinowski, M. MeAdvand G. Gorer. The most important of these monographs is that of Bronislaw Malinowski (1929) on the natives of the Trobriand Islands in New Guinea: topics examined include prenuptial sexuality, marriage and divorce, procreation, orgiastic festivals, erotic attraction, sexual practices, orgasm, the magic of love and beauty, erotic dreams and fantasies, as well as the morals of sex (decency and decorum, sexual aberrations, sexual taboos).

The third and final current from this period is quantitative studies of sex behavior. Before 1914 this research was conducted mainly in Russia, Germany and Scandinavia. Between the wars, it developed primarily in the United States (R. Pearl, G. V. Hamilton, K. B. Davis, R. L. Dickinson, and L. Beam). These works prepared the way for and in many respects prefigured the research conducted by Kinsey and his co-workers from 1938.

4. Post-1946: Empirical Research In The Age Of Sexual Liberalization

In many countries, the second half of the twentieth century was a period of sexual liberalization. The improved status of women was reflected in a greater recognition of their rights in sexual matters (with implications for partner choice, use of contraception and abortion, as well as sexual pleasure). One consequence of this change was to encourage research into contraception: the contraceptive pill became available from 1960, and sterilization for contraceptive purposes was the most widely used means of birth control in the world by the end of the 1970s. Research was also encouraged into the physiology of the orgasm, and particularly the female orgasm, in the 1950s and 1960s (E. Grafenberg, A. M. Kegel, A. C. Kinsey, W. H. Masters and V. E. Johnson, etc.). Another important factor of change was the arrival at adolescence in the 1960s of the postwar baby boom generation; economic affluence was the context for their demands for greater sexual freedom. This aspiration was reflected in a fall in age of first intercourse, especially for young women, and, related to this, a decline in the norm of female virginity at first marriage (or formation of first stable union). This liberalization reached its peak in the developed countries at the end of the 1970s and was brought to an abrupt halt by the AIDS epidemic, awareness of which began to develop, first in the United States, from 1981.

In the course of the last fifty years of the twentieth century, the social sciences have made a major contribution to the understanding of human sexuality. Special mention must be made of the contributions from historical demography, history (R. Van Gulik, K. J. Dover, M. Foucault, P. Brown, and others), ethnology (V. Elwin, G. P. Murdock, C. vs. Ford and F. A. Beach), the psychology of sexuality (see Eysenck and Wilson 1979), but also research originating in gay and lesbian studies conducted from a perspective of ‘social constructionism’ (sexuality is not a biological given but is socially constructed), as well as research on sexual identity, transsexualism, pornography and fantasies (for a general overview of the research mentioned above see: Aries and Bejin (eds.) 1982, Allgeier and Allgeier 1988, McLaren 1999). Many of the new insights into sexual behavior acquired in this period have come from quantitative-based empirical research.

The most influential of this research in the 1940s and 1950s was that directed in the United States by Alfred Kinsey. Between 1938 and 1954, Kinsey and his co- researchers interviewed more than 16,000 volunteers. While the personal information they collected was probably reliable, the sample constructed by Kinsey’s team was not representative of the US adolescent and adult population. Kinsey et al. (1948, 1953) distinguished the following ‘sources of sexual outlet’: masturbation, nocturnal emissions (or sex dreams), premarital heterosexual petting, premarital coitus (or intercourse), marital coitus, extramarital coitus, intercourse with prostitutes, homosexual responses and contacts, animal contacts. They established that the sexual history of each individual represents a unique combination of these sources of outlet and showed that between individuals there could be wide variation in ‘total sexual outlet’ (the sum of the orgasms derived from the various sources of sexual outlet). They also identified a number of sociological patterns. For example, compared with less educated people, better educated men and women had first heterosexual intercourse later, but had greater acceptance and experience of masturbation, heterosexual petting, foreplay and orogenital sexual practices. Also, according to these researchers, people with a pre- marital petting experience were more likely to have a stable marriage. In these two volumes there were curious omissions, the most striking being the almost total neglect of the emotions, notably love. And the interpretations given by the authors were sometimes debatable, such as the presentation of premature ejaculation as almost ‘normal’ because it happened to be widespread in the United States, or in considering women’s erotic imagination to be much less developed than men’s on the grounds that it seemed less responsive to sexually explicit images.

It was in large part because of these two volumes that sexology between the 1950s and the end of the 1970s often resembled little more than what has been described as ‘orgasmology’ (see Aries and Bejin (eds.) 1982, pp. 183 et seq.). However, they do represent an important stage in the development of the sociology of sexuality.

A large number of quantitative surveys on sexuality were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, influenced in part by Kinsey’s research, but which gave much greater attention to the sexual attitudes, personality, family background, feelings and even fantasies of the people being interviewed. It has also to be noted that this research was increasingly based on representative samples.

These surveys were conducted on adult populations (Sweden, England, France, Finland, United States) but also on adolescents (England, United States, Denmark), young students and workers (West Germany) and homosexuals (United States, West Germany, in particular). They were conducted in a climate of increased politicization of sexuality that recalled the 1920s and often had utopian aspirations. The adoption of alternative sexual lifestyles (exemplified by the ‘communes’) was advocated by some; others celebrated the revolutionary potential of the (chiefly clitoral) orgasm.

But this climate changed rapidly in the 1980s with the emergence of AIDS. This epidemic, for which no vaccine existed, demonstrated the need for up-to-date empirical data on sexual behavior as a basis for encouraging prevention behaviors by the population (more careful partner selection, and the use of HIV testing and condoms, etc.). In response, large-scale surveys of the general population, often using probability samples, were carried out in the 1990s, in Europe and the United States (see Wellings et al. 1994, Laumann et al. 1994, Kontula and Haavio-Mannila 1995, Bejin 2001) and in the developing world (Cleland and Ferry (eds.) 1995).

The sex surveys of the 1990s cannot be summarized here, but a number of their shared characteristics can be identified. They are based either on interviews or questionnaires (either face-to-face, or self-administered, or by telephone), and have been facilitated by the unquestionably greater willingness in recent decades to talk about sex, as reflected in better participation and response rates and fewer abandons. The theories advanced to interpret the data collected are often, though not always, those which Laumann et al. (1994, pp. 5–24) refer to as ‘scripting theory,’ ‘choice theory’ and ‘social network theory.’ The first postulates that, because of their exposure to an acculturation process, individuals usually follow ‘sexual scripts’ which prescribe with whom, when, where, how, and why they should have sex. The second places the emphasis on the costs (in time, money, emotional and physical energy, personal reputation, etc.) of sexual behavior. The third seeks to understand why some types of sexual relations occur between people with similar social characteristics whereas others (more unconventional) involve socially more contrasted individuals.

One noteworthy finding from these surveys is that, compared with the developed countries, those of SubSaharan Africa are characterized by earlier occurrence of first heterosexual intercourse and a higher level of multiple partnership, but also by a substantially higher percentage of people who had not had intercourse during the previous month. In other words, in the countries with a ‘young’ population structure, heterosexual activity tends to begin sooner but occurs less frequently and extends over a shorter period.

5. Conclusion: Future Directions

To simplify, it can be said that in the nineteenth century the social sciences (including sexology) focused primarily on the forms of sexuality considered to be ‘deviant’ or ‘perverse.’ In addition, they gave priority to an exploration of behavior before beginning to study the psychological aspects (personality, sexual desires and fantasies).

The same process occurred in the twentieth century, but on a broader scale, taking as subject the general population and thus an ‘average’ sexuality. Initially, between the 1920s and the end of the 1960s, the emphasis was on sexual practices (in particular, ‘sexual technique,’ and the orgasm). In a second period, however, especially since the start of the 1970s, attention has focused increasingly on sexual desire and fantasies. The fact, for example, that Viagra (the erection-enhancing drug first marketed in 1998) only works for men who feel attracted to their partners, illustrates the need for an understanding of the interior aspects of sexuality, in particular of the psychological blockages, desires and fantasies. This suggests that one trend in the future will be a growth of research on sexual fantasies and the complexities of sexual orientation and identity, and into the effects of pornography, cybersex and sexual addictions.

A second probable trend in future research is the development of the comparative study of ‘national’ sexualities as revealed in the sex surveys of the 1990s. The data on sexuality that has been assembled needs to be subjected to analysis and interpretation. A comparative analysis of national sex surveys offers an excellent means of identifying the influence of culture on sexual attitudes and behavior as well as on desires and fantasies. It should be possible, for example, to compare the respective influence of cultures that are predominantly hedonistic or ascetic in orientation. Other factors to be assessed include religious beliefs and practices, population aging, democratization, and the relationship between the sexes. This material is potentially the basis for new syntheses in the sociology of sexuality, comparable in scope to the great sociosexological syntheses produced in the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century.

A third trend in future research will be a continuing exploration of the themes developed since the 1970s whose common point is their focus on sexual behavior that is more or less coercive in character: paedophilia, sexual tourism, sexual violence, sexual harassment, and sexual mutilations, notably those inflicted on women.

A fourth line of research for the future follows from the growing numbers of elderly and old people in the population, who increasingly expect to remain sexually active. Their sexuality will surely be the subject of further and more detailed research.

The fifth and final trend for the future concerns a partial renewal of social science research on sexuality from the recent developments in the ethology of sexuality. More generally, indeed, interdisciplinary perspectives can be expected to inform and enrich all areas of social science research in the field of sexual behavior.


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