Sexual Deviance Research Paper

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The subject of “sexual deviance” provides a particularly informative illustration of the application of the sociological imagination. Other fields of study and practice such as psychology, psychiatry, and law focus on sexual deviance as an act or a course of action, usually indulged in by a person, either alone or as part of a group. Such acts may be distinctive in the sense that they vary from a stipulated norm. In these nonsociological writings, the emphasis is placed on the behavior and on the person who is performing the act, not on those who judge it. Such approaches also focus on the consequences of the behavior. If a person is derogated as a sexual deviant, there will be a variety of possible outcomes. Sometimes he or she might be tolerated, with the toleration often carrying a taint of disapproving condescension and moral superiority. For others labeled as sexual deviants, the consequences may be degradation or isolation, punishment by the state, or voluntary or involuntary enlistment in programs of therapy or in other remedial regimens.

For sociologists,true to disciplinary doctrine,itisnotthe behavior of the individual that is of primary concern but the process by means of which the person and the behavior come to be regarded as deviant. A single individual might initiate the labeling, but to be effective, that person must convince others that affixing a derogatory designation onto individuals who behave in a certain manner is desirable. The label must satisfy the needs of those who affix it, and it may offer other rewards, perhaps bounties for identifying sexual miscreants, such as child abusers, recognition as an upright and responsible citizen, or affirmation that the wayward will suffer and the devout and dutiful will prosper, if not in this life than assuredly in the hereafter. Judgments of sexual deviance can become weapons employed by those who consider themsel ves upright to try to see that others following different paths are defamed. Some of those who are “good” come to believe that they suffer by comparison because those who are “bad” seem to be having a much better time and, perhaps, much greater success, such as when a casually promiscuous actress sleeps her way into juicy roles or a gay person files suit against a nasty boss on grounds of sexual discrimination while the straight person is debarred from a similar kind of action for other forms of harassment.

In his classic formulation of deviance, Howard Becker (1973) pointed out that deviance is not a quality of the act one commits but, rather, a consequence of the application to an “offender” by others of rules and sanctions. Therefore, the ultimate measurement of whether or not an act—sexual or otherwise—is deviant depends on how others who are socially significant in terms of power and influence define the act. Social acts and actors violating norms of society can be termed “rule-breaking behavior” and “rule breakers,” respectively. However, the terms “deviant behavior” and “deviant” will be reserved for acts and actors labeled as such by a social audience. As John Kitsuse (1962), another well-known sociologist of deviance, made clear: Forms of behavior per se do not differentiate deviants from nondeviants; it is the response of the conventional and conforming members of the society who identify and interpret behavior as deviant that sociologically transforms rule-breaking behavior into deviance and persons who break rules or norms into deviants. Recently, Charles Tittle and Raymond Paternoster (2000) summarized the predominant ways in which sociologists have defined deviance and offered their own definition as follows: “Any type of behavior that the majority of a given group regards as unacceptable or that evokes a collective response of a negative type” (p. 13).

The “response of a negative type” is crucial to designations of deviance. Consider how the British social scientist Colin Summer (1994) summarizes the process by which a “deviant” label is pinned on someone and the implications of this labeling:

Making someone deviant is indeed an active process warranting a verb. Deviance is not a self-evident category. It does not just float down from the skies applying itself to people who quite obviously are deviant. Deviance is a historical term and its application and/or adoption can create a status which dwarfs all others in its consequences for the individual’s existence. Even the most deviant of all deviants just does not “happen”: someone has to pass judgment, to portray, to stigmatize, to insult, to heap abuse, to exclude or to reject. (P. 223)

According to Erving Goffman (1968), making a deviant label stick to those so stigmatized is essentially a power play by “normals,” an attempt to have one’s own interpretations prevail in the marketplace of social life (for an application of this theme to deviant sexuality see Plummer [1975] and Salamon [1989]). In a pioneering article, Kai Erikson (1962) reinforced the idea that the label “sexual deviant” often tends to trump all other elements of a person’s character and behavior. “Even a confirmed miscreant,” Erikson points out, “conforms in most of his daily behavior—using the correct spoon at mealtime, taking good care of his mother, or otherwise observing the mores of the society” (p. 308).

Obviously, it is necessary to delimit the reach of the term “sexual deviance.” Among other ways, it can be narrowed by use of a yardstick that declares deviant as anything not done by most other persons, a continuum that can range from the merely unconventional to the patently bizarre. How many others need to behave in a certain manner to make those who do not do so deviant is far from obvious. Nor is it clear whether behavior that is commonplace within a particular cultural group, and even is valued by that group, may be said to be deviant if the approving group is small (but how large does it need to be?) and the practice of which it approves is not regarded as “proper” by the rest of the society. The eminent social psychologist Leon Festinger (1951) warned of the fallacy of attributing deviant behavior or opinions to an individual when his or her group affiliations are not adequately understood.

Numerous theoretical frameworks have been developed by sociologists to explain the occurrences, forms, and consequences of deviance, including sexual deviance. One way to make sense of these frameworks is to organize them according to the degree to which they are designed to address one of two central questions in the study of deviance. First, normative theories focus on norm violations by asking, “Who violates norms and why?” Second, reactivist theories focus on reactions to norm violations by asking, “Why are certain types of norm violations and not others reacted to as deviant and result in the stigmatization of the rule-breaker?” Theories of deviance can be classified as macroscopic and microscopic. The former focus on societal and group structures and the latter on individuals and the interactional patterns in which they engage and to which they are subject.

Witchcraft as Sexual Deviance

There probably is no better substantive material by means of which to illuminate the sociological approach to sexual deviance than through an examination of witchcraft persecutions and prosecutions. In witchcraft cases, we had communities charging individuals with sexual and other acts that no human being conceivably could have performed. Women, and it almost invariably was women (Hester 1992; Karlson 1987; Williams and Adelman 1992), were accused of having sexual intercourse with the devil, whose “member,” for some uncertain reason, almost always was said to have been uncomfortably cold. The devil had crept into innumerable female beds for episodes of illicit intercourse, and there were alleged sabbats that involved orgies of unbridled sexuality (Monter 1976). The accused typically were widowed women without male offspring to defend them, and they often confessed to the infamous charges leveled against them (Macfarlane 1999). On the Continent, torture was instrumental in eliciting “admissions of guilt,” but in England, torture was not countenanced (Langbein 1977).

Typical was the reported confession of Elizabeth Clarke, a widow living in Manningtree in East Anglia, who was interrogated in 1645 by a pair of self-appointed witch finders. She described the devil to her interrogator as “a tall, black haired gentleman, a properer man than yourself” (Gaskill 2005:50). Then, as Malcolm Gaskill (2005) reports,

Clarke related fondly how she had first enjoyed “carnal copulation” with Satan six or seven years earlier. From that time he had been a regular visitor to her bedchamber, always presentable in his lace collar, and ready with his breathless plea, “Bess, I must lye with you.” She had never refused and the love-making usually lasted half the night. (P. 50)

After a formal court trial, Clarke was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged.

There is no need to attempt to determine why what the women accused as witches did was condemned, since it is obvious that they had not carried out the stipulated behaviors; that is, Elizabeth Clarke had not had sexual intercourse with the devil. She may or may not have been having sexual business with a lover, although; if so, it might have been in her imagination and not in reality. The core issue that has engaged the handful of sociologists who have studied witchcraft fits neatly into major concerns of the discipline: Why did those attaching the label of witchcraft do so? “Crimes without Criminals” is the title of sociologist Elliott Currie’s contribution: It could equally aptly have been “Deviants without Deviance” (Currie 1968; see also Erikson 1966).

To illustrate the major sociological perspective on sexual deviance, we can consider a few of the numerous explanations of the dynamics of labeling that underlay witchcraft accusations. Perhaps the most persuasive view, at least for England, inheres in the theological ethos of the times. Tragedy was common and death of children a constant threat. Such occurrences were regarded as signs of divine disapproval, and the thought of godly disapprobation, given the intensity of religious commitment, could be terrifying. The preeminent seventeenth-century jurist Matthew Hale expressed the ruling dogma well: “Afflictions,” he proclaimed, “are most certainly effects and fruits of sin: and worldly crosses and calamities do as naturally flow from precedent sins, as the crop doth from the seed that is sown” (Thirlwall, 1805:346). But what better tactic to deflect such disapproval than to maintain that the calamity of a diseased or dead child was the consequence of witchcraft and not of parental failure? Social anthropologists often note the functional utility of scapegoating. “This book,” Lucy Mair (1969) writes in her study of witchcraft in tribal societies, “starts with the premise that in a world where there are few assured techniques for dealing with everyday crises, notably sickness, a belief in witches or the equivalence of one, is not only not foolish, it is indispensable” (p. xx). The tactic seemingly is not chosen with malice aforethought: It merely provides a scapegoat, generally one with commonly acknowledged “antisocial” traits (Geis and Bunn 1997; Thomas 1971).

The sexual content of the witchcraft charges against the usually impoverished women apparently is to be found in the concomitant fear and fascination with sexual indulgence that was particularly prominent in a society marked by puritan prudence and prudery. On the Continent, witchcraft charges, also suffused with erotic narratives, more often would be pressed against members of the “better classes,” who were identified by the Inquisition because the state would confiscate the holdings of those burned for their allegedly heretical actions (Russell 1972). Besides these situations, personal jealousies and motives of revenge for real or imagined slights played into the lodging of charges against vulnerable and typically powerless parties. It is notable that an unbridled outbreak of witchhunting on the Continent let up only when, under torture, accused women began to name the wives of prominent persons of the community as members of their coven (Midelfort 1972).

Sexual Deviance and Sociology

For sociologists, then, it basically is not the elements of the act being considered that render it “deviant” but the response of others to that act. Therefore, for sociologists (and, indeed, for most others), there is no reason for either “sexual” or “deviance” to be anchored firmly in the realm of unambiguous lexical meaning. Sociological textbooks on deviance may include chapters or segments on obesity, blindness, mental illness, and a host of other conditions that are deemed to be more or less “different.” The result often becomes an attempt to provide information about these conditions rather than to enter into a very complex and perhaps redundant attempt to determine why a ruling social system or a powerful group within it might define such things as deviant.

Like sociologists and other social scientists, preachers, pundits, and the public also have not felt constrained to confine themselves to a roster of precise behaviors when they talk or write about “deviance,” “sexuality,” or “sexual deviance.” On one extreme, there is the work of Sigmund Freud ([1905] 2000), who put forward the idea that most normative and nonnormative human actions are the consequence of sexual forces. The ubiquitous Oedipal conflict represents the lust of a young male for his mother, just as a son’s hostility toward his father has its roots in sexual jealousy and in competition for the mother’s favors. Shoplifting a fountain pen is interpreted as castration anxiety that is acted out as a desire to acquire a substitute phallus. For others, acts with a sexual element that are proscribed in the Bible are declared to be deviant, though other biblical sins calling for the death penalty, such as cursing one’s parents, go unheeded. For still other persons, anything with an erotic tinge that they do not approve of is regarded as “sexual deviance” or, to use the historically common term, “perversion.” Finally, on the far side of the continuum, where many sociologists rest their case, there are those who steadfastly maintain that nothing a human being does can sensibly be regarded as deviant or perverted because all behavior represents an expression of the actor’s humanity and seeks to satisfy a human need or desire. Their mantra tends to be in accord with the words of sociologist Paul Tappan (1947): “It is unwise,” he declared, “for the social scientist ever to forget that all standards of social normation are relative, impermanent, and variable” (p. 101).

Tappan’s (1947) dictum accords with the working ethos of sociologists and other social scientists grappling with how to understand the social standing and the causes, manifestations, and consequences of nonnormative sexual behavior—sexual deviance. In the process of empirically documenting and theoretically explaining varying forms of sexual deviance, sociologists’ struggles with definitional ambiguities have, in turn, produced conceptual disagreements; amassed a large body of empirical research on the social organization of stigmatized identities, behaviors, groups, and communities organized around sex and sexuality; and developed a plethora of theoretical frameworks.

On Definitional Ambiguity

Reading across the large body of literature on sexual deviance shows that sociologists have not been the major players in the field, especially when compared with psychiatrists, anthropologists, and psychologists. In the medical field, the first comprehensive taxonomy of sexual deviance, Herman Kaan’s (1844) Psychopathia Sexualis, drew analogies between the sexuality of what he regarded as primitive human groups and children. The primitives were said to display humanity’s unrefined sexuality. Later, Richard von Krafft-Ebbing ([1888] 1988) established what has remained medical suzerainty over at least the more unusual forms of sexual expression and entered on the record a litany of words, often with Greek and Latin roots, that were deemed to require medical attention, terms such as coprolagnia (obtaining sexual gratification from eating, smelling, throwing, or handling excrement), frottage (achieving sexual gratification from rubbing up against another person), necrophilia (sexual intercourse with corpses), piquerism (getting sexual satisfaction from cutting flesh and shedding blood), and urolagnia (associating sexual satisfaction with urine and urination).

Sociologists continue to question the value of treating sexual deviance as separate field of inquiry while, at the same time, increasingly joining forces with humanists to address questions related to the historical and cultural variability over time and in different settings of the two sides of the same coin: normative sexuality and sexual deviance. What was once sexually deviant can become normative (i.e., premarital sex) and what was once sexually normative can become deviant (i.e., virgin sacrifices). Thus, sexual deviance cannot be defined by identifying empirical realms in an absolutist fashion.

The definitional ambiguities surrounding the term “sexual deviance” invite questions about what fits into the category “sexual” and what constitutes “deviance” before the terms can be combined in a productive way. We will first address this issue, and then will examine homosexuality, a particularly controversial realm of sexual behavior. We do so to demonstrate how sociologists view the contours of sexual deviance in structural, cultural, and interactional terms. We also will look at how interest groups, such as religious conservatives and homosexuals themselves, use sociological and other scientific perspectives to advance the positions they favor. Our central thesis throughout this research paper is that the sociological study of sexual deviance has produced a rather narrow body of literature that nonetheless offers significant contributions to larger sociological inquiry by explaining some of the most basic social processes (e.g., symbolic interaction) and structures (e.g., norms) of interest to the discipline.

Conceptualizing Sexual, Deviance, and Sexual Deviance

The Sexual Realm

Sex looms large in society. In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault (1990), perhaps the most cited contemporary analyst of human sexuality, deemed sex “the explanation for everything, our master key” (p. 33). Similarly, social historian Jeffrey Weeks (1990) proclaimed that “as sex goes, so goes society” (p. 37). Yet at least since the term “sexuality” first appeared in the English dictionary in the early nineteenth century, its connotations and denotations have shifted across time, culture, and community. Defining the parameters of sexuality, as well as the dynamics that underlie its performance, has been a central point of debate among scholars (see, e.g., Epstein 1987; Foucault 1990; Laumann et al. 1994; Singer 1993; Stanton 1995).

Sexual behavior in American society represents one of the most emotion-laden areas of life, and deep and sensitive feelings about it often serve to shunt aside dispassionate consideration of its organization and dynamics. With a puritan heritage as a cultural backdrop, Americans tend to be simultaneously attracted and repelled by different aspects of sexual behavior, without agreeing as to what constitutes sex, sexual, sexuality, and sexual desire (Birken 1988). The semantic dilemma associated with “sexual” can be explicated by revisiting the notorious interactions between Bill Clinton, then president of the United States, and Monica Lewinsky, a onetime intern in the White House who had been exiled from that post because of judgments about her predatory eroticism. When allegations were raised that Lewinsky had orally copulated Clinton, his initial response was that whatever he might have done did not constitute “sex,” an interpretation, it later came to light, endorsed by Lewinsky, who regarded their behavior as nothing more than good fun. Some wondered what the reaction might have been had Lewinsky been discovered licking Clinton’s kneecap, somewhat (but also rather different in terms of common interpretations) in the manner of one of Clinton’s closest advisers—Dick Morris—who delighted in sucking the toes of a prostitute in rendezvous they held at a hotel near the White House. Perhaps it was the adulterous nature of the relationship that moved some of the interactions between Clinton and Lewinsky into the realm of sexual, deviance from the point of view of most Americans (Kalb 2001). Or perhaps in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, it was the interaction in which Lewinsky inserted a cigar into her vagina and then offered it to Clinton, whose judgment was, “It tastes good” (Starr 1998).

The role played by Hillary Clinton, now the junior senator from New York, in the Lewinsky affair offers a good deal of insight into some dynamics of sexual deviance. Despite long-standing and compelling evidence that his behavior was in accord with a pattern of sexual dalliance, Ms. Clinton initially maintained that the allegations against her husband represented part of “a vast right-wing political conspiracy to undo the results of two elections.” Subsequently, she changed course, now declaring that although her husband had to take personal responsibility for his infidelity, its manifestation was the result of “abuse” he suffered as a child because of “terrible conflict” between his mother and grandmother. She added that a psychiatrist had told her that being placed in the vortex of a storm between two women is the worst possible situation for a boy because of his desire to please them both. Her husband’s behavior, Ms. Clinton said, was a “sin of weakness” rather than of “malice” (Geis 2002:27–28). A New Yorker cartoon lampooned such excusatory claims based on prior victimization. A woman is testifying in court: “I know he cheated on me because of his childhood abuse,” she says, “but I shot him because of mine.”

Regardless of how the Clinton-Lewinsky affair is regarded, it reinforces the conclusion that precise designation of what is “sexual” is not a simple matter that can be resolved unequivocally. Lewinsky’s and Clinton’s testimony aside, the question of the status of oral copulation, a common enough practice throughout the United States (Laumann et al. 1994), reveals that the sexual realm is— like all social realms—historically and culturally contingent as well as locally and situationally defined.

Sexuality takes many forms precisely because it can be imbued with a multiplicity of meanings depending on operative cultural codes (Seidman 1992), hegemonic systems of meaning (Foucault 1990), and the social location and status of those producing, managing, and receiving sexual meanings (Morrison and Tallack 2005). As John Gagnon and William Simon (1973) explain in Sexual Conduct, “underlying all human activity, regardless of the field or its stage of development, there exists metaphors or informing imageries” (p. 1). In the sexual realm, the authors highlight the existence of “scripts” that are involved in learning the meaning of internal states, organizing the sequence of specifically sexual acts, decoding novel situations, setting the limits on sexual responses, and linking the meaning of nonsexual aspects of life to specifically sexual experiences (Gagnon and Simon 1973:19). Kenneth Plummer (1992) has observed that acts, identities, and expressions are only rendered sexual via the attachment of some meanings and not others. Steven Epstein (1987) takes this relativistic doctrine to its extreme: “Sexual acts have no inherent meaning, and in fact, no act is inherently sexual,” he writes (p. 14). At least the latter part of that sentence is, at best, arguable: To insist, for instance, that copulation is not a sexual act is a reductionist claim that deprives the word sexual of any possible meaning. Epstein’s claim may make for resounding ideology, but it leaves scientific and common understanding in the lurch.

Nonetheless, sociologists generally agree that sexuality is not a biologically derived fact, though, as we shall see, clashes persist regarding whether homosexual activity is a free choice or a genetically ordained activity. There is near consensus that within the limits of their physical characteristics, human beings are capable of any type of sexual activity, thus sex and sexuality can take innumerable forms. In Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, historians John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman (1988) provide a wide-angled view of macroshifts in sexuality by documenting how, during the past 375 years,

the meaning and place of sexuality in American life have changed: from a family-centered, reproductive sexuality in the colonial era; to a romantic, intimate, yet conflicted sexuality in nineteenth-century marriage; to a commercialized sexuality in the modern period, when sexual relations are expected to provide personal identity and individual happiness apart from reproduction. (P. xii)

See Birken (1988) for an alternative view. As the meaning of sexuality has changed in America from a primary association with reproduction within families to a primary association with emotional intimacy and physical pleasure for individuals, the norms delimiting the boundaries between acceptable sexuality and “abnormal” sexuality have also shifted. In 1643, in colonial New England, James Britton and 18-year-old Mary Lanham were hanged for having committed adultery (Banner 2002:6). Today, many persons enthusiastically offer up intimate details of their own adulteries on television talk shows, in newspaper interviews, and autobiographies, apparently on the assumption, undoubtedly correct, that these confessions are marketable to a prurient public (Gamson 1999).

Despite the complexities of metaphors, scripts, and norms that inform varying understandings of the content of sexuality, at the heart of the matter is a focus on being stereotyped and distinguished by gender, a concern with erotic activity and desire, and an emphasis on real or imagined stimulation and attendant bodily sensation. This formulation moves well beyond the definition of sexual employed by Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin (1948) in their pioneering study of human sexual behavior. They elected to use orgasm as the measure of what was and what was not a sexual act because it offered a reasonably concrete measure. In contrast, sociological definitions allow for an endless array of behavior, expression, and identity that do not result in orgasm; they also incorporate an acknowledgment that subjective elements intrude into such determinations. With regard to subjective elements in determinations of sexuality, Gagnon and Simon (1973) observe the following:

It is perhaps startling to consider that when we think about the sexual, nearly our entire imagery is drawn from physical activities of bodies. Our sense of normalcy derives from organs being placed in legitimate orifices. We have allowed the organs, the orifices, and the gender of the actors to personify or embody or exhaust nearly all of the meanings that exist in the sexual situation. (P. 5)

More recently, Mark Graham (2004) revisited and revised this formulation by declaring as follows:

Sexuality is in danger of becoming a thing, if it has not already become one. Under its umbrella have been assembled a host of bodily practices, tastes, pleasures, desires, moral judgments, and much more. These disparate phenomena have imploded into the term, providing sexuality with a remarkable range of application and an exaggerated explanatory power. (P. 300)

Regardless of the range of phenomena under the umbrella of sexuality, our individual and collective sense of “normalcy” is inextricably tied to ideas about deviance, sexual and otherwise. Indeed, much philosophical and legal debate concerning sexual deviance centers on the word “normal.” The well-known humorist Robert Benchley must have had some standard in mind when he quipped that his “sex life wasn’t normal but it was interesting” (Kunkel 2000:283). So too must have Kobe Bryant, the basketball celebrity, when he sought to defend himself against a rape allegation that included the complainant’s statement that when he had intercourse with her, he had held her “around the neck from behind.” This was not an indication of the use of force, Bryant maintained. He used the same tactic with another woman with whom, unbeknownst to his wife, he had sexual congress: “Me and Michelle, that’s what we do, we do the same thing,” Bryant told his interrogators (Brennan 2004:6A). Presumably, this was an effort to portray his behavior as natural and normal—–at least for him. The behavior was but a part of his usual heterosexual repertoire.

The Realm of Deviance

From Durkheim’s (1958) study of suicide onward, sociology as a discipline has provided a home for the study of deviance. Sociologists have generated empirical studies of criminals, the mentally ill, drug users, alcoholics, welfare recipients, communists, people with physical and cognitive disabilities, homosexuals, dwarfs, giants, heretics, tramps, hippies, prostitutes, motorcycle gang members, abortionees and abortioners, nudists, topless barmaids, religious and racial/ethnic minorities, blackmailers, exotic dancers, rodeo groupies, cock fighters, pedophiles, and terrorists—to name just a few. Sociologist Jerry Simmons learned from a survey that respondents identified more than 200 different kinds of people as “deviants,” including prostitutes, perpetual bridge players, girls who wear makeup, drug addicts, and prudes (cited in Thio and Calhoun 2001:1).

The term “deviance” typically carries a meretricious connotation, although in the sexual and other realms, the designation on occasion can be employed as a compliment, such as when someone is declared to deviate upward from the norm in terms of beauty or sexual equipment or performance. There is also a possibility that deviance, particularly of a sexual variety, may be correlative—or even a cause or consequence—of impressive intellectual performance. For example, Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prizewinning physicist, who taught at Cal Tech, was wont to spend a good deal of time in a topless bar in Pasadena, saying that the ambiance fed his creative juices (Feynman 1985; Gleick 1993). Likewise, Kary Mullis, a biochemistry Nobelist, has been described as “a creative nonconformist verging on the lunatic.” Among his antics was the display during class lectures of nude slides of his girlfriends surrounded by multicolored fractal patterns (Mullis 1998). Speaking more academically, leading scholars specializing in deviance, for example, Jack Katz (1988) and cultural criminologists (Ferrell and Sanders 1995) have encouraged sociological colleagues to recognize that deviance can be fun and exciting, perhaps even creative and artistic. Nonetheless, almost always “deviance” is used as a negative judgment, implying a lesser degree of adequacy and orthodoxy than is acceptable or should be permissible.

In simple terms, deviance can be defined as nonnormative behavior that, if detected, can be subject to informal or formal sanctions. Deviants are those who engage in behavior that deviates from norms in a disapproved direction in sufficient degree to exceed the tolerance limits of a discernable social group such that the behavior is likely to illicit a negative sanction if detected.

Sexual Deviance

As Erich Goode (2005) indicates,

When the words “sexual deviant” are used to describe someone, the image that comes to mind is someone who is impelled to act as a result of uncontrollable, unfathomable, and distinctly abnormal motives—someone whose behavior is freakish, fetishist, and far-out. (P. 237)

Goode’s alliterative prose captures the mindset of a large segment of the population; however, that mind-set lacks the nuances that enter into sociological judgments about what might be considered the full range of what could be called “sexual deviance.”

Drawing on the conceptualization of sexuality and the conceptualization of deviance provided above, we can formally define sexual deviance as any erotic activity, identity, or expression with a focus on real or imagined stimulation and attendant bodily sensation that, if detected, can be subject to formal or informal sanctions. Defined in this manner, deviant sexuality can take many forms. Most commonly, sociologists who study sexual deviance have focused analytic attention on diverse types of people— homosexuals, prostitutes, exotic dancers, topless barmaids, nudists, masturbators, sodomites, sex offenders, and pedophiles who break historical, cultural, and groupspecific sexual norms.

At the same time, other forms of sexual deviance have escaped sociological attention. For example, William Heirens, a student at the University of Chicago, committed more than 300 burglaries and admitted achieving orgasm by the act of entering strange residences. When interrupted during his burglaries, Heirens three times killed the females he encountered and on each occasion lingered at the scene to carefully wash the bodies of his victims. He also left a message, written with lipstick in large letters on one living room wall where he had just murdered a woman: CATCH ME BEFORE I KILL MORE I CANNOT CONTROL MYSELF (Freeman 1955). Other examples include the so-called crush freaks, who are aroused by the sight of an insect exploded beneath a human foot (Biles 2004); wetlocks, who have an inclination to wear wet clothing and to obtain sexual pleasure by viewing other people wearing such clothing (Börstling 2000); zoophiles and bestialists, who have erotic interactions with animals, usually mammals (Beetz 2000; Beirne 1997); and people who engage in “bug chasing” (i.e., HIV-negative gay men who seek out relations with infected partners to take the risk of becoming infected with the deadly virus that causes AIDS) (Gauthier and Forsyth 1999); and cybersex (Daneback, Cooper, and Månsson 2005).

As with all sociological phenomena, sexual deviance can be subdivided into several broad categories (see, e.g., Gagnon and Simon 1968). First, there are acts that are deviant if consent is not present, such as forcible rape. Rape is a very difficult event to adjudicate because the essential elements of the behavior itself are routine, and it becomes uncommonly demanding to rebut a defense that insists that the complainant did not consent to what happened. The interplay of deviance and social norms is highlighted in the consistent research finding that the likelihood of a successful prosecution increases dramatically if the alleged rape victim has an impeccable sexual and personal background (LaFree 1989). Second, there are acts that are deemed wrongful because of the nature of the sexual object; these can include incest and can embrace marriage with close kin. Bestiality—that is, sexual relations with an animal—also comes under this heading, and in earlier days, not only the human but also the animal was executed for such behavior (Evans 1906). Third, sexual deviance also inheres in acts that are performed in a setting that is not regarded as proper for the behavior: Exhibitionism in places where genital exposure is regarded as inappropriate falls into this category. Heterosexual copulation at high noon in a crowded public square would also be seen as wayward and deviant. But each of these classifications admits to many variations in the characteristics of the persons involved and the particular form the behavior takes (Hensley and Tewksbury 2003:7–8; Wheeler 1960).


More than any other type of sexual deviance, sociologists have most consistently directed analytic attention to homosexual behavior. An entire chapter generally was devoted to the topic in most sociology of deviance textbooks, and discussion of homosexuality historically loomed large in chapters on “deviance” in introductory textbooks. More recently, however, writers have become skittish about grouping “homosexuality” and “deviance,” since doing so might offend a not inconsiderable number of those assigning or reading the books. Today, sociology textbook discussions of homosexuality are likely to be subsumed in chapters with titles such as “Sexuality and Gender” (see, e.g., Giddens, Duneier, and Applebaum 2003).

The Humphreys Heritage

The classic study by sociologist Laud Humphreys of restroom homosexual activity in a public park provides a particularly informative example of sociological contributions to the study of sexual deviance. Humphreys (1970), an ordained Episcopal minister, had undertaken graduate work at Washington University in St. Louis, and his dissertation, published as Tearoom Trade, offered graphic accounts of homosexual encounters in the restrooms, most involving men from a considerable variety of social backgrounds who stopped there on the way home from work. Humphreys tells readers that he gathered his data by volunteering to serve as a lookout. He does not address the question of why the behavior he was exploring was considered sexually deviant, nor what its roots might be. Rather, he was concerned with the process, with what went on. Particularly notable for Humphreys was his finding that the restroom transactions were almost always carried out without verbal communication between the participants: In only 15 of the 50 episodes he observed were any words spoken. Instead, participants relied on a set of body movements that proclaimed their desire to engage in a transient homosexual liaison.

The Humphreys investigation is particularly notable for three matters, all concomitants of its focus on sexual deviance. The first was a quarrel between two preeminent sociologists regarding the propriety of Humphreys’s work. Alvin Gouldner, the sociology department’s chair, called Humphreys a “peeping parson” and told his dissertation chair, Lee Rainwater, who later would join the Harvard faculty, that the study was a shameless piece of voyeurism. Gouldner also pushed and kicked Humphreys in the belief that he was posting caricatures of him on departmental bulletin boards (Galliher, Brekhus, and Keys 2004). The dispute was seen as significant enough to merit a news story in the New York Times (“Sociology Professor” 1968).

The second issue involved Humphreys’s taking down the license numbers of the cars driven by those who participated in the restroom sexual encounters and then using a law enforcement source to learn the names and addresses of these men. Thereafter, he changed his appearance and visited most of them, pretending that he was collecting information as part of a health survey. Among other things, Humphreys learned that by and large the men were married. Nicholas von Hoffman, a nationally syndicated columnist, thought that Humphreys’s behavior was unethical, an unwarranted intrusion on the privacy of the men, and perhaps a threatening invasion if they were to recognize their visitor (von Hoffman 1975). Humphreys insisted that nobody he later interviewed connected him to the role of lookout that he took in the initial phase of the study. Today, of course, no university human subjects committee would approve Humphreys’s research blueprint.

Finally, Humphreys only later disclosed that he himself was a gay man, leading critics to believe that he might well have misled them with regard to his actual role in the study. This view was reinforced by John Galliher and his colleagues (2004), who discovered that the restroom windows were small and covered with opaque glass and metal grillwork. It is arguable if up-front disclosure of Humphreys’ sexual preference should have been mandatory, but the controversy that the issue aroused indicates how highly charged field inquiries about sexual deviance can become.

The Social Construction of Homosexuality

Sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and psychologist alike have been studying homosexuality since the invention of the term in 1869 by Hungarian physician Karl Maria Benkert (Halperin 1990:155). Benkert described homosexuality in the following terms:

In addition to the normal sexual urge in man and woman, Nature in her sovereign mood has endowed at birth certain male and female individuals with the homosexual urge, thus placing them in a sexual bondage which renders them physically and psychically incapable—even with the best of intention—of normal erection. This urge creates in advance a distinct horror of the opposite [sex] and the victim of this passion finds it impossible to suppress the feeling which individuals of his own sex exercise upon him. (quoted in Hirschfeld 1936:322)

This picaresque hodgepodge of intuition, folklore, prescience, and patronization presages a large part of the full range of viewpoints that would be expressed over subsequent years about homosexual activity.

Beginning with sociologist Mary McIntosh’s (1968) now classic article “The Homosexual Role,” which argued against then prevailing medical opinions, sociologists have taken the position that homosexuality is first and foremost a social construction. In sharp contrast to essentialist approaches to homosexuality, which treat homosexuality as a biological force and consider homosexual identities to be cognitive realizations of genuine, underlying differences, constructionists stress that homosexuality as a social construct belongs to the world of culture and meaning, not biology (Epstein 1987). Accordingly, social constructionist approaches understand homosexuals as a type of person and homosexuality as a type of behavior to be social creations born of social arrangements, cultural shifts, and social movements (see, e.g., Conrad and Schneider 1992; Stein 1997; Taylor and Whittier 1992); sexual behavior as conduct ultimately bound by cultural scripts (Laumann et al. 1994); and individual desire and choice as fundamentally defined by larger social narratives and ideologies that influence the stories people tell about themselves (Esterberg 1997; Plummer 1996; Stein 1997). Combined, these approaches to understanding homosexuality in sociological terms have reacted to essentialist themes running through prior published works by historians, psychologists, clinicians, and journalists to assert that sexualities of all sorts, including nonnormative sexualities, are informed by and products of historical moments, structural arrangements, cultural milieus, situational imperatives, and individual psychologies and biographies.

Much macrosociological work on homosexuality situates the study of same-sex desire and behavior within specific historical contexts to demonstrate the fluidity of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular as a social construct across time and space. For example, in their work on the medicalization of deviance, Peter Conrad and Joseph Schneider (1992) demonstrate how dominant understandings of homosexuality as a sin were medicalized in the eighteenth century so that homosexuality came to be understood as a sickness and homosexuals were envisioned as diseased. As they explain, “From its origins as primarily a religious transgression, a sin, same-sex conduct had become by the end of the medieval period, a matter of state control, a crime, and ultimately was redefined in modern society as a sickness” (Conrad and Schneider 1992:172). More recent work has continued in this vein by demonstrating that contemporary understandings of same-sex desire and conduct are envisioned as a “sexual orientation” or “sexual preference” with consequences for legal standing, community affiliation, and lifestyle practices. Quite apart from empirical foci on different eras, this type of work shares a commitment to revealing the historical complementarity and continuity of religious, medical, and legal definitions of homosexuality that inevitably inform any understanding of same-sex desires and behaviors.

Toward a Nondeviant Status for Homosexuality

Politically and ideologically, the sociological stance often conflicts with what individuals with a preference for homosexual relationships and groups that support them believe is a more accurate and, assuredly, a more politically powerful set of assumptions about the etiology of homosexuality. They look to genetic elements rather than social situations to explain why some persons prefer members of their own gender as sexual partners. Typically, there is considerable reliance on anecdotal evidence: “I knew from an early age that I was much more attracted to other males (or other females) than I was to members of the opposite sex.” But there also is a thriving industry in studies that seek to locate physiological differences between persons who engage in homosexual and those who participate in heterosexual encounters. The New York Times is wont to run such stories on its first page despite their invariably inconclusive, albeit suggestive nature.

In mid-2005, for instance, the newspaper offered a lengthy report about the use of a brain imaging technique that led Swedish neuroscientists to conclude that homosexual men respond to odors in the same way as women, but differently than heterosexual males (Savic, Berglund, and Lindstrom 2005; Wade 2005). The odors were those of a testosterone derivative found in men’s sweat and an estrogen-like compound found in women’s urine. Steven Pinker (2005), a Harvard professor of cognitive science, scoffed at the results, observing that “when people want to be titillated or to check out a prospective partner, most seek words or pictures, not dirty laundry” (p. A25). For Pinker, the biological puzzle inherent in homosexuality was that “any genetic tendency to avoid heterosexual tendencies should have been selected out long ago” (p. A25).

Wherever the truth might lie, genetic explanations have provided powerful ammunition in the drive to remove homosexuality from the roster of sexually deviant behavior and thereby to disarm those who insist that the behavior is a free and willful choice to violate prevailing codes of propriety. The success of such efforts was dramatically on display when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from consideration in the most recent edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). It has been noted that

homosexual activists lobbied hard . . . to have homosexuality rediagnosed. Commandeering the nomenclature committee, threatening violence at the national convention . . . the activists managed to secure a vote from the psychiatrists to remove homosexuality from the list of diagnostic disorders. (Knight 1998:47)

A pro-gay writer grants that the APA decision “was not a conclusion based on an approximation of the scientific truth as dictated by reason, but was instead an action demanded by the ideological temper of the times” (Bayer 1981:3–4). This development supplies evidence of the wisdom of the sociological approach to sexual deviance: Determination of the status is not a reflection of behavior per se but rather a negotiable matter, mediated by the power to prevail in a struggle over defining labels.

Public Opinion and Sexual Deviance

Public opinion polls taken in the latter part of the twentieth century show that judgments about homosexuality as sexual deviance are largely negative but that they have been shifting in significant ways. Lydia Saad (2005), a member of the Gallup organization, summarized the current situation well:

Most Americans believe homosexuals should have equal rights in the workforce. But the public’s underlying belief that homosexual relations are immoral seems to prevail in attitudes about expanding those rights to gay marriage, which a majority opposes. Barely half consider homosexuality a culturally acceptable lifestyle. While public tolerance of gays has increased considerably over the past three decades, there has been little change in the last few years, and support for homosexuals serving as teachers or in the clergy has actually declined. (P. 1)

Beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century, psychologists and sociologists alike began to enumerate sets of sequences by means of which people come to engage in homosexual behavior and how they make sense of the label “homosexual” (Dank 1971; Jenness 1992; Ponse 1978). Psychologists rely almost exclusively on theories of psychosexual development, whereas sociologists will commonly depend on a symbolic interactionist framework. Both approaches focus on the intersection between personal experiences, key interactions, and the historical moment that provide the social constructs that serve as the basis for self-evaluation. Personal testimony to the salience of this view appears in the introspective thoughts of a gay writer who reminisces about a particular episode in his youth:

One weekend, when I was in college in Ann Arbor she [his girlfriend] came to visit me and we kissed passionately and undressed, but I was impotent. Today, there are pills for that, and behavioristic exercises. I sometimes wonder whether, if I’d been able to perform then and with other women, I would be married today. And, if so, would I be happier than I am now? (White 2005:129)

A clear message emanates from sociological research on homosexuality. There is an empirical and theoretical difference between “doing” behaviors associated with homosexuality and “being” homosexual; that is, there is a gap between same-sex behaviors, imputations of homosexuality, and the adoption of a homosexual/gay/lesbian identity. Carol Smith-Rosenberg (1975) illustrates this point by documenting the way in which romantic female friendships were comparatively common in the nineteenth century, but attributions of lesbianism and sexual deviance were absent with regard to these relationships. They were understood as compatible with heterosexual marriage. In the modern era, Laumann et al.’s (1994) work has revealed a high degree of variability in the ways that differing elements of homosexuality, especially desire, identity, and behavior, are distributed for both women and men.

The sociological focus on subjectivities and on attendant interpretations of sexual behavior has been used to make sense of everything from virginity loss (Carpenter 2005) to stigmatized sadomasochism (Weinberg, Williams, and Moser 1984; cf., Chancer 1992). With regard to homosexuality in particular, this line of research has documented the continuities and changes in identities, sexualities, and narratives emerging within and outside of homosexual communities embedded in discernable historical and cultural moments (Stein 1992). Plummer (2003) argues that we are living in a time characterized by “new sexual stories” and that we are witnessing the advent of the sexual citizen who refuses to be marginalized on account of his or her sexuality. What was once characterized as “sexual deviance” now entails new sexual subjectivities that demand recognition and respect—the antithesis of deviance.

Discussion and Conclusion

Stepping back from the details of the literature reported in this research paper, one thing is clear: Sociologists who study deviant sexuality have documented the plethora of ways in which sex, sexuality, and sexual desire are social products. By drawing analytic attention to nonnormative forms of sexuality, they have rendered vivid innumerable links between the social organization of sexuality, social processes, and social structures. Moreover, they have demonstrated that changes in the designation of “normalcy” and “sexual deviance” reflect larger changes in social institutions, especially the family, the economy, the law, and religion. Far from conceiving of sexuality, deviant or otherwise, as a private matter, sociologists have demonstrated that it is a public, political, and social fact. By focusing on nonnormative sexualities, sociologists have shown how social facts, orthodoxies, and social control come into being and get transformed and institutionalized as well as what they mean for our individual and collective lives. These contributions have come as a result of sociologists using studies of sexual deviance to refute assumptions about sexuality promulgated by psychologists, clinicians, journalists, and others both historically and in modern times. This refutation has been institutionalized via the inauguration of a Sexualities section in the American Sociological Association and the publication of a number of specialty journals devoted to the study of sexuality that adopt a broad, interdisciplinary perspective covering the social sciences, cultural history, cultural anthropology, and social geography, as well as feminism, gender studies, cultural studies, and lesbian and gay studies.

Sexual deviance as a powerful political item was highlighted during the 2004 presidential election in the United States when the term “moral issues” emerged on the political radar. Exit polls at election sites found that “moral values” was the item most often selected as the prime consideration in voters’ choice of a presidential candidate. Republicans, particularly those on the far right, interpreted this to mean that the electorate had resonated to the party’s stand against abortion and in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriages. Democrats, counterpunching, pointed out that there were other “moral values” besides those with a sexual content, things such as the environment and health care. Neutral observers had little trouble adjudicating this dispute: It was matters touching on the hot-button topic of sexual deviance that had been in play to the advantage of the incumbent candidate.

What does the future hold for the study of sexual deviance? Medical specialists report that they “are concerned about the rate of progress of this field in the foreseeable future” (Laws and O’Donohue 1997:9). They observe that the subject area is becoming increasingly litigious, in part because of lawsuits based on incorrect predictions and problematic treatment modalities. They also bemoan the fact that funding for the research is becoming more precarious. It is claimed that “the picture is grim” and that “researchers need to bootstrap resources to meet minimal design requirements” (Laws and O’Donohue 1997:9). The sociological crystal ball is cloudier, but there are no strong supportive signs of future substantive or theoretical breakthroughs regarding sexual deviance. Some feminists are distressed that studies of sexual deviance tend to favor, even glamorize, underdog deviants and to ignore the victimization of women by male violence (Rodmell 1981). There is also a belief that the major sociological insight into the processes by which persons pin deviant labels on others have taken us as far as we are likely to go. On the other hand, undergraduate sociology courses in Social Problems and Social Deviance have always been particularly popular with students, and often help escalate departmental enrollments and thereby allow less consumer-attractive instruction to be carried on. The continuing search for up-to-date information on sexual deviants to undergird these courses will undoubtedly encourage further and better research and theorizing about sexual deviance.


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