Sociology of Sexuality Research Paper

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Theories of Sexuality

Many disciplines contribute to an understanding of human sexuality. While disciplines in the humanities address the range of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings associated with human sexuality, it is the sciences that seek to create and evaluate overarching explanatory theories.

Assessing the development of sexual theory, Irvine (2003) claims that sociology “has an impressive history of denaturalizing sex and theorizing its social origins in a body of scholarship dating from the early twentiethcentury Chicago School” (p. 430), which viewed noninstitutional forms of sexual expression as the result of a breakdown in informal controls such as family and neighborhood. Anthropologist Gayle Rubin notes that “the work of establishing a social science approach to sex . . . and challenging the privileged role of psychiatry in the study of human sexuality was mostly accomplished by sociologists” (as cited in Irvine 2003:430).

Based on the fundamental assumption that human behavior is socially learned, sociological theories of sexuality do not deny the existence of forces inherent in individuals. Rather, they assert that the specific thoughts and behaviors exhibited by individuals are a product of social rather than biological forces. This position is taken by Kimmel and Fracher, who state, “That we are sexual is determined by a biological imperative toward reproduction, but how we are sexual—where, when, how often, with whom, and why—has to do with cultural learning, with meanings transmitted in a cultural setting” (as cited in Longmore 1998:44).

Two sociological frameworks have substantially influenced the study of human sexuality, symbolic interactionism and scripting theory. Both perspectives fall within the broad paradigm of social constructionism (Berger and Luckmann 1966), the premise of which is that there is no objective reality; rather, reality is socially constructed. Such social construction rests on language, which enables humans to form shared meanings of experienced phenomena. These meanings in turn shape subsequent experience and behavior.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interaction theory is based on the writing and teaching of George Herbert Mead. For symbolic interactionists, objects acquire meaning, thus becoming symbols, through communication. The self is seen as not only subject but also object, and like other objects, it too becomes imbued with meaning through interaction.

Importantly, the self is seen not only as an object to others but also to oneself. That is, people have the ability to take on the role of others and thus see the self as others see it— objectified. This view of self as other contributes to behavioral decision making, because people act in ways intended to foster certain perceptions of themselves on the part of others.

Within symbolic interactionism, there are two schools of thought with distinct methods of inquiry. Situational symbolic interactionists “focus on how individuals define situations and thereby construct the realities in which they live” (Longmore 1998:46). Accordingly, they study face-to-face interactions using predominately qualitative methods like ethnography, in-depth interview, and participant observation to uncover the individual and interactional construction of situations. Structural symbolic interactionists, on the other hand, focus on the ways in which location in the social structure influences the self and the self’s construction of reality and thus tend to use quantitative methods like statistical survey analysis to examine the relationships between individuals and their location within the large institutions that comprise social structure. In studying sexuality, both analyze the way in which people construct their sexual realities, from which follow their sexual beliefs and practices.

For structuralists, major social institutions thought to influence sexuality are religion, family, economy, law, and medicine. Each institution is associated with a sexual ideology or discourse (Foucault 1998). Most religions in the United States promulgate the Judeo-Christian ideology, which emphasizes marital relationships as the appropriate context for sexual intimacy. Religious leaders use this discourse in public statements and official documents; the clergy base their interactions with parishioners on it. Economic institutions promote capitalism; income requires employment, and households (families) require income. Thus, the economy has profound effects on patterns of sexuality, especially marriage and childbearing (Teachman, Tedrow, and Crowder 2000). The family has traditionally been a strong institution, supported by both religion and the legal system and associated with a discourse that emphasizes family functions of support and child rearing, norms of fidelity, and the incest taboo. Medicine has become increasingly important in the conceptualization and control of sexuality, a trend referred to as the medicalization of sexuality (Tiefer 2004). The medical discourse defines certain aspects of sexual functioning in terms of health and illness and prescribes treatment for problems of sexual functioning. The influence of this discourse has increased dramatically with the widespread marketing of drugs to improve sexual functioning. Finally, there is law, which defines certain sexual practices as illegal and creates social controls that are used to enforce the law. Ultimately, the legal system reflects the interests of dominant groups in the society.

Scripting Theory

The premise of scripting theory is that sexual behavior “is the result of elaborate prior learning that teaches us an etiquette of sexual behavior” (Hyde and DeLamater 2006:40). During the 1970s, Simon and Gagnon explained that “without the proper elements of a script that defines the situation, names the actors, and plots the behavior, little is likely to happen” (as cited in Longmore 1998:51). Socially learned sexual scripts tell people who to have sex with (e.g., what the race, gender, and age of an appropriate sexual partner should be), when and where it is appropriate to have sex, and what acts are appropriate once sexual behavior is initiated.

Sexual scripts are not rigid or absolute. Accordingly, scripting is theorized on three levels: cultural, interpersonal, and intrapsychic. Cultural sexual scripts are defined as “the instructions for sexual and other conduct that are embedded in the cultural narratives that are provided as guides or instructions for all conduct” (Laumann et al. 1994:6). However, these cultural scripts are interpreted on both interpersonal and intrapsychic levels, which accounts for both the range of sexual behaviors and the sense of individual expression inherent in sexual encounters. Laumann et al. (1994) defined interpersonal scripts as “the structured patterns of interaction in which individuals as actors engage in everyday interpersonal conduct,” and intrapsychic scripts as “the plans and fantasies by which individuals guide and reflect on their past, current, or future conduct” (p. 6). Thus, the intrapsychic dimension of scripting allows individuals to derive personal meaning from cultural scripts, while the interpersonal dimension opens the door for situational symbolic interactionism, where reality is defined by interaction.

Sociologists studying sexuality also make use of two additional frameworks. These are the social exchange framework, which is based upon economic as well as sociological principles, and sexual strategies theory, which falls under the umbrella of evolutionary psychology.

Social Exchange Theory

The social exchange framework, developed in the 1960s, focuses on the exchange of resources between people and has been used extensively in the study of relationships. All social exchange theories share a number of basic principles centered on the concepts of rewards, costs, and reciprocity (Sprecher 1998). Specifically, social exchange models share three basic assumptions: “(a) Social behavior is a series of exchanges; (b) individuals attempt to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs; and (c) when individuals receive rewards from others, they feel obligated to reciprocate” (p. 32). These principles are applied to the exchange of sexual resources for other resources that can be sexual or nonsexual, such as intimacy, commitment, social position, or money. People are portrayed as entering, staying in, and leaving sexual relationships based on the reward-cost balance experienced. The interpersonal exchange model of sexual satisfaction (Byers 2005) focuses on the exchange of specifically sexual resources and consequences for sexual satisfaction; other theories look at relationship satisfaction more generally.As a group, these theories have been applied to understanding and predicting sexual behaviors, including partner selection, premarital sex, relationship longevity or dissolution, and extradyadic sexual relationships.

Sexual Strategies Theory

Much contemporary social research into human sexuality is based on sexual strategies theory (Buss 1998), which falls within the evolutionary psychology paradigm. The premise of evolutionary psychology is that sexual selection in the early stages of human evolution resulted in the proliferation of certain traits in men and women that continue to be present today. One example would be that men are sexually jealous because in the ancestral environment it was more likely that women would bear the children of jealous mates than of nonjealous mates and thus more likely that the trait of male jealousy would be perpetuated in their (male) offspring.

Sexual strategies theory places desire at the foundation of human sexuality. Its arguments are based on the premise that not only do men and women have different problems to overcome to ensure mating success but also that they have to negotiate differing problems in short-term versus long-term mating. Accordingly, the theory looks at what qualities will be desired by men and women when pursuing short-term versus long-term mates, as well as when and why each sex might desire one type of mate over the other. Predictions based on this theory have included sex differences in the desire for sexual variety and sexual jealously, and what contexts will trigger sexual conflict between men and women (Buss 1998). Sexual strategies theory’s compatibility with sociological theories is based on its emphasis on the importance of context in determining how sexual desire will manifest in mating decisions. Thus, while sexual strategies theory suggests that there are some universals in what men and women look for in mates, it leaves a great deal of room for how social context influences everything from when and why they pursue particular strategies to how their desires might be shaped by social position.

The History of Sex Research

The history of empirical sociological research on sexuality can be traced to Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin’s (1948, 1953) landmark volumes, based on interview data from thousands of men and women. Although Kinsey et al. did not use representative sampling techniques, they did attempt to produce a heterogeneous sample by interviewing members of diverse groups. The first qualitative study of sexual expression to achieve wide recognition was Humphreys’s (1970) Tearoom Trade, an observational study of men who have sex in public restrooms. The first survey of representative samples of 18- to 23-year-olds was reported by DeLamater and MacCorquodale (1979); and the first survey of a representative sample of the U.S. population, ages 18–59, was reported in 1994 (Laumann et al. 1994).

Between 1995 and 2005, several surveys of representative samples of subpopulations have been carried out and the results analyzed, most notably the Add Health survey of teens. Ethnographic and interview studies have been conducted on a wide variety of noninstitutional forms of sexuality. Research combining quantitative and qualitative research, such as Laumann et al.’s (2004) study of four neighborhoods within the city of Chicago, are beginning to appear and are especially valuable for the breadth of material they provide.

Sexual Expression

There is a great variety of ways in which humans derive sexual satisfaction. One continuum for sexual expression is the involvement of other persons, ranging from asexuality through autoerotic sexuality, partnered sexuality, and finally multipartnered sexuality at the other extreme.


Asexuality refers to having no sexual attraction to a person of either sex (Bogaert 2004). In a national sample of 18,000 British residents, about 1 percent reported no sexual attraction. The National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) (Laumann et al. 1994) involved interviews with 3,432 Americans ages 18–59; 4 percent of male and 11 percent of female respondents reported having no sexual partner and engaging in little autoerotic activity in the preceding 12 months. In both studies, those who reported little or no sexual activity were more likely to be single (including divorced, widowed), older, and less educated. It is likely that some/many of these persons do not experience sexual desire or attraction to others.


Sexual self-stimulation can be produced by masturbation or by fantasy. In the NHSLS (Laumann et al. 1994), 62 percent of men and 42 percent of women reported masturbating in the past year; 27 percent of men and 8 percent of women reported masturbating at least once a week. Masturbation is not a substitute for partnered activity; people who report more frequent masturbation report more frequent partnered sex. A survey of older adults found that 35 percent of men and 20 percent of women ages 60–69 reported masturbation; among both, the principal correlate was frequency of sexual desire (DeLamater and Moorman, forthcoming).

Sexual fantasy refers to sexual thoughts or images that alter a person’s emotions or physiological state. Most men and women, including gays and lesbians, report having sexual fantasies; men are more likely to fantasize about sexual activity, whereas women fantasize about playing a role in sexual interaction (Leitenberg and Henning 1995). Sexual fantasy may enhance one’s sense of attractiveness, provide opportunities for rehearsing sexual scripts, increase sexual arousal, and facilitate orgasm.

Dyadic Relationships

Casual Relationships

Two kinds of casual relationships are common: casual dating relationships and casual sexual relationships. Casual dating commonly begins in adolescence. The precursor to dating is generally mixed-gender group friendships that form in preadolescence. These are followed developmentally by group dating, then by dyadic (or couple) dating, and finally by cohabitation and/or marriage. As teens move from mixed-gender friendship to group dating to couple dating, their levels of intimacy, commitment, emotional maturity, and sexual experience tend to increase (Connolly et al. 2004; Gallmeier, Knox, and Zusman 2002). Friendship networks often play important and varied roles in the dating process (Harper et al. 2004; Kuttler and La Greca 2004). In general, adolescent dating does not lead to long-term committed relationships but rather allows adolescents to develop and practice intimacy and communication skills for later relationships.

There is evidence that the context of teen sexual behavior shifted in the 1990s to relationships as opposed to casual sexual contexts (Risman and Schwartz 2002). Most adult sexual behavior occurs in the context of marriage (Hyde and DeLamater 2006). Thus, casual sex is most commonly the province of young adults ages 19–25. There is good reason to believe that practices such as “hooking up” have now become normative in college settings. Young adults, however, do not seem entirely comfortable with these practices. Lambert, Kahn, and Apple (2003) report that college women and men were less comfortable with many casual sexual behaviors than they thought their same-sex friends were, and that women and men both believed that members of the opposite sex were more comfortable with such behaviors than they really were. Lambert et al. conclude that “it is likely that most students believe others engage in these hooking-up behaviors primarily because they enjoy doing so, while they see themselves engaging in these behaviors primarily due to peer pressure” (p. 132). In their article on sexual compliance (which is agreeing to have sex with someone when it is not genuinely desired), Impett and Peplau (2003) offer another explanation for why women may engage in casual sex, namely, “to increase the probability of a long-term commitment from their sexual partners” (p. 97).

Committed Relationships

Many adolescents and adults form close or intimate relationships with others, relationships characterized by affective, cognitive, and physical closeness. Intimacy often grows out of self-disclosure by each person, creating a sense of a unique relationship. Many people believe that it is appropriate for two people who are committed to each other or “in love” to engage in sexual intimacy. Beliefs about the appropriateness of sexual activity with particular kinds of persons reflect social norms that are embedded in the groups one belongs to and enforced by friends and family. The norms in most societies include homogamy in sexual relationships, that is, that the partner be of similar age, race/ethnicity, religion, and social status. A common pattern among adolescents and adults in some societies is serial monogamy, in which people engage in a series of intimate relationships, often being faithful while in a relationship. For some people, this is a stage in development as the person moves from more casual relationships to a committed, long-term or lifelong relationship. According to the NHSLS, among married persons, ages 20–29, in the United States, 40 percent of the men and 28 percent of the women had two or more sexual partners prior to marriage (Laumann et al. 1994).

Cohabitation refers to an unmarried (heterosexual) couple living together (whether or not they share only one residence). These relationships represent commitment, because the couple is making a public declaration of their sexual relationship. In some developed countries, cohabitation is an alternative to marriage. In the United States, in 2000, 5 percent of all households were composed of unmarried partners; 90 percent of these involved a heterosexual couple, 5 percent involved two men, and 5 percent involved two women (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2005). One-third of heterosexual cohabiting relationships last less than one year. Sixty percent lead to marriage; these marriages are more likely to end in divorce than marriages not preceded by cohabitation (Smith 2003).

Marriage refers to a relationship between two people based on a religious or legal compact. The compact confers recognition and certain rights on partners in an intimate sexual relationship. For centuries, most societies have had established procedures for and recognized marriages involving one man and one woman. Some societies now provide for and recognize marital relationships involving two men or two women, including Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain. In the United States, a few states allow such marriages as of 2006. At least 90 percent of the men and women in almost every country in the world marry (United Nations 2000), with men generally marrying at older ages than women. Marriage is the social relationship within which sexual expression has the most (in some countries the only) legitimacy. The frequency of and specific practices that make up sexual expression reflect social norms. In the United States, the frequency of vaginal intercourse within marriage ranges from twice a week among couples ages 18–29 to twice a month among couples ages 60–69 (Smith 2003). It is likely that a similar decline occurs in most societies. The frequency of sexual intercourse in a long-term relationship reflects both biological (changes associated with aging, illness) and social (habituation to partner, quality of the relationship) factors. There is wide variation in frequency, with some young couples who never engage in intercourse and some older couples who engage in it several times per week. Other forms of sexual expression also occur in marriage, including oral-genital sexuality, anal intercourse, and bondage and discipline. Couples also report the use of sex toys and erotic materials.

Extramarital sexual activity is reported by 25 percent of married men and 15 percent of married women (Laumann et al. 1994). Typically, the spouse is unaware of such activity. Many men and women will engage in this activity only once while they are married, although others engage in it throughout their marriages. The incidence varies by ethnicity; 27 percent of blacks report extramarital sexual activity compared with 14 percent of whites (Smith 2003). Hispanics report the same incidence as whites (Laumann et al. 1994). Several reasons have been suggested for extramarital relationships, including perceived inequity (Sprecher 1998), dissatisfaction with marital sexual relationships, dissatisfaction with or conflict within the marriage, and placing greater emphasis on personal growth and pleasure than fidelity (Lawson 1988). Recent research has broadened the study of “cheating” by looking at couples who are cohabiting or in a committed relationship and inquiring about involvement with a third person. One study of such extradyadic relations, with a sample of 349 persons ages 17–70 (48 percent married), found that 28 percent of men and 29 percent of women had cheated on a current partner (Hicks and Leitenberg 2001).

Nondyadic Sexual Relationships

Polyamory is emotional and sexual involvement with more than one person at a time, with the informed consent of all parties. Relationships can be centered around a primary relationship between two people (one or both of whom have secondary relationships), they can be hinged (where one person has equal relationships with two or more other persons but the others do not have relationships with each other), or they can be group relationships (where three or more people are all involved with one another equally). Additionally, they can be open, which means that relationship partners are free to take on additional lovers, or closed, which means members are restricted to established relationships. Sometimes two of the people in a polyamorous arrangement are legally married. Polyamorous people may live with none, one, or more than one of their relationship partners. The main distinguishing features are more than one sexual partner (distinguishing it from monogamy), an emotional connection to all partners (distinguishing it from swinging and other casual sexual arrangements), and complete honesty with all partners (distinguishing it from cheating). Polyamory is also characterized by nonpossessiveness, acceptance of varied sexual practices and identities, and high levels of gender equality. These characteristics distinguish it from the more traditional and historically rooted practice of polygamy (Wikipedia 2005). For many practitioners, polyamory is not simply a type of relationship but a philosophical way of life. This is especially true of people in open polyamorous relationships (Ramey 1975).

Although there are no precise estimates of incidence, there are some indications that polyamory may be practiced by a sizeable minority. According to a survey by Blumstein and Schwartz (1983), 15 percent of married couples and 28 percent of cohabiting (heterosexual) couples had “an understanding that allows non-monogamy under some circumstances” (p. 585). Of course, it is not known which of these “understandings” are truly polyamorous, as opposed to an allowance for occasional one-night stands, for example. There has been very little scholarly attention given to polyamory. While the instability of the monogamous nuclear family has been widely discussed, cohabitation and not polyamory has emerged as a common relationship alternative. Additionally, polyamory has not leveraged the same degree of political visibility as homosexuality. Those studies that have been performed were conducted in the 1980s (e.g., Rubin and Adams 1986). Thus, we have no accurate sense of how many people practice polyamory currently, how their practices are conducted and perceived, or whether there are significant differences in couple stability, happiness, and other characteristics of sexual relationships or personal development.

Sexuality Through the Life Course

In this section, we will outline the process of sexual development that occurs across a person’s life. This process is abiopsychosocialone,influencedbybiologicalmaturation/ aging, progression through socially defined stages, and by the person’s relationships with others.

Childhood (Birth–7 Years)

The capacity for sexual response is present from birth. Male infants have erections, and vaginal lubrication has been found in female infants in the 24 hours after birth (Masters, Johnson, and Kolodny 1982). Infants have been observed fondling their genitals; the rhythmic manipulation associated with adult masturbation appears at ages 21/2 to 3 (Martinson 1994). In the United States, children between the ages of 3 and 7 show a marked increase in sexuality. They form a conception of marriage or longterm relationships and of adult roles. They learn that there are genital differences between males and females (Goldman and Goldman 1982) and may show interest in the genitals of others. Children may engage in heterosexual play, for example, “playing doctor.” Although there is little impact of childhood sex play on sexual adjustment at ages 17 and 18 (Okami, Olmstead, and Abramson 1997), in response to such play, parents may teach children not to touch the bodies of others, or their own genitals, and may restrict conversation about sex. This leads many children to rely on their peers for sexual information.

The quality of relationships with parents is very important to the child’s capacity for sexual and emotional relationships later in life. Early childhood is also the period during which each child forms a gender identity, a sense of maleness or femaleness, and begins to be socialized according to the gender-role norms of the society (Bussey and Bandura 1999). Such gender identities eventually become vital components of adolescent and adult sexuality.

Preadolescence (8–12 Years)

In many societies, children at this age have a homosocial organization, that is, the social division of males and females into separate groups (Thorne 1993). One result is that sexual exploration and learning at this stage is likely to involve persons of the same sex. In some societies, this separation continues throughout life. During this period, more children gain experience with masturbation. About 40 percent of the women and 38 percent of the men in a sample of U.S. college students recall masturbating before puberty (Bancroft, Herbenik, and Reynolds 2003). U.S. adolescents report that their first experience of sexual attraction occurred at ages 10–12 (Rosario et al. 1996), with the first experience of sexual fantasies occurring several months to one year later. Group dating and heterosexual parties may emerge at the end of this period.

Adolescence (13–19 Years)

The biological changes associated with puberty lead to a surge of sexual interest. These changes begin as early as age 10 and as late as age 14, and include increases in levels of sex hormones, which may produce sexual attractions and fantasies. In the United States, many males begin masturbating between ages 13 and 15; the onset is more gradual among women (Bancroft et al. 2003). Bodily changes during puberty include physical growth, growth in genitals and girls’ breasts, and development of facial and pubic hair, and they signal to the youth and to others that she or he is becoming sexually mature.

Several psychosocial developmental tasks face adolescents. One is developing a stable identity. Gender identity is a very important aspect of identity; in later adolescence, the young person may emerge with a stable, self-confident sense of manhood or womanhood, or alternatively may be in conflict about gender roles. A sexual identity also emerges—a sense that one is bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual—and a sense of one’s attractiveness to others. An important influence is the cultural norms regarding gender roles and sexual identities. Another task in adolescence is learning how to manage physical and emotional intimacy in relationships with others (Collins and Sroufe 1999). In the United States, youth ages 10–15 most frequently name the mass media, including movies, TV, magazines, and music, as their source of information about sex and intimacy. Smaller percentages name parents, peers, sexuality education programs, and professionals as sources (Kaiser Family Foundation 1997). Youth learn different relationship and sexual scripts depending on which are most influential.

While biological changes, especially increases in testosterone, create the possibility of adult sexual interactions, social factors interact with them, either facilitating or inhibiting sexual expression (Udry 1988). Permissive attitudes regarding sexual behavior are associated with increased masturbation and the onset of partnered sexual activity, whereas restrictive attitudes and participation in religious institutions are associated with lower levels of sexual activity.

Toward the middle and the end of adolescence in the United States, more young people engage in heterosexual intercourse. Women are engaging in sexual intercourse for the first time at younger ages compared with young women 35 years ago (Trussel and Vaughn 1991). In the United States, patterns of premarital intercourse vary by ethnic group. African Americans have intercourse for the first time, on average, at 15.7 years, whites at 16.6 years, Hispanics at 17 years, and Asian American men at 18.1 years. Among blacks and Hispanics, men begin having intercourse at younger ages than women (Upchurch et al. 1998). These variations reflect differences in family structure, church attendance, and socioeconomic opportunities in the larger society (Day 1992). It is likely that similar differences are characteristic of other developed, multiracial societies.

Changing rates of premarital intercourse are associated with two long-term trends in Western societies. First, the age of menarche has been falling steadily since the beginning of the twentieth century. The average age is 12.5 years for African Americans and 12.7 years for whites (Hofferth 1990). Second, the age of first marriage has been rising. In the United States, in 1960, first marriages occurred at (median) age 20.3 for women and 22.8 for men; in 2003, it was 25.3 years for women and 27.1 years for men (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2004). The effect is a substantial lengthening of the time between biological readiness and marriage; that gap is typically 12–15 years today. Thus, many more young adults are having sex before they get married than in the 1960s. In the United States, many sexually active teenage persons do not use contraception, which led to a corresponding rise in pregnancy rates among single adolescents from 1970 to 1991. However, from 1991 to 1999, the rate of teen pregnancy declined by 25 percent.

This recent decline in teenage pregnancy rates reflects increased attention to the importance of pregnancy prevention, increased access to birth control, and increased economic opportunities for teenagers (Ventura et al. 2001). However, there may be other factors in this decline as well. Examining teen sexual behavior trends more closely, Risman and Schwartz (2002) emphasize the steadily decreasing percentages of sexually active teens throughout the 1990s, as documented by reliable and well-sampled studies. They hypothesize that as cultural norms for female sexuality have changed to allow and even expect premarital sexual activity, patterns of teen sexual behavior have shifted—first sexual intercourse now happens most often within the context of nonmarital relationships. Given evidence that women are more responsible regarding risks of disease and pregnancy (Risman and Schwartz 2002), girls’greater control of sexual intercourse would certainly help account for trends of decreasing teen pregnancy.

In the United States, 10 percent of adolescent males report having sexual experiences with someone of the same gender, compared with 6 percent of adolescent females (Bancroft et al. 2003). These adolescents usually report that their first experience was with another adolescent. In some cases, the person has only one or a few such experiences and the behavior is discontinued.


Our discussion of forms of sexual expression identified several sexual lifestyle options that are available to adults. One task in this life stage is learning to communicate effectively with partners in intimate relationships. A second task is developing the ability to make informed decisions about reproduction and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

A significant challenge facing adults, particularly those who have chosen to enter long-term dyadic relationships, is the changes most will eventually experience. These changes may result from developing greater understanding of self or partner, changes in the nature and content of communication, accidents or illnesses that alter one’s sexual responsiveness, or major stressors associated with family or career roles. Again, we see the combined effects of biological, psychological, and social influences on sexuality.

The dissolution of a long-term relationship is a major life stage transition, and persons who experience it, especially women, face complex problems of adjustment. These problems may include reduced income, lower standard of living, the demands of single parenthood, and reduced availability of social support (Amato 2001). These problems may increase the motivation to reestablish a relationship, though at the same time making it difficult to do so.

Persons who lose their partner through divorce or death have the option of new sexual relationships. In the United States, most divorced women, but fewer widows, develop an active sexual life; 28 percent of divorced women and 81 percent of the widowed report being sexually abstinent in the preceding year (Smith 2003). By gender, 46 percent of divorced and widowed men and 58 percent of divorced and widowed women reported engaging in sexual intercourse a few times or not at all in the preceding year (Laumann et al. 1994). There is a higher probability of being sexually active postmaritally for those who are under 35 and have no children at home (Stack and Gundlach 1992). Men and women with low incomes report relatively higher rates of partner acquisition after dissolution of a cohabiting or marital relationship (Wade and DeLamater 2002).

Sexuality and Aging

Biology, a major influence in childhood and adolescence, again becomes a significant influence on sexuality at midlife (ages 50–60). In women, menopause is associated with a decline in the production of estrogen, beginning between the ages of 40 and 60. The decline in estrogen causes the vaginal walls to become thin and inelastic, and the vagina itself to shrink in width and length. By five years after menopause, the amount of vaginal lubrication often decreases noticeably. These changes make penile insertion more difficult and vaginal intercourse uncomfortable or even painful. There are a number of ways to deal with these changes, including estrogen replacement therapy, supplemental testosterone, and use of a sterile lubricant.

As men age, they experience andropause (Lamberts, van den Beld, and van der Lely 1997), a gradual decline in the production of testosterone; this may begin as early as age 40. Erections occur more slowly. The refractory period, the period following orgasm during which the man cannot be sexually aroused, lengthens. These changes may be experienced as a problem; on the other hand, they may be experienced as giving the man greater control over orgasm.

In addition to such biological changes, an important influence on sexuality is the attitudes held by others and derived from the culture, particularly those attitudes that define specific behaviors as acceptable or unacceptable. This is especially evident with regard to older persons. In the United States, there is a negative attitude toward sexual expression among the elderly. It seems inappropriate for two 75-year-old people to engage in sexual intimacy, and especially to masturbate. These attitudes are quite obvious in residential-care facilities where rules prohibit or staff members frown upon sexual activity among the residents. These attitudes affect the way the elderly are treated and the attitudes of the elderly themselves and may, in fact, be a more important reason why many elderly are not sexually active than the biological changes they experience. In the United States, analysis of survey data from a representative sample of more than 1,300 persons ages 45 and older found that negative attitudes toward sex for older persons was associated with reduced sexual desire (DeLamater and Sill 2005). Another major influence on sexual behavior is the presence of a healthy partner. As persons age, they may lose the partner through death; in some cultures, including the United States, women in heterosexual relationships are much more likely to experience this than men.

The Effects of Social Group Membership on Sexuality

Sexuality varies as a function of individual experience and is influenced by cultural norms. However, it is also influenced by membership in certain social categories. In the United States, sexual behavior and attitudes vary systematically by gender, social class, ethnicity, and religion.


Throughout this research paper, we have noted research that has documented the variations in sexual expression by gender in the United States. Women are more likely to report little or no sexual activity in the preceding year. Fewer women than men report masturbating in the past year or the past month. Women are less approving of and less likely to report sexual activity with casual partners. Men in some racial/ethnic groups report engaging in intercourse for the first time at younger ages than women. Following the loss of a partner, especially to death, women are less likely to resume sexual activity. Several explanations for these differences have been offered. One emphasizes the role of cultural factors, particularly differing norms for male and female sexual behavior, often referred to as the double standard. Some cultural groups are more accepting of sexual behavior and sexual exploration by men than by women. There may be several reasons, including the fact that women carry pregnancies and give birth, and that society (men) wants to control women’s sexuality to ensure paternity of any children. Another explanation relies on the concept of sexual scripts. The traditional sexual script specifies the male as the initiator of sexual activity and the female as the object of male advances; thus, males engage in more sexual activity. Additionally, women tend to place more importance on the interpersonal as opposed to sexual aspect of relationships, which has been offered as an explanation for research showing women to be less permissive regarding premarital and extramarital sex but more tolerant of homosexuality than men (Treas 2002).

Recent trends, however, suggest that traditional norms of female sexuality are changing. People of both sexes, especially those who are younger and more educated, are becoming more accepting of premarital sex for women (Treas 2002). A review of 30 studies found that the double standard still exists but is influenced by situational and interpersonal factors, and that it differs across ethnic and cultural groups (Crawford and Popp 2003). According to Risman and Schwartz (2002), American college women find premarital sex equally acceptable for men and women in the context of relationships and equally unacceptable for both sexes outside of relationships.

Social Class

Using education as the measure of class, research in the United States reports differences in sexuality by class (Laumann et al. 1994). Education is positively related to both frequency of masturbation and frequency of orgasm from masturbation, among both men and women. Education is also positively associated with whether persons engage in active and receptive oral sex; men and women with advanced degrees are much more likely to have engaged in both than men and women who did not finish high school. There is a weaker relationship between education and participation in anal intercourse. Thus, greater education is associated with greater variety of sexual practices. It is also associated with greater acceptance of varieties of sexual behavior in others, although the gap between those with less education and those with more has declined between 1972 and 1998, due to a decline in disapproval for minority sexual practices among the less educated (Treas 2002).


In the United States, as in many other societies, race/ethnicity is associated with social class. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups disproportionately are found among the poorer and less-educated members of society. Variations in sexual behavior across these groups are the result of differing cultural heritages, as well as differences in current economic and social conditions. Thus, it is difficult to clearly attribute the source of observed differences.

African Americans

Black men and women are much less likely to report masturbation in the past year compared with members of other groups. They are also less likely to report having engaged in active oral sex. These may reflect differences in religious traditions. Black men and women are twice as likely as whites to remain single at ages 30–34. This reflects, in part, the gender ratio among African Americans; there are only 84 men for every 100 women. It also reflects the obstacles that black men encounter in seeking and keeping employment that provides enough income to support a family. Finally, blacks are twice as likely as whites to report two sexual partners in the preceding year, which may reflect the larger percent who are single.

Interesting data on differences in sexual expression by race/ethnicity are reported from the Chicago Health and Social Life Survey (CHSLS) (Laumann et al. 2004). Using a combination of sample surveys, key informant interviews, and ethnographic data, a nuanced analysis is provided of four neighborhoods. Southtown is an African American neighborhood with high unemployment; onefifth of the households are below the poverty line; the churches are the social center of the community. Residents have relatively nonpermissive attitudes toward homosexuality and abortion but are relatively accepting of premarital sex, cohabitation, and divorce. There is a high incidence of multipartnering; almost half report two or more sexual partners in the last year and 40 percent of the men report having two partners concurrently.


In the United States, Latino is used to refer to persons from several cultural backgrounds, including Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans.

Despite many differences, these groups have a distinct cultural heritage, heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic religious tradition. Latino culture is relatively conservative sexually. The CHSLS provides an analysis of the (primarily Mexican American) Westside neighborhood in Chicago in which residents were found to have very strict attitudes about sexuality, and there was strong social disapproval of premarital sex and homosexuality. Few (14 percent) residents had had more than one partner in the past year; and more than half had never had a one-night stand (Laumann et al. 2004). Also, in traditional Latin American cultures, rigidly defined gender roles are emphasized in childhood socialization (Raffaelli and Ontai 2004).

Asian Americans

This category includes several different cultural groups, such as Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, and newcomers such as Vietnamese Americans. In general, Asian cultures have had repressive attitudes toward sexuality. Core Asian values include collectivism, placing priority on family over individual, conformity to norms, and emotional control. As a result, Asian Americans are sexually conservative. They have the lowest incidence of multiple sexual partners and of same-gender sexual experience.


Religious affiliation and religiosity are correlated with sexual practices and attitudes. Research findings have shown that the primary influence on maintenance of female virginity is religious and moral values (Marsiglio, Scanzoni, and Broad 2000; Rostosky et al. 2004). Using General Social Survey data from 1972 to 1998, Treas (2002) found that more frequent attendance at religious services predicts the likelihood of condemning homosexual behaviors. There have been few studies examining the relationship between religiosity and sexual practices other than intercourse, the interactions between religiosity and romantic involvement in sexual behavior, and the effects of religiosity on racial minorities and men (Rostosky et al. 2004).

Media and Sexuality

The potential for media to affect socialization is well supported by many theoretical frameworks. Social learning theory is premised on the idea that people learn appropriate behavior based on whether behavior is rewarded or punished and recognizes the importance of observational learning. Scripting theory implies that “young people can easily learn scripts through watching television that establish when it is appropriate to have sex with someone or what outcomes one can expect from sexual encounters” (Farrar et al. 2003:9). Media influence people via cultivation, whereby people come to believe that media depictions are accurate representations of culture (Gerbner, Gross, and Morgan 2002), and agenda setting, the ability of media to shape what people see as important based on what they choose to depict and how they depict it.

Influences of media as a source of information have been documented. In a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation (1997), youth ages 10–15 most frequently named mass media as an information source about sexuality. Farrar et al. (2003) claim that “in the realm of sexual socialization, television is thought to contribute to young people’s knowledge about sexual relationships, their judgments about social norms regarding sexual activity, and their attitudes about sexual behavior, among other influences” (p. 7). This statement has been supported by multiple studies (Farrar et al. 2003). Interest in what young people may be learning from the media is the motivation for content analysis, which is used to form a clearer picture of what messages are actually being presented by the mass media. Broad analyses of content are particularly important in realms like media where “influences on social beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors generally [occur] through a gradual and cumulative process that develops with repeated exposure over time to common and consistent messages” (p. 9).


Analyses of sexual content in television are quite remarkable for the similarity in findings across different researchers and different genres. All television content analyses identify trends of increasing numbers of sexual behaviors and references (while references continue to be more common than behavior), increasing explicitness in sexual behaviors and references, and very few references to sexual risk or responsibility.

In 2000, Nielsen Media Research confirmed that prime time (8–11 p.m.) attracts the largest audience of any time of day. Seventeen of the 20 shows most frequently viewed by adolescents in 2000 were broadcast during prime-time hours (Farrar et al. 2003). The Parents Television Council (2000) found a 300 percent increase in the number and explicitness of sexual portrayals during prime time between 1989 and 1999. Farrar et al. (2003) found statistically significant increases in both percentage of programs including sexual behavior, and the average number of scenes per hour containing sexual behavior between 1997 and 2001. They also found that only 9 percent of shows with sexual content incorporated any messages of risk or responsibility. Twelve percent of all instances of sexual intercourse during prime time happen between characters who have just met—a risky sexual practice. Other studies have confirmed the significant lack of messages regarding the more dangerous aspects of sex like unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (Hyde and DeLamater 2006).

Analyses of television content outside prime-time hours have included studies of soap operas, cable movie networks, and music videos. Again, the messages are consistent. Greenberg and Busselle (1996) found that the most frequent sexual activity depicted in soap operas was sex between unmarried people, that soap operas contained an average of 6.6 sexual interludes per episode (in 1994), and that sexual safety was mentioned infrequently. Fisher et al. (2004) found that cable movie networks have the highest proportion of programs with sexual content, and that the most frequent portrayals are unmarried heterosexual intercourse. They also found that cable movie network programs often contained intercourse coupled with alcohol and drug use. Summarizing two decades of research on sex in music videos, Andsager and Roe (2003) found that sexual innuendo was very common (though explicit sex was not), that women were presented in revealing clothing or positions of implied nudity five to seven times more frequently than men, that women tended to be portrayed as subordinate sexual objects in traditionally female roles, and that even when women were portrayed as powerful and independent (which was rare), they were still generally highly sexualized.

Other Research

Many of the same trends seen in television have been found in analyses of other media. Greenberg and Busselle (1996) found that R-rated movies contain an average of 17.5 depictions of sexual behavior per hour, and that these depictions are significantly more explicit than sex during prime time. Analyses performed by Soley and Kurzbard (1986) and Reichert (2002) show trends of increasing proportions of advertisements with sexual content, increasing nudity and partial nudity in this sexual content (especially for women), and increasing explicitness in depictions of sexual behavior in advertisements across multiple mediums. Magazines are also responsible for a great deal of exposure to sexual content. One central theme of women’s magazines is appearance, as it relates to the acquisition of sexual partners (Hyde and DeLamater 2006). A study of two globally top-selling women’s magazines found that sex is the primary content (McCleneghan 2003). A closer look at Cosmopolitan showed that sex is portrayed as the source of female power in relationships as well as the workplace (Machin and Thornborrow 2003). And in one of the few sociological studies addressing effects, Thomsen, Weber, and Brown (2002) found correlations between adolescent females’ reading of women’s magazines and their practice of certain pathological dieting techniques. In the recent decades, comparable men’s lifestyle magazines have emerged, garnering a readership rivaling that of their female counterparts (Jackson et al. 1999). Analyses of men’s lifestyle magazines have showed an overall trend of depicting a narrow male sexuality oriented toward sexual variety (Taylor 2005).

The Internet

The role of media in sexuality is not limited to purveyor of messages about sexuality. While “Personals” sections in newspapers have long been a means for people to actively use media to find relationship and sexual partners, the emergence of the Internet has truly normalized media use in the search for sex and love. As Internet use becomes more and more integrated into people’s daily lives, one would expect its use to find partners to continue increasing as well. Social scientists have generated a number of hypotheses about the potential effects of Internet dating services. Like Tyler (2004), who refers to the use of personal advertisements and dating services as “the rational pursuit of the self as an entrepreneurial project” (p. 86), some are critical of this new phenomenon. However, others are excited about the possibilities of Internet use in dating by helping people with compatible (and sometimes atypical) interests, lifestyles, relationship desires, and sexual practices find one another. There has also been hope that online matching would encourage “deeper” interpersonal connections based on ideas, feelings, and other fundamental aspects of individual character by mitigating the role of appearance, although the realization of this hope must be questioned with the proliferation of pictures on dating sites.

While dating relationships are one forum for sexuality that has been affected by computers, sex outside the confines of a relationship (i.e., casual sex) has also been significantly affected. Internet chat rooms and message boards have provided a new (and immediate) way for those interested in casual sex to locate one another. The Internet has also created the practice of cybersex. These uses of the Internet in facilitating sexual communication and interaction, however, are more controversial than dating services. In a sample of 10- to 17-year-old Internet users, Finkelhor et al. (2000) found that about 20 percent had been sexually solicited over the Internet in the past year. The Internet has also been shown to be one way people establish and maintain extramarital sexual relationships (Hyde and DeLamater 2006).


A discussion of the role of media in sexuality cannot responsibly omit the highly charged and controversial topic of pornography. The majority of research that has been done on the effects of pornography use is experimental as opposed to survey based, probably owing both to the suitability of experiments for exploring causality and the lack of reliable and representative data on pornography use. Thus, sociological inquiry has focused on the content of pornographic material. With the recent proliferation of Internet and computer use, sociologists are examining the role of changing media technologies in patterns of pornography access and use. The Internet is important because it offers the greatest (and often least expensive) access to pornography.

Acknowledging the increase of widely available pornographic media over the decades, Barron and Kimmel (2000) conducted an analysis comparing the content of magazine, video, and Internet (specifically Internet newsgroup, or Usenet) pornography, finding a highly significant and large increase in violent content on the Usenet compared with magazines and videos. They found that more than a quarter of Usenet scenes contained coercive or nonconsensual sex (compared to less than 5 percent for both magazines and videos). In Usenet scenes, men were disproportionately the perpetrators of violence and women the victims. Although this pattern was also seen in videos (though not magazines), unlike both videos and magazines, where the vast majority of violence occurred in the context of consensual relationships, the violence on the Usenet was primarily nonconsensual or coercive.

Focusing on the content of rape-themed Internet pornography, Gossett and Byrne (2002) found the most common theme to be graphic depictions of pain inflicted by anonymous men on exposed, powerless, and usually innocent women. This contrasts with other forms of media, they claim, where both the “rape myth” (where women enjoy being raped) and the depiction of promiscuous women who “deserve” what they get are common.

Additionally, they explore the medium itself, positing that the interactive features of many rape sites (which offer a choice of the race of the woman to be raped and the location of the rape act, among others) add a sense of control for the user that has not been present in other mediums. Finally, Gossett and Byrne (2002) discuss how the unprecedented access to such sites, as well as the prevalent practice of violent sites providing links to other violent sites, makes the relatively small proportion of violent pornography to nonviolent pornography on the Internet potentially meaningless.

The ease of access to pornographic materials that the Internet has made possible is provocative. Barak et al. (1999) found that the only correlate to men’s use of sexually explicit Internet sites was their past experience with sexually explicit media, so ease of access may be encouraging greater use, both in terms of frequency and numbers of users. Furthermore, Mitchell, Finkelhor, and Wolak (2003) found that 25 percent of youth ages 10–17 had experienced unwanted exposure to pornography online. Although they identified risk factors associated with unwanted exposure, a full 45 percent of those exposed had no risk factors.

The Future

In predicting the future, we hope to see a continuation of several recent trends. First, the need exists for more research involving quantitative and qualitative methods. This combination holds the promise of illuminating the broad picture with generalizable results while capturing the detailed experience of the phenomenon being studied. Second, a greater proportion of the published research relying on representative instead of convenience, volunteer samples will enhance the quality of the findings. In particular, researchers should abandon their reliance on samples of college students. Technological developments and the availability of census and other geographical data make it possible to locate concentrations of people by age, race, ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation. Third, we hope a greater integration of theory and research will develop. This may require the development of more midrange theories focusing on specific phenomena, such as sexual desire or sexual orientation and testing propositions drawn from such theories. Finally, the need exists to further develop and test biopsychosocial theoretical models of human sexual expression (Lindau et al. 2003).

As for new directions, there is some indication that advances in genetics, which allow the incorporation of genetic alleles as explanatory variables in otherwise traditionally sociological models, may encourage some researchers to pursue biosocial research methods. Additionally, we hope to see advances in methodologies for studying the effects of the Internet on sexuality.

There is, however, cause for concern about the future of such research. Since 2001, opposition to sex research has increased, as evidenced by the targeting of four federally funded projects in 2002 and the “hit list” compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition (DeLamater 2005). It is possible that an increasing hostility will lead to fewer resources for research on human sexuality. Given that several pressing social problems involve sexual expression and that sexual health is the right of every person (WAS 2005), this would be a step backward.


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