Human sexuality is the expression of sexual sensation and related intimacy between human beings. Psychologically, sexuality is the means to express the fullness of love between a man and a woman. Biologically, it is the means through which a child is conceived and the lineage is passed on to the next generation. Sexuality involves the body, mind, and spirit; therefore, this article regards sexuality holistically and does not separate out the physiological mechanics of the reproductive system.
There are a great many forms of human sexuality, comprising a broad range of behaviors, and sexual expression varies across cultures and historical periods. Yet the basic principles of human sexuality are universal and integral to what it means to be human. Sex is related to the very purpose of human existence: love, procreation, and family. Sexuality has social ramifications; therefore most societies set limits, through social norms and taboos, moral and religious guidelines, and legal constraints on what is permissible sexual behavior.
Sex is intrinsically a moral act. The world's major religions concur in viewing sexual intimacy as proper only within marriage; otherwise it can be destructive to human flourishing. The Fall of Man in Genesis, the story of Helen of Troy in the Iliad, and accounts of the decline of the Roman Empire brought on by decadent sexual mores are examples of how traditional wisdom has viewed the wrong use of sex as a cause of human downfall.
People may experiment with a range of sexual activities during their lives, though they tend to engage in only a few of these regularly. However, most societies have defined some sexual activities as inappropriate (wrong person, wrong activity, wrong place, wrong time, and so forth). The most widespread sexual norm historically, and the norm promoted nearly universally by the world's religions, is that sex is appropriate only within marriage. Accompanying this norm is the widespread belief that sex acts are devalued when engaged in outside of the marriage bed. However, extramarital sexual activity and casual sex have become increasingly accepted in modern society as a result of the sexual revolution.
The rationale for traditional moral strictures on sexuality, in general, is that a sexual activity can express committed love or be a meaningless casual event for recreational purposes. Yet sexual encounters are not merely a physical activity like enjoying good food. Sex involves the partners in their totality, touching their minds and hearts as well as their bodies. Therefore, sexual relations have lasting impact on the psyche. Sexuality is a powerful force that can do tremendous good or terrible harm; therefore it carries with it moral responsibility.
Sex and religion
Traditional religions often restricted and denigrated sex. Medieval Catholicism taught that sex was dirty and impure, lifting up the Virgin Mary as the ideal of womanhood and encouraging true believers to live celibate lives as priests and nuns.
Following Augustine, who created a strict divide between the spiritual and the carnal, traditional Roman Catholic doctrine understood the purpose of sex as procreation, nothing more. (The church's continuing ban on birth control, on the rationale that it separates sex from its natural procreative function, is a remnant of this view.) In Buddhism, only monks could live a holy life and attain the highest enlightenment; this required above all abstaining from sex and denying all desires of the senses.
Judaism and Islam, on the other hand, reject celibacy and regard marriage as the natural state. These religions traditionally encouraged believers to have a healthy sex life within marriage. Thus the Qur'an teaches:
Among His signs is that He created spouses for you among yourselves that you may console yourselves with them. He has planted affection and mercy between you (S 30.21).
The Protestant Reformation led Christians to re-appropriate the goodness of married sex. Today's Protestants have been joined by post-Vatican II progressive Catholics in promoting the belief that sex is a gift of God, to express love between husband and wife and increase the health and satisfaction of marriage:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Genesis 2.24).
Let your fountain be blessed and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth… May her breasts satisfy you always (Proverbs 5:18–19).
According to the Jewish mystical teachings of the Kabbala, the time of sexual intercourse is a moment of great holiness, when the Shekhinah (the Holy Spirit) descends to the couple and showers them with blessings. In line with the holiness of the conjugal union, Hasidic couples customarily reserve the evening of the Sabbath as the time for sexual intercourse.
Sex outside of marriage is a different matter. The major religions condemn extramarital sex as sinful. Even sexual attraction to anyone who is not one’s spouse is condemnable:
You shall not commit adultery (Deuteronomy 5:18).
Neither fornicate, for whosoever does that shall meet the price of sin—doubled shall be the chastisement for him on the Resurrection Day (Qur’an, S 25.68–69).
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28).
Religions embody the centuries-old traditional wisdom that adultery has been the downfall of good men and women throughout history. Sexual misconduct is somehow connected to the Original Sin, when Adam and Eve yielded to temptation in the Garden of Eden and afterwards covered their lower parts (Genesis 3:7). To overcome this problem, religions call for self-control, and especially the mastery of sexual desire, as the foundation for personal maturity, ethical relations with others, and a right relationship with God.
The Sexual Revolution
The sexual revolution that burst on the American scene in the 1960s has promoted an alternative sexual ethic, asserting that recreational sex is a healthy activity. It condemned Victorian mores that limited sex to the marriage bed as restrictive of personal freedom, and asserted that sex between consenting partners is a positive value for promoting intimacy and affection.
Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine became the chief popularizer of this new ethic, and its "Playboy philosophy" has shaped the sexual attitudes of several generations. Playboy trumpeted the life of bachelor pleasures where women are sex objects to be enjoyed, as opposed to responsible and unselfish partnerships with women, thus rationalizing the worldview of adolescent boys.
Several currents came together in the 1960s to turn America's sexual mores upside-down. First was the technology of birth control. The birth control pill was perfected, for the first time giving women the freedom to engage in sexual relations without fear of pregnancy. Women traditionally acted to restrain men's sexual proclivities, since they had borne the consequences of sex in pregnancy and motherhood. Now that constraint was lifted.
Feminism also changed female attitudes towards sex. Feminists beginning with Simone de Beauvoir decried women's subservience to men. They exposed the Victorian double standard that permitted men to indulge their appetites with multiple lovers but expected women to be monogamous. They attacked the long-standing misogynist tradition that regarded women as property—hence any bride who was not a virgin was stigmatized as "damaged goods"—and which denied that women should even expect to achieve sexual satisfaction. To counter this injustice, feminists declared that women should be able to have sex on equal terms with men, to claim their right to sexual pleasure, and even beat men in their own game of sexual domination. From this point of view, a woman's efforts in the sexual sphere could be an expression of a liberated consciousness.
The popularity of psychoanalysis and the works of Sigmund Freud also contributed to a questioning of traditional sexual mores. Many of Freud's patients were afflicted by neuroses and psychosomatic ailments with no medical cause. He determined the cause to be sexual repression from early childhood, which was buried deep in the unconscious, the so-called Oedipus complex. As the child becomes aware of his genitals, he develops a sexual attraction to his mother, which he represses as he grows into adulthood. Freud then developed the theory of the ego, superego, and id, which pitted private, unacceptable, sexual desires against the constraints of society and the demands of civilization. Accordingly, it is not just a few neurotic people who suffer from the Oedipus complex, but it is a universal feature of the human condition. Psychoanalysis sought to free patients from the guilt stemming from these repressed desires. Although Freud regarded the strictures of religion and culture as a positive civilizing influence, not a few popularizers took the view that people should be able to enjoy sex free from guilt.
The publication of renowned anthropologist and student of Franz Boas, Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa brought the sexual revolution to the public scene, as her thought concerning sexual freedom pervaded academia. Published in 1928, Mead's ethnography focused on the psychosexual development of adolescent children on the island of Samoa in French Polynesia. She recorded that the sexual freedom experienced by the adolescents actually permitted them an easy transition from childhood to adulthood. Mead called for a change in suppression of sexuality in America and her work directly resulted in the advancement of the sexual revolution.
At the same time, the Kinsey Report (1948) promoted the idea that sexual infidelity and homosexuality were far more common than people had suspected. Kinsey also reportedly asserted that human beings need frequent sexual outlets—whether heterosexual, homosexual, or masturbatory the context was irrelevant—or they will suffer from psychological problems. As a result, people began to question their moral reservations about sex outside of marriage, believing they were missing out on pleasures others were enjoying and even that they might be damaging their psychological well-being. The Kinsey Report continues to generate fierce debate over the reliability of its findings, and some have accused it of biased methods and unrepresentative samples. Nevertheless, it has had profound impact on attitudes towards sex.
The sexual revolution burst on to the college campus scene in the 1960s, where it became part and parcel of youth rebellion against authority, political protest against the Vietnam War, the drug culture, rock and roll music, the feminist movement, and critique of conventional religion that denied the body. Herbert Marcuse, the guiding light of the New Left, taught in his book Eros and Civilization that by liberating people to enjoy their sexuality freely, it could help tear down the structures of capitalist oppression and build a new society of transformed people who would no longer wish to make their partner an object of domination (in marriage).
Such was the heady idealism of the original sexual revolution. Although the idealism and passions have long since cooled, the change it brought to America's sexual mores has remained a permanent legacy—for better or for worse.
Sexual function within marriage
In the context of a happy marriage, lovemaking is entirely healthy and ethical, expressing and reinforcing the profound moral commitment between spouses who are sharing their lives together. Sex is a deep encounter of heart and body. It is both instinctual and transcendent, mundane yet miraculous. Sex symbolizes the couple's desire for oneness, as neither the heart nor the genitals can find fulfillment without the beloved. Therefore, sex finds its deepest satisfaction within the discipline of marriage.
Sex within marriage fulfills several important roles:
- Sex strengthens the bond between husband and wife in all aspects of their lives;
- Sex expresses love and affection and fosters emotional intimacy;
- Sex reinforces the exclusivity of the relationship;
- Sex symbolizes mutual submission and dedication to the higher purpose of the marriage;
- Sex helps heal conflicts and mend rifts;
- Sex reduces anxiety and releases tension;
- Sex leads to children who are wanted and treasured by both parents.
Marriage promotes sexual fidelity, and thus reinforces the security and binding power of the couple's sexuality. Studies have found that approximately 85 to 90 percent of married women and around 75 to 80 percent of married men in the United States are sexually monogamous throughout their marriages.
The sexual act is fraught with responsibility to the children it may create. Restricting sexuality to marriage creates the most secure foundation for the care of children. Since human beings spend a lifetime rearing their children, the nature of the parental bond impacts the next generation to a greater extent than it does in the majority of animal species. The monogamous bond of husband and wife provides a unique relationship that supports the resulting family. Two parents united in the common goal of parenting their children can ensure that their lineage is secure, healthy, and prosperous. When parents are not monogamous, the family structure is less clear, and the children experience a variety of adults with varying degrees of commitment to their future. Research is unequivocal that children raised by cohabiting or single adults do not fare as well as those raised by parents who maintain sexual fidelity.
Good lovemaking depends mainly upon the spouses' attitude and on the quality of their relationship. People cannot easily control the physical aspect of sex, but they can and should work on improving the relational context within which lovemaking takes place. A good context for lovemaking requires trust, security, care, acceptance, honest communication, friendship, playful curiosity, and openness to learn.
|Several times a week
|Once a week
|Once a month
Seasons of the sex life
The nature of a couple's sex life changes over time; it goes through "seasons" like the seasons of the year—spring, summer, fall, and winter.
- The honeymoon period: During the first few years of marriage, sex is full of excitement. The couple is infatuated with one another and feels so closely bonded that they are not aware of the differences between them.
- When two people fall in love and engage in a sexual relationship, they begin to include their partners in their concepts of themselves. People feel like they acquire new capabilities because they have the support of close partners. "I might not be able to handle parenthood by myself, but with the help of my partner's good parenting skills, I'll be a good parent." This overlap of the concepts of self and partner has been called "self-expansion."
- After the honeymoon is over: People generally experience a high level of self-expansion at the beginning of relationships when they constantly learn new things about themselves and their partners. However, as the relationship matures, the rate of self-expansion slows, and people experience a relative decline in satisfaction. After two to three years of marriage all kinds of differences begin to surface, including different sexual preferences. The spouses are less willing to overlook these differences and must negotiate a shared sex style. Sexual satisfaction is also eroded by the arguments and conflict that inevitably crop up in marriage. Couples who deal poorly with arguments and conflicts build up a history of negative emotional interactions that can negatively affect their sex life. (This is when unmarried cohabiting couples often split up.) On the other hand, those who succeed in dealing with conflict, through mutual support and good communication, develop deep trust and closeness in their relationship. Such relationships result in greater satisfaction and long-lasting happiness that is qualitatively different from the excitement of the early stages of a relationship.
- After the first child is born: The birth of a child brings a marked reduction in the mother's sexual desire. She is typically exhausted from caring for the child and feels her husband's demand for sex to be selfish. The father in turn feels neglected and left out of the intense bonding that is occurring between mother and child. During this phase, which may last as long as there are young children to care for, the couple may need to schedule time for sex.
- Middle and senior years: As the man gets older and can no longer come to arousal autonomously, he may need his wife's help. Meanwhile, the wife may enjoy sex more since the children are gone and menopause has increased her testosterone. These years are marked by increased companionship, and cooperation extends to the sexual act.
Challenges to sexual satisfaction
Among happy couples, good sex is seen as only one element of a good marriage. An unsatisfying sex life, however, is most often the number one complaint in an unhappy marriage. For this reason, it is incumbent upon couples to work on their sex lives to make sex an asset to marital harmony and not a source of marital discord.
Common challenges to sexual satisfaction in marriage include:
- Simmering tensions: These can damage the couple's sense of connection. They may use the bedroom as a battlefield, either to act out their aggression or to withhold favors.
- Unrealistic expectations: The man may think that he is supposed to always be ready and able to perform well, while the woman may have higher expectations for pleasure than her man can deliver. When they fall short, the couple becomes frustrated, thinking that "everyone else" is having better sex, when in fact these unrealistic expectations come largely from media hype in a hypersexed era.
- Boredom: This comes from couples who stick to a fixed routine, with a narrow repertoire of sex and touching, who lack imagination, and are not playful about trying new things to stimulate their partner.
- Pornography: This can cause all sorts of distortions in the viewer's expectations of his or her partner that can damage their sex life. The viewer of pornography may be eager to try all sorts of kinky practices that his partner may not want. Porn stars are always aroused, leading the viewer to have a self-centered view of sex that does not include the effort required to please his partner—who has her own needs. Masturbating in front of pornography can drain the libido so the viewer is no longer interested in sex with his spouse.
- Fears about performance: Men can be anxious about achieving or maintaining arousal or fear that they may come to climax prematurely. Women may be worried that they are not achieving orgasm. This is exacerbated when there is poor communication between the partners; for instance, when the man thinks he is supposed to know what to do and cannot receive suggestions well because he takes it as a sign of inadequacy. In good sex, both partners are receptive to learning from the other and asking each other's help.
- Inhibitions: These can include shame about the body or guilt about having pleasure, as when one partner dislikes messiness or thinks that she is not supposed to enjoy sex too much. This can sometimes be caused by deep-seated religious beliefs.
- Setting preconditions for sex: One spouse may set unrealistic demands, using sex as a stick to force changes in the other's behavior. It would be better for both spouses to be tolerant of each other and willing to have sex even when there are unresolved issues.
- Different levels of desire: It is quite common for the partners to have different natural levels of sex drive, yet it is the number one complaint among couples seeking marital counseling. Desire naturally ebbs and flows, but at different times for the husband and wife. Reduced desire can be caused by the pressures of parenting and job, by bad health and hormonal changes. The positions can switch, as when a senior man loses interest just as his wife, who is over her menopause, is warming up. Thirty percent of women and 15 percent of men have low libido.
To deal with this problem, the partners need to avoid accusing the other of being a "cold fish" or a "sex maniac," and instead find ways to empathize with each other and support each other. The spouse with lower desire can make efforts to accommodate the other's greater level of passion while looking for ways to raise his or her own libido. He or she may find that starting the motions of sex even though he or she has no desire for it can spark a flame. Many happily married wives say they are not in the mood when they start but they enjoy it later.
The spouse with higher desire should not take his or her spouse's disinterest personally. He or she can learn to be an expert at stimulating his or her spouse to become aroused, and when that does not work, to redirect his or her sexual energy to non-genital sensual pastimes. He or she should learn to be direct in asking for sex, and at the same time he or she should be able to turn off the pressure if his or her partner refuses.
In sum, good sex is possible when each partner has self-mastery and understands their own arousal; when each takes responsibility to keep a positive and loving attitude towards the other; when each helps the other through good communication, a giving attitude, and being at expert in what the spouse likes; and when the couple develops many diverse ways to express affection.
Stages on the way to sexual arousal
Arousal prior to sexual intercourse
Males and females exhibit different patterns of sexual arousal. In a dating situation, typically the man feels a physical attraction towards the woman and wants to touch and kiss. The woman tends to want to connect emotionally rather than physically; she may feel a sentimental longing for her partner and other intense feelings.
At a certain point of greater intimacy, the positions will be exchanged. The woman will now feel the desire for physical touch on top of her emotional feelings while the male will experience the more emotional longing along with the physical. Both will progress to a more overtly sexual desire if they allow their relationship to progress.
Walking and talking together leads to holding hands. A simple kiss progresses to prolonged kissing and petting. Long spells of embracing and kissing will likely bring on strong arousal in the male. Once arousal reaches this point, it is extremely difficult to stop. Touching the private areas of the body will cause strong arousal in the female. Involvement of the sexual organs directly will prompt intense impulses to actually engage in sexual intercourse.
Sexual desire presents a profound challenge of the mind to overcome the body. Males are chiefly tempted by sexual desire to disregard a young woman’s heart and to focus on her body as an object of pleasure. Females may be tempted to use sex as a way to hold on to a male as an object of security. It is said that men tend to regard love as the way to get sex and women tend to use sex as the way to get love.
In any case, increasing the time spent together between two members of the opposite sex will almost always invite the emergence of sexual attraction and sexual feelings. Couples may pass through the stages of sexual arousal quickly or over a long period of time, according to the partners’ decisions. This is why prudent couples do not give themselves the opportunity to be alone together before they are ready for sex. They recognize the signs of stimulation and take a step backwards.
Changes after consummation
The consummation of sexual intercourse irrevocably changes the nature of the relationship. If the couple is married, sexual intercourse is a confirmation and celebration of their mutual love and commitment.
Complete conjugal love includes four elements: compatibility, intimacy, commitment, and passion. Compatibility—shared interests, values, and goals—is the objective foundation for a relationship. Commitment is volitional—the decision to care, to be faithful, to persevere through hard times. Intimacy is the feeling of closeness and connectedness. Passion at its best supports and celebrates the other three elements, leading to a high degree of satisfaction. When one or more of these elements are lacking, sexual passion may accentuate the sense of incompleteness in the relationship.
For instance, romantic love includes intimacy and passion but no commitment. This is a common experience during youth. The pair is caught up in the experience of physical arousal and feelings of closeness, but lack the readiness or maturity to commit to sharing their lives together. Infatuation has passion only, an entrancing sexual attraction with neither intimacy nor commitment. This is “love at first sight” and is characterized by preoccupation with the other person, extreme ups and downs of feelings, and an intense longing to be with the object of desire. In both cases, compatibility may be thin or nonexistent.
Commitment is generally signified by marriage or plans to marry. Where there is no commitment, intercourse will usually have negative consequences for the relationship, especially if it occurs early on. Sexual involvement can create a false sense of intimacy that can easily replace real communication and other activities that foster authentic intimacy. It focuses both partners on the physical, which lends itself to mutual or one-sided exploitation. The often subtle escalation of selfishness that physical intimacy brings, increases jealousy and possessiveness. Often one partner can sense something is wrong and want to stop the sexual intimacy or even the relationship, but this is difficult. Sexual relations imply an obligation, and the relationship may begin to feel like a trap. Guilt, fear of pregnancy or disease, shame before one’s conscience or parents, can generate an undercurrent of tension that gnaws at the relationship.
Mastery of sexual desire
Sexual attraction is fueled by a person's hormones and the scent of pheromones emitted by the partner. Once the progression of arousal reaches a certain point it is next to impossible to stop. This is why it is wise for couples who seek to cultivate an authentic relationship to set boundaries limiting physical intimacy to prevent sexual arousal. If these are clear from the outset, both companions can feel freer to enjoy each other’s company. Boundaries keep the relationship honest and help avoid embarrassing situations where one must stop the other’s advances, or possibly one’s own.
Sex outside of marriage
Severing of the link between sex and marriage comes at the expense of traditional norms of marriage and family. Yet, today, some ethicists regard sex is a morally appropriate activity as long as there is some degree of love and affection. They would classify as immoral only sex that is "loveless" or "meaningless."
Outside of marriage, people have sex for many reasons, not all including love:
- For recreation, with no commitment intended;
- Expressing passionate feelings of liking someone, feelings that are of the moment with no commitment intended;
- Expressing love and intimacy and commitment to a relationship, but keeping open the possibility of ending it in the future;
- In exchange for material benefits;
- To produce a child, in an arrangement where one or both parents is not obligated to be its parent.
The Sexual Revolution legitimated promiscuity, which is rampant in today's youth culture of "hook-ups," whereby people get together for sex with no expectation of a romantic relationship. More common is the practice of "serial monogamy": a series of exclusive relationships characterized by intimacy and romance that last for some time. Nevertheless, the term "serial monogamy" is more often more descriptive than prescriptive, in that those involved did not plan to have subsequent relationships while involved in each monogamous partnership.
Consequences of uncommitted sex
Mutual consent and emotional connection legitimate sexual liaisons where the commitment of marriage is absent. Sex in such relationships can seem to function in the same way as sex in marriage: expressing affection, bonding the partners, adding sparkle to their relationship and helping it to feel special. Unfortunately, it can also bring about practically the exact opposite of what sex does in marriage. It can highlight an underlying sense of emotional insecurity, introduce and aggravate conflicts, and increase stress and anxiety. These effects may be subtle at first, but they take their toll. The aftermath to a broken romance or a series of casual "hook-ups" can lead to years of regret:
That sick, used feeling of having given a precious part of myself…to so many and for nothing, still aches. I never imagined I'd pay so dearly and for so long.
Such experiences are all too common. People who choose to practice casual sex are likely to face health issues, experience psychological harm, have more difficulties in subsequent relationships with others, and cause spiritual damage to their eternal soul:
- The chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), including HIV/AIDS, increase with the number of partners one has. Thus, monogamy is a safer option.
- Pregnancy is a potential (often intended) consequence of sexual activity. It is a common outcome even when birth control is used. For a young woman not involved in a committed relationship, the months of pregnancy, childbirth, and rearing of a child can interrupt her education and derail her dreams for a promising career, leaving her with the prospect of years of struggle as a single mother. She may choose to have an abortion, but that carries health risks and can leave psychological scars.
- Casual sex can be a corrupting influence. It is no secret that people will lie and cheat to get sex. In one group of 75 middle-class 19-year-old male students, 65 percent admitted getting a young woman drunk to have sex, more than 40 percent had used verbal intimidation, and 20 percent had used force or threats of violence. In a study of University of California students, a quarter of men who were sexually involved with more than one person at a time said that their partners did not know. When people treat others as sex objects to be exploited, they end up debasing themselves.
- Regret, guilt, and shame are the common aftermath of uncommitted sex. Several surveys suggest that half of sexually experienced students report "tremendous guilt" as part of the aftermath. Some causes for shame include, for a woman: giving herself to an unworthy relationship, violating her parents' trust, a ruined reputation, and loss of self-worth. A man might feel guilt over having discarded a partner and witnessing her heartbreak: "I finally got the girl into bed…but then she started saying she loved me…. When I finally dumped her, I felt pretty low."
- Loss of self-respect is a common outcome of non-marital sex with multiple partners. Whether sex is a matter of making conquests or negotiating favors, using another or being used, it comes at the cost of feeling valued as a person who is uniquely loved. When sexual utility is the criterion for attention, there is always the underlying anxiety that someone else will perform better or look more attractive.
- Sexual addiction is a pattern of behavior when people use sex as an easy escape from the challenges and responsibilities of life. Sex is a powerful distraction away from the important tasks that adolescents need to complete on the way to personal maturity and gaining career skills, and can thus hinder personal growth.
- Sex can damage relationships in several ways. When a friendship becomes sexual it changes, sometimes derailing a warm and caring relationship that could have been a good basis for marriage. On the other hand, a sexual relationship can trap people who otherwise would not care for each other. Sexual expectations can consume all the energy in a relationship, interfering with communication and the development of other shared interests that could sustain the relationship and help it grow.
- Breaking up from a romantic relationship where sex is involved can result in depression and precipitate an emotional crisis. In extreme cases it can lead to self-destructive behavior or to violent rage against the former partner and his or her new lover. A sexual betrayal can create lasting issues of trust that can make it very difficult to enter into or sustain subsequent relationships.
- The memory of former sexual partners can haunt a marriage and make it more difficult for the married couple to cultivate an exclusive bond. The habit of indulging sexual feelings before marriage makes it more difficult to resist the temptation to indulge in an adulterous affair that could wreck the marriage.
Social and cultural aspects
Human sexual behavior is typically influenced, or heavily affected by, norms from the culture. There are both explicit and implicit rules governing sexual expression. Examples of the former are prohibitions of extramarital sexual intercourse or homosexual acts in societies where traditional religion still holds sway.
Traditionally, marriage marked the norm defining what culturally permissible sex is. As this norm was disregarded, it was replaced by the age of consent. Thus, three out of four Americans frown on teenagers having sex before marriage, yet more than half believe it generally beneficial for adults to do it. Parents and teachers now give the message that sex is not for children. However, young people can see the hypocrisy as adults practice a sexual norm that permits unmarried sex as long as the partners were consenting; furthermore, adults, including even advocates of character education, have had great difficulty advocating a stand on sex for children that they were reluctant to practice themselves. Example is the strongest teacher, and children tend to copy their parents' behavior. Living with a single parent is the strongest predictor of teenage promiscuity. Furthermore, for the many children who are the victims of sexual abuse, their first sexual experience is with adults. One study indicates that a majority of pregnant adolescent girls (66 percent) began their sexual activity as the result of being raped or abused by men 27 years old on average. Without the norm of marriage, all the lines become blurred. Indeed, today's pervasive culture of sex outside of marriage construes virginity as deviant behavior.
This raises the issue of media influence. Movies and advertising are saturated with sexuality, shaping the environments in which people live. Sexuality in the media is often expressed in advertising messages, where it is distilled into stereotypes and used to sell products. Critics claim that the media too often glamorizes adolescent sexuality and promiscuous lifestyles, and creates unrealistic expectations about romantic love; and that these stereotypes impact people's love life in negative ways.
Implicit rules governing sexual expression have to do with cultural expectations such as dress, colors, and behaviors. Most traditional cultures frown on public expressions of sexuality, especially in comparison with the liberal West. For example, actor Richard Gere was arrested in India in 2007 for violating obscenity laws after he embraced and kissed an actress in public. Gere apologized and claimed it was "a naive misread of Indian customs." Western woman's dress reveals too much for conservative Islamic society, which has led to a resurgence of the veil, the burqah, and other traditional dress. Cultural conflicts over permissible sexual expression are an important subtext in the current "clash of civilizations."
There is no absolute borderline between the sexual and nonsexual enjoyment of touching, hand-holding, kissing, or embracing. Short of genital intercourse, there is a wide range of other behaviors that may or may not be socially, legally, or ethically considered as sexual relations. For example, in Asia it is common to see men holding hands as an expression of non-sexual friendship, but in America male hand-holding would be interpreted as signifying a homosexual relationship.
Sometimes a society's norms and cultural expectations do not reflect the sexual inclinations of certain individuals. Those who wish to express a dissident sexuality have to form sub-cultures within the main culture where they feel free to express their sexuality with like-minded partners (or in the case of monastics, in celibate groups).
Some people engage in various sexual activities as a business transaction. When this involves having sex with, or performing certain sexual acts for, another person, it is called prostitution. Other aspects of the "adult industry" include pornography on the Internet or films, telephone sex, strip clubs, exotic dancers, and the like. Most societies view these activities as disreputable and attempt to control or prohibit them, at least as regards children. Some of these activities have been shown to have negative effects on marriage, and they can fall under similar moral strictures as other extramarital sex.
Autoeroticism is sexual activity that does not involve another person as partner; it may involve masturbation or use of certain paraphernalia. Wet dreams and waking sexual fantasies are also autoerotic. Masturbation in adolescence is normally harmless, but should it become compulsive it can stunt the development of mature sexuality. In adulthood, these behaviors can promote escapism and avoidance of the challenge inherent in building loving relationships; they can also detract from healthy sexual expression.
Homosexuality is defined as romantic and erotic orientation towards one's own sex. It encompasses thoughts, desires and fantasies, and overt sexual behavior. The causes of homosexuality are subject of considerable controversy, and may be the complex result of many factors. Statistical data of the U.S. population, collected from over 3,000 Americans in 1992 by the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), indicates that 1.4 percent of females and 2.8 percent of males are active homosexuals. (The Kinsey Reports erroneously reported the percentage of homosexual men at 10 percent due to sampling errors.)
Same-sex attraction can be a powerful force that neither religious teachings nor will-power can defeat. Some who have chosen to pursue a heterosexual lifestyle despite experiencing homosexual desire have succeeded with the support of specialized therapies.
Medical issues in sexual activity
A variety of psychological and physiological circumstances can impair human sexual function. These manifestations can be in the form of libido diminution or performance limitations. Both males and females can suffer from libido reduction, which can have roots in stress, loss of intimacy, distraction, or derive from medical conditions.
Performance limitations may most often affect the male in the form of erectile dysfunction (ED). Biological causes of ED may derive from the pathology of cardiovascular disease, which can reduce penile blood flow along with supply of blood to various parts of the body. Environmental stressors such as prolonged exposure to elevated sound levels or over-illumination can also induce cardiovascular changes especially if exposure is chronic.
Sexually transmitted diseases
Sexual behavior can be a dangerous disease vector. Sexual behaviors that involve exchange of bodily fluids with another person entail some risk of transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). These include HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, genital herpes, and human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer.
Wearing condoms, so-called "safe sex," offers some protection from many STDs. However a condom is ineffective against many common infections, such as genital herpes, human papilloma virus, and gonorrhea, which can be transmitted through contact with the skin around the genitals outside the condom's latex barrier. Moreover, condoms have a 13 to 27 percent failure rate, and many people in the heat of passion neglect to use them. Even among "consistent" adult condom users, the rate of failure to prevent transmission of deadly HIV ranges from 10 to 30 percent, according to five different studies. Asking one's partner whether they have an STD is also not reliable protection, as people with AIDS and other serious STDs may lie to their partners—25 percent did so according to one California study.
The odds of contracting a sexually transmitted disease increase with the number of sexual partners. Each sexual partner may also have a history of sex with a number of other partners from whom he or she might have contracted an infection, thus multiplying the risk. Therefore, reducing the number of sexual partners, ideally to a single monogamous relationship for life, is the best protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
Dangerous sexual practices
Some sexual fetishes are dangerous. Partners who practice partial asphyxiation or sadomasochistic bondage to heighten sexual pleasure run the risk of injury and even death. Auto-asphyxiation as part of autoerotic sex is even more dangerous, because there is no partner to rescue the person if he or she goes too far.
Abusive sexuality and sex crimes
Nearly all civilized societies consider it a serious crime to force someone to engage in sexual behavior or to engage in sexual behavior with someone who does not consent. This is called sexual assault, and if sexual penetration occurs it is called rape, the most serious kind of sexual assault.
Child sexual abuse, which can be classified as incest when the abuser is a close relative, is the most serious form of rape. It has traumatic effects on the child that can cause a lifetime of psychological and emotional pain. Yet particularly when the abuser is a parent or close relative, the crime is rarely reported.
Precisely what constitutes effective consent is established as a matter of law, which recognizes that children should be protected from the sexual activity appropriate to adults. Hence the law may set a minimum age at which a person can consent to have sex—the age of consent—and criminalize sex with an underage child, even when he or she is a willing participant, as statutory rape. The aim of age of consent law is to protect children from the emotional damage that results from sexual activity during their immaturity.
Sexual harassment occurs in a workplace or school environment where a person in a position of authority makes sexual advances on a subordinate. The coercive element is the implicit threat that the subordinate might be penalized for not complying with these advances. Sexual harassment can also occur when co-workers mock and deride a new employee with sexual language.
Another form of abuse is the use of sexual language to demean women. While this has been a traditional pastime among men in private settings, in recent years, hip hop artists and radio talk-show hosts have used coarse and demeaning language on the public airwaves, denigrating women as sex objects and denying them their inherent dignity.
Criminal non-consensual and consensual sexual behavior
Other forms of abusive sexuality that are prohibited in many places include indecent and harassing phone calls, and non-consensual exhibitionism (indecent exposure) and voyeurism.
Certain consensual sexual actions or activities that are permitted (or not criminalized) in some societies may be viewed as crimes (often of a serious nature) in other societies. The clearest example of this is homosexuality. Laws prohibiting same-gender sexuality are called sodomy laws. These have varied widely, from providing legal protection to homosexuals to the point of marriage in some countries, through to obtaining the death penalty in others. Other sexual behaviors that are illicit in various jurisdictions include polygamy, adultery, public nudity (streaking), fetishes such as transvestitism, and the manufacture and sale of pornography.
Prostitution and pimping are illicit in most countries. While soliciting and obtaining the services of a prostitute may be consensual, the situation of the women caught up in prostitution is often exploitative and coercive to the point of slavery. Indeed, human trafficking in sex slaves, involving millions of human beings, mainly children, is the major form of slavery today.
- Andrew Wilson, ed., World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts (New York: Paragon House, 1991 ISBN 0892261293), 175.
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- Alfred Charles Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (W.B. Saunders, 1948 ISBN 0721654452).
- Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1974 ISBN 0807015555).
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- Josh McDowell and Dick Day, Why Wait: What You Need to Know about the Teen Sexuality Crisis (Thomas Nelson, 1994 ISBN 0840742827), 268–269.
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- Gavin Rabinowitz, Gere Apologizes in Kissing Controversy, Associated Press, April 27, 2007.0 Retrieved April 30, 2007.
- Edward Laumann, Robert T. Michael, and Gina Kolata, Sex in America, (Warner Books, 1995, ISBN 0446671835).
- Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994, ISBN 978-0226470207).
- Richard Cohen, Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality, 2nd ed. (Winchester, VA: Oakhill Press, 2006 ISBN 1886939772).
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ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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All links retrieved January 19, 2018.
- The Medical Institute for Sexual Health
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