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Sexual Behavior, Social Control of



The twentieth century witnessed an explosion of knowledge about the physiology, psychology, and sociology of human sexuality, thanks to the revolution in public acceptability of discourse about sexual conduct and the freeing of scholarly interest that followed the trailblazing works published in the late Victorian era by Richard von Krafft–Ebing (1939[1886]), Havelock Ellis (1901), and Sigmund Freud (1955a[1895], 1955b [1905]). However, controversy still rages over the basic issue of how sexual behavior is molded, encouraged, and discouraged by social customs and practices. Are males naturally more aggressive in seeking sexual contact than females, or is this a product of social patriarchy? Is homosexuality caused primarily by biological factors, or is it largely caused by social experiences during formative stages of the child's development? Is cultural permissiveness responsible for the dramatic increase in reports of sexual harassment and abuse, or are changing mores encouraging victims to name parents, doctors, and priests who were in the past able to hide their misconduct under a cloak of respectability?

The answers to these questions are not only empirical, they are also ethical and political. Allegedly scientific beliefs about the naturalness of certain sexual acts often reflect unacknowledged cultural biases, and thoughts and theories affect the behavior they label, characterize, and implicitly valorize or demean. As feminists and historians such as Michel Foucault (1990) have pointed out, the neutral scientific language of medicine is no guarantor of the moral innocuousness of theories about gender and sexual behavior; to the contrary, claims of scientific objectivity about these topics are apt to be all the more dangerous morally for pretending to be value-free.

Theories of sexual behavior cannot avoid assumptions about power and domination that too frequently perpetuate injustices. Thus, sexologist Alfred Kinsey's claim that males are naturally more aggressive in initiating sex (Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin) is not merely the objective scientific statement it purports to be, but a statement that supports the power of men over women in society. Anyone who is concerned about power and justice needs continually to scrutinize and critique so-called scientific claims about human sexuality by attending to how they perpetuate social stereotypes that are not universal and, by assigning more value to the experiences of certain people (e.g., white heterosexual males), help to empower some and disempower others. One would expect social ethicists to be sensitized to these issues, but the most influential recent theorists of justice (e.g., John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, Michael Walzer) scarcely even mention gender justice, much less consider sexual roles a central matter for ethical scrutiny (see Susan Okin's 1989 work). One reason for this neglect is the traditional public/private dichotomy that assigns sexual behavior to a private arena outside the concerns of the social theorist. Employment of this dichotomy in the past to keep cases of domestic rape and child abuse out of American courts, on the grounds that they occur within a zone of privacy protected from public scrutiny, shows that it is scarcely an ethically neutral matter for a social scientist to point out how individuals' sexual lives are influenced by a social ethos that makes such distinctions.

Essentialism and Constructionism

Theories about human sexual behavior in its social context range along a continuum stretching from essentialism (or naturalism) on the one hand to social construction theory on the other.

Essentialism attributes certain sexual and gender behaviors to the unchanging nature of the human species. According to this perspective, what is natural is good; what is social is artificial and tends to be bad insofar as it inhibits realization of the proper natural end of sexual conduct, be it erotic pleasure or procreation. Thomistic natural-law theory is explicitly essentialist in identifying procreation as the natural end of human sexuality, but modern sexologists assume essentialism in contending that a wide variety of pleasurable erotic acts are no less natural than heterosexual intercourse. Kinsey, for example, uses an essentialist argument when he draws on the sexual behavior of other mammals, "primitive" cultures, and human physiological capacities to contend that masturbation and homosexual acts are natural expressions of sexuality and, hence, irrationally condemned and punished by society. Kinsey also employs essentialist arguments, citing mammalian data, in support of such dubious contentions as that male extramarital coitus is more natural than female extramarital coitus (Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin et al.; Irvine). American sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson assume essentialism in viewing sex exclusively in terms of physiological responses unencumbered by social and psychological factors. It is not an issue for Masters and Johnson that the socialization of Western women has discouraged female sexuality; rather the woman's naturally superior sexual responsiveness to the male, as evidenced by her capacity for multiple orgasms, is what counts for them (Irvine). What is missing in the sexologist's essentialist view of culture as an impediment is any acknowledgement of the multiple ways cultures give meaning to sexual behaviors and structure sexual and gender relationships beyond physiological responses.

According to social constructionists, sexual behavior and gender roles are products of a specific history, culture, and set of social institutions. French social scientist Émile Durkheim succinctly expressed the constructionist emphasis on the primacy of culture over biology when he argued, at the end of the nineteenth century, that if an adolescent did not have cultural concepts to identify sexual desires, he or she might feel a vague urge but not know what it was, much less how to act on it (Durkheim; Wallwork, 1972, 1984). A second main feature of the social constructionist approach involves situating sexual role behavior within the prevailing economic and political system, with its male-dominated hierarchies of status and power. The constructionist perspective encourages exploration of the ways in which widespread cultural beliefs about sexual behavior (and the research projects they inspire) serve to perpetuate a patriarchal vision of human nature, social institutions, gender, and sex roles. Constructionists note with concern that the focus in research has more often than not been on the male sexual experience; Masters and Johnson's research, for example, limits sexuality to genitally-oriented orgasm (Masters and Johnson). Feminist critics Alice Rossi (1973) and Leonore Tiefer (1978) complain that research focusing on genital physiology as the standard of sexual involvement evidences a "phallic fallacy" that implicitly devalues the pregenital or nongenital sexual experiences of women, such as the emotionally intense erotic feelings associated with looking at the beloved or anticipating a reunion with him or her.

The obvious strength of social constructionist theory is that it is able to account for the considerable diversity of sexual behavior and the meanings associated with such behavior cross-culturally, and to link these meanings to other role relationships. The power of society to mold human sexuality is evident in how nonerotic body parts—for example, crushed feet among the Chinese of a former era, the naked foot and even shoes in medieval Europe, and hair—have been eroticized by different peoples at different times (Stoller). The power of social custom is also obvious when one contrasts the negative conception of homosexuality in the Judeo-Christian West with its positive evaluation among Melanesian societies and certain African tribes. Among the Sambia in the New Guinea highlands, boys from prepuberty to their mid-teens are expected to engage in oral-genital sexuality with the older teenage males with whom they live as a prerequisite to becoming heterosexual adult males (Herdt and Stoller). Because Sambians believe semen is essential for males to grow and mature physically, the ingestion of semen is deemed essential to becoming an adult heterosexual male and to fathering children.

Even within the same society, there are fads and fashions of sexual behavior. For instance, since the 1960s there has been a dramatic increase in oral-genital behavior in the United States (Janus and Janus; Walsh). Among contemporary males in the West, premature ejaculation is defined as a dysfunction for which medical treatment is often sought; but in many developing countries males are expected to reach orgasms quickly (in fifteen to twenty seconds in the East Bay society in Melanesia, for example) and those who take a "long time" are ridiculed (Reiss).

But it would be a mistake to assume from the considerable evidence for the importance of the elaborate cultural ideas, stimulants, and norms that surround the biologically limited range of sexual behaviors of which the human body is capable that social constructionists are winning the battle with essentialists. In fact, the nature–nurture pendulum, which swung back and forth several times in the twentieth century, was swinging back again toward the nature pole as the century ended. During the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, biological explanations have been on the ascendancy in many scientific circles. Sociobiologists challenge the constructionist assumption that most sexual behavior is determined by culture, arguing instead that certain basic mammalian and primate traits that lie beneath the social surface determine the configuration of human sexual behavior (Wilson). At the same time, the biologizing of psychology is well underway, as physiological models and research strategies are held to offer the best route to understanding traditional subjects of psychological inquiry such as mental illness and sexual orientation.

Interactionist Model

The most plausible position on the essentialismconstructionism debate would appear to be that the biological factors in sexual desire, such as genes and hormones, do not act alone but instead interact with environmental factors, such as visual or auditory erotic stimuli, the significance of which depends in turn upon the individual's subjective erotic sensitivities, identities, fantasies, cognitive schemata, and behavioral patterns. These subjective factors, which lead some people to be excited by depictions of sadomasochistic acts and others not, are themselves influenced by the way a unique individual with certain inherited strengths and vulnerabilities interacts with significant others and specific sociocultural environments during the various psychosexual, ego-social, and cognitive stages of development. Biological factors certainly play a role; for example, testosterone appears to influence the intensity of sexual desire. But biological factors do not invariably cause sexual motives or behavior, for testosterone is itself highly responsive to environmental stimuli. Nurture, psychological development, subjective fantasies and beliefs, erotic stimuli, moral and aesthetic standards, social roles and expectations, and ego strengths and weaknesses all mold the range of the individual's sexual potentialities in certain directions rather than others. This molding is clear from the inability of biologists and sociobiologists, who study determinants that have operated within the species for thousands of years, to explain changes in sexual customs within a single generation or variations in sexual customs that occur in the same gender cross-culturally. Unfortunately, researchers have not yet developed a theoretical model sufficiently complex and nuanced to integrate and assign proper weight to all the multiple factors, including the individual's self-control, that influence human sexual behavior. The sociological point of view adopted here, which falls at the constructivist end of the essentialism-constructionism continuum, remains one among several plausible selective perspectives on social control of sexual behavior. Others are history, anthropology, ethnography, psychoanalysis, and social psychology.

Social Control Requirements

Sexual behavior, defined broadly as any action or reaction involving erotic arousal or genital responses, is viewed by most sociologists as sufficiently problematic to require some degree of social control. One explanation often proffered for this social-control requirement, whether as controlled permission or regulated prohibition, is that at some point in the distant past human beings lost the preformed automatic sexual instincts of the lower animals—that is, the sexual control that is in nature—and came to depend upon culture and social institutions to guide the varied reproductive and nonreproductive behaviors that are considered sexual. The loss of preformed instinctual patterns of sexual behavior, by freeing human beings from the comparatively rigid behavior patterns of other animals, helped to create the great adaptability of the human species to its changing environment. It also meant, with the human female's loss of the periodic estrus of other mammals, that the human female and male were potentially capable of sex at any time. Sexual motives came to pervade virtually all aspects of human life in a way that is uniquely characteristic of the species. At the same time, because the sexual drive differs from instinctual needs like respiration, thirst, and hunger, which must be gratified for the individual organism's survival, sexual desire was modified by subtle psychological and social influences.

Social control of sexual behavior has been necessitated in all social units—from the family to the clan, tribe, local community, and state—in part by the serious threats to social stability and maintenance of group life over time created by the potential for sex on demand all the year round. One such threat is incest, which is inimical to the group's evolutionary survival as well as to the psychological well-being and functioning of those who might be victimized by it. Another serious social consequence of sex on demand is the likelihood of children, which every society has a stake in limiting, assigning to families peacefully, and raising, educating, and training to be law-abiding, productive contributors. Still another consequence of sexual behavior that has required its social control is its potential for either reinforcing or disrupting existing roles and status hierarchies by creating strong new social bonds. Any rape or seduction of young girls or boys, or any adulterous relation, is liable to spark violence or some other disruption of the existing social order.

Societies attempt to handle another crucial consequence of sexual liaisons—the transmission of family and communal property, prestige, and power—by means of legalized sexual union in marriage and the begetting of legitimate children. Any dramatic increase in the number of illegitimate children and abandoned wives strains the system of distributing limited economic resources, shifting some of the burden from the family onto the rest of the community. The perpetuation of a society's religious ideals, moral norms, and laws is also intertwined with the monitoring of sexual conduct, since the way sexual conduct is controlled is often paradigmatic of the way the society expects individuals to pursue other moral and spiritual goals (Stone). The well-known sexual asceticism of the Puritan, for instance, was only one part of a lifestyle that affected every aspect of the Puritan's life, just as the idealization of female virginity affects every aspect of the life of the traditional Southern Italian villager (Parsons).

IDEALS AND TABOOS. Social control of sexual behavior is exercised most obviously by widely shared, explicit ideals of sexual behavior that form the basis for taboos against inappropriate conduct. Taboos are backed by social punishments ranging from mild disapproval and loss of status to ostracism, imprisonment, and death. Within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the standard-of-standards has been heterosexual intercourse in the context of marriage. Accordingly, masturbation, homosexuality, and extramarital sexuality have been condemned and often severely punished. Among the Greeks during the classical period, pederasty was idealized as the purest form of love, but it was also hedged about by rigid taboos. The accepted sexual relationship was limited to an older free man and a pubescent free boy. Oral and anal intercourse were unacceptable, and if a boy allowed himself to be penetrated anally, he lost his rights to citizenship. For the Greek male, what was important was not whether one's partner was male or female, but whether one was dominant or submissive (Foucault).

SOCIAL ROLES. In addition to the values and norms shared throughout a culture, social control is also maintained by the basic institutions of society, especially the family, religion, schools, medicine, and law. An institution is defined sociologically as a stable cluster of values, norms, statuses, and roles that develop around a basic need of society. An important function of an institution is to socialize developing individuals through inculcation of social roles, which are social actions that take account of social expectations. A person's role is not simply what he or she habitually does (for this may not be socially significant), nor even what he or she is expected to do, if an expectation is only what one might predict from past actions. The role is what is expected of him or her, in the sense of what is approved or required, by, say, fashion, tradition, charismatic authority, or standards of rationality.

Gender roles, which indicate how males and females are expected to behave, significantly influence sexual behavior. In Western culture, the expectation has been that the woman is more passive and receptive, and more attuned to emotional connections, than the male, who is expected to be more aggressive, autonomous, and focused on power. Such gender roles have an effect on sexual conduct, independent of explicit sexual standards. For example, rape is strongly disapproved of in contemporary culture, yet date rape is disturbingly frequent, in part because males are socialized to dominate women in many social situations involving power. Hence, if a male's charm and powers of psychological persuasion fail in a sexual situation, coercion remains as a last resort. Here, as in most sexual acts, erotic desire is only one of several motivations that enter into the behavior. In addition, the need to maintain the male-dominant role identity and the propensity for males in Western societies to turn anger at frustration into aggression and violence are equally powerful motives.

Recently, sociologists have applied script theory to sexual behavior in order to account for the more specific patterns that enable participants to make reasonably good guesses about the sequence of events probable in an otherwise loosely structured social situation (Gagnon and Simon; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, et al.; McKinney and Sprecher). Scripts are mental schemas that enable participants to jointly structure the interaction so that uncertainty is systematically reduced and cooperation enhanced. Sexual scripts enable participants to decode novel situations by reading the meaning of certain actions and to organize the situation into sequences of specifically sexual interactions (e.g., nonverbal courtship behaviors signaling availability, like smiling, gazing, hair flipping, the "opening line," leaning close, and the proverbial invitation to see one's etchings). However, research on conflicts between the sexes in dating and marriage also shows that scripting is far from perfect, that the sexes often miscue each other or are dissatisfied in predictable ways—say, with the male's excessive sexual demands or emotional constriction, or the woman's unresponsiveness or moodiness.

HEALTH CONCERNS. Empirical beliefs—especially medically sanctioned ones—about the consequences of various sexual practices on the individual's health also play a significant role in the social control of sexual behavior. In classical Greece, for example, physicians recommended sexual moderation to prevent the excessive loss of life force in the too-frequent ejaculation of semen. In ancient China, somewhat similar beliefs about the consequences of excessive semen loss led to the cultivation of special techniques of intercourse without ejaculation in order to conserve the yang (the positive, light, masculine principle whose interaction with yin—the negative, dark, feminine principle—was believed to influence the destiny of creatures and things). And, of course, Western doctors have for centuries warned that masturbation would bring about some dreaded disease, disfigurement, or insanity. By the turn of the twenty-first century, fear of AIDS had dramatically changed sexual behavior, primarily by altering beliefs about the risks of unprotected sexual intercourse (Laumann, et al.). Viagra has altered time-honored myths about impotence, while offering hope for continuing sexual relations into old age. It is one of Foucault's main contentions that medical beliefs, precisely because they are so important to patients, provide physicians with power that historically often has been used to dominate and control unjustly (Foucault).

It is easy to be impressed by the ideals, moral rules, and prudential teachings that are set forth so impressively in explicit doctrine by leading social authorities. But these action guides are not always reinforced by other cultures or even by other institutions in the same cultural context. Complex societies are not systematic cultural ensembles, despite the beliefs of sociological functionalists like Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. Illicit sexual cultures—like red-light districts or the houses of prostitution that flourished in medieval Europe (Ariès and Bejin)—exist side by side with licit sexual cultures, counterbalancing and correcting excessive asceticism, and on some points canceling out the influence of the licit culture. A complex interrelationship often exists between these cultures, so there is often plenty of room for compromises and loopholes. Moreover, the different social-status groups and classes of the same society usually have different sexual cultures. For example, libertine elites concentrated around courts (as in ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, imperial China, India, and Japan) have surrounded themselves with a rich panoply of erotic art, pornographic literature, artificial physical stimuli, toys, and partners not encouraged among lower social ranks (Stone). Consider, too, how Roman Catholic bishops have tolerated the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests in flagrant violation of the church's explicit moral teachings (see, for example, the work of the Boston Globe Investigative Staff).

Control and Permissiveness

The so-called sexual revolution that occurred in the post–World War II epoch is sometimes viewed—erroneously—as releasing the individual from the constraining pressures of social control. But the new permissiveness is more accurately perceived as substituting new and, in some instances, somewhat different social standards, controls, and permissions for older ones. The most important contemporary cultural standards focus less on the legitimation of sex by marriage and more on the goods of sensual pleasure, intimacy, the autonomy of the parties (violated in the case of rape and harassment), and the basic equality of partners. Some salient features of the sexual revolution are the greater explicit public acknowledgment of sexuality (for example, in films, advertisements, soap operas, talk shows, and advice columns); the availability of cheap and reliable contraception, particularly birth control pills, which have for the first time in history released women from the fear of unwanted pregnancies; the increased availability of erotic stimulants(e.g., adult magazines, pornographic videos, explicit Internet sites); the rise of feminism and correlative decline in social inequality between the sexes; the increased acceptance or tolerance of sexual behaviors that were formerly disapproved, like masturbation, homosexuality, extramarital sexual affairs, and oral-genital sex; and the increase in teenage sexual conduct and at younger ages (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, et al.; Laumann and Michael). Around the turn of the twenty-first century, there also emerged a recreational ideology, which holds that the purpose of sexual activity is not procreation or even mutual affection, but physical pleasure.

Although these changes reflect a certain permissiveness, there is evidence that men and women today have higher expectations, demands, and worries about their sexual performance (McKinney and Sprecher; Janus and Janus). The liberating views of sexologists have brought in their train new demands for mutual orgasm and standards of erotic performance that not all couples are capable of realizing at all times. Anger about date rape on university campuses and sexual harassment in the workplace has given rise in the United States to explicit policies, sometimes accompanied by detailed lists of do's and don'ts, designed to make sure there is willing and verbal consent to each individual sexual act, for example, kissing, fondling of breasts, touching of genitals, intercourse. New policies, grievance procedures, and punishments are proliferating to prevent and punish sexual harassment and rape (Gross). Some professional ethics codes (for example, the new Principles and Standards of the American Psychoanalytic Association) prohibit sexual relations of any sort between professionals and clients, even in situations of mutual consent years after the professional relationship has ended, on the grounds that a misuse of professional authority is likely to have coerced the subordinate in the relationship (Dewald and Clark).

The permissiveness associated with the sexual revolution also coexists with the continuation of strong cultural constraints on frank interpersonal communication about sexual behavior that has disturbing implications for preventing unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases and for containment of the AIDS epidemic. Western society has a long history of prudishness about sexual topics that stretches back several millennia into the biblical period, when writers of the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament used euphemisms like "flesh," "loin," "thigh," "side," and "feet" (for penis), "lewdness" (for female genitals), and "one flesh" (for intercourse) in lieu of explicit sexual terms (Baab). Despite the new sexual permissiveness, and research showing that, for example, 9 percent of American school children have initiated sexual intercourse before age thirteen, that 53.1 percent of students in grades nine through twelve have had sexual intercourse, and that 17.8 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse with four or more sexual partners (Centers for Disease Control), parents continue to find it difficult to talk with their children in a knowledgeable way about sexual behavior. In a 1987 national survey, 69 percent of adult Americans viewed premarital coitus as "always wrong" for fourteen-to sixteen-year-olds (Davis and Smith). Research suggests that many adolescents perceive their parents as not very well informed about sex and as negative, rigid, and conservative in their attitudes toward sexuality (Metts and Cupach). Although adolescents tell researchers they would like to learn more about sex from their parents, their perceptions as well as the reported attitudes of many parents discourage open communication.

The difficulty parents have communicating information about sex is also found among many professionals charged with conveying information about sex to children, such as schoolteachers, clergy, and physicians. Research shows that adolescents learn most of their information about sexuality, such as petting and sexual intercourse, from same-sex peers, who are often ill-informed about contraception or the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. However, some studies indicate that some sex education programs are able to convey factual information about anatomical and physiological aspects of sexuality, and to influence understanding of the risks of sexual behaviors (Orbuch; Metts and Cupach). Unfortunately, most teenagers remain unprepared for their first sexual encounters. Much remains to be done in communicating information about how to avoid unwanted pregnancies and infection by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.

Constraints on open discussion of sexual desires and practices is one factor in the high rates of unwanted sexual contact. Research shows that young men remain reluctant to declare their desire for sexual intercourse to a new date, while young women are less than open about their reluctance. Discussion of contraceptive measures is apparently still difficult for couples who have not had coitus, despite the threat of AIDS (Reiss). The culture of sexual permissiveness is thus riddled with constraints on forthright discussion of choosing among alternative sexual options. To help counter these constraints, healthcare professions need improved educational programs on human sexuality, more training in public health, and opportunities to cultivate skills of communicating with patients as knowledgeable allies and responsible agents, not as passive recipients of authoritative information and advice.

A peculiar problem with many attempts to control sexual behavior is that the constraints and repressions designed to foster licit or safe sex often themselves contribute to the flourishing of illicit or unsafe sexual behavior, which becomes all the more alluring, exciting, and frequent precisely because it is prohibited. The firmest social controls of sexual behavior appear to be those that acknowledge the unique value of sexual desires, fantasies, and actions in human life in a spirit of tolerance toward nonharmful illicit wishes and behaviors, even as actual conduct is directed toward goals that are compatible with the best interests of the individuals involved and the groups of which they are a part.

ernest wallwork (1995)

revised by author

SEE ALSO: Coercion; Confidentiality; Epidemics; Homosexuality; Sexual Ethics; Sexual Ethics and Professional Standards; Sexual Identity; Sexuality, Legal Approaches to; Public Health Law


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