As the old saying goes, birds do it and so do bees. So do frogs, chimps, and even the great elephants. Indeed, biologists tell us that the animal world contains countless fascinating mating rituals. Take, for example, scorpions: The couple engages in a deadly dance, round and round, locked face to face with their mouths and claws. As the mating proceeds, the male repeatedly stings the female. In the end, however, it is the larger female that prevails. Once fertilized, she turns on her mate and in a burst of strength and ferocity devours him.

Nature offers many strange stories about animal mating. However, the most fascinating of all must be about human beings. Humans—most people, at least—like to “do it,” too. But as the only creatures who attach meaning to all behavior, what humans “do” when it comes to sex varies quite a bit from culture to culture, as it does over time. Moreover, we humans are the only species whose members think about the purpose of sex, encourage some forms of sex while outlawing others, and, in an effort to learn more, even conduct research about our own sexuality.

This chapter presents some of what we have learned about human sexuality. From a sociological point of view, the main question is how society shapes our sexuality.



How much of the day goes by without your giving any thought at all to sexuality? If you are like most people, the answer is “not very much.” That is because sexuality is not just about “having sex.” Sexuality is a theme found throughout society, apparent on campus, in the workplace, and especially in the mass media. In addition, the sex industry — including pornography and prostitution — is a multibillion-dollar business in its own right. Then, too, sexuality is an important part of how we think about ourselves as well as how we evaluate others. In truth, there are few areas of life in which sexuality does not play some part.

But, in spite of its significance in life, few people understand sexuality. Through much of our history, sex has been a cultural taboo so that, at least in polite conversation, people do not talk about it. As a result, while sex can produce much pleasure, it also causes confusion, anxiety, and sometimes outright fear. Even scientists long considered sex off limits for research. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that researchers turned attention to this pervasive dimension of social life. Since then, as this chapter reports, we have learned a great deal about human sexuality.


Sex refers to the biological distinction between females and males. From a biological point of view, sex is the means by which humans reproduce. A female ovum and a male sperm, each containing twenty-three chromosomes (biological codes that guide physical development), combine to form a fertilized embryo. One of these chromosome pairs determines the child’s sex. To this pair the mother contributes an X chromosome and the father contributes either an X or a Y. A second X from the father produces a female (XX) embryo; a Y from the father produces a male (XY) embryo. A child’s sex, then, is determined at conception.

Within weeks, the sex of an embryo starts to guide its development. If the embryo is male, testicular tissue starts to produce testosterone, a hormone that triggers the development of male genitals. If no testosterone is present, the embryo develops female genitals. In the United States, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls, but a higher death rate among males makes females a slight majority by the time people reach their mid-twenties (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999; U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 1999).


What sets females and males apart are differences in the body. Right from birth, the two sexes have different primary sex characteristics, namely, the genitals, organs used for reproduction. At puberty, as individuals reach sexual maturity, additional sex differentiation takes place. At this point, individuals develop secondary sex characteristics, bodily differences, apart from the genitals, that distinguish biologically mature females and males. To allow for pregnancy, giving birth, and nurturing infants, mature females have wider hips, breasts, and soft fatty tissue that provides a reserve supply of nutrition for pregnancy and breast-feeding. Mature males, on the other hand, typically develop more muscle in the upper body, more extensive body hair, and deeper voices. Of course, these are general differences, since some males are smaller and have less body hair and higher voices than some females.


Sex is not always as clear-cut as we have just described. In rare cases, a hormone imbalance before birth produces a hermaphrodite (a word derived from Hermaphroditus, the offspring of the mythological Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite, who embodied both sexes), a human being with some combination of female and male genitalia.

Because our culture is uneasy about sexual ambiguity, some people respond to hermaphrodites with confusion or even disgust. But other cultures lead people to respond quite differently: The Pokot of eastern Africa, for example, pay little attention to what they consider a simple biological error, and the Navajo look on hermaphrodites with awe, seeing in them the full potential of both the female and the male (Geertz, 1975).


Some hermaphrodites undergo genital surgery to appear (and occasionally function as) a sexually normal female or male. Other people, however, deliberately change their sex: Transsexuals are people who feel they are one sex even though biologically they are the other. Tens of thousands of transsexuals in the United States have surgically changed their genitals because they feel “trapped in the wrong body” (Restak, 1979, cited in Offir, 1982:146; Gagné, Tewksbury, & McGaughey, 1997).


Sexuality has a biological foundation. But, like all dimensions of human behavior, sexuality is also very much a cultural issue. Biology is sufficient to explain the strange mating ritual of scorpions, described in the opening to this chapter, but humans have no similar biological program. Though there is a biological “sex drive” in the sense that people find sex pleasurable and may want to engage in sexual activity, our biology does not dictate any specific ways of being sexual any more than our desire to eat dictates any particular foods or table manners.

Cultural Variation

Almost any sexual practice shows considerable variation from one society to another. In his pioneering study of sexuality in the United States, Alfred Kinsey (1948) found that most couples reported having intercourse face to face, with the woman on the bottom and the man on top. Halfway around the world, in the South Seas, most couples never have sex in this way. In fact, when people there learned of this practice from missionaries, they poked fun at it as the strange “missionary position.”

As noted in Chapter 3 (“Culture”), even the practice of showing affection has extensive cultural variation. While most people in the United States readily kiss in public, the Chinese kiss only in private. The French kiss publicly, often twice (once on each cheek), while Belgians go them one better, kissing three times (starting on either cheek). The Maoris of New Zealand rub noses, and most people in Nigeria don’t kiss at all.

Modesty, too, is a culturally variable matter. If a woman entering a bath is disturbed, what body parts does she cover? Helen Colton (1983) reports that an Islamic woman covers her face, a Laotian woman covers her breasts, a Samoan woman her navel, a Sumatran woman her knees, and a European woman covers her breasts with one hand and her genital area with the other.

Around the world, some societies tend to restrict sexuality, while others are more permissive. In China, for example, norms closely regulate sexuality so that few people have sexual intercourse before they marry. In the United States, however—at least in recent decades—intercourse prior to marriage has become the norm, and people may choose to have sex even when there is no strong commitment between them.


Are any cultural views of sex the same everywhere? The answer is yes. One cultural universal—an element found in every society the world over—is the incest taboo, a norm forbidding sexual relations or marriage between certain relatives. In the United States, the law as well as cultural mores prohibit close relatives (including brothers and sisters, parents and children) from having sex or marrying. But exactly which family members are included in a society’s incest taboo varies from one place to another. Some societies (such as the North American Navajo) apply incest taboos to the mother and others on her side of the family. There are also societies (including ancient Peru and Egypt) on record that have approved brother-sister marriages among the nobility (Murdock, 1965).

Why does the incest taboo exist everywhere? Biology is part of the reason: Reproduction between close relatives of any species risks offspring with mental or physical problems. But this fact does not explain why, of all living species, only humans observe an incest taboo. In other words, controlling sexuality among close relatives seems a necessary element of social organization. For one thing, the incest taboo limits sexual competition in families by restricting sex to spouses (ruling out, for example, sex between parent and child). Second, since family ties define people’s rights and obligations toward each other, reproduction among close relatives would hopelessly confuse kinship (if a mother and son had a daughter, for example, what would the child’s relation be to her parents?). Third, by requiring people to marry outside their immediate families, the incest taboo integrates the larger society as people look widely for partners to form new families.

The incest taboo has been an enduring sexual norm in the United States and elsewhere. But in this country, many sexual norms have changed over time. During the twentieth century, as we now explain, our society experienced both a sexual revolution and, later, a sexual counterrevolution.


What do people in the United States think about sex? Our cultural orientation toward sexuality has always been inconsistent. On the one hand, most of the Europeans who came to this continent held rigid notions about “correct” sexuality, which, ideally, meant that sex was only for the purpose of reproduction within marriage. As explained in Chapter 8 (“Deviance”), the Puritan settlers of New England demanded conformity in all attitudes and behavior, and they imposed severe penalties for any misconduct—even if the sexual “misconduct” took place in the privacy of one’s home. Efforts to regulate sexuality continued well into the twentieth century. As late as the 1960s, for example, some states legally banned the sale of condoms in stores. Even today, in a number of states, laws banning homosexuality, and various “unnatural” acts, are still on the books.

But this is just one side of the story of sexuality in the United States. As Chapter 3 (“Culture”) explains, our culture is also individualistic, and many believe in giving people freedom to do pretty much as they wish, as long as they cause no direct harm to others. Such thinking—that what people do in the privacy of their own home is their business—makes sex a matter of individual freedom and personal choice.

So which is it? Is the United States a restrictive or a permissive society when it comes to sexuality? The answer is that we are both. On the one hand, many people in the United States still view sexual conduct as an important indicator of personal morality. On the other, sex is exploited and glorified everywhere in our culture—and strongly promoted by the mass media—as if to say that “anything goes.”

Within this general framework, we turn now to changes in sexual attitudes and behavior over the course of the twentieth century.


During the last century, people witnessed profound changes in sexual attitudes and practices. The first indications of this change occurred in the 1920s, as millions from farms and small towns migrated to the rapidly growing cities. Living apart from their families and meeting in the workplace, young men and women enjoyed considerable sexual freedom. Indeed, this is one reason the decade became known as the “Roaring Twenties.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Great Depression and World War II slowed the rate of change. But in the postwar period, after 1945, Alfred Kinsey set the stage for what later came to be known as the sexual revolution. Kinsey and his colleagues published their first study of sexuality in the United States in 1948, and it raised eyebrows everywhere. It was not so much what Kinsey said about sexual behavior—although he did present some surprising results—but simply the fact that scientists were studying sex that set off a national conversation. At that time, after all, many people were uneasy talking about sex even privately at home.

But Kinsey’s two books (1948 and 1953) became best-sellers because they revealed that people in the United States, on average, were far less conventional in sexual matters than most had thought. Thus, these books fostered a new openness toward sexuality, which helped move along the sexual revolution.

In the late 1960s, the sexual revolution truly came of age. Youth culture dominated public life, and expressions like “if it feels good, do it” and “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” summed up a new freedom about sexuality. Some people were turned off by the idea of “turning on,” of course, but the baby boom generation born between 1945 and 1960 became the first cohort in U.S. history to grow up with the idea that sex was part of everyone’s life, married or not.

Technology, too, played a part in the sexual revolution. “The pill,” introduced in 1960, not only prevented pregnancy, it made sex more convenient. Unlike a condom or diaphragm, which has to be used at the time of intercourse, the pill could be taken any time during the day. Now women as well as men could engage in sex without any special preparation.

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FIGURE 9­1 The Sexual Revolution:
Closing the Double Standard

The sexual revolution had special significance for women because, historically, women were subject to greater sexual regulation than men. According to the so-called “double standard,” society allows (and even encourages) men to be sexually active, while expecting women to remain chaste before marriage and faithful to their husbands afterwards. The survey data shown in Figure 9–1 support this conclusion. Among people born in the United States between 1933 and 1942 (that is, people in their mid-fifties to mid-sixties today), 56 percent of men but just 16 percent of women report having had two or more sexual partners by the time they were age twenty. Compare this wide gap to the pattern among the baby boomers born between 1953 and 1962 (people now in their forties), who came of age after the sexual revolution. In this category, 62 percent of men and 48 percent of women say they had two or more sexual partners by age twenty (Laumann et al., 1994:198). Thus, while the sexual revolution increased sexual activity overall, it changed behavior among women more than among men.


The sexual revolution made sex a topic of everyday discussion and sexual activity more a matter of individual choice. But given that U.S. society has always had two minds about sex, the sexual revolution was also controversial. By 1980, the climate of sexual freedom that had marked the late 1960s and 1970s was criticized by some as evidence of our country’s moral decline. Thus the sexual counterrevolution began.

Politically speaking, the sexual counterrevolution was a conservative call for a return to “family values” by which sexual freedom was to be replaced by sexual responsibility. In practice, this meant moving sex back within marriage. Critics objected not just to the idea of “free love” but to trends such as cohabitation (living together) and having children out of wedlock.

Looking back, we can see that the sexual counterrevolution did not greatly change the idea that individuals should decide for themselves when and with whom to have a sexual relationship. What did happen, however, is that more people began choosing to limit their number of sexual partners or to abstain from sex entirely. In many cases, such decisions are made on moral grounds. For others, however, the decision to limit sexual activity reflects a fear of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). As Chapter 21 (“Health and Medicine”) explains, although rates of most infectious diseases fell after 1960, rates of STDs rose sharply. Moreover, the fact that some STDs (such as genital herpes) are incurable and others (AIDS) are deadly has given individuals good reason to consider carefully their sexual choices.


In light of the sexual revolution and the sexual counterrevolution, how much has sexual behavior in the United States really changed? One interesting trend involves premarital sex—that is, the likelihood that young people will have sexual intercourse before marriage. Consider, first, what U.S. adults say about premarital intercourse.

TABLE 9­1 How We View Premarital and Extramarital Sex
Survey Question: "There's been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country. If a man and a woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all? What about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner?"
  Premarital Sex Extramarital Sex
"Always wrong" 25.4% 77.9%
"Almost always wrong" 8.9 12.3
"Wrong only sometimes" 20.2 5.7
"Not wrong at all" 41.9 2.3
 "Don't know"/No answer

Source: General Social Surveys, 1972­1998: Cumulative Codebook

Table 9–1 shows that about 35 percent characterize sexual relations before marriage as “always wrong” or “almost always wrong.” Another 20 percent consider premarital sex “wrong only sometimes,” while more than 40 percent say premarital sex is “not wrong at all.” Public opinion is more accepting of premarital sex today than a generation ago but, even so, our society remains divided on this issue. Now consider what young people do regarding premarital intercourse. For women, there has been marked change over time. The Kinsey studies (1948, 1953; see also Laumann et al., 1994) reported that for people born in the early 1900s, about 50 percent of men but just 6 percent of women had premarital sexual intercourse before age nineteen. Studies of baby boomers born after World War II show a slight increase in premarital intercourse among men but a large increase—to about one-third—among women. The most recent studies, targeting men and women born in the 1970s, show that 76 percent of men and 66 percent of women had premarital sexual intercourse by their senior year in high school (Laumann et al., 1994:323–24). Thus, although general public attitudes remain divided on premarital sex, this behavior is broadly accepted among young people.


SOCIAL SURVEY: "About how often did you have sex during the last 12 months?" (GSS 1998, N = 2,451; Codebook, 1999:992)
"Not at all"
"About once a week"
"Once or twice"
"2 or 3 times a week" 18.7%
"About once a month" 10.7%
"More than 3 times a week" 5.1%
"2 or 3 times a month" 14.6%
DK/NR 5.3%




To hear the mass media tell it, people in the United States are very active sexually. But do popular images exaggerate reality? The Laumann study (1994) found that frequency of sexual activity varied widely in the U.S. population. The pattern breaks down like this: One-third of adults report having sex with a partner a few times a year or not at all; another one-third have sex once or several times a month; the remaining one-third have sex with a partner two or more times a week. In short, no single stereotype accurately describes sexual activity in the United States.

Moreover, despite the widespread image of “swinging singles,” it is married people who have sex with partners the most. In addition, married people report the highest level of satisfaction—both emotional and physical—with their partners (Laumann et al., 1994).


What about married people having sex with someone other than their marriage partner? What people commonly call “adultery” (sociologists prefer a more neutral-sounding term like “extramarital sex”) is widely condemned. Table 9–1 shows that more than 90 percent of U.S. adults consider a married person having sex with someone other than the marital partner to be “always wrong” or “almost always wrong.” The norm of sexual fidelity within marriage has been and remains a strong element of U.S. culture. But, in terms of behavior, the cultural ideal often differs from real life. It probably comes as no surprise that extramarital sexual activity is more common than people say it should be. At the same time, extramarital sex is not as frequent as many believe. The Laumann study reports that about 25 percent of married men and 10 percent of married women have had at least one extramarital sexual experience. Or, the other way around, 75 percent of men and 90 percent of women remain sexually faithful to their partners throughout their married lives (Laumann et al., 1994:214; NORC, 1999:996).



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FIGURE 9­2 The Sexual Orientation Continuum Source: Adapted from Kinsey et al. (1948).

Over recent decades, public opinion about sexual orientation has changed remarkably. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference in terms of sexual partners: same sex, other sex, either sex, neither sex (Lips, 1993). The norm in all human societies is heterosexuality (hetero is a Greek word meaning “the other of two”), meaning sexual attraction to someone of the other sex. Yet, in every society a significant share of people favor homosexuality (homo is the Greek word for “the same”), sexual attraction to someone of the same sex. When thinking about these categories, keep in mind that homosexuality and heterosexuality are not mutually exclusive. That is, people do not necessarily fall into one category or the other, but may have both sexual orientations to varying degrees. Figure 9–2 presents these two sexual orientations as a continuum, indicating that most people actually experience at least some degree of sexual attraction to people of both sexes.

The fact that sexual orientation is often not clear-cut points to the importance of a third category: bisexuality, which refers to sexual attraction to people of both sexes. Some bisexual people are equally attracted to males and females; many others, however, are more attracted to one sex over the other. Finally, one additional sexual orientation is asexuality, meaning no sexual attraction to people of either sex.

It is also important to note that sexual attraction is not the same thing as sexual behavior. Many people, no doubt, have experienced some attraction to someone of the same sex, but fewer ever experience same-sex behavior. This is in large part because of cultural constraints on our actions.

Cultural systems do not accept all sexual orientations equally. In the United States and around the world, heterosexuality is the norm because, biologically speaking, heterosexual relations permit human reproduction. Even so, most societies tolerate homosexuality. In fact, among the ancient Greeks, upper-class men considered homosexuality the highest form of relationship, partly because they looked down on women as intellectually inferior. As men saw it, heterosexuality was necessary only so they could have children, and “real” men preferred homosexual relations (Kluckhohn, 1948; Ford & Beach, 1951; Greenberg, 1988).


The question of how people come to have a sexual orientation in the first place is vigorously debated. But the arguments cluster into two general positions: first, that sexual orientation is a product of society, and second, that sexual orientation is a product of biology. Sexual Orientation: A Product of Society This approach argues that people in any society construct a set of meanings that lets them make sense of sexuality. Understandings of sexuality, therefore, differ from place to place and over time. For example, Michel Foucault (1990) points out that there was no distinct category of people called “homosexuals” until a century ago when scientists and, eventually, the public as a whole began labeling people that way. Through most of history, in other words, some people no doubt had what we would call “homosexual experiences.” But neither they nor others saw in this behavior the basis for any special identity.

Sexual Orientation in the United States:
Survey Data
figure 9.3a-8/e

(a) How Many Gay People?
Source: Adapted from Laumann et al. (1994).
figure 9.3b-8/e
(b) Attitudes toward Homosexual Relations, 1973­1998 Survey Question: "What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex--do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?"
Source: NORC (1999).

Anthropologists provide further evidence that sexual orientation is socially constructed. Studies show that various kinds of homosexuality exist in different societies. In Siberia, for example, the Chukchee Eskimo have a ritual practice by which one man dresses like a female and does a woman’s work. The Sambia, who dwell in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, have a ritual in which young boys perform oral sex on older men in the belief that ingesting semen will enhance their masculinity (Herdt, 1993). Such diverse patterns seem to indicate that sexual orientation and sexual expression have much to do with society itself.

Sexual Orientation: A Product of Biology

The other view is that sexual orientation is innate, that is, rooted in human biology. Arguing this position, Simon LeVay (1993) links sexual orientation to the structure of the human brain. LeVay studied the brains of both homosexual and heterosexual men and found a small but important difference in the size of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates hormones. Such an anatomical difference, some claim, plays a part in shaping sexual orientation.

Genetics, too, may influence sexual orientation. One study of forty-four pairs of brothers—all homosexual—found that thirty-three pairs had a distinctive genetic pattern involving the X chromosome. Moreover, the gay brothers had an unusually high number of gay male relatives—but only on their mother’s side, the source of the X chromosome. Such evidence leads some researchers to think there may be a “gay gene” (Hamer & Copeland, 1994).

Critical evaluation.  The best guess at present is that sexual orientation is derived from both society and biology (Gladue, Green, & Hellman, 1984; Weinrich, 1987; Troiden, 1988; Isay, 1989; Puterbaugh, 1990; Angier, 1992; Gelman, 1992). But we need to bear in mind that sexual orientation is not a matter of neat categories. That is, most people who think of themselves as homosexual have had some heterosexual experiences, just as many people who think of themselves as heterosexual have had some homosexual experiences. Thus, the task of explaining sexual orientation is extremely complex. There is also a political issue here with great importance for gay men and lesbians. To the extent that sexual orientation is based in biology, homosexuality is not a matter of choice any more than, say, skin color. If this is so, shouldn’t gay men and lesbians expect the same legal protection from discrimination as African Americans? (Herek, 1991)


What share of our population is gay? This is a difficult question to answer because, as we have explained, sexual orientation is not a matter of neat categories. Moreover, people are not always willing to reveal their sexuality to strangers or even to family members. Pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1948, 1953) estimated that about 4 percent of males and 2 percent of females have an exclusively same-sex orientation, although he thought that at least one-third of men and one-eighth of women have at least one homosexual experience leading to orgasm.

In light of the Kinsey studies, many social scientists put the gay share of the population at 10 percent. But a more recent national survey of sexuality in the United States indicates that how one operationalizes “homosexuality” makes a big difference in the results (Laumann et al., 1994). As Part (a) of Figure 9–3 shows, about 9 percent of U.S. men and about 4 percent of U.S. women aged between eighteen and fifty-nine reported homosexual activity at some time in their lives. The second set of numbers shows that a significant share of men (less so women) have a homosexual experience during childhood but not after puberty. And 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women define themselves as partly or entirely homosexual.

Finally, Kinsey treated sexual orientation as an “either/or” trait: To be more homosexual was, by definition, to be less heterosexual. But same-sex and other-sex attractions can operate independently. At one extreme, then, bisexual people feel strong attraction to people of both sexes; at the other, asexual people experience little sexual attraction to people of either sex.

In the national survey noted above, less than 1 percent of adults described themselves as bisexual. But bisexual experiences appear to be fairly common (at least for a time) among younger people, especially on college campuses (Laumann et al., 1994; Leland, 1995). Many bisexuals, then, do not think of themselves as either gay or straight, and their behavior reflects elements of both gay and straight living.


In recent decades, the public attitude toward homosexuality has been moving toward greater acceptance. In 1973, as shown in Part (b) of Figure 9–3, about three-fourths of U.S. adults claimed homosexual relations were “always wrong” or “almost always wrong.” While that percentage changed little during the 1970s and 1980s, by 1998 it dropped to less than 60 percent (NORC, 1999:236).

In large measure, this change came about through the gay rights movement that arose in the middle of the twentieth century (Chauncey, 1994). At that time, most people did not discuss homosexuality, and it was common for companies (including the federal government and the armed forces) to fire anyone who was thought to be gay. Mental health professionals, too, took a hard line, describing homosexuals as “sick,” and sometimes placing them in mental hospitals where, presumably, they might be cured. In this climate of intolerance, most lesbians and gay men remained “in the closet”—closely guarding the secret of their sexual orientation. But the gay rights movement gained strength during the 1960s. One early milestone occurred in 1974, when the American Psychological Association declared that homosexuality was not an illness but simply “a form of sexual behavior.”

The gay rights movement also began using the term homophobia to describe the dread of close personal interaction with people thought to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual (Weinberg, 1973). The concept of homophobia (literally, “fear of sameness”) turns the tables on society: Instead of asking “What’s wrong with gay people?” the question becomes “What’s wrong with people who can’t accept a different sexual orientation?”


Sexuality lies at the heart of a number of controversies in the United States. Here we take a look at four issues: teen pregnancy, pornography, prostitution, and sexual violence.


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FIGURE 9­4 Births to Teenage Women
Source: The Alan Guttmacher Institute (2000).

Being sexually active—especially having intercourse—demands a high level of responsibility, since pregnancy can result. Teenagers may be biologically mature, but many are not socially mature and may not appreciate all the consequences of their actions. Indeed, surveys indicate that while 1 million U.S. teens become pregnant each year, most did not intend to. Not only does pregnancy mean that many young women (and sometimes young fathers-to-be) cannot finish school, but they are at high risk of poverty. Figure 9–4 shows that this country’s rate of births among teens is higher than that of other industrial countries.

Did the sexual revolution raise the level of teenage pregnancy? Surprisingly, perhaps, the answer is no. The rate in 1950 was actually higher than the rate today, but this is because people married younger at the time. Also, many pregnancies led to quick marriages. As a result, there were many pregnant teenagers, but most were married women. Today, by contrast, most teenagers who become pregnant are not married. In about half of all cases, these women have abortions; in the other half, they keep their babies (Voydanoff & Donnelly, 1990; Holmes, 1996a). National Map 9–1 shows the distribution of births to females between the ages of fifteen and nineteen in the United States.

Concern about the high rate of teenage pregnancy has led to sex education programs in schools. But such programs are controversial, as the box explains.

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F09.01N Macionis 8/e Tnpreg EPS
Source: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), June 26, 1998. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia.
Teenage Pregnancy Rates across the United States
The map shows pregnancy rates for women aged fifteen to nineteen for the mid-1990s. In what regions of the country are rates high? Where are they low? What explanation can you offer for these patterns?


In general terms, pornography refers to sexually explicit material that causes sexual arousal. But what, exactly, is or is not pornographic has long been a matter of debate. Recognizing that people view the portrayal of sexuality differently, the U.S. Supreme Court gives local communities the power to decide for themselves what violates “community standards” of decency and lacks any redeeming social value.

Definitions aside, pornography is surely popular in the United States: X-rated videos, 1-900 telephone numbers for sexual conversations, and a host of sexually explicit movies and magazines together constitute roughly a $10-billion-a-year industry. The figure is rising as people buy more and more pornography from thousands of sites on the Web.

Traditionally, people have criticized pornography on moral grounds. As national surveys confirm, 60 percent of U.S. adults are concerned that “sexual materials lead to a breakdown of morals” (NORC, 1999:237). Today, however, pornography is also seen as a power issue because it depicts women as the sexual playthings of men.

Some critics also see pornography as a cause of violence against women. While it is difficult to document a scientific cause-and-effect relationship between what people view and how they act, research does support the idea that pornography makes men think of women as objects rather than as people. The public shares a concern about pornography and violence, with almost half of adults holding the opinion that pornography encourages people to commit rape (NORC, 1999:237).

Though people everywhere object to sexual material they find offensive, many also value free speech and want to protect artistic expression. Nevertheless, pressure to restrict pornography is building from an unlikely coalition of conservatives (who oppose pornography on moral grounds) and progressives (who condemn it for political reasons).

Critical thinking icon LineCRITICAL THINKING
Sex Education: Problem or Solution?
Most schools today have sex education programs that teach the basics of sexuality. Instructors explain to young people how their bodies grow and change, how reproduction occurs, and how to avoid pregnancy by using birth control or abstaining from sex.
Because half of U.S. teenage boys report having sex by the time they reach sixteen, and half of girls report doing so by seventeen, "sex ed" programs seem to make sense. But critics point out that as the number of sex education programs has expanded, the level of teenage sexual activity has actually gone up. This trend seems to suggest that sex education may not be
discouraging sex among youngsters and, maybe, that learning more about sex encourages young people to become sexually active sooner. Critics also say that it is parents who should be instructing their children about sex, since, unlike teachers, parents can also teach their beliefs about what is right and wrong.
But supporters of sex education counter that it is unrealistic to expect that in a culture that celebrates sexuality, children will not become sexually active. If this is the case, the sensible strategy is to ensure that they understand what they are doing and take reasonable precautions to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy
and sexually transmitted diseases.
What do you think?

1. Schools can teach the facts about sexuality. But do you think they can address the emotional issues that often accompany sex? What about the moral issues? Why or why not?

2. What about parents? Are they doing their job as far as instructing children about sex? Ask members of your class how many received instruction in sexual matters from their parents.



Prostitution is the selling of sexual services. Often called “the world’s oldest profession,” prostitution has always been widespread, and about one in five adult men in the United States reports having paid for sex on at least one occasion (NORC, 1999:996). Even so, to the extent that people think of sex as an expression of interpersonal intimacy, they find the idea of sex performed for money disturbing. As a result, prostitution is against the law everywhere in the United States, except for parts of Nevada.

Around the world, prostitution is greatest in poor countries where patriarchy is strong and traditional cultural norms limit women’s ability to earn a living. Global Map 9–1 on page 234 shows where in the world prostitution is most widespread.

Types of Prostitution

Most—but not all—prostitutes are women. Prostitutes (many prefer the morally neutral term “sex workers”) fall into different categories. Call girls are elite prostitutes, typically women who are young, attractive, well educated, and arrange their own “dates” with clients by telephone. The classified pages of any large city newspaper contain numerous ads for “escort services,” by which women (and sometimes men) offer both companionship and sex for a fee.

Members of a middle category of prostitutes work in “massage parlors” or brothels under the control of managers. These sex workers have less choice about their clients, receive less money for their services, and get to keep no more than half of what they make.

At the bottom of the sex-worker hierarchy are street walkers, women and men who “work the streets” of large cities. Female street walkers are often under the control of male pimps who take most of their earnings. Many street walkers fall victim to violence from pimps and clients (Gordon & Snyder, 1989). Most, but not all, prostitutes offer heterosexual services. Gay prostitutes, too, trade sex for money. Researchers report that many gay prostitutes have suffered rejection by family and friends because of their sexual orientation (Weisberg, 1985; Boyer, 1989; Kruks, 1991).

Window on the world bar
F09.01G Macionis 8/e EPS
GLOBAL MAP 9­1 Prostitution in Global Perspective
Generally speaking, prostitution is widespread in societies of the world where women have low standing in relation to men. Officially, at least, the now-defunct socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as the People's Republic of China, boast of gender equality, including the elimination of "vice," such as prostitution, which oppresses women. By contrast, in much of Latin America, a region of pronounced patriarchy, prostitution is commonplace. In many Islamic societies patriarchy is also strong, but religion is a counterbalance so prostitution is limited. Western, industrial societies display a moderate amount of prostitution.
Source: Peters Atlas of the World (1990); updated by the author.

A Victimless Crime?

Prostitution is against the law almost everywhere in the United States, but many people consider it a victimless crime (see Chapter 8, “Deviance”). Thus, instead of enforcing prostitution laws all the time, police stage occasional crackdowns. Our society seems to want to control prostitution while assuming that nothing will eliminate it.

Is selling sex a victimless crime that hurts no one? Certainly, many people who take a “live and let live” attitude about prostitution would say it is. But this view overlooks the fact that prostitution subjects many women to abuse and outright violence and plays a part in spreading sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. In addition, many poor women become trapped in a life of selling sex, generally to the benefit of others, while they put their own lives at risk. This is especially true in Southeast Asia, where the sex trade flourishes. The box offers a closer look.


While sexual activity often occurs within a loving relationship, sex can be twisted by hate and violence. Sexual violence, which ranges from verbal abuse to rape and assault, is widespread in the United States. Rape Although some people think rape is a form of sex, it is actually an expression of power—a violent act that uses sex to hurt, humiliate, or control another person. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that about 100,000 women are raped each year, although this number reflects only the reported cases. The actual number of rapes is several times this number (McCormick, 1994; U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999).

The official definition of rape, according to the federal government, is “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” Thus, official rape statistics include only victims who are women. But men, too, are raped—in perhaps 10 percent of all cases. Most men who rape men are not homosexual. They are heterosexuals who are motivated by a desire not for sex but to dominate another person (Groth & Birnbaum, 1979; Gibbs, 1991a).

Macionis Globe India/Thailand E Line

Sexual Slavery: A Report from Thailand
Around the world, poverty forces many women and children into prostitution as a way to survive. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Southeast Asia. Recent decades have witnessed an explosion of what amounts to sexual slavery that exploits women and attracts men from rich nations as "sex tourists."
Sex-tourism districts can be found in many large cities throughout Africa, Eastern Europe, and, especially, Southeast Asia. Bangkok, Thailand--called the sex-tourism capital of the world--receives tens of thousands of visitors from Japan, Western Europe, and North America each year. Thailand has some
2 million prostitutes, with 10 percent of the female Thai population now working in the sex industry.
Almost all of these women are poor, and many come from rural
regions where people struggle to
survive. Some girls who see little future in a rural village make their own way to the city, hoping to find work. Without skills and naive about the dangers they face, most fall under the control of pimps and end up in brothels, soliciting in bars, or performing in sex shows. In some cases, desperate parents sell their female infants to agents who promise to see that the girls get work in the city. The agents take the girls, pay others to raise them, and then "harvest their crop" years later when the girls are old enough (sometimes just twelve or thirteen) to work the sex trade.
In fact, given fears of sexually transmitted diseases among sex tourists, prostitutes are getting younger and younger, and it is the youngest girls who earn the most money.
Once they work in the sex industry, the future for women is bleak. Pimps provide girls with clothes and housing, but at a cost that exceeds the girls' salaries. The result is a system of debt bondage that keeps these women virtual prisoners. To make matters worse, most sex workers suffer from a host of diseases brought on by abuse and neglect. Worst of all, estimates suggest that 40 percent are now infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Sources: Based, in part, on Santoli (1994) and Remy (1996).

Date Rape

A common myth is that rape involves strangers. In reality, however, most rapes involve people who know one another, and they usually take place in familiar surroundings — especially the home. For this reason, the term date rape or acquaintance rape refers to forcible sexual violence against women by men they know.

Many victims of date rape do not report the crime. Some believe that because they know the offender, an attack could not have been rape. But the tide is turning, with more and more women speaking out. The box takes a closer look.

Critical thinking icon Line

Date Rape: Exposing Dangerous Myths
April Sanders was beside herself with excitement: She had a date with Bob McMahon, a senior she had admired all semester. On Saturday night, she met Bob at 10 o'clock at the south end of the Arts Quad, and they talked easily as they walked across campus to a party. The more Bob talked, the more April liked him.
The music was loud as they joined the crowd at a favorite campus hangout, and beer was flowing freely. They had a few beers and danced. Then they joined Bob's friends at a table where
everyone was downing shots of hard liquor. Bob handed April a glass. She paused, but then smiled and drank it down. He kept refilling her glass and soon April's head was spinning. She knew
she had drunk too much and had to lie down. Embarrassed, she announced she had better go back to her dorm room. "No problem," Bob responded, insisting on walking her home.
When they reached her room, April let Bob come in while she looked for some aspirin. They were sitting on her couch talking, when Bob tried to kiss her. At that point, he seemed to change, forcefully pushing April into having sex. "Bob, no!" April pleaded, overcome with fear. But Bob was determined as well as strong, and she simply could not stop him.
Ten minutes later, the attack was over, and Bob got up and left. April's first reaction was to take a shower. "I felt so filthy," she recalled later. "I washed myself over and over." For hours, she sat crying, trying to make
sense of a night that had gone terribly wrong. "Was I raped?" she asked herself. "I told him 'no,' I tried to stop him." But she also worried, "Who will believe me?
We were out drinking together. . . . I let him into my room. . . ."
In the morning, April Sanders went to the dean's office to report the attack. Later that day, she spoke with two city police officers. The police conducted
an investigation, but they were reluctant
to act since Bob claimed the sex was
consensual and there was no other evidence such as bruises, a medical examination, or torn clothes to back up April's story.
This case is typical. In fact, at least half of all victims of sexual attack make no report to police. One reason is that many women and men do not understand what rape is. Three wrong ideas about rape are so common that they might be called "rape myths."
Myth #1: Rape involves strangers. A sexual attack brings to mind a strange man lurking in the shadows who suddenly springs on his victim. In four out of five rapes, however, the victim knows the offender, which is why people speak of acquaintance rape or date rape.
Myth #2: Women provoke their
attackers. Many people think a woman who has been raped must have done something to make the man think she wanted to have sex. In April Sanders's case, didn't she agree to go drinking? Didn't she let Bob into her room late at night? Self-doubt can paralyze victims. But inviting a man into a room is not consent to have sex with him any more than it would be consent to have him beat her with a club.

Myth #3: Rape is simply sex.

If there is no knife held to a woman's throat or if she is not bound and gagged, what's the crime? The answer is that, under the law, forcing a woman to have sex without her consent is a violent crime. "Having sex" implies intimacy, caring, and, most important of all, consent--none of which is present in rape. Beyond the brutality of being physically violated, rape by an acquaintance also undermines a victim's sense of trust. Psychological scars are especially serious among the half of rape victims who are under eighteen; one-third of these young victims are attacked by their own fathers or stepfathers (Greenfield, 1996).
The ancient Babylonians stoned married women who were raped, convinced that they had committed adultery. Ideas about rape have changed little over thousands of years, which helps explain why--even today--only about one in twenty rapes results in an offender being sent to jail.
Nowhere has the issue of date rape been more widely discussed than on campuses. The collegiate environment promotes easy friendships and encourages trust. At the same time, many young students have much to learn about relationships and about themselves. So while college life encourages communication, it also invites sexual violence.
To counter the problem, many schools now actively address myths about rape and the place of alcohol in campus life. College men and women alike need to understand two simple truths: Sex without a woman's consent is rape, and when a woman says "no," she means just that.
What do you think?

Is a person who drinks alcohol to excess capable of making a responsible decision about having sex? What role does alcohol play in date rape on the campus?



We can better understand human sexuality by using sociology’s various theoretical paradigms. In the following sections, we apply the three major paradigms in turn.


The structural-functional approach highlights the contribution of any social pattern to the overall operation of society. Because sexuality is an important dimen- sion of social life, society regulates sexual behavior.

The Need to Regulate Sexuality

From a biological point of view, sex allows our species to reproduce. But culture and social institutions regulate with whom and when people reproduce. For example, most societies condemn married people for having sex with someone other than their spouse. To do otherwise—to give the forces of sexual passion free reign—would threaten family life and, especially, the raising of children.

Another example, discussed earlier in this chapter, is the incest taboo. The fact that this norm exists everywhere shows clearly that no society is willing to permit completely free choice in sexual partners. Reproduction by family members other than married partners would break down the system of kinship and muddle relationships among people.

Historically, the social control of sexuality was strong, mostly because sex commonly led to childbirth. Moreover, offspring, as well as parents, were subject to these controls. We see this in the traditional distinction between “legitimate” reproduction (within marriage) and “illegitimate” reproduction (outside of marriage). But once a society can effectively control births, its norms become more permissive. This occurred in the United States where, over the course of the twentieth century, sex moved beyond its basic reproductive function and became accepted as a form of intimacy and even recreation (Giddens, 1992).


Latent Functions: The Case of Prostitution

It is easy to see that prostitution is harmful because it spreads disease and exploits women. But are there latent functions that help explain why prostitution is widespread despite society’s attempts to limit it? Definitely, explains Kingsley Davis (1971): Prostitution performs several useful functions. It is one way to meet the sexual needs of a large number of people who do not have ready access to sex, including soldiers, travelers, and people who are not physically attractive, or who have trouble establishing relationships. Moreover, adds Davis, the availability of sex without commitment may even help to stabilize some loveless marriages that might otherwise collapse.

Critical evaluation.  The structural-functional paradigm helps us to appreciate the role sexuality plays in how society is organized. With the incest taboo and other cultural norms, society pays attention to who has sex with whom and, especially, who reproduces with whom. At the same time, this approach pays little attention to the great diversity of sexual ideas and practices found within every society. Moreover, sexual patterns change over time, just as they differ in remarkable ways around the world. To appreciate the varied and changeable character of sexuality, we turn to the symbolic-interaction paradigm.


The symbolic-interaction paradigm highlights how, as people interact, they construct everyday reality. As Chapter 6 (“Social Interaction in Everyday Life”) explains, the process of reality construction is highly variable, so that one group’s or society’s views of sexuality may well differ from another’s. In the same way, how people understand sexuality can and does change over time.

DISCUSS: In 1920, one analyst offered the following explanation for the pattern of arresting prostitutes more than "johns": "The professional prostitute being a social outcast may be periodically punished without disturbing the usual course of society. . . . [T]he man is something more than partner in an immoral act: He discharges important social and business relations, is a father or brother responsible for the maintenance of others. . . . He can
not be imprisoned without [disrupting] society" (Abraham Flexner, Prostitution in Europe [New York, Century, 1920:108]). How do students react to this analysis?
DISCUSS: Various "isms" can build on one another. Some queer theorists point out that the disadvantage of homosexuality is more severe for gay men who are black than for those who are white (Seidman, 1996).

The Social Construction of Sexuality

Almost all social patterns involving sexuality have seen considerable change over the course of the twentieth century. One good illustration is the changing importance of virginity. A century ago, our society’s norm—for women, at least—was virginity before marriage. This norm was strong because there was no effective birth control, and virginity was the only assurance a man had that his bride-to-be was not carrying another man’s child. Today, however, we have gone a long way toward separating sex from reproduction, and the virginity norm has weakened. In the United States, among those born between 1963 and 1974, just 16.3 percent of men and 20.1 percent of women report being virgins at first marriage (Laumann et al., 1994:503).

Another example of our society’s construction of sexuality involves young people. A century ago, childhood was a time of innocence in sexual matters. In recent decades, however, our thinking has changed. Though we expect children not to be sexually active, most people believe children should be educated about sex so that they can make intelligent choices about their own behavior as they grow older.

Global Comparisons

The broader our view, the more variation we see in the meanings people attach to sexuality. In global perspective, differences can be striking, indeed. Anthropologists report that some cultures are far more accepting of childhood sexuality than people in the United States. Studying the Melanesian people of southeast New Guinea, anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1938) concluded that adults paid little attention when young children engaged in sexual experimentation with one another. Parents in Melanesia shrugged off such activity because, before puberty, sex cannot lead to reproduction.

Critical evaluation.  The strength of the symbolic-interaction paradigm lies in revealing the constructed character of familiar social patterns. Understanding that people “construct” sexuality, we can better appreciate the variety of sexual practices found over the course of history and around the world. One limitation of this approach, however, is that not everything is so variable. Throughout our own history—and around the world—men are more likely to see women in sexual terms than the other way around. If this pattern is widespread, some broader social structure must be at work, as we shall see in the next section.


The social-conflict paradigm highlights dimensions of inequality. This approach, therefore, shows how sexuality both reflects patterns of social inequality and also helps create them.


Sexuality: Reflecting Social Inequality

Recall our discussion of prostitution, a practice outlawed almost everywhere. Even so, enforcement is uneven at best, especially when it comes to who is and is not likely to be arrested. Although two parties are involved, the record shows that police are far more likely to arrest (less powerful) female prostitutes than (more powerful) male clients. Similarly, of all women engaged in prostitution, it is street walkers—women with the least income and those most likely to be minorities—who face the highest risk of arrest (COYOTE, 2000). Then, too, we might wonder if so many women would be involved in prostitution at all if they had economic opportunities equal to those of men.

Sexuality: Creating Social Inequality

Social-conflict theorists, especially feminists, point to sexuality as being at the root of inequality between women and men. How can this be? Defining women in sexual terms amounts to devaluing them from full human beings into objects of men’s interest and attention. Is it any wonder that the word “pornography” comes from the Greek word porne, meaning “a man’s sexual slave”?

If men define women in sexual terms, it is easy to see why many people consider pornography—almost all of which is consumed by males—a power issue. Since most pornography depicts women seeking to please men, it supports the idea that men have power over women. Some more radical critics doubt that this element of power can ever be removed from heterosexual relations (Dworkin, 1987). While most social-conflict theorists do not reject heterosexuality entirely, they do agree that sexuality can and does degrade women. Further, critics point out that our culture often depicts sexuality in terms of sport (men “scoring” with women) and also violence (“slamming,” “banging,” and “hitting on,” for example, are verbs used for both fighting and sex).

Queer Theory

Finally, social-conflict theory has taken aim not only at men dominating women but also at heterosexuals dominating homosexuals. In recent years, just as many lesbians and gay men have come out in search of public acceptance, so have some sociologists tried to add a gay voice to their discipline. The term queer theory refers to a growing body of knowledge that challenges an allegedly heterosexual bias in sociology.

Queer theory begins with the assertion that our society is characterized by heterosexism, a view stigmatizing anyone who is not heterosexual as “queer.” Our heterosexual culture victimizes a wide range of people, including gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and even asexual people. Further, although most people agree that bias against women (sexism) and people of color is wrong, heterosexism is widely tolerated and sometimes well within the law. This country’s military forces, for example, cannot legally discharge a female soldier for “acting like a woman,” because that would be a clear case of gender discrimination. But the military forces can discharge her for homosexuality if she is a sexually active lesbian.

Heterosexism also exists at a more subtle level in our everyday understanding of the world. When we describe something as “sexy,” for example, don’t we really mean attractive to heterosexuals?

Critical evaluation.  Applying the social-conflict paradigm shows how sexuality is both a cause and effect of inequality. In particular, this paradigm helps us understand men’s power over women and heterosexual people’s domination of homosexual people. At the same time, this approach overlooks the fact that sexuality is not a power issue for everyone: Many couples enjoy a vital sexual relationship that deepens their commitment to one another. In addition, the social-conflict paradigm pays little attention to strides our society has made toward eliminating injustice. Men, in public at least, are less likely to describe women as sex objects than a few decades ago; moreover, public concern about sexual harassment (see Chapter 13, “Gender Stratification”) has had some effect in reducing sexuality in the workplace. Likewise, there is ample evidence that the gay rights movement has secured greater opportunities and social acceptance for gay people.

We bring this chapter to a close with a look at what is perhaps the most divisive sexuality issue of all: abortion, the deliberate termination of a pregnancy. This issue cuts to the heart of almost everyone’s sense of justice, as described in the box.


Controversy and debate icon Line
The Abortion Controversy
A black van pulls up in front of
the storefront in a busy section of the city. Two women get out of the front seat and cautiously scan the sidewalk. After a moment, one nods to the other and they open the rear door to let a third woman out of the van. Standing to the right and left of their charge, the two quickly whisk her inside the building.
Is this a description of two federal marshals escorting a convict to a police station? It might be. But it is actually an account of two clinic workers escorting a woman who has decided to have an abortion. Why should they be so cautious? Anyone who has read the papers in recent years knows about the heated confrontations at abortion clinics across North America. In fact, some opponents have even targeted and killed several doctors who perform abortions. Overall, the 1.3 million abortions performed each year make this probably the most hotly contested issue in the United States today. Abortion has not always been so controversial. During the colonial era, midwives and other healers performed abortions with little community opposition and with full approval of the law. But controversy arose about 1850, when early medical doctors sought to eliminate the competition they faced from midwives and other traditional health providers, whose income was derived largely from terminating pregnancies. By 1900, medical doctors succeeded in getting every state to pass a law banning abortion. Such laws did not end abortion, but they greatly reduced the numbers. In addition, these laws drove abortion "underground," so that many women--especially those who were poor--had little choice but to seek help from unlicensed "back alley" abortionists, sometimes with tragic results.

By the 1960s, opposition to abortion laws was rising. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision (in the cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton), striking down all state laws banning abortion. In effect, this action by the High Court established a woman's legal access to abortion. In the wake of the Court's decision, the abortion controversy has grown. On one side of the issue are people who describe themselves as "pro-choice," supporting a woman's right to choose abortion. On the other side are those who call themselves "pro-life," opposing abortion as morally wrong; these people would like to see the Supreme Court reverse its 1973 decision. How strong is the support for each side of the abortion controversy? A recent national survey asked a sample of adults the question: "Should it be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason?" In response, 42.6 percent said "yes" (placing them in the pro-choice camp) and 52.1 percent said "no" (the pro-life position); the remaining 5.3 percent offered no opinion (NORC, 1999:209). A closer look, however, shows that particular circumstances make a big difference in how people see this issue. The figure shows that a large majority of U.S. adults favor legal abortion if a pregnancy seriously threatens a woman's health, if she became pregnant as a result of rape, or if a fetus is very likely to have a serious defect. The bottom line, then, looks like this: About 40 percent support access to abortion under any cir cumstances, but about 80 percent support access to abortion under some circumstances.

figure 9.5b-8/e
When Should the Law Allow a Woman to Choose Abortion? Source: NORC (1999).

Many pro-life people feel strongly that abortion is nothing more than killing unborn children. To them, people never have the right to end an innocent life in this way. But pro-choice people are no less committed to their position. As they see it, the abortion debate is really about the standing of women in society. Why? For the simple reason that women must have control over their own sexuality. If pregnancy dictates the course of women's lives, women will never be able to compete with men on equal terms, whether it is on campus or in the workplace. Thus, the pro-choice position concludes, women must have access to legal, safe abortion as a necessary condition to full participation in society.
Continue the debate...

1. The more conservative pro-life people see abortion as a moral issue, while more liberal pro-choice people see abortion as a power issue. Can you see a parallel to how conservatives and liberals view the issue of pornography?

2. Surveys show that men and women have almost the same opinions about abortion. Does this surprise you? Why? 3. Why do you think the abortion controversy is often so bitter? Why has our nation been unable to find a middle ground on which all can agree?

Sources: Based, in part, on Luker (1984), Tannahill (1992), and various news reports.



EXERCISE: Visit a local supermarket and examine the covers of the magazines displayed at the checkout line. To what extent is sexuality used to sell products? More specifically, are men or women more commonly portrayed in sexual terms?
CTQ1: Increased geographic mobility, greater individualism, more opportunities for women, and birth control technology all played a part in the sexual revolution, which increased the rate of premarital sex and, more generally, separated sex from reproduction.
CTQ2: Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference in sex partners. This concept is hard to measure because there are no clear-cut categories; in addition, people are not always honest in their responses about sex.
CTQ3: Generally, conservatives oppose sexually explicit material as harmful to community moral standards. Liberals, by contrast, support free artistic expression. Even so, some liberals oppose some forms of sexual expression as demeaning to women.
CTQ4: Examples of society’s regulation of sexuality range from formal norms such as the incest taboo, rape and statutory rape laws, sodomy laws, and sexual harassment regulations and statutes to informal norms involving sexual orientation and standards of beauty.

1. U.S. culture has long defined sex as a taboo topic. The Kinsey studies (1948, 1953) were among the first publications by social scientists on human sexuality.  

2. Sex refers to the biological distinction between females and males, which is determined at conception as a male sperm joins a female ovum.  

3. Males and females are distinguished not only by their genitals (primary sex characteristics) but also by bodily development as they mature (secondary sex characteristics). Hermaphrodites have some combination of both male and female genitalia. Transsexuals are people who feel they are one sex, although, biologically, they are the other.  

4. For most species, sex is rigidly directed by biology; for human beings, sex is a matter of cultural definition as well as personal choice. Patterns of kissing, modesty, and beauty vary around the world, revealing the cultural foundation of sexual practices.  

5. Historically, our society has held rigid attitudes toward sexuality, although these attitudes have become more permissive over time.  

6. The sexual revolution, which came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, brought a far greater openness in matters of sexuality. By 1980, a sexual counter-revolution was taking form, condemning permissiveness and urging a return to more conservative “family values.”  

7. The share of people in the United States who have premarital sexual intercourse increased over the last century. Research shows that three-fourths of young men and two-thirds of young women do so by their senior year in high school.  

8. The level of sexual activity varies within the population of U.S. adults: One-third report having sex with a partner a few times a year or not at all; another one-third have sex once or several times a month; the remaining one-third have sex with a partner two or more times a week.  

9. Although extramarital sex is widely condemned, about 25 percent of married men and 10 percent of married women report being sexually unfaithful to their spouses at some time.

10. Sexual orientation refers to people’s preference in terms of sexual partners. Four major orientations are heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. Sexual orientation is caused by some combination of biological factors, cultural factors, and human choice.

11. The share of the population that is homosexual depends on how researchers define “homosexuality.” About 9 percent of adult men and 4 percent of adult women report having some homosexual experience, compared with 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women who say they have a homosexual identity.

12. The gay rights movement has worked to gain greater acceptance for gay people. Largely due to this movement, the share of the U.S. population condemning homosexuality as morally wrong has steadily decreased and stands now at about half.

13. Some 1 million U.S. teenagers become pregnant each year. The rate of teenage pregnancy has dropped since 1950, when many teens married and had children. Today, however, most pregnant teens are unmarried and, especially if they drop out of school, are at high risk of poverty.

14. With no universal definition of pornography, the law allows local communities to set standards of decency. Conservatives condemn pornography as immoral; liberals, by contrast, condemn it as demeaning to women.

15. Prostitution, the selling of sexual services, is illegal almost everywhere in the United States. Although many people think of prostitution as a victimless crime, it victimizes women and spreads sexually transmitted diseases.

16. Some 100,000 rapes are reported each year, but the actual number is several times greater. Although many people think of rape as a sexual act, rape is really a violent expression of power. Most rapes involve people who know one another.

17. Structural-functional theory highlights society’s need to regulate sexual activity. A universal norm in this regard is the incest taboo that keeps kinship relations clear.


sex (p. 221) the biological distinction between females and males

primary sex characteristics (p. 222) the genitals, organs used for reproduction

secondary sex characteristics (p. 222) bodily differences, apart from the genitals, that distinguish biologically mature females and males

hermaphrodite (p. 223) a human being with some combination of female and male genitalia

transsexuals (p. 223) people who feel they are one sex even though biologically they are the other

incest taboo (p. 224) a norm forbidding sexual relations or marriage between certain relatives

sexual orientation (p. 228) a person’s preference in terms of sexual partners: same sex, other sex, either sex, neither sex

heterosexuality (p. 228) a sexual orientation in which a person is sexually attracted to someone of the other sex

homosexuality (p. 228) a sexual orientation in which a person is sexually attracted to someone of the same sex

bisexuality (p. 228) a sexual orientation in which a person is sexually attracted to people of both sexes

asexuality (p. 228) a sexual orientation in which a person is not sexually attracted to people of either sex

homophobia (p. 231) the dread of close personal interaction with people thought to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual

pornography (p. 232) sexually explicit material that causes sexual arousal

prostitution (p. 233) the selling of sexual services

queer theory (p. 239) a growing body of knowledge that challenges an allegedly heterosexual bias in sociology


1. What do sociologists mean by the sexual revolution? What did the sexual revolution change? Can you suggest some of the reasons that these changes occurred?  

2. What is sexual orientation? Why is this characteristic difficult for researchers to measure?  

3. Do you think laws should regulate the portrayal of sex in books, films, or on the Internet? Why or why not?  

4. In what ways do societies regulate sexuality? In what ways does sexuality play a part in social inequality?


1. The most complete study of sexual patterns in the United States to date is The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States by Edward Laumann et al. You can find this book in your campus or community library. Get a copy and browse through some of the chapters most interesting to you. Afterwards, think about the value of doing sociological research on sexuality.  

2. Contact your school’s student services office, and ask for information about the extent of sexual violence on your campus. Do people report such crimes? What policies and procedures does your school have to respond to sexual violence?  

3. In the past, state and local laws permitted prostitution much more widely than they do today. Do some research on the history of prostitution laws in your state or community.  

4. Install the CD-ROM packaged in the back of this new textbook to access a variety of study, review, and applications exercises designed to help you better understand the material covered in this chapter. The CD includes an author’s tip video, as well as interactive maps, video application exercises, Web links, and study questions.




Visit the interactive Web site that accompanies this text. Begin by clicking on the cover of your book. You will find a chapter-by-chapter study guide, practice tests, chat room, and many suggested Web links.


Visit the Web site of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, an organization formed to guide teens toward responsible sexual behavior. You can find data for your state at this site. What are the key parts of this organization’s program? How effective would you imagine it is? Why?


This Web site, the Queer Resource Directory, looks at a wide range of issues—including family, religion, education, and health—from a “queer theory” perspective. Visit this site to see in what ways various social institutions can be considered “heterosexist.” Do you agree? Why?


This is a search engine for all sorts of information on issues involving homosexuality.