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 as she clings to him. 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 mat-ing. 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 well as over time. Moreover, we 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 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 importance, few people really understand sexuality. Throughout much of our history, sex has been a cultural taboo, so, 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 research "off limits."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. An 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-thirties (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 development, apart from the genitals, that distinguishes biologically matur females and males. Mature females have wider hips for giving birth, breasts for nurturing infants, and soft fatty tissue that provides a reserve supply of nutrition during 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.

Hermaphrodites. 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) .

Transsexuals. Some hermaphrodites undergo genital surgery to appear (and even 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 ar 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 may be 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 desire 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.

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 in the United States reported having intercourse in a single position —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 the people of the South Seas learned of this practice from missionaries, they poked fun at it as the strange "missionary position."

As noted in Chapter 2 ("Culture"), even the simple practice of displaying affection shows 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) . For their part, the Maoris of New Zealand rub noses, while most people in Nigeria don't kiss at all.

Modesty, too, is culturally variable. 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 restrict sexuality, while others are more permissive. In China, for example, societal 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, prohibits 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 on record (including ancient Peru and Egypt) 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 to be 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 relationship be to the other two? ) . Third, by requiring people to marry outside of 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 other 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 been inconsistent. On the one hand, most of the Europeans who came to this continent held rigid notions that, ideally, sex was only for the purpose of reproduction within marriage. The early 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 2 ("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 homes 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 it is 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. There, 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'n'roll"summed up a new freedom in sexual behavior. 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.

According to the so-called "double standard," society allows (and even encourages) men to be sexually active, while it expects women to remain chaste before marriage and faithful to their husbands afterwards. The sexual revolution, then, had special significance for women because, historically, women were subject to greater sexual regulation than men. Survey data shown in Figure 7 –1 support this conclusion. Among people born in the United States between 1933 and 1942 (that is, people in their 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 advanced the principle of sexual freedom, 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 highly 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" and for an abandonment of sexual freedom in favor of 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 the number of their 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 14 ("Education 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 7 –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 widely accepted among young people.


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 varies widely in the U. S. population. The patterns break 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 onethird 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 the more neutral-sounding term "extramarital sex") is widely condemned. Table 7 –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 have remained sexually faithful to their partners (Laumann et al. , 1994: 214; NORC, 1999: 996) .


Sexual orientation refers to a person's romantic and emotional attraction to another person. The norm in all human societies is heterosexuality (hetero is a Greek word meaning "the other of two"), 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. People do not necessarily fall into one category or the other, but may have both sexual orientations to varying degrees. Figure 7 –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 clearcut points to the importance of a third category: bisexuality, which refers to sexual attraction to people of both sexes. Some bisexual people are attracted equally to males and females; many others, however, are attracted more to one sex than the other. Finally, one additional sexual orientation is asexuality, 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 actually engage in same-sex behavior. This is in large part due to cultural constraints on our actions. Cultural systems do not accept all sexual orientations equally. In the United States, as well as the rest of the world, heterosexuality is the norm because 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 their intellectual inferiors. "Real" men preferred other men as sexual partners, and engaged in heterosexual relations only in order to have children (Kluckhohn, 1948; Ford & Beach, 1951; Greenberg, 1988).


The question of how people come to have a particular sexual orientation in the first place is vigorously debated. But the arguments cluster around two general, opposite positions: (1) that sexual orientation is a product of society, and (2) 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. Understanding of sexuality, therefore, differs from place to place and over time. As Michel Foucault (1990) points out, 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. Throughout 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.

Anthropologists provide further evidence that sexual orientation is socially constructed. Studies show that patterns of homosexuality differ greatly among societyies. In Siberia, for example, the Chukchee Eskimo perform a ritual during which one man dresses like a female and does a woman's work. The Sambia of 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) . The existence of such diverse patterns in societies around the world seems to indicate that sexual orientation and sexual expression have much to do with society itself.

Sexual orientation: A product of biology. A growing body of evidence suggests that sexual orientation is innate, that it is rooted in human biology, in much the same way that people are born right-handed or lefthanded. Arguing this position, Simon LeVay (1993) links sexual orientation to the structure of an individual's 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, he claims, plays a part in shaping one's 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 inherited from their mothers. Moreover, the gay brothers had an unusually high number of gay male relatives — but only on their mother's side. Such evidence leads some researchers to think there may be a "gay gene" (Hamer &Copeland, 1994) .

Critical evaluation. Mounting evidence supports the conclusion that sexual orientation is rooted in biology, although the best guess at present is that it 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 hard question to answer because, as we have explained, sexual orientation is not a matter of neat categories. Moreover, people are not always willing to discuss their sexuality with strangers or even 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 his research suggested that at least one-third of men and one-eighth of women have had 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 7 –3 shows, around 9 percent of men and 4 percent of women between ages 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 othersex attractions can operate independently. At one extreme, then, bisexual people feel strong attractions to people of both sexes; at the other, asexual people experience little sexual attraction to people of either sex.

In the national survey just noted, less than 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 the long term, the public's attitude toward homosexuality has been moving toward greater acceptance. Back in 1973, as shown in Part (b) of Figure 7 –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 had dropped to less than 60 percent (NORC, 1999: 236) .

In large measure, this change of thinking came about as a result of the gay rights movement that gained strength after the tumultuous decade of the 1960s (Chauncey, 1994) . Up to 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 accused of being 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.

As the gay rights movement gained strength over the years, however, the climate changed. One early milestone occurred in 1973 when the American Psychiatric 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.


Being sexually active —especially having intercourse — demands a high level of responsibility, because it carries the risk of pregnancy. Teenagers may be biologically mature, but many are not emotionally mature and may not appreciate all the consequences of their actions. Indeed, surveys indicate that while million U. S. teens become pregnant each year, most of them do 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 7–4 shows that this country's rate of teen pregnancy is higher than that of other industrial countries.

Did the sexual revolution raise the level of teenage pregnancy? Surprisingly, the answer is no. The rate of pregnancy among teens in 1950 was actually higher than it is today, but this is because people back then married at a younger age. In fact, 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 such cases, these women have abortions; in the other half, they keep their babies (Voydanoff &Donnelly, 1990; Holmes, 1996a). National Map 7 –1 shows the distribution of births to females between the ages of fifteen and seventeen 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.


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 certainly popular in the United States: X-rated videos, 1-900 telephone "sex lines,"and a host of sexually explicit movies and magazines together constitute almost a $10-billion-a-year industry. And that 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 claim that pornography is 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, 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) .


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 at some time (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 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 7–1 on page 174 shows where in the world prostitution is most widespread. Types of prostitution. While most prostitutes (many prefer the morally neutral term "sex workers") are women, they fall into different categories. Call girls are elite prostitutes, typically women who are young, attractive, and 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.

A middle category of prostitutes works 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. Typically, female street walkers are 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) .

A victimless crime? Prostitution is against the law almost everywhere, but many people consider it a victimless crime (see Chapter 6, "Deviance") . Consequently, instead of enforcing prostitution laws all the time, police stage only occasional crackdowns. This policy reflects a desire to control prostitution while assuming that nothing will totally 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 "yes."But it is also true 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, especially in low-income nations. The box offers a closer look at the flourishing sex trade in Southeast Asia.


Ideally, sexual activity occurs within a loving relationship; but sex can sometimes 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 motivated solely by a desire for 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. This number, though, reflects only the reported cases, and 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).

Date rape. A common myth is that rape involves strangers. In reality, 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 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, the attack could not really have been rape. But the tide is turning, with more and more women speaking out. The box takes a closer look.


We can better understand human sexuality by using sociology's 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 dimension 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 rein —would threaten family life and, especially, the raising of children.

Another example, discussed earlier, 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 resulting from sex between family members other than married partners would break down the system of kinship and hopelessly confuse human relationships.

Historically, the social control of sexuality was strong, mostly because sex inevitably led to childbirth. We see this in the traditional distinction between "legitimate"reproduction (within marriage) and "illegitimate"reproduction (out of wedlock) . But once a society develops the technology to control births, its sexual 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 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 Kingsley Davis (1971) explains that prostitution performs several latent functions —the reason it exists everywhere despite society's attempts to limit it. Prostitution 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 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 appreciate the important role sexuality plays in how society is organized. The incest taboo and other cultural norms also suggest that society has always paid 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 4 ("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.

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 until marriage. This norm was strong because there was no effective means of 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's awareness of sex. A century ago, childhood was a time of innocence in sexual matters. In recent decades, however, thinking has changed. Though few people condone sexual activity among children, 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 people in some societies 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 symbolicinteraction 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 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 vice versa. 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 reflects patterns of social inequality and also how it helps perpetuate 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 legitimate 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, then, 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 pornography typically depicts women seeking to please men, it supports the idea that men have power over women.

Some 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, they do agree that sexuality can and does degrade women. They 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 sought 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 the heterosexual bias in U. S. society. 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 (racism) 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 reducing inequality. Men today, in public at least, are less likely to describe women as sex objects than a few decades ago; moreover, our rising public concern about sexual harassment (see Chapter 10, "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. The issue cuts to the heart of just about everyone's sense of justice, as described in the box.


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

  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. Although, early in its history, U. S. society held rigid attitudes toward sexuality, 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. Research shows that changes in sexuality were greater for women than for men. By 1980, a sexual counterrevolution 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 course of the twentieth century. Research shows that about 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 a person's romantic and emotional attraction to another person. Four major orientations are heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. Sexual orientation reflects both biological and cultural factors.

  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 had 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 teenagers become pregnant each year in the United States. The rate of teenage pregnancy has dropped since 1950, when many teens married and had children. Today, most pregnant teens are not married 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, others point out that 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, which keeps kinship relations clear.

  18. The symbolic-interaction paradigm points up how people attach various meanings to sexuality. Thus, societies differ from one another in terms of sexual attitudes and practices; similarly, sexual patterns change within any one society over time.

  19. Social-conflict theory links sexuality to inequality. From this point of view, men dominate women in part by devaluing them as sexual objects.


sex (p. 161) the biological distinction between females and males

primary sex characteristics (p. 162) the genitals, organs used for reproduction

secondary sex characteristics (p. 162) bodily development, apart from the genitals, that distinguishes biologically mature females and males

hermaphrodite (p. 163) a human being with some combination of female and male genitalia

transsexuals (p. 000) people who feel they are one sex even though biologically they are the other

incest taboo (p. 164) a norm forbidding sexual relations or marriage between certain relatives

sexual orientation (p. 168) a person's romantic and emotional attraction to another person

heterosexuality (p. 168) sexual attraction to someone of the other sex

homosexuality (p. 168) sexual attraction to someone of the same sex

bisexuality (p. 168) sexual attraction to people of both sexes

asexuality (p. 168) no sexual attraction to people of either sex

homophobia (p. 171) the dread of close personal interaction with people thought to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual

pornography (p. 172) sexually explicit material that causes sexual arousal

prostitution (p. 173) the selling of sexual services

queer theory (p. 179) a growing body of knowledge that challenges the heterosexual bias in U. S. society

heterosexism (p. 179) a view stigmatizing anyone who is not heterosexual as "queer"

abortion (p. 180) the deliberate termination of a pregnancy


  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. Overall, do you think sexuality plays too great a role in the mass media and other dimensions of everyday life? Why or why not?


  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 and others. You can find this book in your campus or community library.

  2. Contact your school's student services office and ask what information there is 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 rooms, 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 highlighting issues involving homosexuality.