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Generally speaking, human sexuality is how people experience and express themselves as sexual beings.[1] The study of human sexuality encompasses an array of social activities and an abundance of behaviors, series of actions, and societal topics. Biologically, sexuality can encompass sexual intercourse and sexual contact in all its forms, as well as medical concerns about the physiological or even psychological aspects of sexual behaviour. Sociologically, it can cover the cultural, political, and legal aspects; and philosophically, it can span the moral, ethical, theological, spiritual or religious aspects.

As Michel Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality, the concept of what activities and sensations are "sexual" is historically (as well as regionally and culturally) determined, and it is therefore part of a changing "discourse".[2][3][4][5][6] The sexual meanings (meanings of the erotic dimension of human sexual experience), are social and cultural constructs, they are made subjective only after cultural and social mediation.[7] Being the main force conditioning human relationship, sex is essentially political. In any social context, the construction of a "sexual universe" is fundamentally linked to the structures of power.[7][2][8][9] The construction of sexual meanings, is an instrument by which social institutions (religion, marketing, the educational system, psychiatry, etc.) control and shape human relationships.[4][3]

According to Foucault, sexuality began to be regarded as a concept part of human nature since the 19th century; so sexuality began to be used as a mean to define normality and its boundaries, and to conceive everything outside those boundaries in the realm of psychopathology. In the 20th century, with the theories of Sigmund Freud and of sexology, the "not-normal" was seen more as a "discontent of civilization" [10][3] In a well known passage of his work, Foucault noted that the development of the notion of sexuality organized sex as a "fictitious unity" of "disparate parts, functions, behaviours, and feelings with no natural or necessary relation among them"; therefore the conception of what is "natural" is a social construct.[11][12] To escape this cultural "sexuality" Foucault suggest to focus on "bodies and pleasures".[13][11]

In many historical eras, recovered art and artifacts help to portray human sexuality of the time period.[14]

Biological aspects

The biology of human sexuality examines the influence of biological factors, such as organic and neurological response,[2] heredity, hormones, and sexual dysfunction;[15] it examines the basic functions of reproduction and the physical means to carry it out. The biological perspective helps to analyze the factors, and ultimately aids in understanding them and using them to deal with sexual problems.

Sexual behavior can be a disease vector. Safe sex is a relevant harm reduction philosophy. Monogamy is also espoused, however, practicing safe sex with many committed partners, referred to as serial monogamy or polygamy, is not as safe, particularly among adolescents.[16]

Sex as exercise can produce some health benefits.

Sociocultural aspects

Human sexuality can also be understood as part of the social life of humans, governed by implied rules of behavior and the status quo. This focus narrows the view to groups within a society.[17] The sociocultural aspect examines influences on and from social norms, including media such as politics and the mass media. These sorts of media can help to bring about massive changes in the social norm — examples include the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism.

The link between constructed sex meanings and racial ideologies has been studied. Sexual meanings are constructed to maintain racial-ethnic-national boundaries, by denigration of "others" and regulation of sexual behavior within the group. "Both adherence to and deviation from such approved behaviours, define and reinforce racial, ethnic, and nationalist regimes."[18][19]

Sex education

Sex education is the introduction of sexual topics within an educational context. Almost all western countries have some form of sex education, but the nature varies widely. In some countries (such as Australia and much of Europe) "age-appropriate" sex education often begins in pre-school, whereas other countries (notably the USA) leave sex education to the pre-teenage and teenage years. Sex education covers a range of topics, including the physical, mental, and social aspects of sexual behavior.

Psychological aspects

The psychological study of sexuality focuses on psychological influences that affect sexual behavior and experiences.[5] Early psychological analyses were carried out by Sigmund Freud, who believed in a psychoanalytic point of view. He also conjectured the concepts of erogenous zones, psychosexual development, and the Oedipus complex, among others.

Behavior theorists such as John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner examine the actions and consequences and their ramifications. These theorists would, for example, study a child who is punished for sexual exploration and see if they grow up to associate negative feelings with sex in general. Social-learning theorists use similar concepts, but focus on cognitive activity and modeling.

Gender identity is a person's own sense of identification as female, male, both, neither, or somewhere in between. The social construction of gender has been discussed by a wide variety of scholars, Judith Butler notable among them.

Sexual behaviour

Human sexual behaviour encompasses the search for a partner or partners, interactions between individuals, physical or emotional intimacy, and sexual contact. Some cultures will find only sexual contact within marriage acceptable; however, extramarital sexual activity still takes place. Unprotected sex may result unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. In some areas, sexual abuse of individuals is prohibited by law and considered against the norms of society.

Sexual activity and lifestyles


Main article: Heterosexuality

Heterosexuality involves two individuals of different sexes.

Different-sex sexual practices are limited by laws in many places. United States marriage laws may serve the purpose of encouraging people to only have sex (and children) within marriage. Sodomy laws were seen as discouraging same-sex sexual practices. Laws also ban adults from committing sexual abuse, committing sexual acts with anyone under an age of consent, performing sexual activities in public, and engaging in sexual activities for money (prostitution). Though these laws all cover same-sex sexual activities, they may differ with regards to punishment, and may be more frequently (or exclusively) enforced on those who engage in same-sex sexual activities. Laws also control the making and viewing of pornography, including pornography which portrays different-sex sexual activities.

Courtship, or dating, is the process through which some people choose potential sexual and/or marital partners. Among straight (presumably middle class) teenagers and adolescents in the mid-20th century in America, dating was something one could do with multiple people before choosing to "go steady" with only one, the eventual goal being either sex, marriage, or both. More recently dating has become what going steady was and the latter term has fallen into disuse.[citation needed]

Different-sex sexual practices may be monogamous, serially monogamous, or polyamorous, and, depending on the definition of sexual practice, abstinent or autoerotic (including masturbation).

Different moral and political movements have waged for changes in different-sex sexual practices including courting and marriage, though in all countries, changes are usually made only at a slow rate. Especially in the USA, campaigns have often sparked and been fueled by moral panic. There, movements which claim to strengthen different-sex sexual practices within marriage are seen by others to discourage same-sex sexual practices, such as Defense of Marriage Act and the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.


Same-sex sexuality involves two individuals of the same sex. It is possible for a person whose sexual identity is heterosexual to get involved in sexual acts with people of the same sex, for example, mutual masturbation in the context of what may be considered "normal" heterosexual teen development. Homosexual people who pretend to lead a life of heterosexuality are often referred to as living "closeted" lives, that is, they hide their sexuality in "the closet". The term "closet case" is a derogatory term used to refer to another homosexual that hides his or her homosexuality or bisexuality, and "coming out" or "outing" refer to making that orientation (semi-) public voluntarily, or by others against their wishes, respectively.

The definition of homosexuality is a sexual attraction to members of one's own sex, though people who engage exclusively in same-sex sexual practices may not identify themselves as gay or lesbian. However, the degree of attraction complies with the varying levels of frequency, willingness, and/or interest. In sex-segregated environments, individuals may seek sex with others of their own sex (known as situational homosexuality). In other cases, some people may experiment or explore their sexuality with same (and/or different) sex sexual activity before defining their sexual identity. Health campaigns and officials often seek to target self-identified "straight" or bisexual men who have sex with men (MSM) as opposed to self-identified "gay" or homosexual men.

Despite stereotypes and common misconceptions, there are no forms of sexual activity exclusive to same-sex sexual behavior that can not also be found in opposite-sex sexual behavior, save those involving contact of the same sex genitalia such as tribadism and frot.

Among some communities (called "men on the DL" or "down-low"), same-sex sexual behavior is sometimes viewed as solely for physical pleasure. Men on the "down-low" may engage in regular (though often covert) sex acts with other men while continuing sexual and romantic relationships with women.

Auto-erotic sexuality

Autoeroticism is sexual activity that does not involve another person as partner. It can involve masturbation, though several paraphilias do not require a partner.

Though many autoerotic practices are relatively physically safe, some can be dangerous. These include autoerotic asphyxiation and self-bondage. The potential for injury or even death that exists while engaging in the partnered versions of these fetishes (choking and bondage, respectively) becomes drastically increased due to the isolation and lack of assistance in the event of a problem.

Alternative sexuality

A number of "alternative sexualities" exist. These are usually based upon individual choice. They range from the broadly accepted or tolerated, through to the highly controversial and illegal.

Examples of these less common or alternative sexualities include BDSM activities where dominance and submission activities are central features of sexual activity, through to zoosexuality where there is human-animal sexual activity.

Coercive and abusive sexuality

Sexual activity can also encompass sexual abuse - that is, coercive or abusive use of sexuality. Examples include: rape, lust murder, child sexual abuse, and zoosadism (animal abuse which may be sexual in nature), as well as (in many countries) certain non-consensual paraphilias such as frotteurism, telephone scatophilia (indecent phonecalls), and non-consensual exhibitionism and voyeurism (known as "indecent exposure" and "peeping tom" respectively).

Sexual pleasure

Sexual pleasure is pleasure derived from any kind of sexual activity. Though orgasm is generally known, sexual pleasure includes erotic pleasure during foreplay, and pleasure due to fetish or BDSM.[20][21]

Study of sexuality

In contemporary academia, sexuality is studied in the fields of sexology and gender and sexuality studies, among many other fields.


  1. Template:Harv
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Ellen Ross, Rayna Rapp Sex and Society: A Research Note from Social History and Anthropology Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 51-72
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Foucault, M. (1976) The History of Sexuality, Vol I: The Will to Knowledge
  4. 4.0 4.1 Weeks, Jeffrey. Sexuality and its Discontents; Meanings, Myths, and Modern Sexualities. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04503-7.  pp.176-8
  5. 5.0 5.1 Template:Harv
  6. MARY WEISMANTEL Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America American Anthropologist September 2004, Vol. 106, No. 3, pp. 495-505
  7. 7.0 7.1 Parker, Richard G. [Bodies and Pleasures: On the Construction of Erotic Meanings in Contemporary Brazil] Anthropology & Humanism Quarterly. June 1989, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 58-64
  8. Gayle Rubin (1984) Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality
  9. Toward a Conversation about Sex in Feminism: A Modest Proposal Vance, Carole S. [Pleasure and danger: Toward a politics of sexuality]
  10. Cáceres The production of knowledge on sexuality in the AIDS Aggleton, Peter; Parker, Richard Bordeaux; Barbosa, Regina Maria (2000). Framing the sexual subject: the politics of gender, sexuality, and power. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21838-8.  pp.242-3
  11. 11.0 11.1 Strozier, Robert M. (2002) Foucault, Subjectivity, and Identity: : Historical Constructions of Subject and Self pp.101-2, 108, 118-120
  12. Foucault 1976, p.154-5
  13. Foucault 1976, p.157
  14. Template:Harv
  15. Template:Harv
  16. STI Epi Update: Oral Contraceptive and Condom Use. Public Health Agency of Canada (1998-04-23). Retrieved on 2007-07-11.
  17. Template:Harv
  18. Joane Nagel (August 2000). "ETHNICITY AND SEXUALITY". Annual Review of Sociology 26: 107-133. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.107.
  19. Joane Nagel (2001). "Racial, Ethnic, and National Boundaries: Sexual Intersections and Symbolic Interactions". Symbolic Interaction 24 (2): 123–139. doi:10.1525/si.2001.24.2.123.
  20. Sex and Relationships - Sex - 4Health from Channel 4
  21. Improve your orgasm: you may have thought your sexual pleasure was the one thing that couldn't get any better. Think again - Sexual Fitness - physiology | Men's Fitness | Find Articles at

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