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Human sexuality

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This article is about human sexual perceptions. For information about sexual activities
and practices, see Human sexual behavior.

Sexuality portal

Human sexuality is how people experience the erotic and express themselves as sexual
beings.[1] Frequently driven by the desire for sexual pleasure, human sexuality has
biological, physical, and emotional aspects. Biologically, it refers to the reproductive
mechanism as well as the basic biological drive that exists in all species and can
encompass sexual intercourse and sexual contact in all its forms. Emotional aspects deal
with the intense emotions relating to sexual acts and associated social bonds. Physical
issues around sexuality range from purely medical considerations to concerns about the
physiological or even psychological and sociological aspects of sexual behaviour.

The term can also cover cultural, political, legal and philosophical aspects. It may also
refer to issues of morality, ethics, theology, spirituality or religion and how they relate to
all things sexual. Recent studies on human sexuality have highlighted that sexual aspects
are of major importance in building up personal identity and in the social evolution of

Human sexuality is not simply imposed by instinct or stereotypical conducts,

“ as it happens in animals, but it is influenced both by superior mental activity
and by social, cultural, educational, and normative characteristics of those
places where the subjects grow up and their personality develops.
Consequently, the analysis of sexual sphere must be based on the
convergence of several lines of development such as affectivity, emotions,
and relations. ”
Deleuze and Guattari, in their 1972 Anti-Oedipus, discuss how sexuality is a powerful
force that invests all social activities:[3]

Familialism maintains that sexuality operates only in the family [...] the truth
“ is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a
judge administers justice, a business causes money to circulate; the way the
burgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to
metaphors, any more than for the libido to go by way of metamorphoses.
Hitler gave the fascists a hard-on. Flags, nations, armies, banks give a lot of
people hard-ons. ”

[edit] Biology and physiology

The biological aspects of human sexuality deal with human reproduction and the physical
means with which to carry it out. They also deal with the influence of biological factors
on other aspects of sexuality, such as organic and neurological responses,[4] heredity,
hormonal issues, gender issues and sexual dysfunction.[1]

[edit] Benefits

Apart from the possibility of its resulting in successful pregnancy and childbirth, sex has
a wide range of health benefits including relief from stress, more immunity through
increased immunoglobulin A, reduced risk of heart attack and of prostate cancer, and
sounder sleep.[5]

[edit] Risks

A rolled up male condom

Human intercourse can however also result in sexually transmitted diseases such as those
arising from HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, and HPV. For this reason, some
people require potential sex partners to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before
engaging in sex.[6]

Intercourse can also lead to unwanted pregnancy. This can be avoided by the use of birth
control measures such as condoms, spermicides, hormonal contraception, and

[edit] Sociocultural aspects

Women's lib demonstration, 1970

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.[1] The sociocultural aspect examines influences on and from social
norms, including the effects of politics and the mass media. Such movements can help to
bring about massive changes in the social norm — examples include the sexual
revolution and the rise of feminism.[8][9]

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 behaviors, define and reinforce racial,
ethnic, and nationalist regimes."[10][11]

The age and manner in which children are informed of issues of sexuality is a matter of
sex education. The school systems in almost all developed countries have some form of
sex education but the nature of the issues covered varies widely. In some countries (such
as Australia and much of Europe) "age-appropriate" sex education often begins in pre-
school, whereas other countries 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.

[edit] Psychological aspects

Sigmund Freud with daughter Anna

Sexuality in humans generates profound emotional and psychological responses. Some

theorists identify sexuality as the central source of human personality.[13]

Psychological studies of sexuality focus on psychological influences that affect sexual

behavior and experiences.[1] Early psychological analyses were carried out by Sigmund
Freud, who believed in a psychoanalytic approach. He also conjectured the concepts of
erogenous zones, psychosexual development, and the Oedipus complex, among others.[14]

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.[15] 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. Recent contributions consider the
influence of feminist theory and courtship research.[16][17]

[edit] Fertility
Main article: Fertility

Both women and men have hormonal cycles determining when a woman can achieve
pregnancy and when a man is most virile. The female cycle is approximately 28 days
long, but the male cycle is variable.[18][19]

[edit] Menstrual cycle

Main article: Menstrual cycle

Although women can become pregnant at any time during their menstrual cycle, peak
fertility usually occurs in the window from two days before to two days after ovulation.[20]

[edit] Female fertility

The average age of the first menstruation or menarche in the United States is about 12.5

Women's fertility peaks around the age of 19-24, and can start to decline after 30. With a
rise in women postponing pregnancy,[22] this can create an infertility problem. Of women
trying to get pregnant, without using fertility drugs or in vitro fertilization:

• At age 30, 75% will get pregnant within one year, and 91% within four years.
• At age 35, 66% will get pregnant within one year, and 84% within four years.
• At age 40, 44% will get pregnant within one year, and 64% within four years.[23]

[edit] Male fertility and age

Erectile dysfunction increases with age,[24] but fertility does not decline in men as sharply
as it does in women. There have been examples of males being fertile at 94 years old.[24]
However, evidence suggests that increased male age is associated with a decline in semen
volume, sperm motility, and sperm morphology.[25] Sperm count declines with age, with
men aged 50–80 years producing sperm at an average rate of 75% compared with men
aged 20–50 years.
[edit] Sexual behavior

Human sexual behavior, driven by the desire for pleasure, encompasses the search for a
partner or partners, interactions between individuals, physical, emotional intimacy, and
sexual contact which may lead to foreplay, masturbation and ultimately orgasm.[26]

[edit] Attraction

Sexual attraction is a response to another person, that depends on a combination of the

person possessing the traits and also on the criteria of the person experiencing the
attraction. Sexual attraction can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual etc and
there are even individuals who are asexual and have no sexual attraction to others. Sexual
attraction may depend on the physical quality, including both looks and movements, of a
person but can also be influenced by voice or smell as well as by individual preferences
resulting from a variety of genetic, psychological, and cultural factors.

Though attempts have been made to devise objective criteria, a person's sexual
attractiveness is to a large extent a subjective measure dependent on another person's
interest, perception and sexual orientation as well as on mutual attraction. Interpersonal
attraction includes factors such as physical or psychological similarity, familiarity,
similarity, complementarity, reciprocal liking, and reinforcement.[27]

Women are believed to be more generally attracted to men who are slightly taller and
who have a relatively narrow waist and broad shoulders. Men may be attracted by women
who are slightly shorter, have a youthful appearance and exhibit features such as a
symmetrical face, full breasts, full lips, and a low waist-hip ratio.[28][29]

[edit] Creating a partnership

Eugene de Blaas: Flirtation

Main article: Human sexual behaviour

Several stages are involved here. Depending on the individuals concerned and the society
in which they live, they may extend over a considerable period or may be completed
quite quickly. They can consist of one or more of the following:
• Flirting: the manner in which an individual gains the attention of another in order
to encourage romance or sexual relations by means of body language,
conversation, joking or brief physical contact.[30]
• Seduction: the process of one person deliberately enticing another to engage in
some sort of human sexual behavior.[31] It can have both positive and negative
• Dating: the process of arranging meetings or outings with a potential partner with
a view to investigating or enhancing their suitability for an intimate partnership.

Creating a partnership

• Courtship: the traditional dating period before engagement and marriage when
couples get to know each other better.
• Physical intimacy: usually an expression of feelings such as close friendship or
love, including holding hands, hugging, kissing, caressing, often leading to sexual
• Foreplay: leading on from the above, foreplay can include deep tongue kissing,
touching and massaging erogenous zones over clothing or rubbing them together,
and undressing oneself or partner.
• Mutual masturbation: stimulation of the genitals of one or both partners, usually
using the hands, without penetration and sometimes resulting in orgasm.
• Intercourse: the act, sometimes referred to as penetration, in which the male
reproductive organ enters the female reproductive tract with a view to achieving

[edit] Alternative practices

Woman in bondage

Many people derive sexual pleasure from a variety of alternative practices ranging from
fetishism to BDSM.
• BDSM: a compound acronym covering bondage and discipline, dominance and
submission, sadism and masochism.[32] The parties involved usually experience
pleasure through a spectrum of alternative sexual activities. Often consensual
power exchange (one person dominating and the other submitting) can occur.
These practices can include spanking, bondage, role playing, role reversals, and
raising endorphins through the use of whips, floggers and other implements.
• Fetishism can take many forms ranging from the desire for certain body parts, for
example large breasts, armpits or foot worship. The object of desire can often be
shoes, boots, lingerie, clothing, leather or rubber items.

[edit] Sex and religion

Main article: Religion and sexuality

Most religions address the question of a "proper" role for sexuality in human interactions.
Different religions have different codes of sexual morality, which regulate sexual activity
or assign normative values to certain sexually charged actions or thoughts.

Some cultures discriminate against sexual contact outside of marriage although it is

widely practiced. Extramarital sexual activity is strictly forbidden by Islamic and Jewish
law. Christians generally widely discourage extramarital sexual activity.

[edit] Sexual activity and orientations

[edit] 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.[33][34]

[edit] Heterosexuality

Main article: Heterosexuality

Heterosexuality involves individuals of opposite sexes.[35]

Different-sex sexual practices are limited by laws in many places. In some countries,
mostly those where religion has a strong influence on social policy, marriage laws serve
the purpose of encouraging people to have sex only within marriage. Sodomy laws were
seen as discouraging same-sex sexual practices, but may affect opposite-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 cover both same-sex and
opposite-sex sexual activities, they may differ in regard to punishment, and may be more
frequently (or exclusively) enforced on those who engage in same-sex sexual activities.[36]
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 religious and political movements have tried to influence or control changes in
sexual practices including courting and marriage, though in most countries changes occur
at a slow rate.[37]

[edit] Homosexuality

Main article: Homosexuality

Homosexuality (from Greek homo = same) involves individuals of the same sex.[38]

Gay men

People with a homosexual orientation can express their sexuality in a variety of ways,
and may or may not express it in their behaviors.[39] Some have sexual relationships
predominately with people of their own gender identity, another gender, bisexual
relationships or they can be celibate.[39] Research indicates that many lesbians and gay
men want, and succeed in having, committed and durable relationships. For example,
survey data indicate that between 40% and 60% of gay men and between 45% and 80%
of lesbians are currently involved in a romantic relationship.[40]

It is possible for a person whose sexual identity is mainly heterosexual to engage 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. Gay, lesbian, and
bisexual people who pretend to be heterosexual are often referred to as being closeted,
hiding their sexuality in "the closet". "Closet case" is a derogatory term used to refer to
people who hide their sexuality. Making that orientation (semi-) public can be called
"coming out" in the case of voluntary disclosure or "outing" in the case of disclosure by
others against the subject's wishes. 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 sex acts with other men while
continuing sexual and romantic relationships with women.
The definition of homosexuality is a preference to members of one's own sex, though
people who engage exclusively in same-sex sexual practices may not identify themselves
as bisexual, gay or lesbian. In sex-segregated environments, individuals may seek
relationships with others of their own gender (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. 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.

[edit] Autoerotic sexuality

Autoeroticism, also known as autosexuality, is sexual activity that does not involve
another person as a partner. It can involve masturbation, though several paraphilias
require a partner. Many people use dildos, vibrators, anal beads, sybian machines, and
other sex toys while alone.[41]

Though many autoerotic practices are relatively physically safe, some can be dangerous.
These include erotic 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.

[edit] Coercive and abusive sexuality

Main article: Sexual abuse

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).[42]

The sexual abuse of individuals is widely prohibited by law and considered against the
norms of society.

[edit] Ancient civilizations

Min: the ancient Egyptian god of fertility

Many of the ancient civilisations provide evidence of developments in sexuality. In


• Egypt: The couple Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, now buried in a joint Fifth-
dynasty (2498-2345 BC) era tomb in Saqqara, Egypt, are the oldest recorded
same-sex couple in human history. The Ancient Egyptians related the cult of
phallus with Osiris. When Osiris' body was cut in 13 pieces, Seth scattered them
all over Egypt and his wife Isis retrieved all of them except one, his penis, which
was swallowed by a fish (see the Legend of Osiris and Isis). The phallus was a
symbol of fertility, and the god Min was often depicted ithyphallic (with a penis).

• India: Ancient texts from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism such as the Vedas
reveal moral perspectives on sexuality, marriage and fertility prayers. The epics of
ancient India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, possibly from as early as 1400
BCE, later influenced Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and South East Asian culture.
They indicate that sex was considered a mutual duty between a married couple,
but where sex was considered a private affair. The most publicly known sexual
literature of India are the texts of the sixty-four arts.
• Mesopotamia: In ancient Mesopotamia, Ishtar was the primary Goddess of life,
men and women, nature and fertility, sex, sexual power and birth. Ishtar was also
the goddess of war and weapons and any victory was celebrated in her temples
with offerings of produce and money as well as through a feast and orgy of sex
and fornication with holy temple prostitutes.
• China: In the I Ching (The Book of Changes, a Chinese classic text dealing with
what would be in the West termed metaphysics), sexual intercourse is one of two
fundamental models used to explain the world. Heaven is described as having
sexual intercourse with Earth. The male lovers of early Chinese men of great
political power are mentioned in one of the earliest great works of philosophy and
literature, the Zhuang Zi.
• Japan: In perhaps the earliest novel in the world, the Genji Monogatari (Tale of
Genji), dating back to around the 11th century AD, eroticism is treated as a
central part of the aesthetic life of members of the nobility.
• Greece: In ancient Greece, the phallus, often in the form of a herma, was an object
of worship as a symbol of fertility. One ancient Greek male idea of female
sexuality was that women envied penises of males. Wives were considered as
commodity and instruments for bearing legitimate children. They had to compete
sexually with eromenoi, hetaeras and slaves in their own homes.
• Rome: Ancient Roman civilization included celebrations associated with human
reproductive organs. Over time there emerged institutionalization of voluntary sex
as well as prostitution. This resulted in a virtual sexual caste system in Roman
civilization – different grades and degrees of sexual relationships. Apart from the
legally wedded spouses, a number of males used to have Delicatue, mistresses of
wealthy and prominent men. The next were the Famosae, mostly the daughters
and even wives of the wealthy families who enjoyed sex for its own sake. There
was another class known as Lupae, willing to have sexual union with anyone for a
price. Copae were the serving girls in the taverns and inns and who did not mind
being hired as bedmates for the night by travelers.

[edit] Modern developments

Main article: Sexology

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

Sexology, the study of sexual interests, behavior, and function, covers sexual
development and sexual relationships including sexual intercourse. It also documents the
sexualities of groups such as the disabled, children, and the elderly.[43]

Alfred Kinsey became interested in the different forms of sexual practices around 1933
when he developed the Kinsey Scale which ranges from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively
heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual. His Kinsey Reports starting with the
publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the
Human Female in 1953 contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

[edit] Foucault

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality (1976-1984)
that the concept of "sexual" activities and sensations is historically (as well as regionally
and culturally) determined. It is therefore part of a changing "discourse".[1][4][44][45][46] 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.[47] As the main force conditioning human relationships, sex is essentially
political. In any social context, the construction of a "sexual universe" is fundamentally
linked to the structures of power.[4][47][48][49] The construction of sexual meanings is an
instrument by which social institutions (religion, marketing, the educational system,
psychiatry, etc.) control and shape human relationships.[44][45]

According to Foucault, sexuality began to be regarded as a conceptual part of human

nature in the 19th century. Sexuality began to be used as a means 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"[44][50] 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.[51][52] To escape such cultural "sexuality",
Foucault suggested focusing on "bodies and pleasures".