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Sexual Behavior

Like food, sex is an important part of our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, the reason is
obvious—perpetuation of the species. Sexual behavior in humans, however, involves much more
than reproduction. Human sexual behavior, any activity—solitary, between two persons, or in a
group—that induces sexual arousal. Human sexual activity, human sexual practice or human
sexual behavior is the manner in which humans experience and express their sexuality. People
engage in a variety of sexual acts, ranging from activities done alone (e.g., masturbation) to acts
with another person (e.g., sexual intercourse, non-penetrative sex, oral sex, etc.) in varying
patterns of frequency, for a wide variety of reasons.

Types of Behavior

Human sexual behavior may conveniently be classified according to the number and gender of
the participants. There is solitary behavior involving only one individual, and there is sociosexual
behavior involving more than one person. Sociosexual behavior is generally divided into
heterosexual behavior (male with female) and homosexual behavior (male with male or female
with female). If three or more individuals are involved it is, of course, possible to have heterosexual
and homosexual activity simultaneously.
1. Solitary Behavior

Self-masturbation is self-stimulation with the intention of causing sexual arousal and,

generally, orgasm (sexual climax). Most masturbation is done in private as an end in itself
but is sometimes practiced to facilitate a sociosexual relationship.

Masturbation, generally beginning at or before puberty, is very common among males,

particularly young males, but becomes less frequent or is abandoned when sociosexual
activity is available. Consequently, masturbation is most frequent among the unmarried.
Fewer females masturbate; in the United States, roughly one-half to two-thirds have done
so, as compared to nine out of ten males. Females also tend to reduce or discontinue
masturbation when they develop sociosexual relationships.

The myth persists, despite scientific proof to the contrary, that masturbation is physically
harmful. Neither is there evidence that masturbation is immature behavior; it is common
among adults deprived of sociosexual opportunities. While solitary masturbation does
provide pleasure and relief from the tension of sexual excitement, it does not have the same
psychological gratification that interaction with another person provides; thus, extremely few
people prefer masturbation to sociosexual activity. The psychological significance of
masturbation lies in how the individual regards it. For some, it is laden with guilt; for others,
it is a release from tension with no emotional content; and for others it is simply another
source of pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.

The majority of males and females have fantasies of some sociosexual activity while they
masturbate. The fantasy not infrequently involves idealized sexual partners and activities
that the individual has not experienced and even might avoid in real life.
Since the masturbating person is in sole control of the areas that are stimulated, the degree
of pressure, and the rapidity of movement, masturbation is often more effective in producing
sexual arousal and orgasm than is sociosexual activity, during which the stimulation is
determined to some degree by one’s partner.

2. Sociosexual Behavior

By far the greatest amount of sociosexual behavior is heterosexual behavior between only
one male and one female. Heterosexual behavior frequently begins in childhood, and, while
much of it may be motivated by curiosity, such as showing or examining genitalia, many
children engage in sex play because it is pleasurable. The sexual impulse and
responsiveness are present in varying degrees in most children and latent in the remainder.
With adolescence, sex play is superseded by dating, which is socially encouraged, and
dating almost inevitably involves some physical contact resulting in sexual arousal. This
contact, labelled necking or petting, is a part of the learning process and ultimately of
courtship and the selection of a marriage partner.

Petting varies from hugging, kissing, and generalized caresses of the clothed body to
techniques involving genital stimulation. Petting may be done for its own sake as an
expression of affection and a source of pleasure, and it may occur as a preliminary to coitus.
This last form of petting is known as foreplay. In a minority of cases, but a substantial
minority, petting leads to orgasm and may be a substitute for coitus. Excluding foreplay,
petting is usually very stereotyped, beginning with hugging and kissing and gradually
escalating to stimulation of the breasts and genitalia. In most societies petting and its
escalation are initiated by the male more often than by the female, who generally rejects or
accepts the male’s overtures but refrains from playing a more aggressive role. Petting in
some form is a near-universal human experience and is valuable not only in mate selection
but as a means of learning how to interact with another person sexually.

Coitus, the insertion of the penis into the vagina, is viewed by society quite differently
depending upon the marital status of the individuals. Most of human societies permit
premarital coitus, at least under certain circumstances. In more repressive societies, such
as modern Western society, it is more likely to be tolerated (but not encouraged) if the
individuals intend marriage. Marital coitus is usually regarded as an obligation in most
societies. Extramarital coitus, particularly by wives, is generally condemned and, if
permitted, is allowed only under exceptional conditions or with specified persons. Societies
tend to be more lenient toward males than females regarding extramarital coitus. This
double standard of morality is also seen in premarital life. Post marital coitus (i.e., coitus by
separated, divorced or widowed persons) is almost always ignored. Even societies that try
to confine coitus to marriage recognize the difficulty of trying to force abstinence upon
sexually experienced and usually older persons.

Whether or not a behavior is interpreted by society or the individual as erotic (i.e., capable
of engendering sexual response) depends chiefly on the context in which the behavior
occurs. A kiss, for example, may express asexual affection (as a kiss between relatives),
respect (a French officer kissing a soldier after bestowing a medal on him), reverence
(kissing the hand or foot of a pope), or it may be a casual salutation and social amenity.
Even something as specific as touching genitalia is not construed as sexual if done for
medical reasons. In other words, the apparent motivation of the behavior determines its

Individuals are extremely sensitive in judging motivations: a greeting kiss, if protracted more
than a second or two, takes on a sexual connotation, and recent studies show that if an
adult male at a party stands closer than the length of his hand and forearm to a female, she
generally imputes a sexual motive to his proximity. Nudity is construed as erotic or even as
a sexual invitation—unless it occurs in a medical context, in a group consisting of but
one gender, or in a nudist camp.

Biological Factors Affecting Human Sexual Behavior

1. Physical Anatomy
 Female Reproductive Anatomy

Female external genitalia is collectively known as

the vulva, which includes the mons veneris, labia
majora, labia minora, clitoris, vaginal opening,
and urethral opening. Female internal
reproductive organs consist of the vagina, uterus,
fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The uterus hosts the
developing fetus, produces vaginal and uterine
secretions, and passes the male's sperm through
to the fallopian tubes; the ovaries release the
eggs. A female is born with all her eggs already
produced. The vagina is attached to the uterus through the cervix, while the uterus
is attached to the ovaries via the fallopian tubes. Females have a monthly
reproductive cycle; at certain intervals the ovaries release an egg, which passes
through the fallopian tube into the uterus. If, in this transit, it meets with sperm, the
sperm might penetrate and merge with the egg, fertilizing it. If not fertilized, the
egg is flushed out of the system through menstruation.
 Male Reproductive Anatomy

Males also have both internal and external

genitalia that are responsible for procreation and
sexual intercourse. Males produce their sperm
on a cycle, and unlike the female's ovulation
cycle, the male sperm production cycle is
constantly producing millions of sperm daily.
The main male sex organs are the penis and the
testicles, the latter of which produce semen and
sperm. The semen and sperm, as a result of
sexual intercourse, can fertilize an ovum in the
female's body; the fertilized ovum (zygote)
develops into a fetus, which is later born as a child.
Human Sexual Response Cycle

The sexual response cycle refers to the sequence of physical and emotional changes that occur
as a person becomes sexually aroused and participates in sexually stimulating activities, including
intercourse and masturbation. Knowing how your body responds during each phase of the cycle
can enhance your relationship and help you pinpoint the cause of sexual dysfunction. It is not the
only model of a sexual response cycle, but it is the best known one. The sexual response cycle
refers to the sequence of physical and emotional changes that occur as a person becomes
sexually aroused and participates in sexually stimulating activities, including intercourse and
masturbation. Knowing how your body responds during each phase of the cycle can enhance
your relationship and help you pinpoint the cause of sexual dysfunction. It is not the only model
of a sexual response cycle, but it is the best known one.

The sexual response cycle has four phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. Both
men and women experience these phases, although the timing usually is different. For example,
it is unlikely that both partners will reach orgasm at the same time. In addition, the intensity of the
response and the time spent in each phase varies from person to person. Many women will not
go through the sexual phases in this order. Some of these stages may be absent during some
sexual encounters, or out of sequence in others. A desire for intimacy may be a motivation for
sexual activity in some individuals. Understanding these differences may help partners better
understand one another’s bodies and responses, and enhance the sexual experience.

Several physiologic changes may occur during different stages of sexual activity. Individuals may
experience some, all, or none of these changes.

Phase 1: Excitement

General characteristics of this phase, which can last from a few minutes to several hours, include
the following:

 Muscle tension increases.

 Heart rate quickens and breathing is accelerated.
 Skin may become flushed (blotches of redness appear on the chest and back).
 Nipples become hardened or erect.
 Blood flow to the genitals increases, resulting in swelling of the woman’s clitoris and labia
minora (inner lips), and erection of the man’s penis.
 Vaginal lubrication begins.
 The woman’s breasts become fuller and the vaginal walls begin to swell.
 The man’s testicles swell, his scrotum tightens, and he begins secreting a lubricating

Phase 2: Plateau

General characteristics of this phase, which extends to the brink of orgasm, include the following:

 The changes begun in phase 1 are intensified.

 The vagina continues to swell from increased blood flow, and the vaginal walls turn a dark
 The woman’s clitoris becomes highly sensitive (may even be painful to touch) and retracts
under the clitoral hood to avoid direct stimulation from the penis.
 The man’s testicles are withdrawn up into the scrotum.
 Breathing, heart rate and blood pressure continue to increase.
 Muscle spasms may begin in the feet, face and hands.
 Tension in the muscles increases.

Phase 3: Orgasm

This phase is the climax of the sexual response cycle. It is the shortest of the phases and generally
lasts only a few seconds. General characteristics of this phase include the following:

 Involuntary muscle contractions begin.

 Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing are at their highest rates, with a rapid intake of
 Muscles in the feet spasm.
 There is a sudden, forceful release of sexual tension.
 In women, the muscles of the vagina contract. The uterus also undergoes rhythmic
 In men, rhythmic contractions of the muscles at the base of the penis result in the
ejaculation of semen.
 A rash or "sex flush" may appear over the entire body.

Phase 4: Resolution

During this phase, the body slowly returns to its normal level of functioning, and swelled and erect
body parts return to their previous size and color. This phase is marked by a general sense of
well-being and, often, fatigue. Some women are capable of a rapid return to the orgasm phase
with further sexual stimulation and may experience multiple orgasms. Men need recovery time
after orgasm, called a refractory period, during which they cannot reach orgasm again. The
duration of the refractory period varies among men and changes with age.
The Brain and Sex

The brain is the structure that translates the nerve impulses from the skin into pleasurable
sensations. It controls nerves and muscles used during sexual behavior. The brain regulates the
release of hormones, which are believed to be the physiological origin of sexual desire. The
cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain that allows for thinking and reasoning, is
believed to be the origin of sexual thoughts and fantasies. Beneath the cortex is the limbic system,
which consists of the amygdala, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, and septal area. These structures
are where emotions and feelings are believed to originate, and are important for sexual behavior.
The hypothalamus is the most important part of the brain for sexual functioning. This is the small
area at the base of the brain consisting of several groups of nerve-cell bodies that receives input
from the limbic system. Studies with lab animals have shown that destruction of certain areas of
the hypothalamus causes complete elimination of sexual behavior. One of the reasons for the
importance of the hypothalamus is its relation to the pituitary gland, which secretes the hormones
that are produced in the hypothalamus.


Several important sexual hormones are secreted by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin, also known as
the "hormone of love," is released during sexual intercourse when an orgasm is achieved.
Oxytocin is also released in females when they give birth or are breast feeding; it is believed that
oxytocin is involved with maintaining close relationships. Both prolactic and oxytocin stimulate
milk production in females. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is responsible for ovulation in
females by triggering egg maturity; it also stimulates sperm production in males. Luteinizing
hormone (LH) triggers the release of a mature egg in females during the process of ovulation.
In males, testosterone appears to be a major contributing factor to sexual motivation. Vasopressin
is involved in the male arousal phase, and the increase of vasopressin during erectile response
may be directly associated with increased motivation to engage in sexual behavior.
The relationship between hormones and female sexual motivation is not as well understood,
largely due to the overemphasis on male sexuality in Western research. Estrogen and
progesterone typically regulate motivation to engage in sexual behavior for females, with estrogen
increasing motivation and progesterone decreasing it. The levels of these hormones rise and fall
throughout a woman's menstrual cycle. Research suggests that testosterone, oxytocin, and
vasopressin are also implicated in female sexual motivation in similar ways as they are in males,
but more research is needed to understand these relationships.