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Sexuality

Changing Views Of Sex

Social constructions of sex continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century in Western societies. The pioneering surveys conducted by Alfred C. Kinsey and his colleagues (Kinsey et al. 1953; Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin 1948) found widespread premarital and extramarital sexual behavior among both men and women. This challenged the popular view that women were not interested in sex, or less interested in it than men. The work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson (1966) demonstrated that the processes of sexual arousal were similar for men and women, in contrast to the earlier view that they were different. These findings led to what has been termed the "eroticization of female sexuality" (Seidman 1991), the view that men and women were equally erotic. However, there are some gender differences in sexual behavior. Surveys in the United States (Smith 1991), Britain ( Johnson et al. 1994), and France (Spira et al. 1992) find that men report a larger number of sexual partners than women, both lifetime and in the recent past. Studies also find that men are more accepting of sexual activity in casual relationships than are women (Oliver and Hyde 1993).

A major change in the discourse about sex is the uncoupling of sex from marriage. As sexual gratification became accepted as an end in itself, people began to challenge the belief that intimate sexual activity should be limited to marriage. A liberal discourse emerged, which argued that sexual intimacy involving consenting people who are not married nor planning to marry is acceptable. In the 1970s, some argued that extramarital sexual intimacy is acceptable if the spouse approves (O'Neill and O'Neill 1972). This discourse led to expansion of available sexual lifestyles, including nonmarital relationships, cohabitation, and open marriage.

Since the mid-1960s, in the United States and elsewhere in the West, a minority discourse has developed that separates sex from love. According to this view, engaging in sexual intimacy for physical pleasure, or to express affection for one's partner, is legitimate. This discourse is the basis of a best-selling sexual advice book of the 1970s, The Joy of Sex (Comfort 1972), and its sequel, The New Joy of Sex (Comfort 1991). This discourse views male and female as essentially equal in sexual potential and in the right to sexual gratification. It challenges the double standard that sexual intimacy outside marriage or a committed relationship is acceptable for men but not for women. This discourse is consistent with the view that sex need not be limited to heterosexual couples. Thus, it facilitated the movement toward acceptance of casual heterosexual and homosexual contacts and living in committed gay and lesbian relationships.

The most visible change in the United States and other Western cultures since the mid-1970s is the increasing explicitness of public discourse about sexuality. Explicit sexual representations are found in newspapers, magazines, novels, and films. The individual's desire for sexual fulfillment is used to sell lipstick, colognes, beer, clothing, travel, and automobiles. Personal advertisements, singles magazines, and dating services cater to the desire to find the (nearly) perfect spouse or the perfect sexual partner. The sex industry provides lubricants, vibrators, erotic clothing, and explicit videos to people seeking sexual fulfillment. Thus, stimuli associated with arousal are almost everywhere, creating a culture in which the sexual is ever-present. This sexualization of the culture undoubtedly contributes to the occurrence of sexual activity in places and among persons formerly prohibited.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Health IssuesSexuality - Cross-cultural Variations, The Ideology Of Romantic Love In The West, Changing Views Of Sex