Sex Life(redirected from Human sexual behavior)
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the aggregate of physical, mental, and social processes and relations that are the basis of sexual desire and the means of satisfying it.
Sex and sexual behavior. The general biological basis of sexual behavior is the instinct to perpetuate the race. Such concrete forms of sexual behavior as the division of functions between the sexes, the characteristics of the reproductive cycle, the courting ritual, and the technique of the sexual act differ among species and genera and also differ according to sex, age, and living conditions. While normal sexual behavior is instinctive and genetically predetermined, it is further ensured by learning and by communication with peers and parents.
The more complex and intelligent an animal is, the greater will be the role in its behavior of habits acquired and developed during its growth. For example, when guinea pigs raised in complete isolation reach sexual maturity and are placed with individuals of the opposite sex, they generally display normal sexual activity and instinctively find ways of mating appropriate for their species. In contrast, rhesus monkeys reared in isolation are incapable of having a normal sex life because they did not develop the essential psychological mechanisms for communication. The more complex an animal, the deeper and more varied is the relation of its sexual behavior to other aspects of its life. The sexual activity of animals must be regarded as part of a totality of individual genetic and group characteristics formed and manifested only in contacts with other individuals of the same species.
In man, a number of social and cultural determinants also play a major role. The biological sex of an individual includes several relatively independent components successively formed in the course of development: (1) chromosomal, or genetic, sex, which is determined at the moment of conception; (2) gonadal sex, that is, the formation of male or female sex glands; (3) the hormonal sex of the embryo, which determines the differentiation of the genitalia (hormones also have a powerful effect on the mind); (4) morphological sex, that is, the structure of the internal reproductive organs and external genitalia; and (5) pubertal sex, that is, hormonal sex related to sexual maturity and responsible for the appearance of secondary sex characteristics. Impairment of any link in this system affects sexual function in one way or another. However, biological sex by itself does not make an individual a male or female, nor does it guarantee adequate sexual behavior. Such behavior also requires appropriate psychosexual identification: a person must be aware of his or her sex and learn the corresponding masculine or feminine role.
Psychosexual identification is one of the most important aspects of personality development. It is achieved by upbringing and by contact with people. After determining the sex of a newborn child from its external characteristics (attributive sex), the parents and other adults systematically rear the child accordingly. By the time it is 18 to 24 months old, a child is usually aware of its sex and later bases its life-style and expectations on it, since all cultures distinguish male and female roles and traits in one way or another. The extent to which one’s body and behavior correspond to the male or female pattern is the distinctive psychological axis around which the image of one’s ego is structured and on which self-evaluation and self-respect depend.
Later, during puberty, the adolescent becomes interested in sex and experiences desire for the opposite sex. The environment and one’s peers exert enormous influence in this respect. The biological and sociopsychological characteristics of sex normally coincide and develop in the same direction. However, they sometimes diverge; this may result from erroneous determination of the sex of an infant because of underdeveloped genitalia or from doubt as to the sex of an adolescent because of delayed puberty. It is difficult to predict the direction of psychosexual identification and psychosexual orientation of the personality under these conditions. In any case, the social factors are just as important here as the genetic ones. Thus, human sexual behavior is the product of the combined effects of biogenetic and social forces: attributive sex and the social system of differentiation between male and female roles.
Cultural and historical aspects. One of the characteristics of human sexuality is the separation of sensations associated with the satisfaction of sexual needs from the primary biological purpose of perpetuating the race. This separation of the recreative function of sex from the reproductive (procreative) function has made it theoretically possible to humanize sex and transform elementary sexual desire into human love. Such a development is possible when relations between a man and woman serve not only to perpetuate the race and give pleasure but also to give the great happiness of deep psychological and spiritual closeness. This also accounts for the immense variety of forms of human sexuality. Aside from vicarious forms of sex, which induce an orgasm by artificial stimulation of the genitalia (also true of many animals), the human imagination is capable of eroticizing, or of making sexually significant, virtually any real or ideal object. This occurs at the level of both individual and social consciousness. Sex is an integral part of a culture that expresses, generalizes, and symbolizes the varied manifestations of sexuality on the one hand and directs and coordinates them on the other.
Every developed human society has standards of sexual morality that regulate the relations between the sexes and coordinate these relations with the social institutions within whose framework the race is perpetuated and offspring are socialized and reared. Even the most ancient civilizations were familiar with divergent forms of sex life, some of which were viewed as normal and even elevated to the level of cultural symbols: examples are the phallic cult, the orgiastic rituals of the East, and the Dionysia. Other forms of sex were condemned and prohibited.
In general, sex became more complex and individualized as culture and personality developed. However, this is a contradictory process. The relationship between the spiritual and physical aspects of sex, like the attitude toward various forms of sexuality, differs from one society to another. The oldest and most universal taboo is undoubtedly the prohibition against incest, but with regard to such aspects of sex life as premarital and extramarital relations, masturbation, and homosexuality, different societies and cultures have maintained different and sometimes even contradictory standards. The ancient authors distinguished between sensual desire, or a sexual passion to possess (eros), and lofty spiritual love (agape, or platonic love). However, recreative sexuality was so sharply separated from the procreative purpose of sex in marriage that, in the words of F. Engels, “for the classical love poet of antiquity, old Anacreon … even the sex of the beloved one was a matter of indifference” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 79).
An ambivalent attitude toward sex characterized the European Middle Ages. Official Christian morality was, in principle, antisexual. It considered everything physical to be base and sinful and saw complete abstinence as the ideal. Even in marriage, sex was permitted only for the sake of perpetuating the race. However, at the everyday level medieval culture was highly tolerant of sexuality, regarding it as a normal and natural aspect of human existence that could be freely discussed in everyday life and reflected in secular art.
Early bourgeois society substantially altered these attitudes. In contrast to ecclesiastical asceticism, the humanists restored man’s right to sensual pleasure, and sensuality again occupied a place in the official “high” culture. Later, however, puritanical religious morality created a system of antisexual attitudes that made sex appear not only sinful but incompatible with an individual’s self-actualization in work and in the accumulation of wealth. In a life governed by the principle of “there is no lack of time for work but only an hour for enjoyment”, there was no place for sexuality, which was again viewed as something shameful. The dualistic contrast of “lofty” love to “base” and “animal” sexual desire permeated even the medical and pedagogical literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. Whereas the ancient writers strove to teach man to enjoy himself, the educators of the new times were concerned mainly with ways to minimize the importance of sexual desire and to postpone the beginning of sex life.
The morality of sexual abstinence was formulated in the same terms as the bourgeois principles of economy, accumulation, and self-control. The effort to desexualize man and culture, reinforced by censorship (many classical works of literature and art were considered to be obscene), widened the gap between the moral consciousness of society and people’s actual behavior. Sex was associated with guilt and sexual feelings were repressed, resulting in neuroses. It was this contradiction that the Austrian physician S. Freud observed in his clinical practice and generalized into a theory. The position of women was particularly difficult because Victorian philosophy regarded them as fundamentally asexual and having no sexual needs. This attitude encouraged frigidity. For men, the coldness of an official bourgeois marriage was compensated by legalized prostitution.
The crisis that occurred in the bourgeois system of values was compounded by such factors as urban youth’s increasing independence from their parents, accelerated puberty among adolescents, the participation of women in public life and in the work force, advances in gaining equal rights for women, the weakening of traditional religious morality, the emergence of scientific sexology and the spread of secular and rational attitudes toward sex, and the development of effective contraceptives. All these developments caused a significant shift toward the liberalization of sexual morality and a weakening of the double standard.
Sex life now begins at a much earlier age; for example, in the Federal Republic of Germany, educated young people in 1970 had their first sexual experiences approximately three to four years earlier than young people in 1960. This has created a number of social and ethical problems. In bourgeois society the earlier onset of sex life is manifested chiefly by negative aspects: a view of sex as a commodity, the growth of impersonal and commercial eroticism and of pornography, and the disorganization of the family. Some leftist theorists place excessive emphasis on sexuality, assert that sexuality is the main and determining force in human life, and regard the sexual revolution as the key to universal liberation. Such views are as harmful and untenable as the shunning or biologizing of sex. These opposing concepts are two sides of the same coin.
V. I. Lenin, while noting that marriage and sexual relations were to undergo profound changes, nevertheless sharply criticized the petit bourgeois anarchic interpretation of this process and emphasized the need to regard such changes in the light of the fundamental interests of society, including the effect of these changes on the development of marital and family relations, which even under socialism remain the chief regulator of sex life (see K. Tsetkin, Vospominaniia o Lenine, Moscow, 1955, p. 48). Despite the intimacy of the relations between the sexes, these relations are social in nature. This necessarily imposes certain obligations on people in their relations to one another and particularly with regard to children. The view of sex as a commodity results in freedom from responsibility and seriousness in love and eventually leads to depersonalization of sexual relations and to emotional dissatisfaction. Here, as in other areas of life, self-control is an essential element in the free self-expression of an individual.
I. S. KON
Medical and psychological aspects. Sex is an important part of normal human life. The findings of modern sexology do not confirm Freud’s theory of sublimation, which asserts that sexual desire may be satisfied nonsexually, by turning to different activity, such as work or artistic creation. Such a shift of interests and psychic energy without harm to the personality is possible but only as a temporary, limited measure. Nor has science confirmed the mechanistic theories of such clinicians as O. Eff-ertz, who assert that since all men possess an identical fixed supply of sexual energy sufficient for a certain number of ejaculations, sexual energy must be expended economically. There is no universal biological norm of sex life that determines its intensity, duration of the sex act, or emotional response to sex. These vary with age, sex, and individual physical, genetic, and personality traits formed by education and by the experiences of life.
The age-related dynamics of sex life is inseparably linked with the sexes because of the differences in the life cycle of men and women and because of the specific characteristics, still insufficiently studied, of female sexuality. Interest in sex and corresponding psychosexual orientation usually develop well before puberty, owing to environmental and educational influences. Active sexual desire is aroused during puberty. The effect of hormones and of the mechanical swelling of the seminal vesicles stimulates excessive sexual desire in young adolescent boys, leading to their first ejaculations, usually as a result of masturbation or in the form of nocturnal emissions, and to erotic fantasies and games.
The manifestations of puberty also symbolically denote the onset of adulthood. It is understandable that initiation rites marking entry into adulthood are almost everywhere associated with puberty. However, erotic urges and a need for emotional warmth and contact do not often coincide in adolescents and may even be directed toward persons of both sexes. Youthful love is psychologically very similar to friendship, which precedes love and is the first type of freely chosen human intimacy. Although girls mature 18 to 24 months before boys, among girls conscious erotic desires appear later. Thus their interest in boys is initially symbolized as a need for friendship. Distinctions between male and female sexuality also exist among adults. Female sexuality seems to be more closely tied to the reproductive function; this also accounts for the nature of the female orgasm.
During the period of mature sexuality, sexual activity stabilizes at a level determined by the individual’s sexual makeup, his or her moral and psychological attitudes, and the conditions in in which he or she lives. Of particular significance is marriage, during which sex acquires a necessary regularity. The involutional period, which includes the climacteric, is marked by a gradual lessening in sexual activity. The percentage of men capable of completing intercourse decreases from 75 percent among sexagenarians to 30 and 14 to 20 percent among septuagenarians and octogenarians, respectively. Age-related dynamics in women is more difficult to trace.
The mean statistical mass indexes of sexual activity cannot serve as an obligatory or even an approximate standard for a given individual. An individual’s sex life is determined by the aggregate of his genetic, hormonal, neurological, and personality characteristics. Therefore, what is completely normal and natural for one person may be abnormal and unnatural for another. Persons with a strong sex drive begin their sex life earlier than others, sustain it more vigorously, and end it later. However, the emotional aspect of sexual experiences and the satisfaction derived from them depend not so much on physiological potential as on the type of personality, on the individual’s attitude toward himself or herself, general emotional sensitivity, and ability to share experiences and communicate, and on other moral and volitional qualities.
Sexual problems as well are chiefly psychological in origin. These include emotional coldness and inability to communicate and to form deep and enduring ties. Such psychological problems are related in turn to upbringing: relations with parents, family atmosphere, the existence of a peer group, relations with this group, and adolescent and youthful friendships.
The development of healthy sexuality is a complex and contradictory process. Man has a wide variety of substitute, or extragenital, forms of sex and sex symbols; examples are visual images, nudity, and intimate articles of clothing. When psychosexual development is normal, such substitutes play an auxiliary role, arousing or intensifying desire and involving all the sense organs. This greatly intensifies sexual experiences and makes them total in the full sense of the word. However, if there is persistent and exclusive fixation on these substitute and accessory forms of sexuality, they may become obsessive deviations, and under certain conditions sexual perversions.
During all stages of life, sexual activity is closely associated with the other aspects of an individual’s life. Sexual excesses, whether obsessive masturbation during adolescence or promiscuity during adulthood, are usually a symptom of general disharmony, an attempt to compensate for dissatisfaction in other areas of life. Sexual dissatisfaction in turn, whatever the causative personality or situational factors may be, is often manifested by depression and antisocial acts. Correct sex education and upbringing and the counseling of sexologists all serve to mitigate the psychological crises of puberty and of other turning points in life.
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G. S. VASIL’CHENKO and I. S. KON