California State University, Northridge

Human Sexuality

By Ludwin Molina
Spring, 1999


Human sexuality plays a major role in everyone's life. Regardless, whether we are young or old, man or woman, American or Japanese, it is an integral part of what we do and who we are. There has been much done by way of research and scholarly writing examining human sexuality (e.g., Abramson & Pinkerton, 1995; Beach, 1976; Diamond, 1997; Reinisch et al., 1990; Stalcup, 1995; Tiefer, 1995). This paper will explore the topic of human sexuality as a motivation. Of course, there are many emotions associated with human sexuality, but the primary aim of this particular paper will be a general overview of sexuality with special attention to the various perspectives, including the: 1) biological perspective, 2) cognitive perspective, and 3) learning perspective. All the while, the lens through which we summarize these perspectives will be with the understanding that human sexual behavior is a motivation.

Next to sleeping and eating, it seems that it is one of the most important drives we have to deal with as humans. That is, it takes up so much of our time in thought and behavior that it sometimes seems that every facet of our life revolves around this to a certain extent.

Human sexual behavior is different from the sexual behavior of other animals, in that, it seems to be governed by a variety and interplay of different factors. That is, while "lower" animals or species are driven by a "force" to reproduce and therefore partake in sexual behavior. Humans are not sexually active just for the sake of reproduction, rather, there are a variety of complex factors that lead people to have sex.

Human Sexuality. Human sexuality is the way in which we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings (Rathus et al., 1993). There are many factors that help develop our sexuality, arguably one of the most important, is our actual gender. Whether, I am a male or female will likely have a major influence on the development of my individual sexuality. Furthermore, sexuality is an integral part of our personalities whether we are aware of it or not.

Why study human sexuality? This may seem like a rather simple-minded question, but one of the questions that should always be posed before any endeavor is, "why do it?" and "what do we hope to gain from it?" The former will be addressed here and the latter will hopefully become clear as we move along in our journey. An important reason to study human sexuality is that it is a primary source of motivation. Just consider the amount of time spent thinking and planning for sex, let alone the time spent in sexual behavior itself (Rathus et al., 1993). Sexual motivation does to some extent influence human behavior. Another reason for studying human sexuality is that we may face various personal and social problems involving sexuality, such as, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual harassment (Aral & Holmes, 1991; Rathus et al., 1993). This should sound especially timely during the times in which we live.

Methods of Research in Human Sexuality

There are numerous ways of gathering scientific evidence about human sexuality. While, some methods focus on description, others methods concentrate on identifying relationships between variables, and still others in identifying causal relationships. The following are general summaries as to the various data collection methods.

Survey Method. Surveys collect information about behavior through interviews with participants or questionnaires. The aim of this particular method is to gather information on the sexual attitudes and behavior of a particular population or group of people. This particular method does have limitations. For example, drawbacks of this method are that surveys require self-report from the participants, therefore, it is likely that the data collected might contain a plethora of inaccuracies. Depending on the question posed to the individual they may want to present themselves in a socially acceptable way or be to embarrassed to answer truthfully. In addition, many people refuse to even participate in human sexuality survey studies, thus, you may get a selection bias because the sample attained may not be representative of the population you want to generalize to.

Arguably, one of the seminal studies in human sexuality employing the survey method was that completed by Kinsey and colleagues (1948, 1953). Kinsey and colleagues interviewed about 5300 men and 5900 women between 1938 through 1949 and asked them a variety of questions about their sexual behavior and attitudes. This approach was well advised since Kinsey was particularly interested in the frequency of certain sexual behaviors (e.g., oral sex, masturbation, and intercourse) rather than the underlying causes. Results and implications of this study may be reviewed in the cited articles.

Observational Method. In the observational method the investigator is a direct observer of sexual behavior. These observations may take place in field settings or in laboratories. This particular method, however, has had a very limited application so far because of the requirement of privacy that shrouds sexual experience in many cultures (Katchadourian, 1989). An example of observational research is when psychologists observe the patterns of nonverbal communication and body language among couples in dating situations (Rathus et al., 1993). Researchers can also interact with the people whose behavior they are recording, this is deemed the participant observation method. One major limitation of this method is the possibility that the behavior under study may be altered by the participant because of the presence of the observer (i.e., observer effect). In other words, the participants' behavior may consciously be changed to "fit" with what they believe the observer is seeking.

Human Sexual Response (1966) by William Masters and Virginia Johnson is one of the seminal studies examining the sexual behavior of humans via the observation method. Despite the controversy engendered by the method of their study, it gave a reliable picture of what happens to the body during sexual behavior.

Experimental Method. Experiments permit researchers to draw causal conclusions between the independent variable and dependent variable. One example of this method is exposing participants to sexually arousing materials while instruments monitor physiological responses (Katchadourian, 1989). The particular limitations of this study seem obvious, in that, one cannot manipulate many variables of interest directly because of ethical standards.

Correlational Method. Allows the researcher to examine the relationship between variables of interest. For example, a researcher may be interested in the variables that relate to sexual satisfaction in couples. Therefore, he/she may look at the variables of partner compatibility, communication skills, and number of years the couple has been together. The major limitation of this method is that correlation does not equal causation.

Case Study Method. The intensive study of one particular participant. A vast amount of descriptive information is gathered about one particular individual, therefore, giving a much more detailed picture of that individual than would otherwise normally be attained. The major shortcoming of this method is that generalization to a population is out of the question. In addition, participants may also have "gaps" in their memories and ways of thinking which bias results.

Biological Perspective

One cannot truly begin a dialogue about human sexuality without addressing the biological perspective, in particular, hormones (Strong, DeVault, & Sayad, 1996). Hormones may be viewed as one of the major "driving forces" of sexual behavior. Over the past several years, there has been much research examining the various roles that hormones play in the sexual behavior of humans. Hormones are produced by the gonads (i.e., testes and ovaries), the adrenal cortex, the pituitary gland, and the hypothalamus. In addition, the hormones of androgens, estrogens, and progestins all exist in both males and females. They exist in different concentrations, however, within males and females. Males have a higher concentration of androgens and females have a higher concentration of estrogens and progestins. Incidentally, androgens are responsible for the sexual differentiation of the male reproductive system before birth and the sexual maturation of boys at puberty. Testosterone, a specific androgen, is associated with the male sexual drive and possibly with aggressive behavior (Reinisch, Ziemba-Davis, & Saunders, 1991). Estrogens and progestins, found in higher concentrations within females, regulate the menstrual cycle and are essential for reproduction. The relationship of these hormones to the female sexual drive and behavior are unclear. Hormone levels are usually correlated with sexual behavior, but in humans this is not necessarily true because of intervening variables. Thus, an individual may be physiologically ready to participate in sexual behavior, but does not because of factors that supercede any biological reason.

Cognitive Perspective

A comprehension of the processes of sexual arousal is an important element in understanding sexual responses. The notion that our most erogenous sex organ lies between our ears should not be dismissed. The cognitive activity of the brain can quickly either augment or inhibit a sexual response cycle (Walen & Roth, 1987). Walen & Roth (1987) pointed out that perceptions and evaluations are the two major types of cognitive activity. That is, how a stimulus or situation is interpreted determines how the individual will respond to the stimulus. According to Walen & Roth, perception includes at least three components: detection, labeling, and attribution. Detection is defined by an individual's ability to note the presence of a stimulus or to discriminate it from other stimuli. Next, labeling is the descriptors that an individual uses to categorize the stimulus event. Third, attribution is an explanation for the perception. Individuals may of course rely heavily on situational cues when making attributions. How may all three of these factors affect sexual behavior? Well, the inability to detect sexual stimuli, incorrect labeling, or misattribution may significantly impede sexual performance (Walen & Roth, 1987). The second major cognitive factor is evaluation, which is a process of rating events from good to bad. For example, the cognitive theory of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) has focused primarily on evaluative beliefs (Ellis, 1962/1970). The general point to take away from this particular theory is that "when an individual evaluates a sexual stimulus as good or positive, sexual arousal may be enhanced. On the other hand, when a stimulus is evaluated negatively, sexuality will be diminished. Even more destructive are the exaggerated negative evaluations that Ellis refers to as catastrophic" (Walen & Roth, 1987, p.340).

Learning Perspective

To what extent does sexual behavior reflect experience? Would you hold the same sexual attitudes and behaviors if you had been reared in another culture? Even within the same society, family and personal experiences can shape unique sexual attitudes and behaviors. Learning theory focuses on environmental factors that shape behavior. Within this context, learning theory examines the environmental factors that shape sexual behavior (McConaghy, 1987). Behaviorism emphasizes the importance of rewards and punishments in the learning process. Events (such as rewards) that increase the frequency or likelihood of particular behavior are termed reinforcements. When applied to sexual behavior, children left to explore their bodies without parental condemnation will learn what feels good and tend to repeat it. However, when sexual behavior (like masturbation) feels pleasurable, but parents connect it with feelings of guilt and shame, the child is placed in conflict. Conversely, punishment tends to suppress behavior in circumstances in which it is expected to occur. Thus, if young people are severely punished for sexual exploration, we may come to associate sexual stimulation in general with feelings of guilt or anxiety. Social Learning Theory uses the concepts of rewards and punishment, but it also emphasizes the importance of cognitive activity (i.e., anticipations, thoughts, and plans) and learning by observation. Observational learning or modeling refers to acquiring knowledge and skills through observing others. Observational learning may also take place when exposed to certain films, books, or music. According to social learning theory children acquire the gender roles deemed appropriate in society through reinforcement of gender-appropriate behavior. In addition, individuals duplicate behaviors of those they respect and hold as models.


Human sexuality is a very complex behavior that is affected by many facets of our lives including our physiology, cognition, and learning. These are just a few of the components that this paper focused on for the sake of brevity. Otherwise, many other factors could have been discussed, such as, the culture, personal and general history, and the humanistic perspective. The point here is that human sexuality, like us, is multi-dimensional and one can only begin to get a sense of what it is by the inclusion of many perspectives and ideas. However, one particular point that this paper would like to get across to the reader is that it is a motivating factor. This is a bit over simplified but it seems that so much of what we do day in and day out as humans is in some way or another governed by our sexual self. While this makes us similar as humans, it is not necessarily the case that we condone the same behaviors or have overlapping norms from culture to culture. Thus, within this similarity there is still a great deal of diversity.

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