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Human sexuality is how people experience the erotic and express themselves as sexual beings. 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 individuals:Boccadoro L., Carulli S., (2008) Il posto dell'amore negato. Sessualità e psicopatologie segrete ( The place of the denied love. Sexuality and secret psychopathologies - Abstract). Tecnoprint Editrice, Ancona. ISBN 978-88-95554-03-7

Deleuze and Guattari, in their 1972 classic Anti-Oedipus, discussed how sexuality is a powerful force that invests all the social activities:

The prehistoric Willendorf Venus
Art and artifacts from past eras help to portray human sexuality of the time.

Biology and physiology

Successful pregnancy
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, heredity, hormonal issues, gender issues and sexual dysfunction.


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, sounder sleep and loss in body weight.


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.

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 sterilization.

Sociocultural aspects

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. 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.

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."

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. In Europe, schools also address children's safe use of the internet.

Psychological aspects

Sexuality in humans generates profound emotional and psychological responses. Some theorists identify sexuality as the central source of human personality.

Psychological studies of sexuality focus on psychological influences that affect sexual behavior and experiences. 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.

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. 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.


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.

Menstrual cycle

Although women can become pregnant at any time during their menstrual cycle, peak fertility usually occurs two days before and two days after the ovulation date.

Female fertility

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

Women's fertility peaks around the age of 19-24, and can start to decline after 30. With a rise in women postponing pregnancy, 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.

Male fertility and age

Erectile dysfunction increases with age, 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. However, evidence suggests that increased male age is associated with a decline in semen volume, sperm motility, and sperm morphology.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.

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.


Sexual attraction is a person's ability to attract the interest of another person. It 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.

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.

Creating a partnership

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.
  • Seduction: the process of one person deliberately enticing another to engage in some sort of human sexual behavior. It can have both positive and negative connotations.
  • 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

Unconventional practices

Woman in bondage
Some people derive sexual pleasure from a variety of unconventional practices ranging from fetishism to BDSM.
  • Fetishism can take many forms ranging from the desire for certain body parts, for example large breasts, rather than the actual partner. The object of desire is often clothing or rubber items. A fetish can however cause people significant psychosocial distress and can have detrimental effects on their lives, in which case treatment may be required.
  • BDSM: a compound acronym covering bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. As a rule, one partner dominates the other during an agreed period of time. The parties involved usually experience pleasure although many of the practices performed, such as inflicting pain, humiliation or being restrained would be considered unpleasant under normal circumstances. Oral, anal or vaginal intercourse may occur.

Sex and religion

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.


In Christianity, there are wide ranging views on what constitutes acceptable standards of sexual conduct from today's Christian denominations. Virtually all modern Christians agree that extramarital affairs are clearly forbidden by the Bible. However, there are differing views on the interpretation of Bible passages dealing with the acceptability of homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and premarital sex.


Most forms of sexual contact within a marriage are allowed. Sex is considered a pleasurable, even spiritual activity, and a duty. At least one hadith explicitly states that for a married couple to have sex is a good deed rewarded by God. Another hadith suggests that a man should not leave the proverbial bed until the woman is satisfied, a reference many say points to orgasm.

Adultery warrants severe punishment. Pre-marital sex is also considered sinful, albeit less severe. All shari'a laws regulating sexual conduct apply to both men and women equally, apart from those concerning menstruation. Same-sex intercourse officially carries the death penalty in several Muslim nations.


In traditional Judaism, sex and reproduction are the holiest of acts, permitting one to imitate God, "The Creator". There are, however, many boundaries and guidelines. Within the boundaries, there are virtually no outright strictures. Judaism forbids sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage, maintains biblical strictures on relations within marriage including observance of Niddah, a prohibition on relations for a period including the menstrual period, and Tzniut, requirements of modest dress and behavior. Traditional Judaism views adultery, incest, and male homosexuality as grave sins.

Sexual activity and orientations

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.


Heterosexuality involves individuals of opposite sexes.

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.

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.


Homosexuality (from Greek homo = same) involves individuals of the same sex.
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. Some have sexual relationships predominately with people of their own gender identity, another gender, bisexual relationships or they can be celibate. 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.

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.

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, vibrator, anal beads, sybian machines, and other sex toys while alone.

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.

Coercive and abusive sexuality

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).

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

History of sexuality

Ancient civilizations

Many of the ancient civilisations provide evidence of developments in sexuality. In particular:
  • Egyptmarker: The couple Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, now buried in a joint Fifth-dynasty (2498-2345 BC) era tomb in Saqqaramarker, Egyptmarker, 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 Chinesemarker, Japanesemarker, 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.
  • Chinamarker: 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. China has had a long history of sexism, with even moral leaders such as Confucius giving extremely pejorative accounts of the innate characteristics of women.
  • Japanmarker: In perhaps the earliest novel in the world, the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), dating back to around the 8th century AD, eroticism is treated as a central part of the aesthetic life of members of the nobility.
  • Greecemarker: In ancient Greecemarker, 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.
  • Romemarker: 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.

Modern developments

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.

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.


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". 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. 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. The construction of sexual meanings is an instrument by which social institutions (religion, marketing, the educational system, psychiatry, etc.) control and shape human relationships.

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" 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. To escape such cultural "sexuality", Foucault suggested focusing on "bodies and pleasures".

See also


  1. Rathus, Spencer A., Jeffrey S. Nevid, and Lois Fichner-Rathus. 2007. Human Sexuality in a World of Diversity. Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Deleuze and Guattari (1972) Anti-Oedipus pp. 322, 114-5
  3. Ellen Ross, Rayna Rapp Sex and Society: A Research Note from Social History and Anthropology Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 51-72
  4. Kathleen Doheny: 10 Surprising Health Benefits of Sex. From WebMD. Retrieved 11 October 2009.
  5. Sexually Transmitted Infections Overview. From University of California Santa Barbara. Retrieved 11 October 2009.
  6. Dawn Stacey: Contraception. Retrieved 11 October 2009.
  7. . Escoffier, Jeffrey. (Editor): Sexual Revolution. Running Press, 2003. ISBN 1560255250. Retrieved 12 October 2009.
  8. Betty Friedan, Who Ignited Cause in 'Feminine Mystique,' Dies at 85 - The New York Times, February 5, 2006. Retrieved 12 October 2009.
  9. Think Sex from Retrieved 11 October 2009.
  10. What is Psychosexual Development? Pschology from Retrieved 12 October 2009.
  11. B. F. Skinner and behaviorism. From essortment. Retrieved 12 October 2009.
  12. Buss, D.M. (2002) Human mating strategies. Samdunfsokonemen, 4: 48-58.
  13. Farrell, W. (1988) Why Men Are The Way They Are, New York: Berkley Books
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  24. Islam Question and Answer - The reasons for capital punishment in Islam
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  46. Foucault 1976, p.154-5
  47. Foucault 1976, p.157

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