Sexuality as illustrated in the Kama Sutra

Human sexuality is how people experience the erotic and express themselves as sexual beings.[1] 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:[2]

Human sexuality is not simply imposed by instinct or stereotypical conducts, as it happens in animals, but it is influenced both by superior mental activity and by social, cultural, educational, and normative characteristics of those places where the subjects grow up and their personality develops. Consequently, the analysis of sexual sphere must be based on the convergence of several lines of development such as affectivity, emotions, and relations.

Deleuze and Guattari, in their 1972 Anti-Oedipus, discuss how sexuality is a powerful force that invests all social activities:[3]

Familialism maintains that sexuality operates only in the family [...] the truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a business causes money to circulate; the way the burgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to metaphors, any more than for the libido to go by way of metamorphoses. Hitler gave the fascists a hard-on. Flags, nations, armies, banks give a lot of people hard-ons.

The prehistoric Venus of Willendorf

Art and artifacts from past eras help to portray human sexuality of the time.[1]

Biology and physiology

See also: Sexual intercourse § Health benefits

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,[4] heredity, hormonal issues, gender issues and sexual dysfunction.[1]


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, and sounder sleep.[5]


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.[6]

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.[7]

Sociocultural aspects

Women's lib demonstration, 1970

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.[1] 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.[8][9]

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."[10][11]

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.[12] Sex education covers a range of topics, including the physical, mental, and social aspects of sexual behavior.

Psychological aspects

Sigmund Freud with daughter Anna

Sexuality in humans generates profound emotional and psychological responses. Some theorists identify sexuality as the central source of human personality.[13]

Psychological studies of sexuality focus on psychological influences that affect sexual behavior and experiences.[1] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16][17]


Main article: Fertility

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.[18][19]

Menstrual cycle

Main article: Menstrual cycle

Although women can become pregnant at any time during their menstrual cycle, peak fertility usually occurs in the window from two days before to two days after ovulation.[20]

Female fertility

The average age of the first menstruation or menarche in the United States is about 12.5 years.[21]

Women's fertility peaks around the age of 19-24, and can start to decline after 30. With a rise in women postponing pregnancy,[22] this can create an infertility problem. Of women trying to get pregnant, without using fertility drugs or in vitro fertilization:

Male fertility and age

Erectile dysfunction increases with age,[24] 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.[24] However, evidence suggests that increased male age is associated with a decline in semen volume, sperm motility, and sperm morphology.[25] 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

Brigitte Bardot: Famous for sex appeal

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.[26]


Sexual attraction is a response to another person, that depends on a combination of the person possessing the traits and also on the criteria of the person experiencing the attraction. Sexual attraction can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual etc. and there are even individuals who are asexual and have no sexual attraction to others. Sexual attraction 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.[27]

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.[28][29]

Creating a partnership

Eugene de Blaas: Flirtation

Main article: Human sexual behaviour

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:

Creating a partnership

Alternative practices

Woman in bondage

Many people derive sexual pleasure from a variety of alternative practices ranging from fetishism to BDSM.

Sex and religion

Main article: Religion and sexuality

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. Christians generally widely discourage extramarital sexual activity.

Child sexuality

Main article: Child sexuality

Children are naturally curious about their bodies and sexual functions — they wonder where babies come from, they notice anatomical differences between males and females, and many engage in genital play (often mistaken for masturbation). Child sex play includes exhibiting or inspecting the genitals. Many children take part in some sex play, typically with siblings or friends.[33] In the past, children were often assumed to be sexually "pure", having no sexuality until later development. Sigmund Freud was one of the first researchers to take child sexuality seriously. While his ideas, such as psychosexual development and the Oedipus conflict, have been rejected or labeled obsolete, acknowledging the existence of child sexuality was a milestone.[33] Alfred Kinsey also examined child sexuality in his Kinsey Reports. Sex play with others usually decreases as children go through their elementary school years, yet they still may possess romantic interest in their peers. Curiosity levels remain high during these years, but it is not until adolescence that the main surge in sexual interest occurs.[33]

Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse in which a child is abused for the sexual gratification of an adult or older adolescent.[34][35] In addition to direct sexual contact, child sexual abuse also occurs when an adult asks or pressures a child to engage in sexual activities or uses a child to produce child pornography.[34][36][37]

Possible effects of child sexual abuse include depression,[38] post-traumatic stress disorder,[39] anxiety,[40] propensity to re-victimization in adulthood,[41] and physical injury to the child, among other problems.[42] Sexual abuse by a family member is a form of incest, and can result in more serious and long-term psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest.[43]

Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children.[44][45][46][47][48] Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as friends of the family, babysitters, or neighbors; strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases. Most child sexual abuse is committed by men; women commit approximately 14% of offenses reported against boys and 6% of offenses reported against girls.[44] Most offenders who abuse pre-pubescent children are pedophiles,[49][50] however a small percentage do not meet the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia.[51]

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.[52][53]


Main article: Heterosexuality

Heterosexuality involves individuals of opposite sexes.[54]

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.[55]

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.[56]


Main article: Homosexuality

Homosexuality (from Greek homo = same) involves individuals of the same sex.[57]

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.[58] Some have sexual relationships predominately with people of their own gender identity, another gender, bisexual relationships or they can be celibate.[58] 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.[59]

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

Giorgoni's Sleeping Venus

Main article: Autoeroticism

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, vibrators, anal beads, sybian machines, and other sex toys while alone.[60]

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

Main article: Sexual abuse

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).[61]

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

History of sexuality

Main article: History of human sexuality

Ancient civilizations

Min: the ancient Egyptian god of fertility

Many of the ancient civilisations provide evidence of developments in sexuality. In particular:

Modern developments

Main article: Sexology

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.[62]

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".[1][4][63][64][65] 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.[66] 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.[4][66][67][68] The construction of sexual meanings is an instrument by which social institutions (religion, marketing, the educational system, psychiatry, etc.) control and shape human relationships.[63][64]

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"[63][69] 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.[70][71] To escape such cultural "sexuality", Foucault suggested focusing on "bodies and pleasures".[70][72]

See also


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