Professor Marshall

LESSON 3: Sexuality Research

Sexuality Research

Competencies Addressed:

  • Interpret information relating to cross-cultural, historical, and scientific dimensions of human sexuality

Learning Objectives:

  • Explain sociological theories of gender and sexuality
  • Formulate the connections between personal and social constructions of race, class and gender on human sexuality
  • Explore various sociological methodologies as applied to the research of human sexuality
  • Examine historical perspectives of human sexuality



We think of sexuality as a biological or natural aspect of our behavior. We refer to it as our "sex drive" or as an instinctual or in-born component of what it means to be a human. We hold heterosexuality as the norm or standard, and we have certain ideas about what types of sexual behaviors are acceptable and what types of sexual behaviors are not acceptable. People's behaviors or ideas about sex and sexuality which fail to meet the standard are viewed as deviant.

We are born with bodies which respond in a biological way to stimuli, but it is our society which determines what behaviors and act are considered to be sexual, normal and deviant. Thus, sex is a fundamentally social act. Sex is also heavily laden with moral significance. Further, our sexual identities and the sexual acts in which we participate may be classified into disparate binary categories:

  • good or bad
  • acceptable or unacceptable
  • normal or deviant

Those who participate in good, acceptable, or normal sexual behaviors receive social, material, and political benefits and privileges in our society. On the other hand, those who participate in bad, unacceptable, or deviant sexual behaviors are subject to negative sanctions and stigmatization.

The study of sexuality is extremely complex and there is much to be discovered not only about social views of sex and sexuality, but also about ourselves. Our sexuality is an integral component of who we are. There is an endless list of influences that we have to consider as important components of our sexuality: what we think about gender, our communication style, our sexual orientation, how we feel about love and intimacy, and many, many more things must be taken into consideration when we think about our own sexual selves.


Sexology is the systematic study of all aspects of human sexual behavior. Sexologists are people who have devoted their careers to the empirical study of sexuality and who have expert academic knowledge in the science of sexuality. Sexology is "multidisciplinary" meaning that professionals from a number of fields contribute to sexology research. Professionals from the field of medicine, psychology, psychiatry, biology, criminology, education, and sociology all contribute to sex research. Early sexologists laid the cornerstone of modern sexology, bringing to light topics such as same-sex attraction, gender ambiguity, stereotypes about women, and sexual reform.

A Brief History of Sex Research

You probably think that the study of sex (sexology) is a somewhat new field of study, but it has been around for thousands of years. Sex manuals date to the Greco-Roman era.

Erotic Terra Cotta Figurines

The Kama Sutra is also widely thought of as a sexual "how to" manual. It's important to note however that the message of the Kama Sutra is broader than that – the word "Kama" means desire or intention, but it has also come to mean pleasure and sexual love. "Sutra" means rules. Thus, the Kama Sutra is a book about the rules and intentions of desire.

Kama Sutra 1800s

Contemporary Sex Research

In most animals sexual behavior is for the purpose of reproduction but in humans sexuality is far more complex. Human sexuality can be viewed as a part of our personalities encompassing several broad areas:

  • our beliefs about sexuality
  • our attitudes about sexuality
  • our values when it comes to sexual behavior
  • our own sexual behavior and
  • our knowledge about sex and sexuality.

For sociologists, this is an area of academic inquiry which well fits the parameters of sociological research. Recall that sociological research is designed to capture four essential metrics of society: feelings, beliefs, attitudes and experiences. All of these measurements are essential to the study of sex and sexuality, and sociologists are well-schooled about ways to capture these variables in research.

Further, there are three domains that all play a role in our expression of sexuality and in how we experience our sexuality:

Three Domains of Sexuality

The biological domain of sex research includes the study of actual anatomy and physiology, genetics and hormones which influence sexual activity, the biological aspects of gender identity, and aspects of sexual health and dysfunctions. This domain is largely about physiological and anatomical differentiation which classifies us into male or female. The development of our reproductive organs as they differentiate in the womb is a key aspect of the biological realm. Sexual health and dysfunctions are also explored as they relate to not only our physical but also our emotional well-being.

The psychosocial/psychosexual domain includes the study of how we think and feel about sexuality. This domain is largely about our sexual experiences in the context of psychological and social development. How we feel about intimacy and love as well as our concept of self and our gender identity are a part of this domain this domain also explores sexual trauma and issues related to sexual orientation as well as how our attitudes towards sexuality and sexual behavior developed.

The third domain, the cultural domain, explores how individuals understand their sexuality and sexual behavior, and further how they practice their sexuality. This doman is a study of how sexuality is influenced by the culture in which we live. As a person's social identity is shaped (that is to say, our understanding of who we are through social groups with whom we come in contact) it becomes an important contributor of our own ideas about sex and sexuality.

Further, there are two main definitions of culture:

  • Collectivist culture: in this kind of culture we define our own personal identities in terms of the relationships we have with other people and groups. Collectivist cultures stress harmony and the promotion of feelings of closeness, and the members of these types of cultures contribute to society due to a sense of obligation to the group.
  • Individualistic culture: in this type of culture we define our personal identities in terms of our own personal attributes. Income, wealth, education level, marital status, occupation, and class standing are all important aspects of an individualistic cultural point of view. In these kinds of society people view themselves as independent entities who have personal needs and rights which guide their behavior.

It goes without saying that in the United States today the individualistic review is held in higher regard than a collectivist point of view.

For purposes of this course, we will be concentrating on the psychosocial/psychosexual and cultural domains.

Who are the Sex Researchers?

As stated before, sex has been studied for hundreds of years. For this course however we're going to concentrate on the contemporary research on sexuality, beginning with the 19th century. Attitudes towards sex and sexuality can be seen as negative throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the West however there were a number of American and European sexologists who could be considered pioneers in the field of contemporary sex research and who have helped us to develop a less moralistic, more scientific view of the study of human sexuality.


The father of sexology: Iwan Bloch: Considered the father of sexology, Bloch was a German researcher who died in 1922. He coined the term "sexology" and said about to understand sexual behaviors over time and through different cultures.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: Ulrichs claim to fame was putting on the map the concept of "third gender." Ulrichs believed that there were some men who possessed female souls and who were attracted to other men; further, he became a public activist for issues related to gender ambiguity and same-sex attraction. He based his theory in large part on his own sexual experiences and opened the door for sexologists who came after him to look at the study of sex and sexuality in a different light.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing: Von Krafft-Ebing believed sex was only for the purpose of procreation and sex for any other purpose than producing children was perverse--thus he viewed homosexuality as deviant. He contributed extensive case histories to the field of sexology and while we may discount his contributions today, toward the end of his career he did come to believe that homosexuality was not deviant but rather a process that occurred during prenatal development.


Clelia Duel Mosher: One of the first female sexologists, Mosher set out to change some of the myths and stereotypes about women at that time. She was an advocate for women's sexual health and her research was considered groundbreaking. While Mosher did most of her work in the early 1900s, some of her work was not published until well after her death (some of her work was first published in the 1970s).

Havelock Ellis: Ellis was the first male sexologist to consider female sexuality in research. He also believed that homosexuality was a natural occurrence and that it should be socially accepted. He felt that women have a right to sexual pleasure and he asserted himself on their behalf. His work may be viewed as having promoted a greater tolerance of sexual difference in society.

Magnus Hirschfeld: Hirschfeld founded the world's first gay rights organization and petitioned the German government to decriminalize homosexual relationships between men. In his research he used extensive interviews and case histories to understand and develop theories about sexual variation and orientation. He advanced the idea of gender on a continuum and coined the term "transvestite."

Albert Moll: Moll was a social and political conservative. His greatest contribution was dividing sexuality into the physical and emotional realms. He regarded both of these areas to be important to our understanding of sexuality. Moll also felt that the views of Hirschfeld were fraudulent.

While the work of these early theorists would probably not withstand the rigors of our scientific processes today they did lay the groundwork for the researchers of the 20th century.

Sigmund Freud: in the 19th century sexuality was largely viewed within the framework of medicine. Freud was one of the first to help move sexuality away from a strict medical view. He viewed sexuality in terms of personality development and saw it as an integral part of who we are. Freud's main contribution to the study of sexuality is his "five stage theory of psychosocial development:"


Freud's work helped to broaden our understanding of sexuality. While others before him had viewed sexuality as a primarily "adult" experience, Freud contended that sexual life begins at birth and continues throughout the life course. Many practitioners continue to use Freud's work today.

Alfred Kinsey: Not only important in the field of sex research, Kinsey is thought of as one of the most influential Americans of his time. Kinsey conducted face-to-face interviews and asked questions about male and female sexuality which helped to usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. He also developed a sexual orientation scale which expanded our understanding of sexual orientation as being on a continuum rather than strictly heterosexual or homosexual:


Kinsey was an important figure in bringing homosexuality into the public discussion. He encouraged gays and lesbians to come out and in many respects created what we know about sexuality today. His research also was instrumental in helping to launch the second wave of the feminist movement which also dispelled many long-held myths about female sexual responses and behaviors.

Masters and Johnson:Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were pioneers of the physiological responses of human sexuality. Masters and Johnson did most of their research in the laboratory and used machines to measure heart rates, blood pressure, and other human sexual response such as penile erection and vaginal lubrication. Over 700 men and women participated in Masters and Johnson's research and due to their objective stance about sexual behavior they were able to also create new understandings for the diagnosis and treatment of sexual disorders and dysfunctions.

Their work was considered to be shocking and alarming to many and evoked harsh criticism from others. While the sexologists before them used a case study approach, taking sex research into the laboratory allowed Masters and Johnson to provide us with definitive evidence of physiological sexual desire.

Activity: Research a Contemporary Sexologist

For this assignment, pick a few sexologists from the list below, do some investigating online, and learn about hteir contributions to the field of contemporary sex research:

  • Mignon Moore
  • Joshua Gamson
  • Ritch Savin-Williams
  • Leonore Teifer
  • Hector Carrillo
  • Amin Ghaziane
  • Georgiann Davis
  • Mindy Stombler
  • Jeffrey Escoffier
  • Emily Greytak
  • Lisa Wade
  • Breanne Fahs
  • Adam Sonfield
  • Margot Weiss


Contemporary sexologists helped to usher in a new understanding of sex and sexuality. They sought to challenge trends and myth and helped to relax sexual taboos, particularly in the latter part of the 20th century. By objectively studying things such as premarital sex, masturbation, sexual fantasies, pornography and homosexuality they helped us to gain a broader understanding of sexuality. There is still some argument as to whether or not sexologists are working from a unified theoretical and scientific platform however the sexologists of today are a far cry from those early researchers.

As you can see, what we know about sex and what we think we know about sex has changed dramatically in the last few hundred years. Likewise, our concepts of sex and sexuality will continue to change over time. Sexologists in particular have contributed greatly to our understanding of sex and sexual behavior. In particular, the early 20th century sexologists Alfred Kinsey as well as William Masters and Virginia Johnson greatly expanded our knowledge.

What you should gather from this lesson is that sexual identities, desires, and practices vary greatly and that use of pejorative terms such as "deviant" to describe identities, desires, and practices which are not our own is damaging not only to others but also to ourselves.