Professor Marshall

LESSON 6: Sexuality and Stages of Life

Sexuality and Stages of Life


Sexual desires differ greatly among people, and therefore many different and varying factors contribute to sexual arousal and response. Our senses and our erogenous zones play a major part in sexual arousal, as does the process of socialization. Over the history of sex research, many sexologists have worked to determine the components of human sexual desire as well as response processes. Some basic information about which most sexologists agree:

  • sexual fantasies are common and prevalent in the thoughts of most people
  • men's sexual fantasies typically focus on physical arousal
  • women's sexual fantasies often focus on emotional bonding
  • there are many social forces which can shape and influence our sexuality; these forces are constantly changing, and thus so are our sexualities.

Learning to be Sexual

During infancy and toddlerhood, the child's initial capacity for intimate and loving relationships begins to take shape. Touching, cuddling, stroking, and snuggling babies furthers their capacity for human intimacy. While even newborns are physiologically capable of feeling sexual pleasure, children's sexual behaviors are not erotic but are purely physiological in nature. From ages seven to 12, children become discriminating about their sexual behaviors, and the need for privacy intensifies. By the end of middle childhood, nearly all children have developed a very strong sense of their gender and sexual identities. From ages 13 to 15, adolescents begin the process of individuation, forming an identity that is separate from that of their parents; they begin to take responsibility for their actions and decisions and as hormones come into play, the body becomes a primary focus for the individual. Sexuality and sexual feelings become a preoccupation. From age 16 and up, hormonal balance is achieved, and the changing body is incorporated into the adolescent's sense of self. Sexual gratification is achieved through masturbation or partner sex.

With baby boomers "graying," America is aging. With more older people and less young in our society overall, research into aging processes and attitudes and behaviors of the aging has flourished. Aging has two components: primary and secondary aging. Primary aging is the result of internal and natural biological processes, while secondary aging is the result of external environmental and behavioral influences. Both primary and secondary aging impact our sexual lives. Although there is a common conception that sex decreases with age, both men and women continue to value sex as they age. Studies show that there is an emphasis on quality over frequency, and although both men and women may experience physiological problems, there are different options available to keep sexual lives thriving. Just like young men and women must protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, so must older adults.

People differ in their sexual attitudes, and in the ways that they experience sexual activity. Sociologists, in an attempt to explain these differences in attitude and experience, assert that we learn how to be sexual via the process of socialization. These processes are embedded in our cultures and they support the idea of sexual scripts. Sexual scripts are shared social and cultural expectations which are gender specific and which support and guide what we think, feel, and want to experience with regard to sex, sexual partners, and sexual behavior and conduct. Sexual scripts also serve two very important social and cultural functions (this relates directly to how functional theory works in the real world). First, sexual scripts tell us what is considered to be "normal" sexual behavior. The second thing that sexual scripts do for us is to provide directives for how we should act, think, or feel about sex and sexual situations. In research by DeLemater and Hyde, sexual scripts are said to determine a number of things:

Sex Scripts

Essentially, when we think about sexual scripts, we realize that we form our own ideas about sexuality based on what we are exposed to in our lives. If we think about the influence of cultures on sexual development, this helps us to see the sexuality does have a strong component of social construction. For example, if we look at sexuality via the variables of race and ethnicity, what we find is that even with in the United States there is significant variability among groups with regard to what they believe to be appropriate sexual behavior. Whether considering African-Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, or European Americans, sexual norms, and thus sexual scripts, are greatly varied. While Native Americans are accepting of more than two forms of gender, no other racial or ethnic groups in American society does so. Religion is also a significant social force with regard to how we view our own sexual scripts. European Americans tend to reinforce sexually appropriate behaviors via religious beliefs, and Arab-Americans also tend to reinforce ideas about sensuality and sexuality via religion. Asian-American sexual scripts point towards conservative attitudes and beliefs with regard to sexuality, and many Asian-American parents are reluctant to talk to their children about sexual behavior; this may translate into a higher age of first sexual experience for Asian adolescents. Latino Americans as well as African-Americans are diverse ethnic groups; coming to the United States from many different countries with many different cultural traditions influences their sexual attitudes and behaviors. Both of these groups tend to feel that the family is very important and thus the family influences ideas about gender roles, sexual relationships, and sexual scripts.

Development of sexual behaviors is significantly influenced by our social world. Our sexual development does not occur in a vacuum – everything around us influences our sexual development.

The Early Years


As infants, the most important developmental milestone we learn is that of trust. Many psychologists and sociologists who specialize in socialization processes would agree that learning how to trust from birth to the age of two is essential. Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and others have commented on the roles of parents with regard to development of the trust of an infant. Babies only understand the world in a tactile way. Whatever they can taste, touch, smell, see and hear is real, and nothing else exists outside of this realm for the infant. This stage of life is a highly physical stage, and touch is very important. These early years are when the child's capacity for intimacy and for future loving relationships is formed.

The primary responsibility for parents in this stage is to nurture their infant children. Cuddling, touching, and snuggling with babies will help them to learn more about their environment — this is known as the parent-child bond, and is the primary way that children develop an understanding that people will provide a secure and trustful environment for them. Without this established bond in infancy it is challenging for us to appropriately progress towards satisfying and gratifying relationships with others throughout our lives.

By the ages of about 3 to 5 children should begin asking about specific body parts. This span of years will see a child develop at a rapid pace, both physically and emotionally. And responses of parents to their children are extremely important in this stage as well. Children at this stage may begin to ask questions about where babies come from, and parents should focus on simplistic responses to these types of questions. Teaching children the basics of the stages of life, reproduction, and death are key during this stage.

During the next three years, from the ages of 5 to 8, children begin to get more and more curious about their bodies and about reproduction. Rudimentary sex education should become a part of the discussions that parents have with children as they ask more pointed questions about reproduction. While details aren't necessary at this stage, answering children's questions could include examples related to other animals and could also include information about self-esteem related to gender and gender roles.

In pre-adolescence, about the ages of 9 to 12, interest in the opposite sex develop and questions about reproduction become even more directed. Curiosity about the body, and about the bodies of the opposite sex are common in this stage. Basic questions about the politics of gender also may be presented to parents:

  • why don't some women have babies?
  • what is abortion?

In addition to these more pointed questions about sex and sexuality parents also should be prepared to field questions related to masturbation. Though often stigmatized throughout history, masturbation is a common means for self-discovery and sexual pleasure.

From the ages of 12 to 14, physical changes related to puberty begin to unfold. Changes in body shape and development are common, and children in this stage begin to be concerned with body image and attractiveness. Questions for parents focus on knowledge of contraception and specific intimate sexual behaviors. Parents should be prepared to respond to inquiries of their children on a variety of sexual behaviors and on dating and expectations for boyfriends and girlfriends.

After the age of 15, sexual curiosity becomes of increased value and young people begin to ask questions related to dating and relationships. In addition to parents being open with their children during this stage, peers and peer groups become a place for children to share information about sex and sexuality. It goes without saying that much of the information that young people are sharing with each other may not be based in reality – this makes it even more important for parents and others who are close to children to be prepared to answer questions related to a diverse variety of topics such as cohabitation, prostitution, sexual myths, and so on.

The most important thing for parents to know about their children and children's understandings of sexuality is that establishing age-appropriate, meaningful dialogues with children is important. If a parent is able to answer a child's questions in language that makes sense to them for their age it will establish a pattern of communication which allows the child as they mature to continue to seek advice and information from their parent.

Children engage in all types of sexual behaviors at all ages and stages of development. Self-stimulation is common during infancy and sexual behavior of children appears to go across all cultural boundaries, thus making it a cultural universal. This type of behavior often makes parents somewhat uncomfortable and sometimes parents will scold their children or move their hands away from their genitals. From a socialization perspective, scolding sends the wrong message. Socialization specialists would assert to us that neutral or positive responses to natural behaviors will elicit a child who is overall healthy and confident whereas scolding sends messages of shame and wrongdoing.



Being single is an increasing trend among America's young and old adults. There are variety of factors which contribute to the decision to live together without legal recognition such as marriage.

In most cultures marriage is considered the primary goal of adulthood. So what is driving the downward trend of marriage in our society? Some research points to the increasing individual nature of our society. With technology allowing us to live in a virtual world which surrounds us with a safety net of easily manipulated and disposable relationships, singlehood is definitely easier than coupling. Other research points to the difficulties in our economic sector. Finding a solid job right out of college, keeping the job, getting paid enough to economically survive, and paying off student debt, have all factored into people's decisions to remain single. A very new trends within the research on singlehood also shows that many young people are boomeranging back to their parents' homes after college due to these increased issues in our economic sector. Living at home with your parents doesn't exactly contribute to ease in finding a suitable partner. In the past in the United States, singlehood has been viewed as a transitional state – something that happened after college but before marriage and parenting. It has rarely been viewed as a purposeful choice that people make. Structurally, embedded in our society we have a specific ideal of what it means to be an adult and marriage is very closely tied to that ideal. Being "single by choice" is a new category of adult being in our society.

Many young people today, and in particular in our bigger cities, tend to navigate social life as "urban tribes" and this contributes to being single—when individuals date in groups or primarily "hang out" with a set group of friends, it can be difficult to establish dating relationships with outsiders. Composed of a mixed gender circle of friends, urban tribes become primary social support systems for groups of singles. Sharing common interests and worldviews, these groups are redefining what it means to be a family and what commitment means in our society. We need look no further than television programming to the myriad representations of urban tribes in action:

How I Met Your Mother:


In all likelihood, these types of urban tribe relationships allow young people to postpone marriage, sometimes indefinitely.

In all westernized, industrialized societies, marriage rates fall over time. Demographers theorize that this may be due to an increase in educational opportunities for women over time. As women become more highly educated and search for partners with at least the same level of education, the marrying pool becomes smaller and smaller. Since women now also have better choices for careers which can sustain them economically, marriage is no longer a necessity for economic reasons for many women in our society. This is a significant trend and future research and scholarship will help us to understand better the reasons for choosing single life over coupling.

Being single doesn't mean the same thing to every person. Research suggests that there are some types of singlehood which most people fall into, most of those involving either a voluntary subscription to being single, or an involuntary placement in the "single" category. Most people, and their adult lives, at some point or another find themselves single. Whether it's because of divorce, never marrying, the death of a spouse, or some other reason, there will always be people in our society who are single for a certain period of time. From a sociological perspective, there are some differences in singlehood among different socioeconomic groups. For example, by race and ethnicity:

  • Young African-Americans have the highest percentage of not married singles in our society. Some research theorizes the reason for this is due to economic instability and stress related to poverty and low income. Young African-American women may be choosing not to marry because they cannot find men who have adequate incomes, believing that having a relationship may place an additional economic burden upon herself and her children (if she has children).
  • Asian Americans have the highest percentage of marriage and thus the lowest rate of singlehood. Strong family ties and traditional beliefs about gender may be contributing to this statistic according to research. Asian Americans also have the highest average incomes of all groups in the United States; perhaps the financial stbility of this group contributes to a high coupling rate.
  • In our recent history as a country, also contributing to the decline in numbers of young people marrying are laws that were crafted to prohibit marriage among gays and lesbians. While these state laws have been in constant flux until the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 which prhibits discrimination against same-sex marriage, many states prohibited same-sex couples from legally marrying. Statistics tell us that between 4 an 10% of our society identify as gay or lesbian, thus this discriminatory practice has had an impact on our overall rates of marriage. Where  in the past gays or lesbians may have elected not to come out and instead opt for marriage to an opposite-sex partner, in today's society more individuals self-identify as either gay or lesbian and choose to live with a same-sex partner. This group of people may have been artificially deflating marriage statistics over time in our society, and because many more are willing to come out today, a more accurate representation of marriage can be researched.


Cohabitation comes in many forms. It may be short-term or long-term; it may involve young or old adults; cohabitors may be straight or gay.

Cohabitation also happens for many reasons, but the primary reason cited in research is to have a sort of "trial run" of a relationship. In a random survey of young adults conducted by the Pew Research Center over 20% cited that they wanted to be sure about their relationship prior to marriage and so decided to live together first. Almost half of all young adults today live together before they marry. Early research indicated that many of these relationships failed during cohabitation; further, those who married after cohabiting had a higher likelihood of divorce. Contemporary research however indicates that cohabitation may be a factor in stemming divorce rates in our society. If cohabitors terminate the relationship, there is no legal process to be completed. If however couples decide to marry and then terminate the relationship, there is a legal process of divorce which must be completed. Having a "trial run" of an adult relationship via cohabitation allows you to try the relationship without legal ramifications. This may also be easier for us on an emotional level. Terminating a marriage by divorce is stressful on many levels; terminating a cohabiting relationship may be less stressful on us than divorce. One big factor that seems to drive marriage after cohabitation is economics. Just as we learned that the economy drives marriage for singles, it also tends to drive marriage for cohabitors. Cohabiting couples who have greater economic resources are more likely to marry, and in particular if they have a child while living together they're more likely to marry than remain cohabiting. Often times, according to the research, cohabitors also delay getting married until the finances for the couple are stable. This research helps us to see how cohabitation can be beneficial prior to marriage. Thinking about living with the person and then also experiencing that situation and all that it entails, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, economically, can help us to determine whether or not we want to take the next step and legally bind ourselves to our partners.

Of course, not everything about cohabitation is positive. Additional research suggests that couples who live together prior to marriage have lower levels of premarital satisfaction after marriage. It also suggests that cohabiting couples may be less sexually committed to each other, and they may be more likely to stray from their partners then marrieds do. More research must be done in this area however because we know very little about infidelity within the marital relationship, it is possible that rates of sexual infidelity are actually much closer together for cohabiting couples and for married couples than we think. Cohabiting women also report higher rates of abuse than do married women. Again, some caution is warranted – it may be that cohabiting women are more likely to report abuse than are those who are married. Further research is needed to understand the gap between various phenomena as relate to cohabitation and marriage.

Our ideas about marriage have changed over time, and today our concept of marriage is less clear than ever before. When in the past it may have been easy to define marriage as the relationship among adults which produces offspring, socializes them, and offers satisfying intimate relationships in a family setting, today our definition of marriage runs the gamut. One common desire however remains: marriage is considered to be a very personal decision and when a person chooses to marry it is for reasons which benefit the individual. Most people cite social norms as a reason to get married, meaning that it's an expectation that is placed on us by the structure of society. Others cite love as their primary motivation. Still others either want to have children or were already pregnant when they married. There are even some who cite being "too young and too stupid to know better" as the reason they got married.

The sexual desires of men and women differ, and therefore many different and varying factors contribute to sexual arousal and response. Our senses and our erogenous zones play a major part in sexual arousal. Many sexologists have worked to determine the human sexual response processes. Sexual fantasies are common and prevalent in the thoughts of most people, but men's typically focus on the physically arousing, while women's often focus on emotional bonding. In addition, there are many new social forces which can shape and influence our sexuality, from looking at erotic images to having online relationships.


Sexual activities are infinitely varied. When sexual arousal is influenced by objects, situations, or individuals they are called paraphilias. These forms of sexual behaviors are not considered socially or culturally acceptable; further, they cause problems in the lives of paraphiliacs. Paraphilia is a medical psychological term.

Whether or not a paraphilic behavior is considered acceptable or unacceptable is often determined by society. Sexually deviant and unacceptable paraphilias can include sexual assault and rape. Sexual variation is a term that is also used to refer to some paraphilias which may just minimally merge on socially unacceptable, such as use of clothing for sexual gratification. There are a few theories which attempt to isolate the origins of paraphilia. Biological theories point to the influence of hormones in the development of fetishistic behaviors. Learning theories suggest that paraphilia is learned in childhood and the family dysfunction increases the risk of its development. Psychoanalytic theory suggest that there is a psychological foundation which is formed early in childhood which encourages deviant desires as a child matures. There are also some other physical connections to paraphilia behaviors: some people who have experienced head trauma have developed paraphilic behavior, and some children who are diagnosed with ADHD in childhood develop multiple paraphilias as adults.

Common paraphilias include fetishism, sadism and masochism, exhibition and voyeurism, and pedophilia. Some less common paraphilia include necrophilia (sexual attraction or intercourse with dead bodies), zoophilia (erotic attraction and/or sexual contact with animals) and coprophilia (sexual excitement which focuses on feces and excrement).


Fetishism is defined as a pathological displacement of erotic interest. Erotic attachment to inanimate objects or non-sexualized parts of the body is necessary for sexual gratification. Most commonly, fetishism includes some other body part or an article of clothing. In the past fetishism has been thought to occur primarily an almost exclusively among men, but there have been some recent studies which challenge the notion. When fetishism becomes a source of psychosocial distress or have detrimental effects on self or others, it is considered to be deviant and may be classified as criminal. In addition, once a fetish becomes life altering or disruptive to self or others it may also be a mental illness classified in the DSM.

While some forms of fetishism may be regarded as normal variations of human sexuality, the primary determinant of viewing fetishism in this way is whether or not the parties concerned find a behavior to be unobjectionable. If the fetish is found to be abnormal or overly deviant cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, or medication may be used as treatment protocols.

Sadism and Masochism

From a psychological point of view, sadists and masochists are personality types. Sadistic personality types derive sexual pleasure and gratification from inflicting physical pain and/or humiliation on others. Masochist personality types derive sexual pleasure and gratification from receiving physical pain and/or humiliation from others. The study of sadism and masochism has a long history and at times has been viewed as deviant. Today however there is increased toleration of sado-masochistic behavior, and provided that those who participate in sado-masochistic behavior are willing and consenting adults, most often we tend to see in terms of behavior which falls into the normal continuum of sexual behavior rather than a sexual disorder.

Contemporary research on sado-masochism tells us that sadomasochists viewed this behavior as an activity which is recreational and distinctly different from the rest of their lives. These are generally people who are high functioning individuals in society and often this kind of sexual behavior provides them an outlet for otherwise very structured lives.

Exhibitionism and Voyeurism

Exhibitionism is classified as a mental disorder in the DSM. It is defined as sexual excitement and/or arousal which is achieved through the compulsion to show one's genitals to an unsuspecting stranger. Exhibitionism is an extremely common illegal sexual offense, and exhibitionists make up about 1/3 of all convicted sex offenders. Almost all reported cases of exhibitionism involved male perpetrators who are in their 20s and their victims are almost always limited to children. There are three basic types of exhibitionists:

  • The inhibited or introverted exhibitionist: this type is typically socially awkward, and is usually more dangerous to self than others; personality characteristics include anxiousness, impulsiveness, obsessive, and sexual confusion or immaturity.
  • The unaware exhibitionist: this type of exhibitionist is also usually more dangerous to self than others, and there may be some form of mental illness present which is contributing to the exhibitionist behavior. Traumatic brain injuries or extreme alcohol or drug intoxication can also be characteristic of this form of exhibitionism.
  • The assaultive exhibitionist: this type is more dangerous to others than they are to self. This type of exhibitionist often uses masturbation and or obscene language against others. Assaultive exhibitionist may start out by touching or rubbing against non-consenting people, however this type of behavior often progresses to aggressive sexual crimes such as rape and other forms of sexual violence.


Pedophilia describes erotic preferences for prepubescent children. In the DSM, a pedophile is described as someone who sexually fantasizes, is aroused by, and/or directs his or her sexual urges towards children typically under the age of 13. Pedophiles must be, in order to meet the clinical diagnosis, at least 16 years old and at least five years older than their victim/target. It's important to understand that pedophilia is not a term used in the criminal justice system; rather, it is a mental health diagnosis.

People unfamiliar with the characteristics of a pedophile would assume that there must be some significant force or coercion which occurs in order to engage children in sexual acts. Pedophiles however almost never force children into sex. Instead, grooming techniques are used to desensitize victims and eventually lead them into invasive sexual acts. Many diagnosed pedophiles also have concurrent disorders such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, and so forth. Infantophilia describe individuals who have erotic preferences for children who are under the age of six.

While we often also use the term "child molester" to describe pedophiles, these two terms are distinctly different. Child molesters are individuals who engage in sexually motivated behaviors against prepubescent children but who do not meet the DSM criteria. One important component of the DSM diagnosis of pedophilia is that the pedophile expresses erotic preferences for children for at least a month. Child molesters may offend only once or for a period of less than one month and this is what separates them from pedophiles. Thus, not all child molesters are pedophiles, and not all pedophiles act on their sexual fantasies or urges.

Research on pedophiles tells us that they are usually male however it's important to note that female pedophiles are likely underrepresented in research because it is much more socially acceptable for women to spend time with younger boys that it is for men to spend time with younger girls. It's unclear what causes pedophilia (just as with the other paraphilias), and it is likely a combination of both biological and environmental factors. There is some research to suggest that pedophiles may have been sexually abused at some point in their childhood, which supports an environmental point of view; there are also studies which have found pedophiles tend to "run in families," which could support either environmental or biological theories. Other research suggests that pedophiles have low impulse control and poor self-esteem coupled with high levels of social anxiety. There is ample body of research which points to brain differences in pedophiles, showing that pedophiles have less brain matter than average, in particular in the frontal and temporal lobes which are the areas of the brain which control addiction and hypersexual behaviors. There have also been some studies which have linked neurochemical imbalances to pedophilia. Environmentally, if a person is sexually abused as a child then he or she does have an increased risk of becoming a pedophile. This is known as the "victim–to–abuser" cycle. There is speculation among researchers that arousal patterns at the time of abuse in childhood imprint on the child and as a child matures to adulthood he or she continues to prefer children over adults. It is also important to note that most children who are sexually abused do not become pedophiles.

Since paraphilia presents in myriad forms, and since our definitions of "normal" sexual behavior change over time, there are many different methods that we have used to treat paraphilia. Conditioning, reconditioning, aversion therapy, and so forth have been used over time to treat various forms of paraphilia.

Sexual Addiction

Sexual addiction (hypersexuality) happens when a person engages in sexual activity so frequently that it has gotten to the point of compulsion. People suffering from sexual addiction often feel that they have no control over their behaviors. It is relevant for us to consider when learning about sexual addiction that sexual frequency exists on a continuum. On one side of the scale are people who have little to no interest in sexuality, and on the other are people who engage in frequent sexual activity to the point of addiction or compulsion.

Defined, sexual addiction is a lack of control over sexual behavior. This is a relatively new area of sexuality research, and has only been around since the early 1980s. There may be many different words used to describe sexual addiction: hypersexuality, sexual impulsivity, nymphomania, and compulsive sexual behavior are all terms that have been used to describe sexually addictive behavior. Most practitioners and therapist agree that there must be two characteristics present in the diagnosis of sexual addiction: uncontrollable sexual behavior and sexual behaviors which have negative impacts but cannot be stopped. Practitioners also recognize an addiction cycle (also referred to as sexual addiction cycle theory):

  • Step one: preoccupation which is characterized by consuming thoughts about sex and obsessive searching for sexual stimulation.
  • Step two: ritualization of the behaviors that lead up to sex; this intensifies and leads to step three.
  • Step three: participation in the sexual behavior.
  • Step four: despair over the powerlessness the person feels about the behavior; in an effort to eliminate the feelings of despair that begin again, the person may become preoccupied again and restart the cycle.

Men tend to have higher rates of sexual addiction than women (again, caution is warranted when considering this statistic; more research is needed), and research on sex addicts show that approximately 5% of the population identify as sexually addicted. Gay and bisexual men have higher rate than do lesbian and bisexual women, and gay and bisexual men are more likely to engage in substance abuse along with their sexually addictive behavior. Anxiety seems to be linked to sexually addictive behavior according to research and as with many other of the issues we have discussed low self-esteem, impaired social skills, and depression in general tend to be indicated.


The stages of our lives are complex and at no other time in our history have we had so many choices about how to live the lives available to us. Society is always changing and it is a reflection of the needs and desires of its members. Understanding how our choices help to change our definitions and understanding of intimate relationships is essential to our understanding of self and others.