Professor Marshall

LESSON 7: Development of Attitudes and Beliefs about Sexuality

Development of Attitudes and Beliefs about Sexuality


Sociologists go about their work trying to capture the essence of how society IS rather than how we think it should or could be. In order to do so, we have a variety of research methods available to us, and we conceptualize what we want to study by asking questions that relate to attitudes, beliefs, feelings and experiences.

ATTITUDES: Attitudes can be formed from our pasts, our present and our futures, and are formed as either positive or negative evaluations. We choose our attitude about something, and in doing so, we evaluate how we feel about it. Sociologists use scales to measure attitudes, and they can be very difficult to measure precisely because they are arbitrary, meaning that they have to be measured against something else, for example: to measure attitudes about the concept inequality, we measure against the concept of equality.

This may seem easy to some, but on further evaluation, we can see that there are quite a few problems with this type of measurement. For example, what exactly does "having sex" mean? We can spend a lot of time trying to define and then refine our ideas about "having sex" and "not having sex" in order to answer this question. Therefore, when sociologists set about to research an attitude (anything that sociologists want to measure, for that matter), it is very important that they operationalize the concept that they want to measure.


BELIEFS: Beliefs are about our worldview--what do we believe about something? Beliefs are ideas of a particular group or society and may consist of fables, stories, traditions, superstitions, and educational experiences that have influence on our ideas, emotions and values as well as our ATTITUDES. An example of a belief is a religious belief. Religion is steeped in tradition, and it helps to shape our attitudes (whether we are religious or not--understanding this helps you to see how a measurement of an attitude or belief is arbitrary--if you had nothing to measure how religious you are against, then how would you know how religious you are?). So, a belief can be described as a moral foundation by which you act or think.

FEELINGS: How you feel about something is directly influenced by your attitudes and beliefs as well as by past experiences. In the realm of thinking about sexuality, your feelings are likely directly related to experiences you've had in your life. As children, the early socialization process related to intimacy can have a profound impact on us and our feelings about our sexuality. Our beliefs (for example, our religious beliefs) help us to form our feelings, and help us to decide what our experiences may be when we experience our sexuality. Feelings give us QUALITATIVE data, meaning that they describe us--they give a report on our sense of being.

EXPERIENCES: Moving toward the crux of symbolic interaction theory, experiences are framed and given meaning by individuals. Each of us experiences social reality differently from the next. We may not identify our experiences as different than another's (for example, the marriage of two people may be described by both in similar fashion, and both may think they had the same experience during the event), when in reality our experiences are likely vastly different than someone else's. Experiences influence the future, and they are also framed in context of our past experiences. The primary difference between experience and the other three constructs (attitude, belief and feeling) is that experience requires action. Something that we interact with gives us an experience. There are significant differences among people who have had sexual experiences and for those whom sexual experiences are a subject of discussion and inquiry--it is this experience that influences how we think and feel and what we believe about a concept.

All four of these constructs--attitude, belief, feeling and experience--are what sociologists try to measure. Some will argue that these measurements are impossible to take as society (and individuals) are constantly changing. Others will assert that it is very important for us to "get an handle" on concepts related to society and to continue to work toward creating new methods to do so.

More about Attitudes

Like everyone around you, you probably have fairly strong opinions about many things. Opinions lead us to have attitudes about things, and attitudes influence our beliefs as well as our behaviors. When we have an attitude about something, we are expressing our tendency to evaluate it in a specific way. We evaluate the sociological perspective, people, events, and other objects and issues in society.

While your most evaluations are either positive or negative sometimes we're uncertain about what kind of attitude to have about certain social realities. Operationalizing the concept of "attitude" is extremely important for researchers as we really want to know how our attitudes influence our behavior toward our social environment and others and whether or not we need to change our attitudes in relationship to others. In addition, most of the time, attitudes are going to be either obvious (explicit) or implied.

  • Obvious/Explicit Attitudes: those of which we are consciously aware and which clearly influence our behaviors and beliefs.
  • Implied: those which are unconscious and which still have an effect on our beliefs and behaviors.

There are three components which make up attitudes:

  • Cognitive components which is how you think about something and what you believe about it.
  • Emotional components which are feelings about objects, issues, events, or others.
  • Behavioral components which is your attitude expressed in a behavioral way, in other words how you think and feel about something and how it impacts what you do.

Attitudes form from experience, either direct personal experience, or observations of the behaviors and experiences of others, and social roles and norms have a strong influence on attitudes.

  • Social roles: expectations for behavior in specific contexts.
  • Social norms: social rules for what behaviors are considered appropriate.

One way that we learn attitudes is by observing the people around us. If we admire or look up to someone, we are likely to develop the same beliefs that they hold, and thus they have influenced our attitude. It is important to note however that attitudes and actual behavior are not always perfectly aligned.

Social psychologists and sociologists have discovered that people are more likely to behave according to their attitudes under certain conditions:

  • Experience: when your attitudes are the result of personal experience.
  • Expert: When you are an expert in the subject.
  • Outcomes: When you expect a favorable outcome.
  • Repetition: When the attitudes are repeatedly expressed.
  • Sanctions: When you stand to win or lose something due to the issue.

Attitude Change

Attitudes can change; they are not set in stone. The same way that you develop an attitude also helps you to create attitude change. Conditioning, persuasion, and the development of conflicting beliefs about a topic can help us to shift our attitude. Human perception, that is to say how we perceive something to be, is vital not only to our understanding of ourselves but also to understanding where our beliefs and actions come from. There's a give-and-take relationship between our beliefs (our values, our attitudes, and are ideologies) and the social structure in which we live.

Linking Attitudes (Micro) to Structure (Macro)

There is a lot of research in the field of social psychology which investigates the links between attitudes and social structure. Generally speaking, research in this area can be broken down into a few broad categories:

  • How our attitudes relate to where we are situated in the social structure by elements such as class standing, educational attainment, the workplace and so forth.
  • How the social structure affects our attitudes via the roles that we internalize and the roles of those around us.
  • The psychological realm, which attempts to identify the mental processes that we use in the development of our attitudes.

One thing that this area of research discusses is the difficulty in measuring attitudes. Attitudes are greatly influenced by emotions and as we know, being emotional is not always rational. This makes it very challenging for us to understand and operationalize attitudes as often the reasons that we feel the way we do or behave in a specific manner are intangible or at least difficult for the researcher to quantify. Attitudes can be fleeting, situational, or even difficult for the individual who has them to define.

There has been some progress however with attempts to quantify emotions, attitudes, feelings, and beliefs. We are all familiar with Likert scale types of questions; these types of scaled questions are one of the earliest attempts to measure these types of concepts. One of the problems for sociologist is that measurements of attitudes have generally been psychologically oriented and have focused on the individual. Thus, sociologists who study attitudes and their development are in relatively new area of the field of sociology. Unlike psychologists who research psychological (mental) processes in relationship to attitude, sociologists want to understand attitude development in terms of how the structure of society impacts this development. Sociologists who research the phenomena of attitude development in relationship to the social structure encourage us to see that attitudes are socially formed and socially enacted. The configuration of society plays a huge part in how we develop our attitudes about everything. Thus, while psychology brings a lot to the table with regard to the cognitive aspects of attitudes, sociology adds a very important layer in that it allows us to understand who we are and how our attitudes are grounded in social consensus. For most of us, most of our attitudes reflect a group identity; further, our attitudes help to define the groups to which we belong and the groups to which we don't belong. There are significant advantages to understanding the development of our attitudes and beliefs in this way as it helps us to see how who we are is very closely linked to the social structure and how who we are also helps to support the status quo of our society, or to change it with the development of new attitudes or beliefs.

Measuring Sexuality

Love, romance, and relationships are the products of our ideas about social and cultural life. Relationship structures (meaning, who we agree is appropriate to court, marry, love) are highly shaped by the meanings and values that are attached to how we feel about ourselves and our physical bodies. Many things play roles when we consider to whom we are attracted:

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Skin Color
  • Class Status
  • Gender Roles (both our own and those of others)
  • Power Dynamics
  • Behavior Expectations (both our own and those of others)

We can see how these things factor into mate selection when we look at different types of relationship dynamics, for example:

  • Heterosexual relationships: may function around our ideas about male authority, patriarchy, and differences between men and women from a biological/essentialist point of view.
  • Interracial relationships: for some, may be influenced by ideologies of white normalcy and whites' exoticization of people of color

Meanings shift and change over the course of our lifetimes, and so does the structure of society (our collective values, beliefs, expectations, and so on). As our values shift, our relationships must be renegotiated and, eventually, society must be restructured. As a result of these changes at the micro and macro levels, opportunities for new relationships and new relationship structures arise. These new understandings of relationships often challenge gender, sexual and relationship arrangements and hierarchies. However, many of them continue to rely on traditional gender stereotyping and thus do not challenge our ideas about love and romance. As an example, the exclusion for marriage equality (only recently changed by the Supreme Court) has allowed our society to reinforce heterosexual norms as a state-sponsored practice that reinforces our conceptions of love and romance. Even in cases of "untraditional" love and partnering, such as in the case of trans-couples (where one or both partners are transsexual), partnerships tend to follow our established sexual and relational scripts (rather than lead to new ones).

Sexual Meanings

There are some scholars who assert that our sexual identities, our desires, and sexual practices are not inborn (our social construction theorists). They assert that it is not that individuals are "gay" or "straight" but that they become these identities through participating in social processes that mark them as such. Note that we're not talking about whether or not a person is attracted to a specific sex or gender, but rather that society defines what "gay" or "straight" or "bi" mean, and it doing so we shape individual identities. Learning to be our sexual selves is a product of exposure to messages from pop culture, the media, and religious texts as well as learned cultural customs, codes and norms about what it means to be sexual beings and what actions or parts of our bodies will bring sexual pleasure.

Constructionists also assert that our sexualities are constrained by a "culture of dualisms" in which messages are conveyed regarding which actions and desires are immoral, dirty, and wrong, thus simultaneously framing what is moral, clean, and right. In other words, sexual acts, identities, and body parts have no meaning in and of themselves—the surrounding culture gives sexuality its meaning. Social and cultural power dynamics are reflected in labeling who is morally corrupt and which groups we sanction to claim sexual access to others.

Pre-Marital Sex, "Affairs," Serial Monogamy, and Ending Relationships

Pre-marital Sex

Premarital sex is defined as sexual activity which is practiced by people who are unmarried. Premarital sex has historically been considered taboo, not only culturally but also from a religious standpoint. However it is a common practice. In addition, changes in our perceptions of sexuality as well as cultural shifts such as the sexual revolution and other rights movements in the United States have allowed us to gain a better understanding of the frequency of premarital sex as well as its impacts on subsequent relationships.

In America today, 95% of Americans have had unmarried sex by the age of mid-adulthood. While people in American society are now waiting longer to get married, premarital sex has been a norm in American society for the past 50 years, and the numbers of Americans who participate in premarital sex has been stable since the 1940s. In a research study published in Public Health Reports Journal, in a longitudinal study, four intervals were measured over the period of 1982 to 2002 during which questions were asked about sexual and marital behavior. The study shows that by the age of 20, 75% of us have premarital sex. Even for those of us who abstain from having sex until we are at least 20 years old, 81% will have premarital sex. What is clear from these findings is that they do challenge current K-12 abstinence only types of sex education programs. If most of us are having sex, we have to question the feasibility of federally funding these types of programs.

Some current research on premarital sex indicates that, contrary to what we might believe about cohabitation and premarital sex, we are not at higher risk of divorce if we participate in either premarital sex or cohabitation. Using data from the National Survey of Family Growth, sociologists have been able to show that women who have premarital sex or who cohabitate are more willing to end unsatisfactory relationships prior to marriage. Thus, cohabiting or participating in premarital sex do not increase divorce statistics. In fact, the opposite may be true: cohabitation may help some people who may have been at a higher risk for divorce anyway.

Affairs or Extra-marital Sex

It is very challenging to get solid data about people cheating on their partners or spouses. Studies on extramarital sex are very few and far between and it is very difficult to get funding for these types of studies. Thus, the data we have is outdated. What we do know though, when comparing the studies that have been done in the past, is that the data points to more people participating in extramarital sex over time. This may be due to relaxed social attitudes about extramarital sex, or it may be due to the willingness of research subjects to be more forthcoming.

People participate in extramarital affairs ("cheating") for variety of reasons. Some research suggests that different ideas about sex and love that often fall along expected, traditional gender lines may contribute to this behavior. Men who have participated in studies about cheating tend to be looking for relationships in which they can find a sexual outlet. Women on the other hand tend to be looking for relationships in which they can make an emotional connection.

There are some individual factors which we can look to which might tell us whether or not higher chances of cheating exist:

  • Narcissistic personality traits: people who have low levels of being conscientious of others are more highly associated with cheating behavior.
  • Satisfaction in the marriage or relationship: people who have low levels of satisfaction in their relationship have a higher chance of cheating; this applies to both men and women.
  • Length of marriage: the longer a person is married, the less likely he or she is to cheat.
  • Opportunity: if there are more opportunities to cheat, then cheating behavior seems to be more likely.

Extramarital sex, commonly referred to as "having an affair," can generally be framed as three different types of relationships:

  • Clandestine: where the participating individuals don't believe that their spouses or partners know about the sexual relationship they are having and where they don't believe that their spouses or partners would approve.
  • Ambiguous: these are relationships in which the nonparticipating individuals might know about the extramarital relationship and choose to tolerate them rather than severing or seeking a divorce. Nonparticipating spouses in this type of ambiguous situation may tolerate the extramarital affair but they don't want to know any of the details.
  • Consensual: these types of affairs or relationships happen when nonparticipating spouses or partners both know and approve of what's happening. One or both spouses or partners may have consensual relationships outside of the boundaries of their own partnership.

Serial Monogamy

Serial monogamy is a form of relationship in which an individual has one partner at any one point in time. In contrast for example, polygamy happens when a spouse has several partners at the same time. Serial monogamy occurs when an individual has a series of relationships over time, but only one relationship with one person at a time. One interesting research findings regard to serial monogamy is its relationship to the ease of severing a current relationship. When the process of obtaining divorce is simple and easy, serial monogamy rates increase.

It is important to understand that serial monogamy generally exists as a series of long-term relationships with individuals. It is not defined as "hooking up." Commitments are formed with partners either through marriage or other formal (verbal or written) understandings.

We don't know a lot about serial monogamy in today's society (it is a relatively new area of study) however childhood influences may play a part for individuals who practice this type of relationship dynamic. Since most Americans still believe that if you live with your partner you shouldn't be having sex with anyone else, serial monogamy may be an alternative for some.

Ending Relationships

As the song goes, breaking up is hard to do. There are however some things that we can do to try to safeguard ourselves and those with whom we choose to break up. Thinking through what we're doing and the reasons for doing it should be the first step in deciding whether or not to end a relationship. Understanding why you want to leave a relationship, as well is what brought you into the relationship to begin with, can only be helpful when you search for a future relationship. Knowing how you contributed to the demise of your current relationship will benefit you over time.

There has been some current research on breaking up that is very interesting. One very small research study has shown that the use of social media makes breaking up more difficult. For some, the content of their Facebook pages and other social media venues were a constant reminder of their past relationship, and they were unable to bring themselves to delete the photos or messages of their prior partner. Another interesting study from the Journal of Adolescent Research found that about 50% of young adults and teenagers who break up get back together with their previous partner; half of the group admitted to sex as being part of the reconciliation process. The researchers theorize that this cyclical breaking up and getting back together behavior might be problematic over time and maybe linked to a difficulty in moving on from old relationships and/or building new romantic attachments.

Divorce Timeline

With regard to divorces, the media would have us believe that divorce rates in the United States are increasing over time. While divorce laws vary state-to-state, all states allow "no-fault" divorces, meaning that neither party is at fault in the dissolution of the marriage. This is considered to be a less adversarial approach to divorce than we had in the past. Divorce rates in the United States are on a downward trend, meaning that less people are getting divorced now than in the past. Very closely associated with divorce is the economy — what we find is that in a good economy more people will divorce than in a bad economy. This points to how our intimate relationships with our partners are very closely associated with finances. Divorce rates are very difficult to measure, especially longitudinally. There are five different ways that sociologists who research divorce measure it:

Ways to Research and Measure:


Crude Rate

Measuring by Ratio

Refined Rate

Longitudinal Studies


Number of divorces in one year

# of divorces per 1,000 of a (ENTIRE) population

Current marriages to current divorces

# of divorces per 1000 married women over age 15



Does not take into account changes in the population b/c it is a report of absolute #s and not of rates

Corrects the problems with reports of absolute #s, but does not report ONLY marrieds

Does not account for fluctuations/changes in rates; does not tell which rate is actually fluctuating

Best available; accounts for population changes and for fluctuating #s of singles

Does not however include information about divorce at any time during marriage or about length of marriage, etc.

Follows marrieds over their lifetime and looks at patterns of marriage and divorce

VERY costly and time consuming; has only been used in a small # of studies

Some interesting data with regard to divorce trends and women (note that these statistics pertain to heterosexual marriages):

  • most divorces are initiated by women
  • 70% of women who initiate divorce mention some form of violence in their marriage, and 20% of these women cite this as the reason for seeking divorce
  • 20% of women cite personal dissatisfaction as being their reason to initiate a divorce

In the United States today most people don't feel stigmatized when they get divorced. Unfortunately, there are still some significant emotional and social repercussions that the divorced couple must deal with. Many divorced couples report having to split friends. Others report having to develop new friendships and relationships with other divorced people becoming significant in their new social networks. The highest rate of stigmatization is directed towards women who have young children — most people in our society continue to believe the divorce is only acceptable under certain conditions and that women with young children should make every effort to keep their marriages intact. Even though we have more tolerance and acceptance of divorce, women with young children do tend to feel the most distance from others in society. Additionally, we do tend to stereotype men who initiate divorces as home wreckers. Some research suggests that men who seek divorce are viewed by many people in society as having had an affair or some other physical relationship outside of the marriage which has triggered him to seek the divorce.


As this lesson shows, we do not develop our attitudes or beliefs in a vacuum. Our attitudes and beliefs are usually similar to those that are held by general consensus. Although social attitudes and beliefs do shift over time, this is generally a very long process with intermediary steps which help to smooth the transition from thinking about something in one way to another.


Etzioni. A. 1988. Normative-affective Factors: Toward a New Decision-making Model. J. Econ Psych 9 125-50

Hochschild, A. R. 1975. The Sociology of Feeling and Emotion: Selected Possibilities. In Another Voice: Feminist Perspectives on Social Life and Social Science, ed. M. Millman, R. M. Kanter, pp. 280-307.