Lesson 1: Theories and Research in Sexuality


The study of human sexuality is diverse. The topic is approached and investigated by many disciplines and fields, including psychology, sociology, biology, and anthropology, among others. Likewise, different methods are used to study sexuality. It is as important to understand these different research methods and theoretical perspectives as it is to know about the historical figures who have contributed to and shaped the study of sexuality.

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to accomplish the following:

  1. Explain how theories guide research and knowledge.
  2. Describe Sigmund Freud's theory of personality development.
  3. Identify key factors of behavioral theory, social learning theory, biological theory, evolutionary theory, sociological theory, and feminist theory.
  4. Identify key figures in the history of sexuality research.
  5. Distinguish between reliability, validity, and generalizability and know the contribution of each to a research study.
  6. Distinguish between the different methods used to research sexuality.

Reading Assignment

Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity

  • Chapter 2, "Understanding Human Sexuality: Theory and Research" (pages 28–58)


This discussion adds to and builds on the assigned readings. It is not a substitute for reading, or a summary of, the textbooks. Each source may present information not covered in the other, so it is important that you read both this discussion and the reading fully.

Theories about Sexuality

A theory is a particular set of principles, assumptions, or explanations designed to make sense of observations of the world. It also can be defined as a set of perspectives and worldviews, which means different cultures often embrace different theories. A theory in the social sciences is not a "proven fact," such as a theory in chemistry or zoology. A sexual theory, for example, is an explanatory model of the cause or consequence of a sexual attitude or behavior. A theory can be used to predict a response under a particular condition, which could be tested with research if desired. The study of sexuality has yielded different theories over time, many of which are still used today.

Sigmund Freud Figure 1.1. Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis.

Perhaps the most recognized name in the field of psychology is Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). His work, which is known as psychoanalytic theory, is pertinent to the field of human sexuality. The key focus of psychoanalytic theory is personality formation. Freud argued that human behavior is motivated by both inborn instincts and drives and that one's basic personality is shaped by events in the first six years of life. Two powerful drives, according to Freud, drive all human behavior: the libido (sexual motivation) and thanatos (aggressiveness). Furthermore, everyone's personality is composed of three divisions, which he labeled the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the inner, uncontrolled child; it is a collection of unconscious desires and urges that always seek expression. The superego is the strict inner parent who consistently brings to mind social and personal standards. The ego mediates between the id and the superego. It seeks to balance reality, the conscience of the superego, and the instinctual urges of the id.

Freud's work on personality development includes proposals of psychosexual development with the key issue being the libido. The energy of the libido, he proposed, is directed to different erogenous zones during the stages of development. Should a problem occur during a developmental stage, a fixation can develop; a fixation is the development of an adult behavior characteristic of a childhood stage that results from pent-up psychic energy. All psychological difficulties, hence, result from problems during development. For a problem to be corrected or improved, an individual would have to do intensive processing of an earlier stage of life. Freud paid a great deal of attention to the developmental stages and their potential effects for later in life.

Five stages comprise psychosexual development. The first is the oral stage (birth to 18 months). During this stage, the erogenous zone is the mouth. An oral fixation would result in behaviors such as smoking, overeating, nail biting, or alcohol abuse. The second is the anal stage, which occurs from the age of 18 months to three years. An anal fixation would result in an individual exhibiting stubbornness, an excessive desire for cleanliness and organization, or messiness. The third is the phallic stage. The genitals are the erogenous zones from the age of three to six. During this stage, Freud proposed, children develop Oedipus and Electra complexes. The Oedipus complex is the incestuous sexual attraction of a son for his mother, and the Electra complex is the incestuous desire of a daughter for her father. From the age of six until the onset of puberty, the individual enters a stage of latency; the sexual drive is dormant, and sexual desires and impulses are repressed. The energy from the suppressed libido is channeled instead into friendships, athletics, social activities, and school. At the onset of puberty, the genital stage begins. In this final stage, the erogenous zone shifts again to the genitals, but the individual has the ability to engage in adult sexual behaviors.

Freud's theories are controversial. From the time he began publishing his work in the early twentieth century, people have contested the idea that children are sexual from birth and internalize lust for one of their parents. His work also has been criticized as being male-centered and producing many unflattering and oppressive views about women. For example, Freud proposed that during the Electra complex women undergo "penis envy." This idea, many have since argued, suggests that women feel inferior to men because they realize they are missing an "essential" part of the body, the phallus.

Behavioral theory is another approach to sexuality. The premise of this theory is that all human behaviors are a result of the rewards and punishments that have been received as a result of past behaviors. A behavior can be modified using reinforcements or punishments. Reinforcements encourage an individual to continue exhibiting a particular behavior by tying it to something pleasurable. For example, a parent might take a child for ice cream after the child is well behaved in the doctor's office. An example applicable to sexuality is receiving pleasure during sexual interactions with a partner and, as a consequence, desiring to have frequent intimate interactions with that person. Conversely, punishments discourage an individual from repeating a behavior by associating the behavior with something negative.

prison Figure 1.2. According to behavioral theory, incarceration for rape is an example of a punishment. Theoretically, the addition of this negative consequence should discourage the person from forcing others to have sex in the future.

According to social learning theory, we learn by observing the behaviors of others and by interacting with them. Social learning theory posits that we can learn by seeing the rewards and punishments that others receive for their actions without having to experience them personally. Individuals learn about their own sexuality by first imitating the behavior of others and then acting after having developed an anticipation of the potential results. In the field of sexuality, this theory has been applied to sexual violence. It is not uncommon for erotic films or magazines to show a woman enjoying the advances of a sexually aggressive man even if she may at first deny him. It has become a concern that exposure of adolescent boys to such scenarios may send the message that women are sexually aroused by aggressive, perhaps even violent or assaultive, methods.

A sociological approach goes beyond behaviorism and social learning to examine how social institutions influence sexuality. Social institutions include family, religion, law, economy, medicine, and so forth. Proponents of this approach argue that variations in these social factors account for differences in beliefs about sexuality across cultures. A culture sets guidelines for "proper" behavior for different situations based on scripts. A script is a cognitive plan that guides one to behave in a predictable, patterned, organized fashion and in accordance with what is acceptable and expected in a given culture. A script can be based on the expectations that we think others have about us as well as on ideas and plans that we devise in our own minds.

Feminist theory has gained attention recently in the field of sexuality. Feminist theory has its roots in social learning and sociological approaches. Proponents of feminist theory argue that sexuality is socially constructed and includes power and gender inequalities. Early theories of sex and sexuality are based on male sexuality that devalues the female experience. Feminist researchers believe sexuality research must be revamped since it historically is based on white, middle-class, heterosexual perspectives. Feminist theory emphasizes a woman's pleasure and her capacity to do more than traditional gender norms have allowed or encouraged.

Venus of Willendorf Figure 1.3. The Venus of Willendorf sculpture, which radio-carbon dating estimates is between 22,000 and 24,000 years old, is believed to represent human interest and worship of fertility based on the prominent abdomen and breasts.

Queer theory, developed in the 1990s, shares common interests with feminist theory. Both have a strong focus on issues concerning women and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals. Those that hold to this perspective advocate for more studies devoted to how sexualities are constructed and perspectives that look past the simplistic, polarized categories of homosexual and heterosexual.

Moving away from the theories that focus on social forces and surroundings, cognitive theories propose that one's perception and labeling of events determine one's reactions to them. Simply put, what sexually arouses individuals is what they think sexually arouses them. Additionally, people act based on the labels they ascribe to certain feelings, phenomena, or sensations. If individuals label a behavior or an experience as negative, they will act in a more aversive way toward that behavior or experience than individuals who label the same behavior or experience as positive.

Those who refuse to believe that sexuality is influenced by personal cognitions only or by social factors only ascribe to psychosocial theory. This theory assumes that psychological factors (such as attitudes, motivations, and emotions) work alongside with social factors to shape individuals' sexual attitudes, values, and behaviors.

An additional category of theories includes those that focus more on biology and human evolution than on social or cognitive factors. A biological theory of sex posits that sexual intercourse is no more than a biological process. Arousal and attraction are matters of sheer biology and physiology, such as genetics and hormones. Consequently, medical interventions or prescriptions should be sufficient to resolve sexual problems. This theory is often combined with psychosocial theory to produce a biopsychosocial theory. This theory allows for the scientifically documented influences of hormones and physiology while still considering important social and intrapersonal factors.

Evolutionary theory traces human motivations back to the beginning of life when the goal was to survive and continue your species. Sex and sexuality have the key function of reproduction and passing on genes. Evolutionary theory is often looked to for explanations of mate selection. Men want women who are fertile and can give them healthy offspring and therefore will mate with many individuals to increase their chances of procreating. Women, on the other hand, want a man who can be stable and depended upon in the care of the children. Their desire, therefore, is to mate with one man who will act as a partner in caring for offspring. A common criticism of the evolutionary theory is that it ignores both learning and societal influence.

The Concept Check exercises that appear throughout the course are provided to help you prepare for the multiple-choice exams that appear after Lessons 3, 7, and 11. These exercises are for your benefit only, and your answers will not be sent to your instructor for evaluation.

This interactive is only available online.

If you are reading this text online, this content is not loading properly. Check to see that:

  1. JavaScript is enabled on your Web browser (see these instructions); and that
  2. Adobe Flash Player is installed for your Web browser:
    Get Adobe Flash player.

Sexuality Research

Havelock Ellis Figure 1.4. Havelock Ellis.

Sexuality research has a clear goal: to understand and predict sexual behaviors. The field encompasses all age groups, sexual orientations, and cultures. Although the goal of sexuality research is clear, gaining permission or funding to conduct the research and having the ability to share the results of research have been difficult historically. In the late nineteenth century, Havelock Ellis was forced to publish his findings on sexual deviance abroad because his work was not allowed in England. In the early twentieth century, Magnus Hirschfeld's statistical surveys on homosexuality were legally terminated. In the 1930s, the Institute for Sexology in Berlin was closed and all data were destroyed. Alfred Kinsey, a mid-twentieth-century American biologist who profoundly shaped the field of sexuality research, was criticized for asking questions about sex without making value judgments. These examples demonstrate the political and societal barriers that have surrounded sexuality research.

Research is reflective of its historical time and its place in culture, and these forces both influence the subject matter of research and limit the degree to which findings are accepted. Early research on sex focused on the dangerous, unhealthy, or "different" aspects of sexuality. In the nineteenth century, for example, traditional Victorian attitudes frowned upon sex research, and the primary sexuality researchers were physicians. One of the first sex researchers was Iwan Bloch, a German dermatologist who helped found a medical society dedicated to sexology research and published the Journal of Sexology. Magnus Hirschfeld, also a German physician, set out to reform negative attitudes toward homosexuals. He later became an expert in homosexuality as well as in other sexual variations. Sexuality research reached the United States in the 1920s and became popular in response to the social hygiene movement. During the social hygiene movement, Progressive-era reformers attempted to control sexually transmitted infections (venereal diseases) by regulating prostitution and other forms of "vice." During this same period, a researcher named Clelia Mosher was the first to openly ask Americans about personal sexual behaviors with the explicit goal of helping married women have more satisfying sex lives.

All these individuals played an important role in the field of sexology. However, Alfred Kinsey is widely considered to be the most influential sex researcher of the twentieth century. Kinsey's work began at Indiana University when he realized that the current literature on sexuality could not provide him with answers to many of the questions that his students were asking. He began an interview study of sexual histories of approximately 18,000 people from across the country. Along with three other researchers, he developed an elaborate system of interviewing and coding to ensure accuracy, consistency, and confidentiality. Kinsey recognized that individuals might be tempted to be dishonest when asked a question about their sexual histories. Consequently, his team incorporated several "check questions" into their 350-question interview. These questions were designed specifically to assess the honesty of previous responses. With this method, he discovered a significant disparity between what people talk about in public and what they do in private. Table 2.1 on page 43 of the textbook lists some of the most important findings of Kinsey's groundbreaking research. Despite the controversy and challenges he encountered in carrying out his research, Kinsey was eventually able to found the Institute for Sex Research in 1947.

Years after Kinsey's work, William Masters and Virginia Johnson were the first researchers to observe and measure sexual stimulation and interactions in a laboratory. Masters, a gynecologist, and Johnson, a psychology researcher, were interested in the anatomy and physiology of the sexual response cycle. They obtained their data by using a one-way mirror to observe volunteers having oral sex, masturbating, and engaging in intercourse; they used special instruments that fit in the vagina or around the penis to measure physiological response. Their research provided new information about the act of sexual intercourse, including the important role of the clitoris, the ability of women to have multiple orgasms, and the male refractory period.

Research Methods

Methods for obtaining information about sexuality vary. Before examining some of these different methods, there are three important concepts to introduce. Validity refers the extent to which a test or question accurately measures what it is designed to measure. Reliability is how well a method produces consistent results no matter who uses the method or when. Generalizability is the applicability of a study's findings to the general population. The ability to generalize findings from studies is very important in sexuality research due to issues of race, culture, and religion that have such a strong influence on sexual beliefs and practices.

In the field of sexuality, a self-report questionnaire of sexual arousal could have its validity tested by comparing written responses to a physiological measure of arousal (vaginal lubrication or erection) when the participant is exposed to a particular stimulus. If the physiological arousal responses are high for the same stimuli that the participant ranked higher on the questionnaire, the researcher could have confidence in the measure's validity. If the study is conducted only with Caucasian college students, the ability to generalize the findings will be limited; the findings, for example, would probably not apply to a population of middle-aged ethnic minority individuals. Likewise, a study of inner-city Hispanic teenagers in Los Angeles would probably not yield findings that could be applied to youth from upper-class, affluent African American families in Boston.

There are two types of research: longitudinal and cross-sectional. Longitudinal research occurs when a researcher or research team studies the same person or group of people multiple times. If Tim, Sue, and Sally were interviewed for a 10-year study in 1995, they would also be interviewed for the second part of the study in 2005. This type of research allows researchers to see how Tim, Sue, and Sally have changed over time. A cross-sectional study occurs when a group or participant is studied at one point in time. Cross-sectional studies are more common than longitudinal methods because they take less time, money, and resources.

This interactive is only available online.

If you are reading this text online, this content is not loading properly. Check to see that:

  1. JavaScript is enabled on your Web browser (see these instructions); and that
  2. Adobe Flash Player is installed for your Web browser:
    Get Adobe Flash player.

Starting on page 48, the textbook reviews types of research studies and methods commonly used to gather data about human sexuality. Case studies are an exploration of individual cases that are used to form general hypotheses. Case studies produce a great deal of information about one or a few individuals and have the advantages of being flexible and fairly thorough. These studies provide the opportunity to explore a behavior or phenomenon of interest in depth. However, with case studies, the researcher experiences a considerable lack of control, and the ability to generalize findings and hypotheses will be limited.

Another method is direct observation. The laboratory work of Masters and Johnson is an example of direct observation. They did not manipulate participants; they only observed their interactions. One disadvantage of direct observation research, particularly in sexuality research, is difficulty finding research participants, which affects generalizability; we must assume that individuals who volunteer to participate in sexual acts while being observed are not representative of the general public. It also is difficult to incorporate information on feelings, attitudes, or history with direct observation. People also may alter their behaviors when they know they are being observed, a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect.

survey Figure 1.5. Questionnaires can be anonymous, which may allow participants to feel more comfortable disclosing information about their sexuality than in a face-to-face interview setting.

Surveys are probably the most popular method for gaining information about sexuality. Surveys are used to identify attitudes, knowledge, and/or behaviors from large samples of people. Survey research can be done through interviews or by questionnaires. Each method has its own benefits and limitations. Questionnaires are inexpensive and quick to administer, especially in comparison to interviews, which may require travel time for the researcher. On the other hand, interviews can be more flexible than surveys in regards to content. An interview allows researchers to probe an issue they may find interesting or discrepant; a paper or electronic questionnaire can provide information only on a predetermined set of questions.

Experimental research is the only research method that allows a researcher to determine cause and effect. Experimental methods require random assignment of subjects to groups. A variable of interest (independent variable) is controlled by the researcher and applied to an experimental group to determine its effect on the participants' responses. The findings are compared to a group of participants who are untested or unexposed to the independent variable.

For example, a researcher wants to know the effects of a new medication on a woman's sex drive. The researcher enlists sexually active women and randomly assigns some of the women to an experimental group and the remaining to a control group. Each woman is surveyed about her frequency of sexual interaction. The women in the experimental group are given a 30-day supply of the new drug, and the women in the control group are given a placebo, an innocuous medication. After the 30 days are over, the women are surveyed again about the frequency of sexual interaction. This comparison allows the investigator to determine if the new drug has had a significant effect on the frequency of sexual interaction among the women in the experimental group compared to the women in the control group.

Experimental research does have its limitations. It is often expensive and time consuming. The controlled settings may not reflect real-world situations. It also can be impossible or unethical to randomly assign participants to groups or to manipulate a certain variable in the lives of the participants.

When experimental research is not possible, correlational research can be employed. Rather than deal with cause and effect, the investigator simply looks for correlations (relationships, associations) between two variables. Correlations can be measured by using survey or observational methods. Although this type of research cannot speak to cause and effect, it is often more feasible than an experimental study and can still reveal important information about how variables are related.

When researchers are interested in collecting information about a phenomenon, they will engage in descriptive research. Examples of descriptive studies include statistics on the percentage of teenagers who have lost their virginity by age 15, the average frequency of sexual intimacy among cohabitating couples, and rates of extramarital affairs.

Technological advances have created novel research tools not available to Kinsey or Masters and Johnson. Although electronic devices are still used to measure sexual arousal, they range today from thin, flexible loops to measure erection strength, to vaginal devices that use light to measure blood within the vaginal wall (an indicator of female arousal), to anal implements that measure muscle activity in the pelvis. Computerized assessments have solved many problems previously associated with questionnaires and interviews. For example, vocal tools allow respondents who are illiterate or blind to complete surveys on the computer. Translation software also allows investigators to conduct research in multiple languages without having to be multilingual themselves.

With the current use of cyberspace, many researchers are turning to the Internet as a medium for their research. Cyberspace questionnaires have several advantages. They save on printing and distribution and collection costs and therefore are cheaper than traditional printed questionnaires. They are easier and cheaper to modify or update. Prompts and controls can prevent participants from skipping questions or marking multiple responses, two problems encountered with paper-and-pencil questionnaires. People who respond to electronic surveys are more inclined to share private information than they would in an interview or on a written questionnaire. Cyberspace questionnaires, however, can suffer from sample bias, meaning Internet users are not representative of the general population.

In spite of all the methods available for studying sexuality, problems and issues still exist in sex research today. Volunteer bias is still a challenge. Just as the participants in Masters and Johnson's study who volunteered to be observed engaging in sexual acts were probably not representative of the general population, college students who volunteer for sexuality research today tend to be more liberal, more sexually experienced, and less traditional than the population as a whole. Most sexuality research is conducted on college samples because it is convenient for researchers who work at universities to gain access to students. These two issues come together to create a significant problem with generalizing findings. Findings from sexuality research are published in a number of refereed journals.

Today, research about sex and sexuality is more widespread and diverse than ever before. Like other types of science, researchers publish their data and findings in a number of refereed journals. By searching these journals, you can find research-based evidence about nearly any topic in the field of sexuality. Journals are preferred sources of evidence than sources on the Internet (e.g., Wikipedia) because they are required to meet high standards for their research methods (i.e., reliable and valid measurement). The names of some of these journals are provided in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1. Current Journals on Sexuality Research

AIDS and Behavior Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity
Sexual Dysfunction AIDS Care
Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality Sexualities: Studies in Culture and Society
AIDS Education and Prevention Journal of Sex Education and Therapy
Sexuality and Disabilities AIDS Public Policy Journal
Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy The Journal of Sex Research
Archives of Sexual Behavior Journal of Sexuality and Disability
Sexual and Marital Therapy Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity Culture, Health, and Sexuality

This interactive is only available online.

If you are reading this text online, this content is not loading properly. Check to see that:

  1. JavaScript is enabled on your Web browser (see these instructions); and that
  2. Adobe Flash Player is installed for your Web browser:
    Get Adobe Flash player.