Major Theoretical Paradigms

Sexual behavior is a cross-cultural universal. Across time and place, the vast majority of human beings engage in sexual relations. The biologically ubiquitous drive to engage in sexual activity is also transparently related to reproduction in our own and other species. Among human beings, however, different cultures also elaborate and interpret sexuality in different ways. Each of these three observations regarding human sexuality motivates one of three major theoretical perspectives regarding the study of human sexual attitudes and practices.

The first perspective assumes that matters having to do with sex, as with any human function, are basically a product of learning. Individuals pick up beliefs and customs regarding sex from members of the culture in which they grow up and live. Theorists sympathetic to this point of view expect to see a wide variety of attitudes and practices exhibited across societies dictated by such things as local values, culturally determined roles, values, and the like. Thus, for instance, if a society places a value on virginity in unmarried girls, this may simply be in accordance with a culturally determined view that girls should be chaste until marriage. This is the position of the cultural determinist.

The second perspective assumes that sexual beliefs and practices are systematically related to other aspects of culture and behavior, and may generally reflect practical solutions to problems of living characteristic of certain kinds of cultures. Thus, for instance, if a society is large and anonymous and has no reliable birth control, adults may place a value on virginity, especially in girls, to minimize the chances that a man will impregnate an unmarried female and then disappear. This represents a practical problem in many cultures because it means that the girl's family is left to take care of the child. This view that cultural attitudes and behaviors are practical responses to some kind of problem or opportunity presented by a culture is characteristic of cross-cultural anthropologists.

The third perspective assumes that sexual attitudes and behaviors are actually grounded in biology. They are mediated by natural selection and represent adaptations. According to this view, customs and behaviors having to do with sex show up in societies today because they have been successful in promoting reproduction in the past. Variations in sexual attitudes and practices from one society to the next just represent adaptive responses to local conditions. Theorists who argue for a role of natural selection in sexual beliefs and behaviors assume that environment also influences how people think about and deal with sex. But the effect of environment is not to create sexual attitudes and behaviors from whole cloth. Rather, local circumstances act to shape pan-human sexual impulses to respond to the particulars of a given society while still allowing individuals to reproduce most successfully. This is the position of the evolutionary psychologist.

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