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Sexual deviance, and what is defined as sexually deviant, is culturally and historically specific. This concept refers to behaviors that involve individuals seeking erotic gratification through means that are considered odd, different, or unacceptable to either most or influential persons in one’s community. As with most forms of deviance, sexual deviance is something that is defined differently by persons of different backgrounds, beliefs, morals, and locations. However, sexual deviance is also an idea about which most persons hold very strong views, and react in stigmatizing and ostracizing ways.
Sexual deviance is a term that refers to behavior that has a sexual aspect to it and is considered a violation of either general societal norms or the expectations and/or limits of behavior for specific cultural settings. Defining some sexually oriented behavior as deviant means that the action meets at least one (or a combination) of four criteria: (1) degree of consent, (2) the nature of the persons/objects involved in the action, (3) the actual action and body parts involved, or (4) the setting in which the behavior is performed. Generally speaking, sexual behavior that is not fully consensual by all persons involved is considered deviant. Rape and exhibitionism (where the persons to whom sexual images are presented are unwilling recipients) are obvious examples of sexual deviance defined by degree of consent. Sexual behavior with children, animals, or odd” objects (vegetables, firearms, kitchen appliances, etc.) would be considered deviant by most people because such persons and objects are not generally considered sexual. When we speak of sexual deviance based on the action or body parts involved as the defining elements we could think of individuals who receive sexual gratification from violence, setting fires, wearing opposite-gender clothing, or even for some people, masturbation. This category would also include sexual acts that include body parts not typically considered sexual, such as individuals’ feet, ears, or noses. Finally, some settings, such as a courtroom, church, or an open field in a public park would be thought of by most people as inappropriate for sexual activities. Therefore, sexual acts performed in these locations (regardless of how normal” the acts may be) would be considered deviant, simply because of where they were performed.
It is important to keep in mind that sexual deviance, as with all types of deviance, is not usually something that is inherently ”wrong.” Instead, sexual deviance is so determined by one of two approaches, both based on social conditions. The easier to see of these two approaches is the idea of statistical definitions. This means that sexual behaviors in which only a minority of persons engages would be considered deviant. In this view, behaviors in which a majority of persons participate would be normative, and those actions that only a few” people do would be different” (i.e., deviant). A more purely sociological approach to defining sexual deviance is to focus on the ways that society members react and respond to particular acts. In this approach, when others learn of an individual’s sexual activities with farm animals and react by showing their distaste for the act and stigmatization of the persons involved, we know that sex with farm animals is considered deviant.
- Gagnon, J. & Simon, W. (1967) Sexual Deviance. Harper & Row, New York.
- Hensley, C. & Tewksbury, R. (2003) Sexual Deviance. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, CO.