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Sexual practices have varied widely across time and space. Freud and the Freudians dominated the study of human sexuality for many years. For Freud, sex was an overpowering biological drive that was repressed by society in varying ways and degrees. Kinsey emerged onto the scene in the late 1940s, and Masters and Johnson in the 1960s. Their work had little theory and has been referred to as a kind of radical empiricism” (Brake 1982).
The currently dominant approach to explaining sexual practices seems to be social constructionism, which downplays the biological nature of humans and emphasizes that sexual practices are socially and culturally created. Among the earliest sociologists to take this approach, specifically in the form of symbolic interactionism, were John Gagnon and William Simon, as well as Ken Plummer. Social constructionists oppose essentialism,” or the notion that sexuality is largely a matter of biologically pre-given drives. For the constructionists, sexual practices are less biologically given than determined by society through complex webs of social interaction and social definition. Gagnon and Simon emphasized the importance of sexual scripts”; for them, sexual conduct is acquired and assembled in human interaction, judged and performed in specific cultural and historical worlds” (Gagnon 1977: 2). And, as Plummer tells us, Sexuality has no meaning other than that given to it in social situations. Thus the forms and the contents of sexual meanings are another cultural variable, and why certain meanings are learnt and not others is problematic” (1982: 233).
The leading alternative to social constructionism today is the Darwinian approach of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. Donald Symons (1979), for example, has sought to show how Darwinian sexual selection has acted on human sexual desires by looking in particular at universal or extremely widespread sexual attitudes and practices. He points to such things as the overwhelming tendency of males everywhere to be aroused by visual sexual stimuli; to the apparently universal desire of men to mate with younger females; to copulation as primarily a service provided by females to males; and to the universal desire of males for a wide variety of sexual partners. The Darwinian approach has made little headway in sociology, but it has been highly influential in psychology and anthropology.
- Brake, M. (1982) Sexuality as praxis: a consideration of the contribution of sexual theory to the process of sexual being. In: Brake, M. (ed.), Human Sexual Relations. Pantheon, New York.
- Gagnon, J. (1977) Human Sexualities. Scott, Foresman, Glenview, IL.
- Plummer, K. (1982) Symbolic interactionism and sexual conduct: an emergent perspective. In: Brake, M. (ed.), Human Sexual Relations. Pantheon, New York.
- Symons, D. (1979) The Evolution of Human Sexuality. Oxford University Press, New York.