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  Sociologists use the term ‘sexuality’ to refer to those attributes, desires, roles and identities which are concerned with sexual activity and behaviour. It may also refer to an orientation towards, or preference for, particular forms of sexual activity and expression. This sociological understanding of the term contrasts with its normal usage, which tends to regard sexuality as something that is intrinsic to the individual. It is commonly supposed that human sexual behaviour is mainly determined by biology. Sociologists, by contrast, emphasize the social basis of the norms (accepted rules for conduct) which surround sexual behaviour.

The fact that expression of sexuality varies between periods and cultures has led sociologists to conclude that sexual behaviour is not genetically determined, but is almost all learnt. For example, kissing is a sexual practice accepted in some societies, and yet in others it is either not done or is considered disgusting. In the majority of countries notions of sexual attractiveness focus more on the looks of women than they do on men, though this is beginning to change in the West. The features that are considered sexually attractive vary enormously between different cultures.

Christianity has influenced Western attitudes towards sexuality for nearly 2,000 years. Generally speaking the prevailing view was that all sexual behaviour was suspect and should be kept to the minimum necessary to produce children. Religious presumptions about sexuality were replaced in the 19th century by medical ones. Many early writings on sexual behaviour differed little from those of the church. Masturbation, for example, was said to bring on blindness, insanity and heart disease. There was enormous sexual hypocrisy in Victorian times. A virtuous woman was believed to be indifferent to sex and to tolerate it as a wifely duty. ‘Respectable’ men regularly visited prostitutes and kept mistresses, and this was accepted. If a respectable woman behaved in a similar manner it would have been scandalous. The 1960s saw the development of more liberal attitudes towards sexuality many of which continue today; for instance, premarital sexual activity is widely accepted, and a range of different sexual practices are increasingly tolerated. Nevertheless, more traditional attitudes towards sexuality undoubtedly remain.

Although homosexuality exists in all cultures the idea of a homosexual as someone clearly distinct from the majority of the population in terms of their sexual tastes is a relatively recent development. The term itself was only coined in the 1860s, while use of the term lesbian dates from a slightly later time. In the West, it has only been a few decades since homosexuality was decriminalized. In many non-Western cultures, however, homosexual relations are tolerated or even encouraged. The Batak people of northern Sumatra, for example, permit male homosexual relations before marriage.

Feminists use the term ‘sexuality’ not just to refer to sexual acts, but also to refer to desires, fantasies and eroticism which occur in conjunction with or outside of sexual behaviour. The word has many different meanings within different feminisms. For many feminists sexuality and the meanings that are ascribed to it are central to women\'s oppression. Feminist critics have argued that oppression occurs in the way that female sexuality has been theorized by patriarchy, and also in the way that women experience male sexuality. Feminists have in a variety of ways sought to understand the sexual differences between men and women. They have also attempted to uncover what is hidden in the meanings that we assign to different forms and theories of sexuality.

Josephine Butler, a feminist campaigner against the Contagious Diseases Act of the 1860s, argued that male sexuality was not biologically driven but was, instead, a social construction and that therefore prostitutes were not ‘necessary’. Butler also spoke out against the definition of women\'s sexual ‘natures’ as ‘fallen, or ‘pure’, because these categories were governed by male sexuality. In 1974, feminist film theorist Molly Haskell wrote that the representation of women in Hollywood films is dictated by their relation to sexuality—they are either excessively sexual (fallen) or without any sexuality (pure), Haskell\'s work shows that Butler\'s insight is still relevant in the analysis of male notions of female sexuality.

Feminists have, from different perspectives, criticized sexologists and psychoanalytic theories for using male sexuality as the norm and then measuring the difference of female sexuality against it; some psychoanalytic feminists refer to this as ‘phallocentricism’. The identification of this conceptual model has enabled feminists to show that female sexuality has either been theorized as a riddle or problem, or is seen merely in terms of the process of procreation. Feminists often argue that the male medical establishment uses ‘science’ to control and legislate against women\'s sexuality. In politicizing sexuality feminists have taken it out of the realms of personal and placed it in the domain of the social and the ideological; thus allowing them to expose the male model of female sexuality. Michèle Barratt criticizes some of the major theories of female sexuality for being either too simplistic or a negative subset of male sexuality. Another major criticism levelled at early psychoanalytic conceptions of female sexuality is the location of the female orgasm. Anne Koedt, for example, has disputed the notion of both Freud and Masters & Johnson that the location of the female orgasm is not the clitoris but the vagina. Adrienne Rich has disputed many theories of sexuality for their narrow definition of sexuality, pointing out that motherhood can be a source of libidinal pleasure. Luce Irigaray argues that female sexuality, being multiple and diffuse, is qualitatively different from male sexuality.

One of the major projects for contemporary feminist theorists is to challenge assumptions of gender characteristics in relation to sexuality, to challenge heterosexuality as a norm. Another major strand of enquiry for contemporary feminism, which has often been marginalized in favour of looking at the effect of male sexuality on women, is the exploration of female desires. DA TK

See also community; culture; norms; socialization; society; sociobiology.Further reading Michèle Barrett and , Mike Brake (ed.), Female Sexuality in Human Sexual Relations; , M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality; , Anja Meulenbelt, For Ourselves; , J. Weeks, Sexuality and its Discontents.



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