The Development of Sexual Behavior


In the first part of this book, we have seen that the anatomical differences between men and women, their sexual responsiveness, and their ability to reproduce do not appear suddenly and all at once, but result from a slow and gradual development. We have also seen that this development can be thwarted in various ways. For example, certain chromosomal or hormonal anomalies may prevent the normal growth of a fetus and lead to the birth of a baby who is "sexually unfinished". Even boys and girls born without sexual malformations may later fail to develop the typical appearance of mature males or females if they are deprived of their gonadal hormones by injury, illness, or castration. In this case, their sexual capacities also remain rather limited and, of course, they never become able to produce children of their own. Finally, there are many adults who are infertile in spite of an otherwise healthy development.

What is true of human physical growth also applies to the development of human sexual behavior. Masculine and feminine attitudes and the preference for certain sexual partners or certain forms of sexual activity are not established once and for all at one particular moment, but are acquired gradually over a period of time. The outcome of this process depends not only on a child's inherited abilities, but also on social influences, such as the reactions of parents, teachers, playmates, and friends. In some cases, these influences can be quite negative. For example, an infant boy may consistently be treated like a girl by his family and thus learn to consider himself female. This early role assignment may then become irreversible and lead to lifelong difficulties. Even boys and girls who develop the appropriate sexual self-identification may later have traumatic experiences that prevent them from attaining their full sexual potential and lock them into narrow patterns of compulsive or destructive behavior. Finally, there are many adults who, after an otherwise healthy development, find themselves strangely inhibited, poorly coordinated, and thus sexually inadequate.
The realization that adult human sexual behavior results from a long, complex, and often hazardous development is relatively new. Until about the beginning of our century, sex was believed to be largely instinctive, i.e., the result of biological heredity. Most people simply assumed that, at some time after puberty, sexual desire and sexual activity "came naturally" to every male and female, and that no social conditioning was involved. Sexuality was a "force of nature" which appeared suddenly and then, all by itself, found its full "natural" expression. Society could suppress this force, but had no part in shaping it.

The first serious challenge of this traditional view came from Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers. In his practice as a physician, Freud encountered many patients suffering from what was then called hysteria, i.e., a severe disability, such as paralysis or blindness, for which no physical cause could be found. Indeed, according to all standard medical tests, the patients should have been able to function normally. After interviewing these men and women over long periods of time, Freud noticed that their disabilities seemed somehow related to painful or disturbing childhood experiences. He further discovered that these early experiences, of which the patients were no longer consciously aware, were of a sexual nature. Finally, he found that once the experiences were again clearly remembered and understood by the suffering adults, their mysterious disabilities disappeared.

On the basis of these and other findings, Freud gradually developed his psychoanalytic theory which since then has had a profound influence on European and American thought. However, when it was first proposed the theory was greeted with outcries of public indignation. It was plainly inconceivable to most people that a long forgotten childhood experience should continue to have any decisive influence on a person's adult life, and they were positively outraged at the suggestion that such experiences were sexual. In their view, children were "innocent" and "by nature" utterly incapable of sexual feelings or responses. For Freud, on the other hand, the sexuality of children and, indeed, infants was an indisputable fact of the utmost importance.

According to psychoanalytic thinking, there is a basic sexual instinct or drive present universally in all human beings from the moment of birth. This instinct, which strives for sensual pleasure, is at first diffuse and attains its eventual proper direction and focus only through a process of "psychosexual maturation". Human infants first seek their gratification in a direct, unhampered, and undiscriminating way, until they learn to modify and control their instinctual urges through social conditioning. Human sexuality thus unfolds under the influence of two opposing forces: the "pleasure principle" and the "reality principle". In other words, a child's personality development can be described as a contest between biological drive and cultural constraint. This contest proceeds in three major steps, which are coordinated with the child's physiological maturation: the oral, anal, and phallic phases.

In the oral phase (from Latin os: mouth), the chief source of pleasure is the mouth. As it sucks the mother's breast, the infant finds not only nourishment, but deep physical and psychological satisfaction. In this phase, the mouth also serves as an organ of exploration. The infant puts everything in its mouth in order to get to know it. "Taking in" the world is the first attempt at mastering it.

In the following anal phase (from Latin anus: the rectal opening), the main source of sensual gratification shifts from the mouth to the anal area. The child now begins to gain control over the bowel movements and thereby, indirectly, over the attending adults, whom it can now please or displease by eliminating or withholding feces. At the same time, the child learns to grant or withhold affection, say yes or no, in short, to master the world by "holding back" and "letting go."

While the oral and anal phases, which extend roughly through the first three years of life, are the same for both sexes, the now following phallic phase {from Greek phallos: penis) brings an increasing awareness of sexual differences and of the male and female sex organs. The most pleasurable zones of the body are no longer the mouth or the anus, but the penis (for boys) and the clitoris (for girls). This is the phase in which children become actively curious about their surroundings, poke their fingers into things, look inside their toys by taking them apart, and also investigate their own and each other's bodies. The most important aspect of this phase, however, is the development of the so-called Oedipus complex, i.e., the child's erotic attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and a feeling of rivalry toward the parent of the same sex. (The term "Oedipus complex" alludes to the legendary Greek king Oedipus who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.) For example, it is the rule for a four-year-old boy to be deeply in love with his mother. She is, for him, the only woman he knows and cares to know. However, this woman already has a husband—the father. The boy is jealous of him and would like to push him aside in order to assume his position. This desire is usually expressed openly and spontaneously, as for instance when the boy climbs into his mother's bed announcing: "When I grow up, I'll marry you". Obviously, this situation can be compared to that of King Oedipus, although there is one important difference: Oedipus actually did remove his father forever from his mother's side, and he did marry her. The normal development of a child takes another course. The boy replaces his desire to marry his mother with the wish to marry a woman like his mother, and his urge to take the place of his father turns into the determination to become a man like his father. The boy can make this transition easily, if the father provides an attractive model to follow, and if he actively encourages his son to become a man. At the same time, it is the mother's task to help her son realize that she has already chosen and is no longer available as a sexual object. These parental attitudes will lead the boy to seek his sexual gratification elsewhere. (In the case of a girl, the development takes the opposite course: she loves her father and is jealous of her mother. The respective psychoanalytic term is "Electra complex", after Electra, a legendary Greek princess who, after the death of her beloved father, helped kill her mother who had murdered him. [It must be pointed out, however, that the notion of an Electra complex was advanced by some of Freud's followers, not by Freud himself, who did not subscribe to it.])
Freud believed that every child normally progressed from the oral to the anal and finally to the phallic phase, unless some negative influence interfered with this development. However, if the particular needs of any one of these phases were either unfulfilled or gratified to excess, the child could become "fixated" and thus hampered in its psychosexual growth. For example, a child's too rigid or overindulgent toilet training could lead to a fixation at the anal level of satisfaction. As an adult, such a child would then turn into an "anal character", i.e., a person who is obsessed with discipline, order, and cleanliness, who hoards money (the unconscious equivalent of feces, which can be "withheld" from others) or who prefers anal stimulation to all other forms of sexual intercourse. An "oral character," on the other hand, would continue to depend mainly on his mouth even for sexual satisfaction, or he might become a compulsive eater, smoker, or drinker.

Children who do not become fixated in this manner eventually reach "genital maturity." That is to say, after a so-called latency period, during which obvious sexual interests seem largely suspended, the sexual instinct reawakens with puberty and seeks satisfaction through genital intercourse. Oral and anal stimulation may still be enjoyed to a limited extent, but they now take second place to coitus which, for adults, is the one truly "mature" form of sexual expression.

As can be gathered from this brief and superficial sketch, Freud's concept of human sexuality is extraordinarily broad. Indeed, he stretches this concept to cover responses and activities that, before him, were considered to be completely nonsexual. Even today, the average layman may find it difficult to see any sexual implications in a baby's suckling on the mother's breast, or in an adult's compulsive eating habits. As a matter of fact, many scientists also continue to challenge the psychoanalytic view. For example, anthropologists who have studied various primitive cultures suggest that the Oedipal conflict may not be a universal human experience. Social psychologists have raised serious doubts as to whether an innate sexual drive or instinct even exists at all. Finally, many behaviorists and learning theorists maintain that Freud's whole theory is unnecessarily complex and that there are simpler (and therefore more convincing) explanations of human behavior. Moreover, the fact remains that this theory has never been scientifically tested on a sufficient scale to be proven or disproven.

It is therefore obvious that Freud's teachings cannot simply be accepted as dogma, but have to be studied and evaluated within the cultural context of his particular time. Eventually, such a critical evaluation may even lead to a better understanding of our own post-Freudian culture. Freud was one of history's most brilliant and uncompromising thinkers as well as a great writer, and his works (which comprise 24 volumes in their English language edition) contain deep insights not only into human sexuality, but also into the history and character of Western civilization.

Some of Freud's disciples and followers, however, have shown little allegiance to his critical spirit, but instead have converted elements of his theory into convenient tools of social control. As a consequence, the liberating impulse of psychoanalytic thinking has often been obscured and perverted.
This tendency has been particularly noticeable in America where, contrary to Freud's own intentions, some of his hypotheses have been used to justify the persecution and oppression of sexual minorities. (See "Conformity and Deviance." and "The Sexually Oppressed.")

The scope of the present book does not permit a detailed discussion of the various psychoanalytic schools or even of Freud's original theory. On the other hand, experience has shown that this theory does not lend itself to simplification and popularization. Where such simplifications have been attempted, they have all too often led to serious misunderstandings. It is true that Freudian terms have long since entered our everyday language, and that today we can read about the "Oedipus complex" and "the subconscious" in newspapers and popular magazines. We hear of "Freudian slips", "ego," "superego", "libido", and "sublimation" in movies, on radio, and on television. Nevertheless, when taken out of their theoretical context, these words can create considerable confusion, and, among laymen, they are usually misapplied.

Fortunately, in the meantime, it has become very well possible to describe the development of sexual behavior without any reference to psychoanalytic concepts. Recent empirical sex research has provided us with a great deal of new information as to how people learn to act the way they do. We have also gained some understanding of the statistical frequency of certain behaviors. This, in turn, has forced us to reexamine many traditional assumptions about the "nature" of human sexuality. As a result, we are now able to take another entirely fresh look at the subject.

Around the middle of our century, Alfred C. Kinsey and his associates of the Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana, published two monumental studies of human sexual behavior which were based on personal interviews with thousands of individuals from all age groups and all walks of life. Previously, such studies had always been forced to rely on small samples of medical patients or sex offenders, and the full range of "normal" sexuality was therefore largely unknown. Kinsey's work provided the first reliable statistical data on the behavior of healthy, average men and women. (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 1948, and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, 1953.)

At about the same time, Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach, an anthropologist and a psychologist, wrote a cross-cultural study in which they compared the patterns of sexual behavior in 191 different societies. (Patterns of Sexual Behavior, 1951.) More recently, John Money of Johns Hopkins University and some fellow researchers have conducted extensive research into sexual malformations and the problems of gender identity. (Sex Errors of the Body, 1968; Man and Woman, Boy and Girl, 1973; and Sexual Signatures, 1975,) In addition, William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson of the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, have carried out a thorough scientific investigation of human sexual functioning and malfunctioning. (Human Sexual Response, 1966; Human Sexual Inadequacy, 1970; and The Pleasure Bond, 1975.)

These and many other new studies of human sexuality owe little or nothing to psychoanalytic theory, and on certain issues they sharply disagree with Freud. Nevertheless, they confirm at least some of his basic contentions. For example, it is today generally accepted that sexual behavior does not "come naturally" to human beings, but is, in fact, shaped by social conditioning. It is further quite obvious that this conditioning has different goals and produces different results in different societies. There is also no longer any doubt that children are capable of sexual responses, and that certain early childhood experiences can have a crucial influence on a person's later sexual development.

Unfortunately, it is less clear than ever what all this social conditioning really means. The physician Freud had been mainly concerned with helping his patients, and for him and his followers sexual childhood experiences could easily be defined as either beneficial or harmful according to a single criterion: they were beneficial if they furthered the individual's "genital maturity," and they were harmful if they hindered or prevented it. Sexual behavior was thus described in terms of maturity and immaturity, health and sickness, norm and deviation.

In the meantime, however, sex researchers have become much more cautious. They now realize that sexual norms change a great deal from one time and place to another and that, in regard to human behavior, terms like "maturity" and "health" are value judgments rather than judgments of fact. In Freud's time, sexual health and maturity were believed to manifest themselves in a monogamous marriage devoted to the procreation of children. Sex, love, marriage, and procreation were therefore seen as inseparable. Indeed, sexual activity without any of its "socially redeeming" features was considered evil: sex without love (masturbation and prostitution), sex without marriage (premarital and extramarital intercourse), sex without procreation {childhood sex play, sex after the menopause, homosexuality). Today, we know that this particular value system is far from universal, and that it was typical only of the Western middle classes during a certain historical period. Medieval farmers or feudal lords, for example, lived by an entirely different value system, and the same must be said for people in the traditional African and Asian cultures. Finally, we see that in our own society more and more men and women are breaking away from their inherited middle class morality and are searching for new values. Under these circumstances, we have to be very careful about establishing any specific goals, norms, or standards for sexual behavior. Our first obligation is simply to understand it, and we therefore need an objective description in morally neutral terms.

Objectivity is not the only requirement, however. The description also has to be clear and precise, and this is a difficult task in itself. Nowhere is the terminological confusion greater than in the area of human sexuality. In fact, this confusion already begins with the very concept of sex.

We know that the term "sex" somehow refers to the difference and the attraction between males and females, but the extent of this difference and the character of this attraction are still largely disputed. Nevertheless, modern research has done a great deal to clarify the issues, and particularly the study of childhood development has provided us with some very valuable clues. It has been observed, for instance, that hermaphroditic children (i.e., children who are "sexually unfinished") may be raised as either boys or girls and develop all the "appropriate" attitudes, including their choice of sexual partner. To put it another way, children whose sex is misdiagnosed at birth learn to identify with the sex that is assigned to them. Furthermore, once a certain critical period has passed, this identification is permanent. Even if the mistake is later discovered, it cannot be corrected. After a certain age, a boy raised as a girl will continue to consider himself female and, in most cases, feel sexually attracted to males, while a girl raised as a boy will continue to consider herself male and, in most cases, feel sexually attracted to females. In other words, if "sex" has to do with the contrast between male and female, then a person's "sexual" development has at least three aspects:

1. The male or female characteristics of the body (physical sex),

2. the social role as male or female (gender role), and

3. the preference for male or female sexual partners (sexual orientation).

A great deal of confusion can be avoided if these three aspects of human sexuality are considered separately, and it seems useful, therefore, to keep the following definitions firmly in mind:

Physical Sex

Physical sex is defined as a person's maleness or femaleness. It is determined on the basis of five physical criteria: chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, hormonal sex, internal accessory reproductive structures, and external sex organs.

People are male or female to the degree in which they meet the physical criteria for maleness or femaleness.

Most individuals are clearly male or female by all five physical criteria.

However, a minority fall somewhat short of this test, and their physical sex is therefore ambiguous (hermaphroditism).

Gender Role

Gender role is defined as a person's masculinity or femininity. It is determined on the basis of certain psychological qualities that are nurtured in one sex and discouraged in the other.

People are masculine or feminine to the degree in which they conform to their gender roles.

Most individuals clearly conform to the gender role appropriate to their biological sex.

However, a minority partially assume a gender role that contradicts their biological sex (transvestism), and for an even smaller minority such a role inversion is complete (transsexualism).

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation is defined as a person's heterosexuality or homosexuality.

It is determined on the basis of preference for sexual partners.

People are heterosexual or homosexual to the degree in which they are erotically attracted to partners of the other or same sex.

Most individuals develop a clear erotic preference for partners of the other sex (heterosexuality).

However, a minority are erotically attracted to both men and women (ambisexuality), and an even smaller minority are attracted mainly to partners of their own sex (homosexuality).

It is important to realize that not only physical sex but also gender role and sexual orientation are matters of degree, and that they may be independent of each other. Thus, they may appear in different combinations in different individuals. A few examples of physical males may illustrate the point:

• Male—Masculine—Heterosexual

A person of male sex usually adopts the masculine gender role and develops a heterosexual orientation. Such an individual then conforms to our image of the "typical" male.

• Male—Masculine—Homosexual

A person of male sex who has adopted the masculine gender role may very well develop a homosexual orientation. Such an individual may then look and behave like any other "typical" male in all respects but one—his choice of sexual partner.

• Male—Feminine—Heterosexual

A person of male sex may adopt the feminine gender role. Such an individual may then try everything possible (including a "sex change operation") to make the body conform to the feminine self-image. In this case, an erotic preference for males, would, of course, have to be considered heterosexual.

• Male—Feminine—Homosexual

A person of male sex may adopt the feminine gender role and try everything possible to make the body conform to the feminine self-image. If such an individual then also developed an erotic preference for females this sexual orientation could only be called homosexual.

Obviously, the last two examples represent rather extreme cases, and it should be remembered that even where a man identifies with the feminine gender role, this identification does not have to be complete. He may adopt that role only partially or occasionally, and he may not consider himself female at all. He may only cultivate feminine mannerisms and prefer feminine clothes or feminine occupations. It should further be noted that, in any or all of these cases, he may be heterosexual, ambisexual, or homosexual. In short, the four examples given here are not meant to establish new norms, classifications, or human stereotypes. They should simply be taken as a hint at the wide range and astonishing variety of human life. We must never forget that each individual person is unique, that few people ever fall into tidy sexual categories, and that there are countless shades and gradations.

Indeed, the very distinction between physical sex, gender role, and sexual orientation can help us to avoid hasty judgments and unwarranted generalizations. It can remind us, for instance, that not every effeminate man is a homosexual, and that not all homosexuals are effeminate. It also makes clear why somebody can think of himself as less than a "real man" when he knows very well that he is male. Finally, it shows us the possible extent and the limitations of a "sex change".

Once we realize how social conditioning influences our development as males and females, we have taken the first step toward understanding the development of our "sexual" behavior. Moreover, we can now make another useful distinction. In the preceding text, we have used the term "sexual orientation" very broadly to indicate an erotic preference for male or female partners. However, most people know that erotic preferences are usually much more specific. For example, a "typical" male is by no means attracted to all females, but only to those of a certain age, height, weight, hair color, etc. In fact, he may prefer not only a special type of female, but a special type of sexual intercourse under special conditions. These particular preferences and tastes within the general framework of a person's sexual orientation are best described as personal sexual interests. They too are the result of conditioning.

It is, of course, true that all human beings are born with the capacity to respond to many kinds of sensual stimulation. We also know that erections of the penis, the lubrication of the vagina, muscular contractions, and rhythmic pelvic movements can be observed in very young infants. In short, nobody has to learn the physiological responses that lead to orgasm. Still, everybody does learn under which specific circumstances these responses may be triggered. From their first years of life, children learn to react positively to certain stimuli and negatively to certain others. As a result of their personal experiences, they then acquire their individual behavior patterns. Thus, as already mentioned, human beings learn to be masculine or feminine, heterosexual or homosexual. They also learn to masturbate, to engage in coitus, and to feel happy or guilty about sex. They learn to prefer younger or older partners, blondes or brunettes, Europeans, Africans, or Asians. Some persons develop a strong attachment to one particular partner and are unable to respond to anyone else; others change their partners frequently. Some like variety in their erotic techniques; others stick to a single approach throughout their lives. Some men and women depend on complete privacy for their sexual responsiveness; others find additional stimulation in the knowledge that they are being watched. There are people whose sexual advances are passionate, inconsiderate, and even brutal, and there are others who enjoy making love slowly, gently, and deliberately. Certain individuals may ever prefer solitary masturbation to any sexual intercourse, and certain others may seek sexual contact with animals.

Since these and many other personal sexual interests, choices, and preferences are developed through learning, they may appear natural, reasonable and, indeed, inevitable to the person involved. Even behavior which seems outrageous, fantastic, meaningless, or absurd to most people may be meaningful and rewarding to a certain individual because of the way in which he has been conditioned. A man who becomes sexually excited at the sight of a wooden horse may merely reflect some early experience in which sexual pleasure was associated with a merry-go-round, and his behavior may be no more difficult to explain than that of another man who becomes aroused while watching a striptease show. The latter response may have a certain advantage over the former, but neither of them should be of any social concern. A great number of people, however, seem to find comfort in the assumption that there is only one right way of doing anything. They take no joy in the infinite variety of human sexual behavior, but instead see it as an affront to their sense of stability and order. Such people are always tempted to set up their own preferences as universal norms, and to condemn everybody who disagrees with them.

On the other hand, it is clear that every society has a right to protect itself against sexual acts that involve force or violence, or which take place in front of unwilling witnesses. Such acts may be satisfying to the person who commits them, but since they obviously violate fundamental rights of others, they are socially unacceptable. Traditionally, they have always been treated as serious crimes which deserved severe punishment. However, in modern times there has been a growing tendency to view such acts as symptoms of mental illness rather than crimes. By the 19th century, psychiatrists began to argue in court that certain sexual offenders should not be sent to prison but to a mental hospital, and that they should not be punished but cured. In support of this argument, numerous attempts were made to classify sexual acts as normal or abnormal, healthy or sick. The best known of these attempts is perhaps that of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a Viennese psychiatrist. In his book Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), he presented a long list of supposedly pathological sexual interests, for which he invented a number of rather fanciful special terms. Since then many other psychiatrists have followed his example, the lists have grown longer, and the special terms have become even more outlandish and exotic. Unfortunately, these lists usually do not restrict themselves to socially harmful acts, but include many types of behavior that are merely uncommon, unconventional, or disliked by the writer. Indeed, to this very day studies on "sexual psychopathology" have rarely been more than moralistic tracts in scientific disguise. They are important mainly as historical documents which reflect the sexual standards and moral obsessions of a particular time. (For further details, see "Conformity and Deviance.")

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that some people develop behavior patterns which are unacceptable even to themselves. For example, a man may realize that his sexual acts are harmful to others, but he may have great difficulty controlling himself. In another case, such compulsive behavior may not be antisocial, but since it creates a sense of helplessness in the individual, he may still find it highly disturbing. There are also some men and women who feel guilty and apprehensive about any kind of sexual activity, and some others are so self-conscious and inhibited that their sexual responses are inadequate.

It is fair to say that all of these people are sexually maladjusted. In other words, their particular learning experiences have rendered them incapable of full sexual communication. They either have become insensitive to the needs of others, or are unable to fulfill them. They cannot relate to their sexual partners as complete persons, or adapt their own desires to different circumstances and situations. Instead, they seem condemned to repeat the same frustrating and self-defeating acts. In short, they fail to achieve the full amount of physical and emotional satisfaction of which most human beings are capable. (A detailed discussion of these problems can be found in the section on "Sexual Maladjustment.") The following pages simply summarize our present knowledge about the "normal" development of human sexual behavior from infancy to old age. Obviously, such a summary cannot give a complete account of the innumerable ways in which this development is influenced. A few broad hints have to suffice. However, some additional information on this subject is provided in the third part of this book, "Sex and Society."


[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Behavior] [Development of Behavior] [Types of Activity] [Sexual Maladjustment] [Sex and Society] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]