Types of Sexual Activity

There are many ways of classifying human sexual behavior. For example, one can select one particular type of sexual activity as the standard or norm and then describe all other types as "variations" or "deviations". This is the approach traditionally used by religious, legal, and psychiatric authorities.

However, the sexual norms established by the church, the law, or the psychiatric profession are subject to change and do not always agree with each other. Thus, a certain behavior may be declared normal in one historical period and deviant in another. Furthermore, theologians, legislators, and psychiatrists often have different concepts of what is right and wrong in a person's sexual conduct. In other words, one cannot assume that every moral sexual act is legal and will be considered healthy. By the same token, not every sexual sin is also a sexual crime, and not every sexual crime signals a sexual disorder. (For details, see "Conformity and Deviance.")

In view of these facts, it seems advisable to seek another, more neutral system of classification. Indeed, if we do not want to prejudge the issue, we best avoid all value judgments and keep the distinctions strictly technical. One possibility is to describe sexual behavior simply in terms of the "objects'" involved. For instance, we can distinguish between those acts that a person performs alone and those that require contact with others. Such contact, in turn, can take place with a partner of the other sex, a partner of the same sex, or an animal. Thus, we arrive at four basic types of sexual activity:

1. Sexual self-stimulation,

2. heterosexual intercourse,

3. homosexual intercourse, and

4. sexual contact with animals.

It has to be emphasized, of course, that these distinctions refer only to different kinds of behavior, not to different kinds of people. In other words, one and the same person may very well engage in all four types of sexual activity. There are individuals who first rely mainly on sexual self-stimulation, then go through a brief period of sexual experimentation with animals, and then turn their interest to human partners of the other sex. Others engage in both homosexual and heterosexual behavior throughout their lives. Still others have varied sexual experiences in their youth, but eventually find complete satisfaction in a traditional marriage. On the other hand, the loss of a marriage partner through death or divorce may prompt some men and women to revert to earlier behavior patterns.

Modern sex research has shown that human sexual behavior is not guided by a fixed and unerring biological instinct, but is greatly influenced by social conditioning. Furthermore, historical and anthropological studies reveal that different societies condition their members very differently in this regard. In short, it is now generally understood that people choose their sexual objects according to the circumstances and as a result of their individual learning experiences. (See "The Development of Sexual Behavior.")

However, there is also no doubt that most societies strongly favor one particular object choice over all others: an adult human partner of the other sex. Thus, heterosexual intercourse is and has always been by far the most common type of sexual activity. The reason for this is not very hard to find; only sexual contact between males and females can lead to reproduction and thereby ensure the survival of the species of the social group. Any society that developed a bias in favor of sexual self-stimulation, homosexual intercourse, or sexual contact with animals would simply condemn itself to extinction.

Still, as we all know, human survival can be threatened not only by a lack of reproduction, but also by an excess of it, and, in this latter case, a society may very well have no choice but to change its sexual values. For example, the ancient Creek philosopher Aristotle mentions in his Politics (Book II, Chapter 10) that the threat of overpopulation once forced the inhabitants of the island of Crete to institute homosexual behavior as a means of lowering the birth rate. This legend may be true or false, but in any case it reveals that even over 2,000 years ago some people were aware of the fact that sexual object choices may, to a certain extent, be dictated by the shifting needs of society.

These observations should not be taken to mean that human sexual behavior is completely uninfluenced by biological factors. On the contrary, it seems that a certain inclination toward heterosexual intercourse is part of man's mammalian heritage. While it is true that many of the higher mammals can and do engage in sexual self-stimulation, homosexual activity, and sexual contact with animals of other species (including man), their predominant mode of sexual expression is heterosexual copulation within their own species. It is safe to assume that human beings, as the highest mammals, have inherited at least a vestige of this general behavior pattern. At the same time, we have to recognize, however, that human societies usually do everything they can to reinforce the natural tendency toward heterosexual intercourse and to discourage the other equally natural kinds of sexual behavior. In sum, the available evidence clearly suggests two conclusions: First, in a society without any taboos and prohibitions, heterosexual intercourse would still be the most common type of sexual activity. Second, the other types would be a great deal more common than they are in most societies today.

In recent years, our own society has experienced a considerable increase in sexual freedom, and, as a result, more people than ever before have become aware of the wide range of human sexual behavior. However, it is difficult to say whether this behavior itself has changed, since the first reliable statistical data were collected only a few decades ago. We know that, in theory, at least our Victorian ancestors were much more restricted in their sexual activities. Still, in actual practice, their behavior may very well have been quite similar to our own.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that people are now better informed and have more opportunities to explore their sexual potential. The invention of reliable contraceptives has freed many couples from the fear of unwanted pregnancies. The economic and legal emancipation of women has brought a greater degree of honesty to male-female relationships, and the modern mass media have begun to provide a constant flow of sexual information which helps both the young and the old to understand and accept themselves as sexual beings.

It is to be hoped that these and similar positive developments will eventually lead to the general realization that love can flourish only in a climate of tolerance, that there is no need for a rigidly enforced single standard of sexual behavior, and that the interest of society is best served by granting everybody the right to sexual self-determination.

The following pages provide some general information about the four basic types of sexual activity and also offer brief descriptions of the most common sexual techniques. The social significance of these various behaviors is discussed more fully in the third part of this book under "Conformity and Deviance." and "The Sexually Oppressed.".


[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]