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Historical Forms of Dance
Issues of Sexuality in Dance

Dance is a body art. The vehicle, instrument, and implicit subject of dance is the body. The body is also where sensual, sexual, and gender distinctions originate. Our embodied identity and that identity's attendant questions are intimately presented and explored in the art of dance.

The prominence of sexuality in dance depends on the form of dance one considers, the point of view one takes as either participant or viewer, and the historical period or the culture one examines. Sexuality may be seen as the well-spring of our creative, life-producing energy eros. The goal of eros is life, creativity, power, nurturing, abundance, and health. The eminent dance historian Curt Sachs said, "Every dance is and gives ecstasy." Ecstasy, from the Greek ekstasis (i.e., to stand outside oneself) is associated with the attempt to dance into a trance or a frenzy, to dance into intoxicated abandonment, to dance until one is spent, until one drops. Dance and sexuality may both be seen as metaphors, whether sublimated or overt, for each other as each moves toward culmination or climax in ecstasy. Sexuality, spirituality, sensuality, even rationality are salient features in many forms of dance, but sexuality "can never really be extricated from dance, since the sex act itself may be considered as the ultimate form of dance."

The form of dance and the specific dance type are relevant to the degree of sexual expression. Generally accepted categories of dance include folk, ethnic, social, and theatrical dance. Within these broad delineations, dances exist that feature or embody sexuality to lesser or greater degrees.

Historical Forms of Dance

Dance and the other arts in so-called primitive cultures most often served utilitarian purposes and were directly involved in daily life activities (e.g., hunting, war, entertainment, worship, healing, courtship or mating, and sexuality). Sex is closely correlated with primitive human fertility dances, drawn from two different phases of sexual activity: the meeting and wooing, and the act itself. The sex act is not completed at the place of dancing, although overt sexuality can include focusing on the pelvis or spine, breasts, and hips; portraying in a fantastic manner the act while wearing large phalli; dancing around someone of the opposite sex with the unmistakable positions and gestures of the act itself; disrobing within a dance; swinging grass skirts and lifting the skirt. Other erotic motifs are the group circle dances and dances around a pole or a tree (e.g., the famous Maypole dance). Fertility dances associated with planting, food, or procreation are functional activities in primitive societies, not allegorical portrayals. Primitive dances also accompany rituals of circumcision, puberty, first menstruation, marriage, and mating.

Dance in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome used sexual themes and ideas. Dances at various periods in antiquity were used partly as a form of entertainment and display by females (or young males) for the pleasure of males. References and descriptions from the Bible as well as from the epic poems of the Iliad and Odyssey describe young men and maidens dancing. Fertility rites offered to Dionysus, the Greek god of vitality, fertility, rebirth, ecstasy, and wine, with the mythological satyr companions, were significant parts of the early history of dance and theater. Indeed, the early unrestrained, orgiastic celebrations of Dionysus gradually moderated and evolved into a loosely organized dance ritual known as the Dithrambic Chorus, which further evolved into the formalized Classical Greek Theatre. Over many hundreds of years, the ancient Greeks changed the early ecstatic, orgiastic dance celebration into a more civilized practice within the new conventions of the theater and their interest in the rational and aesthetic nature of mankind which allowed the concept of sexuality and beauty to unfold within an aesthetic perspective. Whereas the Greeks idolized the body as well as the intellect, by the time the Roman Empire was at its zenith, dance had been reduced to mainly bawdy entertainment and spectacle. The artistic, intellectual, and religious sides were neglected while the display of females and young males for the pleasure of males continued to be the most marked feature of performed dance.

The early church fathers approved of dance in religious rituals, but the medieval church eschewed everything Greco-Roman, including the view of the body and human sexuality, and attempted to prohibit dancing altogether. A thousand years later, again propelled by a religious point of view, Calvinism reclaimed an official disapproval of earthly, bodily pleasures and proclaimed dancing as a contradiction to the right way of worship. Peasant dances, which acknowledge and celebrate life and its sexual aspects, lived on.

The physically abundant dances of many ethnic groups in Western cultures were adapted for the court dancing of the Renaissance and eventually formed the movement vocabulary of the art of ballet. European courts, with an emphasis on the semblance of decorum, public image, and an ordered political state, sublimated the erotic domain of the interior muscles of the pelvis and torso and shifted attention in the court dance to peripheral movement of the limbs and the choreography of figured floor patterns. Torso and pelvic movements were constrained, and movement was hidden by the structure, design, and weight of the costumes of the day. Though sexuality was sublimated in the court dances and early ballet, sexual energy and intrigue often provided the substrate for many of the movements and scenarios of the developing ballet arts.

During the latter part of the 18th century, social or ballroom dance (which, like ballet, also emanated from folk or peasant dance) had become a popular recreation for the growing mercantile classes. Motifs of polite courtship were readily accepted, but motions and positions that harkened away from the semblance of aristocratic demeanor toward more primitive expressions of dance sexuality seemed to threaten this social order. These unstately developments in social dance from the preclassical era until recent times have ranged from changing attitudes toward facing, touching, and lifting one's partner to orgiastic spinning, pressing together of torsos, smooth embraces, and the bumping of hips. Sexual attitudes of all eras can be studied through the developments in social and ballroom dance, since movement practices encode cultural knowledge.

Gender has always played an important role in dance. By the end of the 17th century, ballet became a profession. Its earliest stars were women, who shared the stage with men. By the middle of the 19th century, the idolized female of the romantic male imagination became so prevalent in the ballet arts that serious participation of males dwindled significantly. Women became the stars, while men were the directors and choreographers who placed their idealized vision of woman on the pedestal of her pointes where she required a man's support and direction. Whereas ballet had, for three centuries in the cast of the European courts, reflected a patriarchy in which both genders participated, ballet theater became, as in ancient Roman diversions, a place for males to watch female display. Males were the choreographers indulging a romantic mystique through the ballet's scenarios and movements. Public theaters and even the Paris Opera, for example, became havens for the mistresses of wealthy men.

The rising line of female dancers' skirts is a theme that follows the improvement of female technique throughout the romantic era. One aspect regards the need for audiences to see the ballerina's limbs as pointe work and quick movements of the legs became the mode. But there is no doubt that the male audience enthusiastically perceived this art of limbs with a licentious bent. Nineteenth-century America, imitating the European ballet, was a home for "leg" shows, such as the extravaganza "The Black Crook," which featured rather perfunctory movement arrangements and surreptitiously starred women's limbs. In America and England, females often took male roles where tights could disclose a fuller line of the leg for the pleasure of male audiences.

The art dance of the 20th century began with the ideals of such pioneers as Isadora Duncan, who turned toward more feminine, body-oriented, matriarchal sensibilities. These body-oriented philosophies came in part through the work of Françoise Delsarte, who emphasized the intellectual, emotional and spiritual, and physical planes of the body. The lower trunk and legs were the physical plane.

Ted Shawn, noted as the "father of modern dance," credited Delsarte as being the first to reveal that tension and relaxation or contraction and release are the foundation for all movement and, therefore, all dance. Delsartian philosophy rejected the predominantly patriarchal, rational, and idealized animus of the ballet world and encouraged the outward expression of anima and eros as a part of the aesthetic of dance.

The word "dance" may be traced etymologically through the Germanic tanz to the original Sanskrit tan. The tension/release concept is intrinsic in the original Sanskrit, where tan means tension or stretching. Dance cannot exist without such muscular activity because muscle fibers have the ability only to either contract or to release from that contraction. One of the most striking aspects of sexual performance is the development of neuromuscular tensions throughout the body. If orgasm is regarded as the consummate release, the concept of tension and its ultimate release is a domain of the dance.

The technique of Martha Graham, stemming from visceral applications of tension and release, best illustrates the concept. Muscular control in the "contractions" of the Graham technique emanates from the pubo-coccygeal muscle, which forms the floor of the pelvis and which is penetrated by the rectum, birth canal, urethra, and ducts leading to the male prostate gland. Pelvic focus and sexuality are implicit for males and females in Graham technique.

Issues of Sexuality in Dance

Gender issues are still relevant in professional dance. The female "Dionysian" sensibilities of modern dance, with an emphasis on the creation of individual, authentic movement born of feeling, contrast with those of the patriarchal, "Apollonian," worlds of ballet and tap dance, where typical "masculine" attributes of form, technique, strength, and the ability to realize complicated rhythmic patterns dominate. Male choreographers have controlled the professional worlds of ballet and entertainment tap dance, but even in the matriarchal-oriented world of modern dance, male choreographers have risen to prominence, particularly since the 1960s. Sexist environments in the top echelons of ballet, modern dance, and tap dance may dominate over biological factors.

Sexism is also at the root of female numerical dominance in the grass-roots dance world. One cause has been the prevalence of dance education within the world of women's physical education in the first two thirds of the 20th century. There is also a disproportionate number of female dance teachers and students at community dance studios and, somewhat less, in college situations. The distribution is more equal in conservatory training in America. The image communicated continually to the lay male world within sexist educational setups is that dance is an approved activity for females but not for males. The concept of dance and women as synonyms is institutionalized.

The proportionally large percentage of homosexuals in dance, particularly among males, raises questions regarding the nature of dance and some dancers' sexual orientation. While there is little doubt that stereotypical attitudes are fed by the numerous homosexual performers in dance (and in theater), it is doubtful that the sexuality inherent in dance causes homosexual expression. The questions surrounding homosexuality in dance and the performing arts deserve greater research.

Issues of sexuality within the male-female, teacher-student roles at all institutional levels in dance or sports include problems of touching, seeming intimacy, use of sexual descriptions, and understanding the boundaries of behavior. In directing dance and rehearsals, poetic statements, often based on sensual or sexual imagery, can elicit the "correct" movements by the dancers. The separation of the sexes as occurs in the learning of sports is neither warranted nor desirable in the learning of dance skills.

Although sexuality and the body must be integrated within the personae of the professional dancer, dancers tend to neutralize and sublimate their awareness of sexual implications involved in the experiences of touching, holding, and stroking others on stage, in class, or in rehearsals. The professional, nearly clinical, way that dancers customarily train to provide a dance experience for the audience demands that the unit of mind and body be an instrument for expression. Dance allows the awareness of sexuality as a form of sensuality. The sexual energy of the dancers is tapped as they move through the planned patterns set by a choreographer or by the dancers themselves through improvisation.

Gender stereotypes are changing in the latter part of the 20th century. Close proximity and levered lifts involving one or more dancers in ballet, contact improvisation, and the repertoire of certain contemporary companies challenge traditional gender roles. The assumptions based on gender—that males lift and support women, who are more flexible than they are and that males do not excel in adagio or precision work—is changing. Choreographers today still recognize common differences in body structure between males and females, but often break the stereotypes. Experiments by groups such as Pilobolus and Harry have extended the realm of accepted movement vocabularies for both male and female dancers.

The natural drive for sexuality might be what causes an audience to enjoy dance, perhaps by stimulating the viewer's subconscious both sensually and sexually. The dancer must also like displaying the body, must like the body (or want to like the body), and must show this delight. Dance that obviously looks as if it moves externally, with little stimulation from the "inside," seems dull, mechanical, and uninteresting save for the most visually stimulating theatrical devices, such as unique costuming or lighting. Though we have lost touch with our carnality, we can still engage in a vicarious thrill by watching the dancer, through physical feats or a clever movement aesthetic, build up to a climax of motion and bring us along. Some spectators can turn to dance to recover vicariously what their own bodies are not capable of doing.

In postmodern dance, the idea of the audience as gazer who looks at, consumes, or otherwise possesses the one being looked at has changed. Postmodern choreographers examined the similarities and differences between formal dance movement and the performance artifice and pedestrian movement presented as dance in venues other than the traditional stage. Dance was sometimes presented more as a shared communal activity in an attempt to subvert the traditional, patriarchal, male gaze, which distances, objectifies, and possesses the narcissistic, subservient performer.

Great works of Western, traditional performing art introduce the audience to a situation and its complexities. In doing so, the tension builds to a satisfactory climax followed by a resolution. This temporal metaphor for the tension and release of orgasm gives such works of art a metaphor for our overall sexuality as well as for our social, sexual, and gender power structures. Introduction, development, complication, and intensification are meant to lead to a resolution that was planned from the beginning by lover or artist. Some choreographers, such as Merce Cunningham, and many 20th century musical composers and playwrights, are either not interested in, or deliberately avoid, this Western historic time arrow of composition. Dance and the other time arts are driven by a dynamic urgency that shapes their temporal structures. One could say that this "telic" structure or flight of time relates to the way a choreographer controls "telos" or consummation, meaning completion of a cycle. Telos, then, can reflect any sexual activity dominated by a drive toward orgasm. In this model of dance and music, the climax results from the actions that lead up to it and that, conversely, give the climax its energy.

The viewpoint of sexuality in dance varies among dancers and dance watchers. For the dancer, it is altered by the level of commitment and the social or cultural context in which the dance is performed. The individual may be a professional trained by years of study or a recreational dancer whose training is derived from informal learning experiences. The dancer may perform on a stage or be part of a communal effort. Dance watchers are affected by their own individual or communal attitudes, which reflect their role or place in their culture, as well as prevailing societal norms regarding sex and sexuality. The way dance is used by performers and audiences reflects a culture's world view and is a barometer of societal attitudes toward sex, gender roles, and the body, as well as theater, education, and religion.


Daly, A. Unlimited Partnership: Dance and Feminist Analysis. Dance Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 2-5.

Fraleigh, S.H. Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive Aesthetics. Pittsburgh, Penn.: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1987.

Hanna, J.L. Dance, Sex and Gender: Signs of Identity: Dominance, Defiance and Desire. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988.

Kleinman, S., ed. Sexuality and Dance [National Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance]. Washington: Dance Publications Unit, 1980.

Kraus, R., and S.A. Chapman. History of the Dance. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981.

Sachs, C. World History of the Dance. B. Shonberg, trans. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1937.

Myron Howard Nadel
Donald Kutschall


The term "rape" generally refers to a situation in which a person uses physical force or the threat of such force to engage in some form of sex, usually intercourse. Legal definitions of rape vary from state to state. In addition to the force requirement, several states have broadened their definitions to include situations where the perpetrator gets the unwilling participant drunk or drugged, or where the victim is otherwise mentally unable to consent. Date rape is rape by someone the victim has been or is dating. Acquaintance rape is rape by someone the victim knows. The terms date rape and acquaintance rape technically have different meanings, but they are often used interchangeably. (See also Coercion.)

Although date and acquaintance rape have been common occurrences throughout history, only in the last couple of decades have the media and social scientists focused on issues related to these types of nonconsensual sexual interaction. Since the late 1960s, feminists have argued that rape is a major social problem. In addition to working for better treatment of rape survivors and reform of rape laws, the women's movement has challenged society's traditional views about both the definition and cause of rape.

The commonly accepted view had been that one could be raped only by a stranger and that a rapist typically used a weapon and either threatened to inflict or inflicted extensive physical injuries on a victim. The stereotypic rape involved a woman being surprised and attacked at night and then being forced to engage in sexual acts in a dark alley or behind bushes. Forced sex between acquaintances was usually not regarded as rape. Surveys of high school and college populations have shown that substantial proportions of these students do not define forced sex between acquaintances in a variety of situations as rape. For example, they partially justified a man forcing his date to have sex with him if she got him sexually excited, led him on, said she would have sex with him and then changed her mind, let him spend a lot of money on her, or had dated him a long time. Surveys of general adult populations indicated that certain categories of women were considered legitimate targets of sexual victimization. For example, if a woman was viewed as a "tease," "economic exploiter," or "loose," she was often considered a legitimate target for sexual exploitation. Women who were thought to be of "high moral character" and had "good reputations" were considered more credible victims of rape.

One goal of feminists and sex educators is to increase people's awareness of the seriousness of the rape problem and correct the many false beliefs about it. Recent studies have shown, for example, that acquaintance rape is far more prevalent than stranger rape and that rape by intimates is more prevalent than rape by nonromantic acquaintances. Studies also indicate that even though younger women are more likely to be victims of acquaintance rape, women of all ages and from all kinds of backgrounds are victims, and the experience is overwhelmingly negative. Most survivors of acquaintance and stranger rape report feelings of terror, humiliation, degradation, and both immediate and long-term behavioral and psychological difficulties.

It has been difficult to obtain accurate statistics on the incidence of date and acquaintance rape (the number of such rapes that occur in a given period) and its prevalence (the number of people who have ever been raped). Experts agree that this type of rape is one of the most underreported of all crimes. Many survivors are embarrassed or afraid to publicly acknowledge that they have been raped. In reporting their experiences to police or in court, survivors often complain they are treated insensitively and made to feel that they rather than their attacker are to blame. Obtaining accurate statistics is also hindered by the failure of some perpetrators and victims to define as rape intercourse between acquaintances resulting from the use of force. However, numerous surveys have shown that date and acquaintance rape are common and indeed a major social problem.

Two of the earliest surveys were conducted in the 1950s—even before the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s. From surveys administered in the fall of 1956, Eugene Kanin found that 13 percent of 262 college women reported forceful attempts at sexual intercourse during their senior year in high school, and Kanin and Clifford Kirkpatrick found that 21 percent of 292 college women were offended by forceful attempts at intercourse in the 1954-55 academic year. In these two studies, the majority of the forceful attempts were made by men who were the offended women's regular or steady dates or their fiancés. The other offenders were categorized as a first or occasional date or someone who had given them a ride home.

In the most comprehensive recent study of the incidence and prevalence of sexual aggression and victimization of college students involving over 6,000 men and women at 32 institutions of higher education, Mary Koss and her colleagues found that 27.5 percent of women reported experiencing and 7.7 percent of men reported perpetrating an act that met a legal definition of rape, which included attempted rape. The discrepancy between women who reported and men who admitted being involved in forced sex experiences may be due to (1) women including noncollege men as perpetrators, (2) different perceptions of such experiences by men and women, and (3) a general reluctance by men to admit or to even acknowledge that their forceful sexual strategies could be defined as rape. Eighty-nine percent of the rapes reported in the Koss study were committed by men the women knew and more than half occurred on dates. Only 5 percent of the rapes were reported to police and 73 percent of the women did not define their forced sex experience as rape, possibly because of the general negative societal reaction to rape victims or because of the tendency for rape survivors to blame themselves for their victimization.

A government-funded study involving 4,000 women interviewed by telephone in 1991 supported the view that rape is more common than had been previously estimated. If the results from that study are generalized to all American women, 12.1 million women have been raped at least once in their life. Only 22 percent of victims in that study identified their assailant as a stranger. Most of the victims were uninjured, while 24 percent suffered minor injuries, and 4 percent were seriously hurt. The report did not reveal whether the majority of injuries were associated with nonacquaintance assaults. However, other studies have consistently found that acquaintance assaults are less likely either to involve a weapon or to result in physical injury to the victim than are assaults by strangers.

Social scientists and feminists have devoted considerable attention to the causes of date and acquaintance rape. Most agree that explanations of sexual aggression are complex and involve combinations of psychological and physiological characteristics with sociocultural factors. Feminists emphasize sociocultural factors. They stress that rape occurs in cultures characterized by other forms of violence, that rape results from inequities between the genders, and that rape is used by men to establish or to maintain control and power over women. Others argue that traditional socialization (e.g., women being encouraged to be passive, kind, and submissive and men to be tough, dominant, and aggressive) and the dating system contribute to rape. In this view, men and women have been socialized to pursue opposite goals and roles in dating and courtship and that this aspect of socialization leads to an adversarial situation where date rape is likely to occur.

Studies have also investigated characteristics of men who use forceful strategies with women to have sex. Compared with nonforceful men, these men are more likely to accept the use of physical force in a variety of contexts, hold stereotypic views of gender roles, believe heterosexual relationships are adversarial and that game playing and deception are normal, consider violence manly, have callous or hostile attitudes toward women, and lack a social conscience. One study of admitted date rapists found them to be products of a highly sexually oriented peer group socialization which started early in high school. The peer groups of these men accepted the view that sexual conquest of women enhanced their self-worth. Compared with the nonrapists, the rapists had had more sex partners and were dramatically more sexually active.

It has been difficult for social scientists to come up with a "type" of female who is the victim of date and acquaintance rape. A few studies have found that victims are more sexually experienced than nonvictims in that they reported an earlier age of first intercourse and more sex partners. Women who were not able to stop an offender were also more sexually passive and less likely to use methods of avoidance, such as screaming or running away, than successful resisters.

Aspects of a date that might increase the likelihood of forceful sex acts have also been examined. Such acts were found to occur more often when the man initiated the date, paid the date expenses, and drove; when there was miscommunication about sex; and when both persons were moderately or extremely intoxicated.

To reduce the incidence and prevalence of date and acquaintance rape, experts advocate more widespread and comprehensive sex education for children and adolescents. Sex education courses and rape prevention programs need to teach young people how to communicate their feelings assertively and effectively and to include a variety of topics in their curricula—from sexual socialization and the double standard of sexuality to practical methods to reduce the risk of date and acquaintance rape.


Burgess, A., ed. Rape and Sexual Assault. Vol. 2. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.

Craig, M. Coercive Sexuality in Dating Relationships: A Situational Model. Clinical Psychology Review, Vol. 10 (1990), pp. 395-423.

Kanin, E. Date Rapists: Differential Sexual Socialization and Relative Deprivation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 14 (1985), pp. 219-231.

Kanin, E. Male Aggression in Dating-Courtship Relations. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 63 (1957), pp. 197-204.

Koss, M., C. Gidycz, and N. Wisniewski. The Scope of Rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 55 (1987), pp. 162-170.

Malamuth, N. Predictors of Naturalistic Sexual Aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 50 (1986), pp. 953-962.

Muehlenhard, C., and M. Linton. Date Rape and Sexual Aggression in Dating Situations: Incidence and Risk Factors. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol. 34 (1987), pp. 186-196.

Ilsa Lottes


Social hygienist, sociologist, prison reformer, and suffragette, Katharine Bement Davis (1860-1935) spent her early career working to ameliorate domestic problems of urban industrial families. She received her Ph.D. in 1900 from the University of Chicago, where she studied political economy and sociology with Thorstein Veblen, among others. As the first superintendent of the model women's reformatory at Bedford Hills, New York, she initiated training for inmates at various trades and domestic work. Her goal was to rehabilitate inmates, many of whom were prostitutes. In 1912, the Laboratory of Social Hygiene was established at Bedford Hills, underwritten by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to aid in Davis's work in prison reform. From Bedford Hills, Davis progressed to Commissioner of Corrections in New York City, a post she held from 1914 to 1916. She was the first woman to head a New York City department. During that time, she was also a vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. During World War I, she was vice-chairman of a relief organization raising over $2 million for afflicted women and children in Europe.

Davis was general secretary of the Bureau of Social Hygiene from 1918 to 1928. She had been on the original committee that had established the Bureau seven years earlier to eradicate prostitution; later the Bureau's activities expanded to financing and publishing studies of the international white slave trade, public health, and sex education.

In 1929, Davis published a significant social hygiene study entitled Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-two Hundred Women. Previously, information concerning the sex lives of women came from institutionalized women and social deviates. Davis studied normal, middle-class women to determine normal sexual experiences on which to base educational programs. She believed sex education would bring about more satisfactory sexual relationships. The exhaustive study resulted in a publication that produced almost 200 statistical tables and additional correlation tables and charts, and analyzed case studies. Women between the ages of 21 and 83 responded to eight to twelve pages of questions regarding use of contraceptives; happiness of married life and sexual relations; homosexual and auto-erotic practices, and sexual desire of married and unmarried women.

In a poll sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Davis was named one of the 12 greatest living American women.


Bullough, V.L. Katharine Bement Davis and the Rockefeller Foundation. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 62 (1988), pp. 74-89.

James, E.T., ed. Notable American Women 1607-1950. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.

Katharine Davis, Reformer, 75, Dead. New York Times, Dec. 11, 1935.

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Current Series Vol. A. New York: James T. White, 1930.

Trattner, W.I. Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

Hilary Sternberg


Robert Latou Dickinson (1861-1950) was the most significant figure in American sex research before Alfred Kinsey. Dickenson was born on February 21, 1861 in Jersey City, New Jersey, son of Horace and Jeannette Latou Dickinson. He attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and schools in Germany and Switzerland before receiving an M.D. from Long Island College Hospital (later Long Island College of Medicine) in 1882. After a brief internship, he practiced in Brooklyn as a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology until his death.

Almost from the first, Dickinson began collecting sexual histories from his patients. Usually each patient was required to fill out a four-page questionnaire about family and general history as well as particular illnesses and special symptoms. Though the questionnaire contained no questions specifically sexual in orientation, in reviewing it with the patient, Dickinson marked down certain sexual observations. He was strongly convinced many difficulties his patients reported—including insomnia, menstrual irregularities, and certain types of pain—had their roots in sexual problems.

Sketching rapidly and accurately with a crayon, Dickinson also made rough drawings of the anatomy of his patients in order to have on file indicators of problems they might face. The first set of sketches were drawn while the patient was on the examining table and included drawings of their uterus, cervix, and vulva. The patient's first visit was scheduled to last an hour so that he could review the patient's history, do the physical examination, make his sketches (a minimum of five), and talk with his patient about what to expect. Sixty-two sketches were the most he made on a single patient, but this was because of the unusualness of the case. He averaged about 20 sketches per patient drawn over the years he treated them. He took his first sex history as such in 1890. Over the course of his practice, Dickinson gathered case histories on 5,200 women (4000 married and 1200 unmarried), of which only 46 date before 1900.

Dickinson, an early observer of lesbian homoerotic feelings, wrote some 200 research papers—mostly on obstetrics, diseases of women, midwifery, and sex problems—during his years of practice. His books were written late in life. A strong supporter of organized medicine, he also continually urged his fellow physicians to deal with the sexual problems of their patients. He was active in numerous social reform groups and was a founder of the National Committee on Maternal Health in 1923, serving as secretary from that year to 1937, when he became chairman. On becoming secretary of the Committee, Dickinson turned over for its use a large collection of scientific material, including his own library, drawings, card indexes, abstracts, and notes. In 1927, the Committee appointed Lura Beam to review the records for possible publication; two books resulted from this collaboration between Beam and Dickinson on the topics of single women, married women, and sex variants. Dickinson also published a book of his drawings on sexual anatomy which, in addition to his sketches on female anatomy, included chapters on male genital anatomy, the anatomy of coitus, and the anatomy of the control of conception. He also published two books on the techniques of conception control.

Dickinson died on November 29, 1950 in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was married to Sarah Truslow, and was the father of three daughters, one of whom died in infancy.


Dickinson, R.L. Human Sex Anatomy. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1933. Second ed. rev., 1949.

Dickinson, R.L., and L. Beam. The Single Woman: A Medical Study in Sex Education. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1934.

Dickinson, R.L., and L. Beam. A Thousand Marriages: A Medical Study of Sex Adjustment. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1932.

Vern L. Bullough


Needs of Individuals with Learning Problems
Policies and Procedures
Principles for Establishing Policies and Procedures
Implementing Sexuality Education Programs
Strategies for Implementing Lessons and Discussions
Instructional Materials

"The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do."
Walter Bagehot

There are inherent dangers involved in discussing the sexual needs of individuals on the basis of disability categories or labels. First, individuals with disabilities are much more like "typical" individuals than they are different from them, and there is a risk of promoting stereotypes based on category labels. Also, a number of characteristics are frequently observed across disability categories. This is especially the case as we look at meeting the educational needs of individuals with varying learning difficulties.

People with learning problems include those who traditionally have been labeled deaf or hearing impaired, blind or visually impaired, learning disabled, or mentally retarded, as well as individuals whose emotional or behavioral problems interfere with their ability to learn. Admittedly, the needs of an intelligent blind or deaf person are different from those of a person who is labeled as moderately or severely mentally retarded. However, there are learning limitations for all these individuals, and many of the educational approaches to them are similar. This observation is illustrated, in part, by the following words of Nancy Becker:

Sex education for deaf people didn't exist. Like every other deaf person, I learned about sex from the gossips and big talkers in school. And, like most deaf people, I learned about it all wrong.

Needs of Individuals with Learning Problems

Certain concerns regarding marriage and parenting are unique to individuals with significant learning problems. These issues have a greater impact on individuals labeled as mentally retarded or severely or multiply handicapped than they do on members of other disability groups. Few people question, for example, whether people who are deaf should marry and have children even though it is known that congenitally deaf parents are more likely to have a deaf child than parents who are not deaf. Similar attitudes prevail with regard to persons with other disabilities, such as blindness, speech and language disorders, and mild physical disabilities. However, in the case of individuals labeled as mentally retarded, severely learning disabled, or multiply handicapped, the questions and concerns are accentuated.


No individual, whether he or she has a disability or not, should feel the need to marry to be regarded by others as "normal." However, the right to marry should be available to all. The possibility of marriage for many persons with mental retardation or other disabilities is critical for several reasons:

· Marriage is a fundamental right in American society.

· Marriage creates possibilities for closeness, sharing, intimacy, and bonding with another human being.

· Individuals who may be constrained in their sexual expression due to negative messages from parents or society may be more comfortable expressing their sexuality within marriage.

· Marriage is a means of enhancing a person's self-esteem by creating opportunities for unequivocal acceptance.

The majority of states still have laws that restrict or prohibit marriage by persons with mental retardation. Marafino has pointed out how inappropriate such legislation is due to inconsistent application of the laws; changes in information about the nature of mental retardation; vagueness, imprecision, and archaic language in the laws; and possible violations of fundamental constitutional rights. For states that choose to restrict marriage by people labeled as mentally retarded, she recommends that precisely worded statutes reflect legitimate and clear public policy, restrictions on the right to marry be no broader than necessary to serve the public policy, and persons affected by the statutory limitations be identified with a high degree of reliability.


The issue of parenting by individuals with significant learning disabilities is even more problematic than the issue of marriage. Whitman and Accardo, Haavik and Menninger, and others have pointed out that, as a group, individuals with mental retardation who become parents do not fare as well in their parenting as individuals who are not mentally retarded. However, many people labeled as retarded have proven to be better parents than individuals considered "normal." Additionally, almost no effort has been devoted to developing and implementing educational programs designed to teach these individuals about the responsibilities of parents or specific parenting techniques and behaviors. Marafino argues strongly that persons with mental retardation should be presumed neither more nor less capable of being parents than individuals not so labeled, and that to restrict the possibility of parenting significantly restricts such persons' rights and choices.

It is important to include in curricula for persons with disabilities information and experiences that teach their rights to marriage and childbearing, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of such life choices so they can decide if marriage is best for them. Whether or not they choose to have children, marriage should remain an option for all members of society unless, in individual cases, there are compelling, demonstrable reasons that indicate that this right should be abridged. In a related discussion, Brodeur points out the important need for courts to establish criteria for successful parenting. These criteria would allow for more objectivity and standardization than have existed in the past in decisions on removal of children from the home and termination of parental rights.

Policies and Procedures

A consistent problem in dealing with the sexuality needs of children and adults with disabilities has been the seemingly random ways in which those needs have been addressed. Due to factors such as fear of negative reactions by societal groups, vociferous reactions by one or a few parents, and discomfort with sexuality in general, many schools and agencies adopt a "wait-and-see" stance with regard to the sexuality of students, residents, or clients. What is needed instead is a proactive approach that supports the notion that sexuality is a characteristic that individuals with disabilities share with all humanity. Moreover, to deny the sexuality of such individuals is to compromise their full participation in society and to leave them to the sway of impulse and, consequently, potential abuse.

One way to attempt to meet the sexual needs of people with disabilities is to implement policies and procedures that promote healthy and responsible sexual expression. Haavik and Menninger point out that policies and procedures allow for consistency in staff responses. They suggest that without clear guidelines and consistency of response, an overreaction by a teacher or staff member to a relatively minor infraction of an ambiguous sexual "norm" could have a negative effect on a child's or adult's development of healthy feelings about her or his sexuality. Moreover, policy statements should focus on the positive features of training individuals for responsible sexuality rather than simply identify those procedures undertaken to curb inappropriate sexual behavior. As policies and procedures are developed, it is important to maintain a perspective balanced between the theoretical ideals of normalization and the realities of community living. As Hingsburger emphasizes, we may be doing a disservice to the individuals we are trying to help by teaching them about their right to sexual expression if we are not going to create opportunities for them to express their sexuality. Policy statements should reflect a program's philosophy about sexuality and sexual expression as well as pragmatic aspects of how the program and procedures are to be put into practice.

Principles for Establishing Policies and Procedures

Given that the task of developing appropriate and lasting policies and procedures is often arduous, the following suggestions may prove helpful:

· Have broad-based representation on the committee responsible for the formulation of policies and procedures, including individuals with disabilities, family members, professionals, members of the board of directors of the school or facility, medical personnel, administrators, supervisors, and clergy.

· Build in a system to ensure membership on the policy-planning committee of at least one representative from the administration who has the authority to speak for high-level officers and members of the board, when applicable.

· Establish an overall philosophical statement, general goals, and subobjectives on which the members of the committee agree. Submit these to administrators and the board of directors and receive feedback and approval before proceeding further.

· Develop policies and procedures that provide:

· Clear definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors;

· Objective means of determining whether a person is capable of consenting to sexual behaviors;

· Procedures for communicating and teaching acceptable behaviors;

· Procedures for interventions to modify unacceptable behaviors;

· Designated individuals who are qualified to provide sexuality education and other interventions; and

· Follow-up procedures to determine whether individuals have achieved identified objectives.

Once the policies and procedures are developed and approved by the board of directors or other official body, they should be communicated and made available in writing to all staff members and adult residents or clients. If in-service training is provided, ensure that all staff members participate.

Implementing Sexuality Education Programs

A number of factors should be considered when planning a sexuality education program. These include:

1. Political climate of the community and the school or agency;

2. Availability of existing curricula and instructional materials;

3. Potential for offering in-service training programs for staff;

4. Resources available for program planning and review and recommendation of instructional materials; and

5. Monetary resources for the purchase of curricula and instructional materials.

In school programs in which quality sexuality education already exists for typical students, the path to programs for students with learning problems and disabilities should be partially paved. When educational or training programs offer no training in human sexuality or are inconsistent in content and quality, parents and family members, professionals, administrators, and board members are challenged to work together to design and implement programs that meet the needs of children or adults. This effort requires a recognition that individuals will express their sexuality in one way or another; it is better to provide education that channels sexuality in considered and responsible ways rather than to deal with behaviors that are random and unpredictable. It also demands a commitment to doing what is necessary to ensure that individuals receive the knowledge and skills they need as fully functioning adults.

Heidi Hudson presents three primary components of sexuality curricula for individuals with learning problems: self-esteem, social skills, and factual information. The amount of energy and time devoted to each of these areas varies with the needs of individuals. Typically, the largest amount of time will be spent on self-esteem, as it is a foundation for other sexuality content.

Gordon presents key concepts that any sexuality program for persons with learning problems, particularly mental retardation, should communicate. The program should convey a view of masturbation as a normal mode of sexual expression, the need for expressing one's sexuality in private, information about the use of birth control by those who do not want children or are not capable of caring for children, the need for protection from sexual exploitation, greater tolerance or acceptance of homosexuality, and the right of consenting adults to sexual expression. He recommends that there be greater acceptance of abortion as a safe, legal, and moral alternative to bringing unwanted children into the world. He also advocates voluntary sterilization as a protection for persons with mental retardation who could function well in a marriage if they did not have children.

The following are suggested as goals of sexuality education for individuals with disabilities:

· To better people's lives by teaching them to express their sexuality in responsible and caring ways;

· To enhance each individual's self-esteem;

· To help learners understand, to the extent they are able, the sexual functioning of human beings, including appropriate facts and terminology;

· To teach decision-making skills so each person will be able to decide:

· With whom to form relationships,

· Whether to be sexually active,

· Whether he or she is capable of becoming a "good" parent or wants to be a parent, and

· Whether marriage is appropriate for him or her;

· To teach individuals who decide they do not want to become parents to practice an effective means of birth control consistently;

· To teach individuals about the nature of sexual abuse, specific ways to avoid abuse, and what to do in the event they are abused;

· To prevent people from contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome);

· To give individuals knowledge, attitudes, and social skills that allow them to relate interpersonally in positive and, if they desire, intimate ways with other people;

· To dispel sexual myths that may have been learned;

· To minimize guilt or other negative feelings about sexual expression when such feelings are not warranted; and

· To help people differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior and to practice appropriate sexual behavior.

Instructional methods depend on both the knowledge of the learner and the curriculum. One cannot determine what methods to use to teach the curriculum until goals and objectives have been specified on the basis of an assessment of the learner's current abilities and predicted needs. The past two decades have brought an empirical base to methodology that previously had not been clear. Although the quest for improved instructional technology continues, considerable knowledge now exists about ways to teach people who have difficulty learning.

The following recommendations are for individuals planning or currently providing sexuality education:

· Do not assume the person has acquired any specific knowledge, attitude, or skill. If unsure, assess what knowledge, skills and attitudes learners do have.

· Do not attempt to eliminate or change people's beliefs or values, but help them to learn new, correct information and to reflect on their beliefs and the beliefs of others.

· Apply similar standards to people with disabilities as to others in society. Do not accept behaviors that are generally unacceptable in society just because the person has learned that he or she can get away with typically unacceptable behavior (e.g., public masturbation) or has not discovered or had an opportunity to learn the standards for acceptable behavior.

· Assume that all or most individuals express their sexuality in typical, and possibly atypical, ways alone or with others.

· Infuse sexuality content and skills into existing programs. The temptation to bring in outside consultants such as nurses or individuals from family-planning agencies should be replaced by education and training for professionals who work with people with disabilities on an ongoing basis.

· Explore the adoption or adaption of existing curricula and materials before expending time and energy developing materials.

· Do not assume that sexuality is not a concern for individuals with Down's syndrome. Available data indicate that it is unlikely that males with Down's syndrome will father children, but childbearing is quite possible for females. Regardless of childbearing issues, increasing numbers of individuals with Down's syndrome are forming loving relationships and marrying.

· Teach males and females together unless there is some compelling reason to do otherwise.

· Provide many opportunities for making choices and decisions beginning as early in life as is feasible. Provide limits to such choices when the person is young, and reduce the structure as he or she get older.

· Do not refer to anyone over the age of 11 as a "kid."

· Do not be overly concerned about providing too much sexual information to younger students (within reasonable limitations). They grasp what they can at their particular age and developmental level and usually do not process information that is too complex or too emotionally challenging for them at the time.

Strategies for Implementing Lessons and Discussions

· Do not assume that just because the focus is on sex the students will be inherently interested. Provide well-planned and motivating instructional experiences.

· Teach the critical goals and objectives first, using repetition with varied, motivating formats and concrete instructional materials.

· Try to have presenters of both sexes when possible as some learners relate to females and others relate to males.

· Resist the temptation to provide more help and direction than the person needs, and withdraw assistance as soon as the person can act independently.

· Organize the instructional environment to minimize distractions.

· Avoid lectures. Have the learners respond, discuss, and verbally and physically participate in whatever ways they can.

· Use a variety of instructional methodologies and materials.

· Keep lessons moving—a brisk pace helps to sustain attention; a lesson that is overly deliberate may not.

· Facilitate generalization of concepts (i.e., transfer of concepts to real-life settings) by using terminology the person can be expected to use as an adult.

· Begin instruction only after gaining the attention of all learners.

· Design instruction for high rates of success.

· Provide opportunities for individuals to practice the skills being taught.

Instructional Materials

The issue of instructional materials to teach about sexuality to individuals with learning problems and disabilities needs special discussion. Many individuals require concrete, sexually explicit materials and instructional experiences to learn concepts and skills. People with physical disabilities may require photographs that show alternative modes of sexual expression. Individuals with mental retardation may need videotapes, films, three-dimensional models, or other media to understand important concepts and skills. Such items become controversial, and it is important that a distinction be made between materials that are explicit and those that are pornographic, in that the purpose of the materials should be to educate—not to titillate. A hierarchy of instructional materials (e.g., charts, pictures, and films) should be available to the educator that ranges from the abstract to the concrete and explicit. Sexuality instruction should begin with the least explicit materials available and proceed to more explicit levels only when the individuals have been unable to acquire the concepts or skills being taught with less explicit materials. This approach, designed to minimize controversy and questionable practices, is contrary to the usual methodologies for persons with learning problems; these methodologies recommend beginning with the most concrete materials first and then moving to more abstract teaching. Also, it is important that instructors preview all materials before their use and, when appropriate, encourage parents, board members, or other groups to preview them. A final point to keep in mind is that explicit materials may be personally offensive to the persons being instructed and may be counterproductive to the goals and objectives of the program. In such cases, it is important to respect the wishes of the learners.

It is critical to maintain a normalcy perspective in viewing the sexuality of persons with disabilities. It is also now time to start acting on the relevant issues and needs. As James Baldwin wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."


Brightman, A.J., ed. Ordinary Moments: The Disabled Experience. Baltimore: University Park Press, 1984.

Brodeur, D.A. Parents with Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities: Ethical Issues in Parenting. In B.Y. Whitman and P.J. Accardo, eds., When a Parent Is Mentally Retarded. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1990.

Gordon, S. Sex Education for Neglected Youth: Retarded, Handicapped, Emotionally Disturbed and Learning Disabled. In The Sexual Adolescent. North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1973.

Griffiths, D.M., V.L. Quinsey, and D. Hingsburger. Changing Inappropriate Sexual Behavior: A Community-Based Approach for Persons with Developmental Disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1989.

Haavik, S.F., and K.A. Menninger, II. Sexuality, Law, and the Developmentally Disabled Person. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1981.

Hingsburger, D. I Contact: Sexuality and People with Developmental Disabilities. Mountsville, Pa.: Vida, 1990.

Kempton, W. Sex Education for Persons with Disabilities That Hinder Learning: A Teacher's Guide. Santa Monica, Calif.: James Stanfield, 1990.

Marafino, K. The Right to Marry for Persons with Mental Retardation. In B.Y. Whitman and P.J. Accardo, eds., When a Parent Is Mentally Retarded. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1990.

Monat-Haller, R.K. Understanding and Expressing Sexuality: Responsible Choices for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1990.

Shaman, J.M. Persons Who Are Mentally Retarded: Their Right to Marry and Have Children. Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 12 (1978), pp. 61-62, 65.

Sobsey, D., S. Gray, D. Wells, D. Pyper, and B. Reimer-Heck. Disability, Sexuality, and Abuse: An Annotated Bibliography. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1991.

Whitman, B.Y., and P.J. Accardo, eds. When a Parent Is Mentally Retarded. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1990.

R. Bruce Baum


The sexual double standard is the belief or attitude that a specific sexual behavior, or all sexual behavior, is more acceptable for persons of one sex, usually males, than persons of the other sex. More broadly, it may refer to beliefs concerning any differences between males and females in their sexuality, but particularly their basic sexual nature.

Historically, the most common version of the broader concern has been that women are more sexual than men. This view most likely originated in conjunction with the recognition of women's control over fertility. Because of this fundamental power, women came to be both feared and worshipped. Although many ancient societies worshipped a number of gods, often among the most important were the gods of fertility, and the most important of the fertility gods were usually female.

In Hebrew and Christian traditions, the role of Eve as the evil seductress epitomizes the belief in the basic carnal nature of women and their sexual power over men. Similarly, the fundamentally evil nature of witches, persecuted so vigorously during the 15th and 16th centuries, was believed to derive from their sexual power.

Although women were believed to have a strong sexual power, or perhaps because they were believed to have such power, it was also believed that they must be controlled. Throughout most of human history, and in nearly all patrilineal societies, women have been accorded a lower status than men. Patriarchies, societies in which men have legal or social dominance over women, are characteristic of Western civilization. In such societies, women have often been viewed as the property of their fathers or husbands, and treated as chattel. The sexual double standard resulting from such a view is well illustrated in ancient Jewish law: a man found guilty of engaging in sexual intercourse with another man's wife was charged only with a violation of property rights, whereas a woman convicted of adultery could be punished by death. Similarly, raping a woman amounted to theft, and a father could legitimately sell the sexual favors of a daughter (technically, prostitution).

Nearly a century after the beginning of the Christian era, debate concerning whether women had souls continued in the Catholic church, and the height of the persecution of women as witches, who were presumed to be possessed by the devil and sexually insatiable, occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. The widespread use of the chastity belt, also in the 15th century, reflected the fear of women's strong sexual nature and the need to control access to that sexuality by husbands and fathers.

It was not until the 19th century, and the Industrial Revolution, that the beliefs about the sexual nature of women were reversed in Western societies. Victorianism, as the period came to be called, viewed men as the sexual aggressors and women as frail, refined, and asexual beings. Many of the beliefs that characterize 20th-century stereotypes of masculinity and femininity derive from this period. In spite of the change in view of women—from very powerful and dangerous sexual creatures to very weak, asexual ones—some residuals of the earlier history remained. Perhaps the most important among these is the notion that women precipitate sexual assault and rape.

The modern version of the sexual double standard in Western society is founded on the fundamental ideological assumption of gender inequality: that men are superior to women. Sexually, this assumption is linked with the beliefs that men are innately more sexual, having a naturally higher sex drive and, therefore, needing more sexual outlets, or, at the very least, sexual outlet more often, than women. It is the notion, not supported by empirical evidence, that men, innately and probably as a result of hormonal surges, need sex, whereas women do not.

Reiss suggested that, at the very simplest level, sexual ideologies could be classified as egalitarian or nonegalitarian. He further identified four parallel tenets of each ideology. Adherents of the nonegalitarian ideology, which is the foundation of and justification for the sexual double standard, believe (1) males are more competent in exercising power and that males should dominate major social institutions, (2) "body-centered sexuality" should be forbidden to women, (3) sexuality is a powerful emotion to be feared by females, and (4) the goal of sexual interaction for females is heterosexual intercourse. Conversely, believers in an egalitarian ideology (1) assume males and females to be equally competent and deserving of equal roles in major institutions, (2) accept body-centered sexuality for both sexes, (3) consider sexual feelings to be manageable by both sexes, and (4) judge the goals of sexual interaction for both men and women to be pleasure and self-disclosure.

It is abundantly clear that Western society has been dominated by the nonegalitarian ideology during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many researchers and observers of the sexual scene in the United States, for example, have described variations in sexual attitudes and behavior revealing more permissive standards for men than for women and more extensive sexual behavior for men than for women. Among these early researchers of the double standard of premarital sexual intercourse were Ehrmann and Reiss. Both reported that more than 70 percent of men accepted premarital intercourse for their own sex, whereas fewer than 20 percent of women accepted premarital intercourse for women. These data were collected from high school and/or college students, who were undoubtedly more permissive than older persons in the society at that time.

A behavioral double standard paralleled attitudes. Kinsey and his colleagues documented behavior during a period roughly equivalent to the time of Ehnnann's data collection (1947-51). Among men, 71 percent had experienced premarital intercourse by age 25, whereas only 33 percent of women had done so.

The double standards of both attitude and behavior have declined over the years. By the late 1960s, for example, Simon and Gagnon reported that 40 percent of women college students accepted premarital intercourse for women, although no change had occurred for men. By 1973, DeLamater and MacCorquodale reported 95 percent of college-age men and 86 percent of college-age women accepted premarital intercourse for their own sex. Gallup polls conducted during the 1970s also revealed a more widespread acceptance of premarital sex for the society at large.

DeLamater and MacCorquodale offered a subtle but important distinction concerning the double standard. It concerns whether the same individual holds differing standards for men and for women, versus whether both men and women, as groups, hold different standards for men and for women. The latter distinction is illustrated nicely by their own findings. They found no evidence that, on the average, individual men held a more permissive standard for men than for women, or that individual women did either. That is, if a person felt premarital sexual intercourse was acceptable under conditions, say, of a close, intimate relationship, but not in a more casual relationship, that person held the same standard for both men and women. In contrast, Reiss, nearly 15 years earlier, had found some 30 percent of the men and 24 percent of the women had held different standards, a double standard of acceptability for men and women.

DeLamater and MacCorquodale also found, however, that despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of both men and women felt it was acceptable to engage in premarital intercourse under some conditions, the requirements did differ for men and women. The standards held by men (for both men and women) were more permissive than the standards held by women (for both men and women). Specifically, among men, the modal (most common) standard was that it was acceptable for persons (of either sex) to engage in premarital sexual intercourse if "they both wanted to," even though a majority still required some closer relationship. Women, on the other hand, most commonly required that the relationship be one of shared love, and fewer than a third thought sexual intercourse was acceptable if both just wanted to do it. Thus, even if more men and women hold the same standards for men and women, important differences in standards remain.

Reiss introduced the "permissive with affection" notion and developed a scale to measure sexual standards, with the options including abstinence for all, a double standard of acceptability, and permissiveness without affection, as well as permissiveness with affection. Many have used this framework to describe changing standards in American society. Consistently researchers have found that the dominant standard at the end of the 20th century is permissiveness with affection for both men and women. That is, the standard has gradually shifted in two respects: from abstinence until marriage to sexual intercourse being acceptable in a stable relationship involving love between the partners, and from a dramatic difference in what is acceptable for men and women to a smaller difference.

Behaviorally, the double standard has decreased in the United States as well. Kinsey had reported that more than twice as many men than women had experienced premarital intercourse. Researchers during the 1970s revealed a dramatic increase in the percentage of women engaging in premarital coitus. In a series of studies, Zelnik and Kantner reported changes in the percentage of women engaging in premarital intercourse by age 19. That percentage rose from 46 in 1971, to 69 in 1979. The average age of first intercourse also declined. Although more males were engaging in premarital sexual intercourse too, the women were catching up. In the Zelnik and Kantner 1979 data, 77 percent of the males had engaged in premarital coitus by age 19. Evidence from the 1980s suggests, depending on the study, either that the pattern of rapid increase for women and the closing of the gap between men and women has leveled off at about the same figures as reported a decade earlier by Zelnik and Kantner or that there has been some decline in the percentages, at least for women.

Although the decline in the double standard, defined both in the broadest and narrowest terms, has been substantial; there continue to be many manifestations of its continuance. For example, even though acceptance of women's sexuality has increased, parents are often less accepting of the sexual activities of their daughters than they are of those of their sons. Similarly, teenage women who are as sexually active as their male peers, or who take more assertive and initiating stances, are more likely to be judged negatively.

Also, although both male and female young people are most likely to have their first instance of intercourse with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, more males than females still have that first experience with a casual acquaintance or a stranger. Both Hunt, and Coles and Stokes found more women and men experience ambivalence and negative effects associated with their first experience of intercourse.

Finally, women are still expected to play more traditional roles in sexual interactions than men. For instance, men are still assumed to be the primary initiators of sexual interactions, and women are supposed to set the limits on how far the interaction will go.

Not only does the double standard apply to premarital sexual behavior. Historically, it has been more acceptable for men than women to engage in virtually all heterosexual sexual behaviors except marital intercourse. In particular, such behaviors as oral-genital sexual acts and extramarital sexual relationships have been more acceptable for and more frequently engaged in by men. The one notable exception is homosexuality. Although homosexual behavior is not approved in Western society for either men or women, and more men than women have engaged in homosexual acts, homosexuality is tolerated more for women than for men. Ironically, this difference may be the result of the double standard in that, according to that standard, women's sexuality is less important than men's. Also of note in this context is that the patterns of sexual behavior of gay men and lesbian women often reflect the double standard.

For instance, Bell and Weinberg found that gay men have more partners than lesbian women, on the average, reflecting a permissiveness without a strong commitment standard. Lesbian women, on the other hand, have fewer partners, engage in less cruising behavior, and remain in relationships longer, all evidence of the more conservative standard traditionally dictated for women.


Bell, A.R., and M.S. Weinberg. Homosexualities. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.

Bullough, V.L. Sexual Variance in Society and History. New York: Wiley, 1976.

Coles, R., and G. Stokes. Sex and the American Teenager. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

DeLamater, J.D., and P. MacCorquodale. Premarital Sexuality: Attitudes, Relationships, Behavior. Madison, Wis.: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

Ehrmann, W. Premarital Dating Behavior. New York: Henry Holt, 1959.

Epstein, L. Sex, Law, and Customs in Judaism. New York: KATV, 1967.

Gagnon, J.H. Human Sexualities. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1977.

Gerrard, M. Are Men and Women Really Different? Sex Differences in Emotional and Cognitive Factors Associated With Contraceptive Behavior. In K. Kelley, ed., Females, Males, and Sexuality: Theories and Research. Albany, N.Y.: State Univ. of New York Press, 1987.

Hunt, M. Sexual Behavior in the 1970s. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1974.

Kinsey, A.C., W.B. Pomeroy, and C.E. Martin. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1948.

Kinsey, A.C., W.B. Pomeroy, C.E. Martin, and P.H. Gebhard. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1952.

McCormick, N.B., & C.J. Jesser. The Courtship Game: Power in the Sexual Encounter. In E.R. Allgeier and N.B. McCormick, eds., Changing Boundaries: Gender Roles and Sexual Behavior. Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield, 1983.

Murstein, B. Love, Sex, and Marriage Through the Ages. New York: Springer, 1974.

Reiss, I.L. Journey Into Sexuality: An Exploratory Voyage. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Reiss, I.L. Premarital Sexual Standards in America. New York: Free Press, 1960.

Reiss, I.L. The Social Context of Premarital Sexual Permissiveness. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.

Simon, W., and J.H. Gagnon. Youth Cultures and Aspects of the Socialization Process. Bloomington, Ind.: Institute for Sex Research, 1968.

Zelnik, M., and J. Kantner. Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Pregnancy Among Metropolitan-Area Teenagers: 1971-1979. Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 12 (1980), pp. 230-237.

Clive M. Davis
Tara Anthony
Suzanne L. Osman
Sandra L. Davis

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