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- This article is about sex acts and practices (i.e., physical sex). Broader aspects of sexual behavior such as social and psychological sexual issues are covered in related articles such as human sexuality, heterosexuality, and homosexuality.
Psychosexual behavior in humans is an instinctive form of physical intimacy. It may be performed for the purposes of reproduction, spiritual transcendence, expressing affection, and/or having fun and enjoying oneself (known in this context as "sexual gratification"). The desire to have sex is one of the basic drives of human behavior. Every animal species, and every human culture, has a range of conduct used in courtship, intimacy, and sexual activity.
Human sexual behavior is therefore, the behaviors that human beings use, when seeking sexual or relational partners, gaining approval of possible partners, forming relationships, showing affection, and mating.
It covers at least two major areas: anthropology (common or acepted practices across different cultures), and informational (background which is useful to individuals who may be engaged in, or considering, sexual activity)
Aspects of human sexual behavior
Sexuality and sensuality
There is no clear borderline between the sexual and nonsexual enjoyment of touching someone else's body. For example, holding hands may or may not have a sexual connotation, depending on culture, situation and other factors. Although the most common form of heterosexual sexual intercourse is universally regarded as sexual contact, there is a wide range of other sexual behaviors that may or may not be socially, legally, or ethically considered as sexual relations. The distinction between the sexual and the nonsexual becomes relevant in judging appropriate behavior, in either a social setting or in the eyes of the law.
Some criteria that may be applied are:
- the body parts involved (see also intimate parts)
- physical signs of sexual arousal
- subjective feeling
Enjoying touching someone else's body implies enjoying one's own body also; the latter may also happen without another person; enjoying one's own body also may or may not be of a sexual nature. If it is, it is called autoeroticism.
Opinions and norms vary about whether an emotional bond of a certain intensity and durability should be a prerequisite for sex (see also below).
Like other primates, Homo sapiens use sexuality for reproduction and for maintenance of social bonds. It is widely believed that children are capable of feeling sexual pleasure, even if they are not yet able to engage in sexual intercourse with each other, and/or are not yet biologically able to reproduce. Yet, child sexuality has historically been severely limited in western societies; in the late 19th century, the hysteria surrounding so-called "self-abuse" (masturbation) among children reached its peak and fueled the adoption of circumcision (including female circumcision) in some cultures.
Many sexual activities can be engaged in by same sex or opposite sex partners. However some, most notably vaginal sexual intercourse, can only be engaged in by partners of opposite sexes. And others, such as tribadism and frication can only be engaged in by partners of the same sex.
As with other behaviors, human high intelligence and complex societies have produced the most complicated sexual behaviors of any animal. Most people experiment with a range of sexual activities during their lives, though they tend to engage in only a few of these regularly. Most people enjoy some sexual activities. However, most societies have defined some sexual activities as inappropriate (wrong person, wrong activity, wrong place, wrong time, etc.) Some people enjoy many different sexual activities, while others avoid sexual activities altogether for religious or other reasons (see chastity, sexual abstinence, asexuality). Historically, some societies and religions have viewed sex as appropriate only within marriage. There is still a widespread belief that sex acts are devalued when engaged in outside of a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship, but extra-marital sexual activity and casual sex became increasingly accepted in modern society during the sexual revolution.
Social norms and rules
Human sexual behavior, like many other kinds of activity engaged in by human beings, is generally governed by social rules that are culturally specific and vary widely (see sexual morality, sexual norms).
Some activities are actually illegal in some jurisdictions even between (or among) consenting and competent adults (see sex crime, sodomy law, incest). However, in general, fantasizing about any sexual interest is legal, and has value; fantasizing about an illegal act does not necessarily imply a desire for the act in reality. Scientific studies suggest sexual fantasy, even of unusual interests, is usually a healthy activity.
Some people engage in various sexual activities as a business transaction; this is called prostitution.
Nearly all societies consider it a serious crime to force someone to engage in sexual behavior or to engage in sexual behavior with someone who does not consent. This is called sexual assault, and in the case of sexual intercourse it is called rape, the most serious kind of sexual assault. The details of this distinction may vary among different legal jurisdictions. Also, precisely what constitutes effective consent to have sex varies from culture to culture and is frequently debated. In particular laws regulating what constitutes consent, including the minimum age at which a person can consent to have sex, are frequently the subject of political and moral debate (see age of consent).
Types of partner
Sexual partners can cover many types, including:
- Friends with benefits
- "Fuck buddies"
- Boyfriend or girlfriend
- Casual partners
- Marriage or other committed long term relationship
- Holiday romances
- Illicit affairs
- Secondary or side relationships
Any of these may be explicit, or hidden, deceptive or honest, and may include fidelity or not.
It is also possible to engage in sexual activity without a partner, or (in some cases) without a knowing partner:
- Sexual fantasizing
- Several paraphilias (transvestitism, voyeurism, frottage, and so on)
Partner selection process
A key sexual behavior throughout the entire animal kingdom is the seeking of a sex partner. Humans are no exception to this rule. A sexual encounter can be the result of the sending signals indicating readiness for sex, and being receptive to reciprocal signals. Or, it might be the result of years of planning, through the use of cultural rituals such as courtship and marriage.
- Arranged partnership - other adults (often parents) choose partners. In some cultures these are suggestions, in others, they carry the force of commands.
- Personal choice - a person chooses for themselves their own partner, according to their own wishes
- Status based roles - a high status person in some cultures may choose partners backed by the force of social custom, and low status persoons have little or no choice or expectation of avoiding the same. (For example, some employer-employee liaisons, and droit de signeur)
- Mutual trade - prostitution, or "both gain" type of arrangements.
Additionally, the pool of available and acceptable candidates may be limited, to own town, own religion, similar status, tactically advantageous (eg to cement social bonds or make peace), and so on.
The search for a partner
Locating and identifying potential partners
Before having sex with another person, first it is necessary to find a partner.
Where does one look? One will never know when or where one will meet someone one is attracted to, so the simple answer to this question is: everywhere! In the supermarket, in restaurants, at the movies, on the monorail; in short, if you can think it, then it is possible.
Entire industries devoted to enabling sex or sexual communication exist, such as: nightclubs, singles bars, personal want ads (in newspapers and on the web), dating services, and brothels, to name just a few. Many organizations and clubs sponsor events that bring people with similar interests together. Religious and family connections provide another way for people to meet.
The encounter between potential partners
Once a person has located another person with whom they desire to have sex, the first thing to be done is to introduce themselves or position themselves in such a way that he or she will introduce himself or herself. This may not be as simple as it sounds.
Communication and signals
The communication between people that can lead to a sexual liaison are necessarily subtle and complex. An overt declaration, e.g. "I would like to have sex with you" is more likely than not to be rebuffed. From early childhood, strategies for successful communication are learned and honed through practice. Much of this communication is nonverbal. By adulthood, the subtleties of meeting the eyes of another, smiling, laughing and flirting have been practiced and learned.
Once a person has taken advantage of opportunities to enter into communication with a potential sex partner, then the likelihood and speed with which that communication will lead to sexual intercourse depend on a combination of cultural norms, the person's desire for a relationship, and the person's skill at interpersonal communication. A successful communication is one that goes two ways. Listening well, including picking up on non-verbal cues, is a crucial skill. Active listening, in which the listener responds to indicate understanding, is a direct route to successful communication.
The decision to have sex
The decision to have sex is a highly personal one, and in most societies, forcing another to engage in a sexual activity without mutual agreement ("consent") is a serious crime. Sexual behavior is a continuum, with affectionate behavior at one end, and full sexual activity at the other. Different cultures and individuals may have different criteria to judge when different forms of sex are appropriate.
Common criteria for full sexual activity can include:
- No prerequisites
This is known as casual sex. A person is asked if he or she wants to have sex, or intent is signaled through non-verbal cues. Contrary to its name, casual sex need not be casual. Rather, it implies that a formal enduring partnership bond is not perceived as a necessity for two people to enjoy each others company as physical as well as emotional friends.
- Blood tests required
This is when one requires that his or her potential sexual partners be tested for sexually transmitted infections before deciding whether or not to have sex with them. The most reliable approach is to contact the clinic or lab directly for the test results (which requires the person who was tested accompany you or give you written permission).
- Steady dating or steady bond
Many people follow the rule "no sex on the first date", implying that you must have more than one date in order to have sex with them. What this actually means is that they want to get to know you first, and sex is only going to happen if it forms part of a progression when they like you well enough (or fall in love).
- Agreement that the couple are "in love"
Many people prefer to have sex only with someone whom they are in love with. This may be a result of personal preference, or a result of negative past experiences with casual sex.
- Formally commited partnership (marriage)
Some people believe in not having sex until they are married. Many religions require that one wait until he or she is married before having sex. Contrary to popular belief, the most popular reason, either directly or indirectly, is not because of the belief that their sexuality is "bad", but contrarily that it is the most sacred act a couple can share, and thus worthy of being shared with one person and one person only.
Common variations on partner selection
Two humans of the same sex, who are affectionate for each other.
The fear of rejection
The fear of rejection is common when trying to befriend a potential partner. If the participants are both sensitive to the other's signals, then they can detect quickly whether their sexual objectives are mutual. If they discover soon enough that their objectives are at odds with one another, then a conversation can end before either one loses face, and then each person can seek others with whom to communicate. On the other hand, if the communication results in an escalating sense of intimacy for both participants, then a degree of trust is established that mitigates the fear of rejection.
Common sexual activity
Variations with same v. opposite gender
Different-gender sexual practices
Different-gender sexual practices are sexual activities between two or more individuals of more than one gender, usually one man and one woman. People who engage exclusively in different-gender sexual practices do not necessarily identify themselves as straight or heterosexual, though (unlike homosexual for same-gender sexual practices) most definitions of "heterosexual" would include them despite varying levels of activity, frequency, and interest. In fact, they may identify themselves as straight or heterosexual, bisexual, or not at all. Likewise, an individual who practices both same and different sex sexual behaviour may identify himself or herself as gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, or not at all.
Many situations, like public high school, and cultural factors, such as anti-gay bias and harassment, heterosexism and heteronormativity, may cause or encourage people who ordinarily would not have sexual relationships with people of a different gender to do so, but once gay people are away from such situations, they will usually return to same-sex sexual activity. In other cases, people may experiment with different (and/or same) gender sexual activity before settling on a sexual identity, if ever.
Though often associated with gay men, anal sex is a common different-gender sexual practice. The anus is "tighter" than the vagina and thus may be preferable to the male during penetration; additionally, many people enjoy flouting cultural sexual taboos. Anal sex is not advisable as birth control as it is still possible, though unlikely, for semen to enter the vagina. Different-gender anal sex is also often practiced where the woman penetrates the man with a strap-on dildo, known as pegging.
Different-sex sexual practices are limited by laws in America and many other places. In America marriage laws may serve the purpose of encouraging people to only have sex (and children) within marriage. Sodomy laws may be seen as encouraging different-sex sexual practices. Laws also ban adults from committing sexual abuse, committing sexual activities with anyone under an age of consent, performing sexual activities in public, and engaging in sexual activities for money (prostitution), though these laws all cover same-sex sexual activities they may differ with regards punishment and may more frequently or only be enforced on same-sex sexual activities. Laws also control the making and viewing of pornography, including different-sex sexual activities.
Courting, or dating, is the process through which people choose potential sexual and/or marital partners. Among straight (presumably middle-class) teenagers and adolescents in the mid-20th century in America, dating was something one could do with multiple people before choosing to "go steady" with only one, the eventual goal being either sex, marriage, or both. More recently dating has become what going steady was and the latter term has fallen into disuse.
Different moral and political movements have waged for changes in different-sex sexual practices including courting and marriage, though changes are usually made only slowly in all countries. Especially in the USA, campaigns have often sparked and been fueled by moral panic. There, movements to discourage same-sex sexual practices often claim to be strengthening different-sex sexual practices within marriage, such as Defense of Marriage Act and the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.
Same-gender sexual practices
Same-gender sexual practices are sexual activities involving two or more individuals of the same gender. It is possible for homosexual acts to be committed by those who self-identify as heterosexual; e.g., mutual masturbation in the context of what may be considered "normal" heterosexual teen development. Homosexual males who pretend to lead a life of heterosexuality are often referred to as living "closeted" lives, that is, they hide their sexuality in the "closet". The term "closet case" is a derogatory term used by homosexuals to refer to another homosexual that pretends to be heterosexual, and "coming out" or "outing" refer to making that orientation (semi-) public voluntarily, or as a an action by others respectively.
Despite stereotypes and common misconceptions, there are no forms of sexual activity exclusive to same-gender sexual behavior that can not also be found in opposite-gender sexual behavior, save those involving contact of the same sex genitalia. (see tribadism, frot)
Certain situations, like incarceration or single-sex schools and other sex-segregated environments, may often lead people who would not ordinarily seek sex with others of their own gender to this kind of sexual behavior.
In other cases, some people may experiment or explore their sexuality with same (and/or different) gender sexual activity before defining their sexual identity. Health campaigns and officials often seek to target self-identified "straight" or bisexual "Men who have Sex with Men" or "Men who like Sex with Men" (MSM) as opposed to self-identified "gay" or homosexual men.
People who engage exclusively in same-sex sexual practices do not necessarily identify themselves as "gay" or "lesbian", and different definitions of homosexual may include or exclude people with varying levels of activity, frequency, or interest.
Among some sectors of African-Americans (called "men on the DL" or "down-low"), same-sex sexual behavior is sometimes viewed as solely for physical pleasure. Men on the "down-low" may engage in regular (though often covert) sex acts with other men while continuing sexual and romantic relationships with women. These men often shun the more commonly-known "gay" as a term applying to stereotypically flamboyant and effeminate men of European ancestry there, a group from which some may wish to distance themselves.
Variations between cultures
Safety and ancillary issues
There are four main areas of risk in sexual activity, namely:
- The risk of choosing to trust a person who is physically a risk
- The risk of sexually transmitted disease
- The risk of unwanted pregnancy
- The risk of seeking or engaging in an activity which is legally or culturally disapproved.
A final risk factor is any condition (temporary or permanent) which impairs one's judgement, such as excess alcohol or drugs, or emotional states such as loneliness, depression or euphoria (eg new students at college), because these may raise the risk of any of the above. Carefully considered activity can greatly reduce all of these issues.
Sexually transmitted disease
Sexual behaviors that involve contact with another person or the bodily fluids of another person entail some risk of transmission of sexually transmitted infections, which is why safer sex techniques are recommended. These techniques are generally seen as less necessary for those in committed monogamous relationships with persons who have been demonstrated to be free of disease; see fluid bonding.
Due to health concerns arising from HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually-transmitted infections, some people may want potential sex partners be tested for STIs before engaging in sex.
Sexual behaviors that involve the contact of semen with the vagina or vulva may result in pregnancy. To prevent pregnancy, many people employ a variety of birth control measures. The most popular methods of prevention are condoms, spermicides, and the birth control pill.
- Alcohol is sometimes called a "social lubricant" because it reduces inhibitions, including those caused by the fear of rejection. At the same time, though, alcohol impairs judgment, making a person less receptive to subtle signals, which can result in less effective communication. More importantly, this judgment impairment can lead to poor decision-making regarding sex, such as engaging in unsafe sex.
- Cannabis can induce increased appreciation for humour and art, which might improve communication. But at the same time, it can cause one to become introspective, and thus less inclined to communicate.
- Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants. Others include amphetamines and cocaine. Stimulants can increase alertness and improve attention, both of which can improve one's ability to communicate effectively. However, stimulants also have adverse health effects when used in large amounts.
Use of recreational drugs is frequently cited as a risk factor for health problems including sexually transmitted diseases, addiction, birth defects, heart disease, cancer and liver disease, among others.
Sodomy and same sex laws
Various forms of same-gender sexual activity have been prohibited under law in many areas at different times in history. In 2003, the Lawrence v Texas United States Supreme Court decision overturned all such laws in the US.
Usually, though not always, such laws are termed sodomy laws, but also include issues such as age of consent laws, "decency" laws, and so forth. Laws prohibiting same-gender sexuality have varied widely throughout history, varying by culture, religious and social taboos and customs, etc. Often such laws are targeted or applied differently based on gender as well. For example, laws against same-gender sexual behavior in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, sodomy or "buggery" laws were aimed specifically at male same-gender sexual activity and did not target or even address female same-gender sexual activity. A well known example of such laws applied in modern times can be found in Alan Turing.
List of sex acts and practices
- There are many variations of sexual activities, and often multiple names for any given practice. For more detail see the comprehensive list of sex positions and list of sexual slang.
- Anal sex
- Casual sex
- Cross dressing
- Dirty talk
- Foreplay (aka "petting")
- Group sex
- Oral sex
- Play piercing
- Premarital sex
- Safe sex
- Sensual massage
- Sex positions
- Sex toys, using
- Sexual fetishism
- Sexual intercourse
- Vaginal sex
- Sexual roleplaying
- Wax play
- Virtual sex
Generally less common, but still widespread, are the various paraphilias. Some of the more common ones are:
- List of BDSM organizations
- List of BDSM equipment
- List of bondage positions
- Impact play
- Exhibitionism is the recurrent urge or behavior to expose one's genitals to an unsuspecting person.
- Fetishism is the use of non-sexual or nonliving objects to gain sexual excitement.
- Pedophilia is the sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
- Statuephilia (Pygmalionism)
- Frotteurism is the recurrent urges or behavior of touching or rubbing against a nonconsenting person.
- Voyeurism is the recurrent urge or behavior to observe an unsuspecting person who is naked, disrobing or engaging in sexual activities.
- Zoophilia, the attraction to other species as partners.
Specialized verbal or visual activities
Some forms of sexual activity involve someone else, but not touching the other:
Other special forms of human sexual behaviour:
- Evolution of sexual reproduction
- Human sexuality
- Professional client sexual relations
- Psychosexual development
- Sex linked developmental differences
- Sex education
- Sexual aggression
- Sexual harassment
- Sexual orientation
References & Bibliography
- Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia
- The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality
- Project Growing Up Sexually
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