Skip to content

This website will be sold


Culture and sexuality

Human sexuality is about much more than procreation; indeed, it is central to culture. It can be argued that all of social organization rests on the recognition and regulation of two fundamental biological capacities: sociality and sexuality. And the biologically‐based sex drive and cultural responses to it both shape and are manifested in many dimensions of cultural belief, expectations, and behavior. The most comprehensive understanding of sexuality is through perspectives offered by anthropology.

Anthropological perspectives

First, “culture” needs some explanation. Popularly, it means a society’s current trends and fashions, the sense conveyed in the quarterly journal Sexuality & Culture (Springer). In its anthropological sense, culture is the capacity for symbolic thinking and communication, which is revealed through knowledge, beliefs, behavior, and products, and which distinguishes people from other animals. It is human, and biologically based. Anthropology studies culture ethnographically, focusing on the cultural system of a specific society; and ethnologically—cross‐culturally, comparing ethnographic data across a region and between regions, ultimately to arrive at general statements about humankind. Culture is a system, and a premise of anthropology is that no single part can be fully understood without examination of its interconnections with other parts of the system.

Anthropology itself is a cultural endeavor, and the questions anthropologists pose reflect the current concerns of their own culture. For a long time sexuality was tacitly considered private, and anthropological investigations were sporadic. Indeed, it was not until the middle of the twentieth century, with the intensification of scientific investigation of sexuality in Euro‐American countries, that anthropology began to examine sexuality; but even by 1987 two anthropologists stated that it was not yet a recognized focus within the field (Davis and Whitten 1987). This encyclopedia’s editors have tried to rectify this delay through a comprehensive basic textbook (Bolin and Whelehan 2009). Anthropology has shown that what is considered “sexual” has very different ranges of meaning across cultures. Most importantly, anthropological studies of sexuality reveal that whereas sexuality is biologically constant, sexual behavior and meaning differ considerably cross‐culturally. This entry discusses some of the cultural dimensions of this most basic function of humanity.

Societal regulation of sexual behavior: Incest

Sexuality is clearly at the very foundation of human society. In most societies, sexual maturity— the ability to procreate—marks entry into adulthood, although often a cultural ceremony of initiation occurs much later. In most cultures social adulthood is distinguished by some permanent alteration of physical appearance, in physiology and/or dress. In about a third of the world’s cultures a form of surgical alteration of the genitals is performed at such ceremonies of passage from one social status into the next. Male circumcision and any of the forms of female genital surgery are associated with rites of passage; both seem to be conducted more frequently at puberty than in infancy or preliminary to marriage. In a few areas of the world, notably aboriginal Australia, the radical practice of penile subincision was performed. This practice is often cited as evidence of male envy of female reproductive capacity and the efforts of men to acquire some of that power through the magical principle of similarity. The subincised penis resembles the vulva, and the subincised male must squat like a woman to urinate. (Contraception, valuable among hunter‐gatherers who can support only small numbers of people, has been suggested as a latent function of subincision.) Male envy of women’s ability to create and deliver life has been offered as a psychoanalytic explanation for both male genital blood‐letting, which has been documented in parts of New Guinea and tropical Africa, and for the severe misogyny of late medieval Europe.

Although a minority of the world’s peoples conduct any form of genital surgery, such operations have been very controversial for some centuries. Their origins, health, possible symbolic meanings, and socio‐political implications have been hotly disputed. Male and female genital surgeries are firmly linked with social status and with eligibility for marriage and procreation, but they are extremely complex issues and will not be discussed extensively here.

The process of initiation into adulthood may be lengthy, involve separation of the initiates from society for a time, and involve active instruction in and experimentation with sexuality. Menstrual blood may be a focus of such activity for both girls and boys. For girls, the first menses signifies the beginning of the transition; universally, menstrual blood is intimately associated with reproduction, and hence it is extremely powerful. In the desire to enhance their own adult reproductive powers, in some societies, notably in New Guinea, boys mutilate their own genitals to cause blood to flow. Anthropologists Ian Hogbin (1996) described “menstruating men” in Wogeo, and Gilbert Herdt (1993) described the role of self‐mutilation, and also of homosexual behavior among Sambia initiates. (Sexual power and homosexuality will be discussed in further detail later.)

Sexual attraction is a feature of puberty; it too is biological, although scientists acknowledge that the exact nature of hetero‐ (or homo‐) sexual attraction is not clearly understood. It is recognized that specialized sensory communication is involved, as in all animals; among primates, the female’s estrus cycle generates both visual and olfactory stimuli which trigger gonadal, emotional, and behavioral responses in the male. Among monkeys and apes, sexual activity is seasonal, hence births occur around the same time, and the social structure of the group varies accordingly. The group coalesces for the protection and provision of mothers and infants; juveniles mature quickly, and the group disperses again. Among humans, estrus has evolved into menses, and sexual attraction and activity are continuous. Hence, children are born throughout the year, children‘s dependency is greatly lengthened, and the social structure cannot vary. The relevance of sexuality in cultural issues of “romantic love,” and of monogamy vs. polygamy, are other areas of scholarly dispute.

Early anthropologists, influenced by nineteenth‐century evolutionism and by the behaviors of non‐human primates, postulated a period in human history before marriage was instituted, called “primitive promiscuity.” A principal function of marriage is legitimation of sexual relations, and the definition of incest is primary in cultural identification of marriageable partners; both were deemed essential in the civilizing process. The definition of incest varies across cultures, but everywhere it is a serious taboo. So important is the avoidance of nuclear family incest that some metaphors may parallel it, for example, “eating” and “seeing.” In old Judaism sexuality is at the basis of many prohibitions. The puzzling commandment, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” repeated three times (Exodus 23: 19, 34: 26; Deuteronomy 14: 21), may relate to the commandments against intra‐familial sexual relations, as expressed in Leviticus 18, where the euphemism to “uncover the nakedness of …” is used. Thus is explained “the curse of Ham,” who saw the nakedness of his father, Noah (Gen. 9, 20‒27). The Negroid peoples were considered descendants of Ham; and this enduring belief justified the European institution of African slavery. In Deuteronomy 27 the “curses of Shechem” are explicit, four of them condemning sexual relations with the mother (in this strongly patriarchal society, “father’s wife”, v. 20); and animals (v. 21; because Dinah was raped by Shechem, son of Hamor, which means “ass” in Hebrew; see Genesis 34), sister, v. 22, or mother‐in‐law, v. 23. For similar prohibitions in Islam, see Qur’an 4: 23.

Anthropological data indicate that sexual relations within the nuclear family—between parents and children, and between siblings—are universally forbidden (in spite of the apparent exceptions of certain monarchies in which mate selection was governed by “pride of blood,” as in early Polynesia or classical Egypt, where the ruler’s consort might be his sister); but wider marital relations (e.g., between cousins) are variously regulated. Commission of incest violates very serious supernaturally sanctioned laws of nature and may result in a terrible catastrophe in the family and in the wider community. Incest is potentially socially disruptive, as are adultery and homosexuality, and it is likely the need for social stability that first generated prohibitions against such acts.

The social regulation of sexuality is at the basis of the current Islamic and earlier Hindu and Persian institutions of purdah (the seclusion of women) outside the home by various degrees of veiling, and at home in the harem, the women’s quarters. In fundamentalist Islam, as in medieval Christian Europe, the allure of female sexuality was regarded as a powerful distraction from devotion to God by both genders, and as a favorite channel for Satan’s work of subversion.

Cross‐culturally, sexuality is frequently strongly associated with social status. In many traditional areas of the world sexuality is a vital component of adulthood, and fertility is a measure of fulfilling one’s adult potential. Barrenness can be a cause of deep shame in women and greatly pitied by the wider society; the same is true for impotence and/or infertility in men. This widespread sentiment can explain the often puzzling fact of the continued production of large families even in situations of dire and obvious poverty. Deprived of other opportunities to display adult success, men and women may eschew free contraception and utilize their only remaining status marker: fertility.

Cosmology and supernaturalism: Sexual power

In traditional societies sexuality is frequently central in myths of cosmogony. There are many variations on an idea of a Great Mother who was inseminated by the Supreme Being and gave birth to the gods and to the first people. This is common in Asian religions, but also in sub‐Saharan Africa and elsewhere. The primal sex act may feature strongly in people’s ritual observances; see, for example, depictions of the Great Mother with huge distended vulva, in Australian aboriginal rock art; the prominent vulvae on many African shrine sculptures; and the many sculptural variations on the yoni/lingam complex in Tantrism.

The ancient Sanskrit text Kama Sutra, the celebrated and misunderstood guide to Hindu sensuality, is a detailed guide to the achievement of kama, sensual satisfaction, one of the goals of the fulfilled Hindu life. The text is roughly 2,000 years old and apparently has a human scribe, Vatsyayana, but its origin is in a much older myth. That story says that Nandi the bull, the mount of Lord Shiva and gatekeeper to Shiva’s residence, was so moved by the sounds of Shiva’s love‐making with his wife, Parvati, that he emitted the sacred utterance which was to become the Kama Sutra, to benefit humankind. Sexual energy is sacred, the basis of life itself. Semen, containing the male life force, is finite in quantity, and a purpose of Tantrism is to achieve the divine ecstasy while conserving semen. The sacred sexual energy is the basis for kundalini, fundamental to the yoga experience—indeed, yoga originally focused on ritual sex; Hatha Yoga, the early parent form, was a branch of Tantra. These roots, long forgotten and unknown to Euro‐American enthusiasts, emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in widespread sex scandals and lawsuits against prominent gurus and ashrams; and again in Anusara yoga in 2012.

Cultural representation of parallels between cycles of human and natural fertility is probably universal, certainly in horticultural societies, and such representation can structure the conduct of religious and magical ritual. The calendar year progresses in a regular cycle of birth, growth, death, reproduction, and rebirth. Fertility of the earth, always feminine, results from her union with sky elements—sun and rain—conceptualized as masculine. Male and female symbolic elements are often evident in the layout of ritual areas and the construction of temples, and in the conduct of many calendrical rituals.

Taboo and pollution

Everywhere there are restrictions on contact between men and women, and sexuality is at their root (Gilmore 2001). The process of reproduction is everywhere miraculous and powerful, and hence the female and male sex organs are the sites of extraordinary and potentially dangerous power of a supernatural, mystical sort. From time to time in various parts of the world, rumors spread about murderous gangs involved in a trade in body parts, especially sexual organs, sold and used magically for personal gain. In Nigeria in 2003 some instances of examination of boys’ genitals and “virginity testing” of schoolgirls as part of public health efforts to curb the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS, led to brief rumor panics.

Sexual power is a form of a vital energy that is universally believed to be present in nature, in varying forms and intensities. Such energy is often in, or closely associated with, vital life components like blood and breath. The power increases with social and cosmological status; priests, monarchs, and spiritual beings may have so much of it that they are potentially dangerous to ordinary people, and are ritually avoided—tabu in Polynesia and Melanesia. Menstrual blood and semen are especially potent. Such restrictions—taboos—are necessary to avoid “ritual pollution,” the mixing of two strong types of power, which can severely interfere with personal fortune or the broader social order. Menstruating women, and women and men who have had sexual relations, are subject to varying restrictions; see the several descriptions of sexual “uncleanness” in the Bible, especially in Leviticus 12 and 15.

For late medieval Christians, guided by the ancient divine commandments in Leviticus, contact with sexual activity was dangerously polluting. An official explanation for the enforced celibacy of the Catholic priesthood was that the priest must not risk being contaminated by contact with sexual activity, which could mar his most important ritual act—handling the sacred elements of the Eucharist during their miraculous Transubstantiation (although historians have noted the Church’s potential problem of control of inheritance for married priests).

In many areas of the world, nudity in adults is potentially polluting; people who associate with food or human health or religious ritual must be certain their genitals are fully covered.

Most instances of such genital pollution are inadvertent, but in some areas, best documented in Europe and sub‐Saharan Africa, people know full well the mystical power in their genitals. Menstruation diminishes female genital power; so the power is greatest in children or post‐menopausal women, and it has been widely believed that venereal disease in men can be cured by sex with children or elderly women. Belief in the “virgin cure” for AIDS has been a problem in Africa. And the threat by a large group of women of exposing their genitals, potentially releasing terrible power, has been recorded as a last‐ditch effort in political negotiation. A well‐documented modern (2002) example was the successful occupation of a Nigerian offshore oil rig by 600 unarmed postmenopausal women who persuaded company administrators and their armed guards to back down and make concessions regarding employment, education, and environmental degradation.

Sexuality, magic, and supernatural evil

Probably universally, people believe that sexuality can be enhanced through magical aphrodisiacs, such as John the Conqueror root (St. John’s Wort) in the American south (the root resembles a scrotal sac) or rhinoceros horn in Asia (phallic). The power in the male and female reproductive organs is so strong that it can be transferred symbolically for either personal aggression or defense. Homeopathic magic with sexual symbolism has been utilized for millennia, from representations of male and female genitalia found in Upper Paleolithic sites, including the famous “Venus figurines” with exaggerated breasts, hips, and genitals, to modern instances of sexual magic, such as ethnographic instances of intercourse between men and women at the edges of newly plowed and sown fields, or the folklore motif of a pregnant woman walking naked behind a plow, perhaps by moonlight. The small cowry shell (Cypraea moneta), introduced into Africa by fifteenth‐century Portuguese traders and widely used as special‐purpose money, is magically used as a charm or amulet for personal defense in Africa and elsewhere because of its resemblance to the vulva; and in prehistory and around the world horns, inspired by the erect phallus, are similarly used.

Similarly, aggressive or protective hand gestures incorporating sexual symbolism have long been used situationally in Europe and the Middle East. Common examples are the “horned hand,” a fist with pointer and pinkie fingers extended; the phallic “arm jerk” (or the ”middle finger jerk” in America), conveying insult or contempt; the “fig hand,” the fist with tip of thumb protruding between the first two fingers, representing the vulva, and others. Small sculptural representations of some of them are worn or displayed as protection against the evil eye in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries.

Alternatively, one’s sexuality can be the target of evil mystical power inflicted by jealous competitors through sorcery—learned magical practice or demon invocation. Anthropologist Phillips Stevens (1982) recorded the example of a woman who left her native Barbados to take a job as a nanny for a family in Canada. In a subsequent affair with a man she experienced sexual discomfort and blamed her jilted boyfriend who had kept a pair of her panties as a memento, which she became convinced he was using in sorcery, in a clear example of contagious evil magic.

Far more dreadful sexual damage can be caused by witchcraft, the term anthropologists use for an innate and sometimes involuntary power which compels people to work in selfish and anti‐social ways. A belief in flying, transforming, child‐stealing witches, motivated by sheer spite, existed in most settled, complex societies and persists in many traditional areas today. Witches embody the opposite of positive social values, and grossly distorted sexuality is everywhere a feature. They violate all sexual prohibitions; they go about naked; they engage in whatever sexual activities society abhors and forbids, such as bizarre sexual positions, or pedophilia and pederasty, homosexuality, bestiality—and always incest. In the Bible most such sexual transgressions are clearly designated as capital offenses (Leviticus 20; some laws against incest and bestiality are repeated in Deuteronomy 27: 20, 21, 22, 23, wherein offenders are “cursed”).

The sexuality of witches’ victims is a favorite target. Witches are frequently blamed for impotence and barrenness; and also for the occasional waves of hysteria characterized by penis‐retraction, or even penis theft, which have been recorded throughout history and around the world, usually correlating with times of extreme social stress. The Malleus Maleficarum, the medieval European inquisitors’ handbook, tells of witches’ propensity to steal men’s penises and store them in birds’ nests in trees. Culturally institutionalized instances of mass hysteria characterized by such fears, a syndrome widely known as koro, have been recorded in such numbers, even in modern times, that they constitute a separate “genital‐retraction taxon” in the classic work, The Culture‐Bound Syndromes (Simons and Hughes 1985).

In late medieval Europe sexuality was officially considered repulsive, evil, and even the domain of Satan. Satan himself often appeared as a handsome man to young peasant girls, in order to seduce them and make them his servants. Witches were Satan’s human agents; but he also had sexual demons at his command. Eroticism was a sure sign of the devil’s interest. Sexually arousing dreams were evidence of nocturnal demonic visitation by an incubus (pl. incubi), a male demon that sexually attacked sleeping women; or a succubus, a female demon who aroused sleeping men. These were Satan’s agents; or perhaps were manifestations of Lilith. In medieval Jewish folklore Lilith, the first wife of Adam, defied God’s plan that she be subservient to Adam and departed and roamed the world as a tormenting demon. Some scholarship has suggested an old Assyrian class of female demons, lilitu, as the origin of this idea.

Obscene sexual activity at the witches’ “Sabbat,” a periodic gathering of the witches in a community, was a favorite subject of late medieval and Early Modern artists. Men and women engaged in sexual intercourse with each other and with demons. Satan often appeared at the Sabbat as an adult male goat, the embodiment of sexual randiness. The final act of initiation of a new witch was “The Obscene Kiss,” made by the neophyte on Satan’s anus. Some representations of Satan show a face on his buttocks, as if he could return the kiss! At some time in the late Middle Ages popular elements in the Sabbat and the Catholic Mass coalesced into the legend of the Black or Satanic Mass, which seems to have reached its fullest form in late seventeenth‐century France, during the reign of Louis XIV. Witches, agents of Satan and arch‐enemies of Christ and God, performed an obscene parody of the Mass in which elements of liturgy were reversed or replaced. The ultimate acts of blasphemy were the murder of babies and the ritual consumption of their flesh and blood, the obscene Eucharist performed on the spread‐eagled body of a naked young woman as the altar, and the priest’s sexual congress with the woman.

Many elements from the witchcraft scares of the Early Modern period emerged again in the Satanism scares that panicked many parts of the world from 1980 to around 1995, especially illicit sexual behavior. The old legend of the Black Mass reappeared, and a new phenomenon, satanic ritual abuse of children, became such a common allegation in popular psychology that it was referred to by its initials, SRA. Variations of accounts of SRA featured a great variety of alleged sexual abuses of children performed by adults in satanic worship. These allegations were shortly followed by elaborate revelations of “repressed memories” by middle‐aged men and women of their own sexual abuse as children by their parents and their parents’ cult‐mates. The combination of the two ancient allegations of illicit sexual behavior and torment and murder of children with the accusation of “child sexual abuse” so enrages people that standard patterns of social justice, like the presumption of innocence, are overturned, and mob reaction and witch‐hunting can result. A modern illustration is the extremely harsh penalties for child pornography given by Euro‐American courts.

Other sexualities

Homosexuality is universal, found in all human groups and in many animals as well; but its cultural treatment has been mixed. Public attitudes in Europe and the United States were generally negative, influenced by the unequivocal commandment in Leviticus 20: 13 (New Revised Standard Version): “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them”. Because sexuality was not a common topic for investigation by scholars in other areas of the world, it is difficult to know what traditional attitudes were. There is considerable evidence to indicate that prior to Christian incursions many societies were traditionally tolerant of homosexuality, even sometimes giving homosexual people special societal accommodations. In aboriginal North America male and female homosexual, transsexual, and berdache (cross‐gendered and transvestite) people, generally called “two spirit” people, had a variety of respectable roles before their intolerant and even cruel treatment following European contact (Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang 1997; Roscoe 1998). Similarly, Africa (Epprecht 2008) had a range of sexualities up to about the last two centuries when European and U.S. agencies promoted the image of a universally heterosexual African identity, and homophobia, sometimes virulent, developed along with modernization into proposals for death penalty legislation in Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere.

Although sex researchers from Victorian times had noted the regularity of different sexualities, it was not until the late twentieth century that they became widely recognized. The term “homosexuality” is of nineteenth‐century origin. “Heterosexual” first appeared only at the end of the nineteenth century and remained seldom used until Gay Rights and other anti‐discrimination movements forced the wider recognition of a normal range of human sexualities: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. Feminism and the Pill further expanded public sophistication about sexuality. From the pioneering cross‐cultural studies of Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach in 1951, then later by M. Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies (1975), anthropological studies increased in quantity and sophistication, and ethnology made further contributions—such as the wide range of variant sexualities and widely differing cultural attitudes toward them, and identification of so‐called “third gender” roles in some Asian societies. By the twenty‐first century some universities had developed degree programs in LGBT and Queer Studies.

Sexuality in other areas of culture

Prostitution, called “the world’s oldest profession” (though some anthropologists contend that shamanism would vie for that label) and other forms of “sex work” have viable economic roles in some areas of the world; and sex trafficking and sexual slavery are serious problems in many industrializing areas in the twenty‐first century. Pornography is probably timeless and universal, but has exploded via the Internet and may be partly responsible for the increasing sexualizing of moral panics, as Gilbert Herdt (2009) has suggested.

Human sexuality probably always has had political implications, from the case of Lysistrata, the fifth‐century B.C.E. character in a comedy by Aristophanes who organized the women of Athens and Sparta to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until they agreed to end the wearying Peloponnesian War; to modern cases of sexual bribery, seduction, and abuse of personal power that result in scandals that are ruinous to established political careers; and sexual violence—rape—as a political tool. Control of sexuality has been a common feature of political and religious leaders, from the medieval jus primae noctis demanded by baronial lords of their betrothed peasant tenants, to “ritual defloration” by some priests or shamans, and similar prime rights to women demanded by leaders of communes in modern times. John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community of New York in the mid‐nineteenth century; David Koresh of the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, in 1993; and Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints of the early twenty‐first century, are modern examples. The use of sexuality by conniving people has forever been a favorite theme in literature. The accusation of engaging in “unnatural” sexual acts has been a powerful motivator of persecution, especially in times of general stress, and has been a favorite theme in “conspiracy theories.” And, because sexuality is such a sensitive topic, allegations of sexually deviant behavior, such as promiscuity, seduction of minors, adultery, using public funds for personal sexual purposes, among others, are perennially politically effective.

The age of the Internet has seen rapid change in sexual attitudes. Gay marriage, previously unthinkable because of divine commandment (Genesis 2: 24, Matthew 19: 4‒6, Mark 10: 6‒9) is increasingly acceptable, and the probable biological basis for sexuality is being more widely recognized. But because sexuality is so fundamental to humanity, and because real change must be systemic, across the world cultural attitudes will remain very slow to change.

Circumcision, female, as sexual therapy;
Circumcision, male;
Genital power, mystical;
Heterosexuality, invention of;
Homosexuality cross‐culturally;
Pollution, sexual;
Tantric sex;
Third gender