2 Chapter 2 – Human Sexuality Theories

Ericka Goerling, PhD and Emerson Wolfe, MS

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the differences between bonobos and chimpanzees
  • Analyze how social stratification within hunter-gatherer, herding and agricultural societies occurs
  • Compare and contrast ancient perspectives regarding gender and sexuality to modern-day perspectives
  • Understand the main aspects of various theories that influence the study of human sexuality



Societies and individuals across time periods and around the world have long been interested in making sense of human sexuality. From freedom of expression to forced repression, sex and gender continue to be much debated and highly polarizing subjects. To begin to make sense of human sexuality, we will explore our closest primate ancestors regarding their social structure and sexual behaviors, analyze how subsistence strategies may influence social structure, address some ancient perspectives and historical changes influencing social acceptance of sexual behaviors and gender variance, then end by discussing more contemporary psychological theories as we try to understand the evolutionary, historical, political, religious, and other influences that shape our current understanding of gender and sexuality.

Primate Ancestors: Bonobos and Chimpanzees

Bonobos and chimpanzees are both African apes believed to be our closest relatives. To learn about human behavior, researchers often turn to analyzing their social structures and their sexual behaviors to gain insight into those of humans. However, bonobos and chimpanzees differ very much from each other in both of these patterns. One question remains for evolutionary psychologists: How can we be so similar to both bonobos and chimpanzees when they vary so much from each other?


“Bonobos adoring baby” by LaggedOnUser is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


The Hominoid Psychology Research Group at Duke University (2020) explains that bonobos “are female dominant, with females forming tight bonds against males through same-sex socio-sexual contact that is thought to limit aggression” (para. 4). Bonobos also show less sexual dimorphism, meaning that the body sizes, genitals, and overall appearances of female and male bodies are more similar. They tend to band together in larger party sizes than those of chimpanzees. A clear hierarchy amongst the females is not typically present and they work together. A male is never the “alpha” or highest ranking in the group. Bonobos do not engage in lethal aggression and engage in frequent non-reproductive sexual behavior between all partner types and ages. Sexual behaviors are utilized to reduce group tensions and create more secure bonds and are found during greetings as well as times of conflict resolution. Homosexual sexual behaviors are frequent, especially between females.


The Hominoid Psychology Research Group at Duke University (2020) then describes how chimpanzees differ from bonobos in that they “are male dominant, with intense aggression between different groups that can be lethal” (para. 5). Chimpanzees show greater sexual dimorphism, meaning that males tend to be larger than females and there are marked differences between the males and females in terms of genital appearance as well as overall body appearance. Male-male bonds are strong while female-female bonds are weak. There is typically an alpha male or a coalition of males leading the group. Chimpanzees are incredibly territorial and patrol boundaries, resulting in the killing of neighboring chimpanzees. They will also sometimes eat the offspring of neighboring chimpanzee groups during hunting excursions. Chimpanzees do not engage in sexual behaviors outside of mating for reproduction contexts mostly and alpha males will guard females who are ovulating, or during the times they are most fertile, in order to prevent other males from reproducing with them.

So, as asked earlier: How can we be so similar to both bonobos and chimpanzees when they vary so much from each other? What do you think?

Changing Environments, Changing Societies

Anthropologists have spent the better part of the last 100 years studying tribal societies around the world that have remained apart from the technological advances that shape so much of our lives today. What they have found is that there are striking differences between hunter and gatherer societies that tend to be nomadic as they move with changing seasons to find food and hunt wild animals compared to herding and agricultural societies who tend to remain in one general area. What many anthropologists have concluded is that hunter-gatherers tend to be more egalitarian, meaning there are less social divides, especially along gendered lines–the best hunter and the best gatherer would take on these roles regardless. On the other hand, societies that tend to remain in one general location place greater emphasis on property–who do the herds of animals belong to and who will get the land when someone dies? This focus on property is believed to be connected to the greater emphasis on social stratification and divisions of wealth in societies. Rather than being egalitarian, matriarchal and patriarchal societies allowed for property to be passed down based on family connections to the women (matriarchal) or men (patriarchal) in a society. The most common being patriarchal but some examples of matriarchal societies exist currently. Studies based on current tribes and archaeological digs have shown that hunter-gathers and herding/agricultural groups displayed some of these social differences. Archaeological digs uncovering burial sites often provide clues as to what the social structure was like. Questions existed, like were men buried with more objects or were the women buried with more objects? What was the placement of the bodies and what remnants of clothing were found? What kind of art or relics were also found?

A mosaic illustration of hunter gatherers taken from William MacKenzie’s National Encyclopaedia (1891) by Free Public Domain Illustrations by rawpixel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As with everything in life, we also must be careful in overgeneralizing some of these things, such as “all hunter and gatherer societies are like this” and “all agricultural societies are like this.” In more recent studies, the idea of a spectrum of subsistence strategies has emerged in which the two distinct categories of hunters-gatherers and herding/agriculture are being questioned because many societies actually display characteristics of both, complicating this oversimplified model (Arnold et al., 2016). However, what can be seen is that in societies that shared wealth and resources more fluidly, they also tended to be more egalitarian. In others that passed land and belongings down family lines, social stratification and gender roles became more prevalent (Arnold et al., 2016).

Ancient Perspectives

Keep in mind that it is difficult to truly understand the thought processes and perspectives of these ancient civilizations and that archeologists and anthropologists can only make guesses about the materials they have uncovered. Art and writings are the most commonly preserved items that are used to make assumptions about these time periods. A problem that often arises is that we try to use today’s perspective regarding gender and sexuality which biases the way we make sense of the past. In reality, unless we develop time travel, we will never know the full realities of what gender and sexuality looked like in antiquity. When we look back across time, the term HIStory is very fitting as well because the public and private lives of men dominate, and the perspectives of women are often not focused upon as much (Carroll, 2017). If men are the main artists and writers in a society, which is often the case and elements of this are still present in our society today, this shapes the narratives being told and passed down. Additionally, many societies relied on oral traditions that have been lost through the process of colonization because the stories have faded with the erasure of people and their cultures.

The following information is based on Carroll (2017).

Egypt (approx. 1100 B.C.): Erotic images found on carvings and papyrus. Temple prostitutes would have sex with pagan worshippers as sex was seen as a connection to the spiritual. Some depictions of possible gay sexual relationships between men have been found, such as a tomb uncovered featuring two males in close contact similar to how straight relationships were depicted. Early archaeologists and anthropologists said they were probably brothers, but this has been an area recently reviewed and perceived differently.

Greeks (1000-200 B.C.): Pedastery was commonly practiced, which is when an older man would mentor a postpubescent boy in his studies and in his sexual development. This was seen as a rite of passage. Sexual relations between soldiers were also normalized as it was believed that males with close relationships would fight harder for each other in battle. The male body was idolized and Plato is attributed with exploring how nonsexual love between two men was viewed as the ideal love. This is where we get the current day term for “platonic love,” or love without a sexual element. The female Greek poet Sappho, who lived on the Isle of Lesbos, wrote erotic poetry about women. This is where we get the term “lesbian” from.

The Hebrews (1000-200 B.C.): The Hebrew Bible outlines the rules around sexual behavior. Adultery and homosexuality between men (women are not mentioned) were both viewed as being wrong. Some scholars think this was because women were viewed as property, so the idea of a man having sex with another man would reduce one of them to the position of the other’s property. Others, however, believe this is meant to be taken literally and that it should now include lesbianism and other non-heterosexual acts. Marital sexuality was grounded in a focus on procreation rather than pleasure and this stance was adopted by Christianity which would go on to form the groundwork for sexual attitudes in the West, such as the current-day United States.

India (400 B.C.): The Kamasutra is an erotic text that is a detailed manual meticulously containing information about any imaginable sexual position, love, family life, and moral frameworks. Sexuality and spirituality were viewed as connected. While there are stories of powerful women rulers, the society was mostly patriarchal with male lives being valued more than female lives. Female infanticide was not uncommon and killing a woman was not regarded as a serious crime. Hijras, or a third gender in which a person originally designated a male at birth takes on a feminine role in society which often included castration, were also mentioned in the Kamasutra and were given central roles in many religious ceremonies. Marginalization and stigma for these individuals are believed to have become more prevalent through the British colonization of India in the early 1500s.

China (200 B.C.): Balance and harmony between all parts of nature are at the core of Toaist and Confucian thought. Yin (female essence) was viewed as endless whereas yang (male essence contained in semen) needed to be controlled and maintained through prolonged contact with yin. Sex manuals were common teaching men how to experience orgasm without ejaculation to preserve their sperm, while brides were given texts on how to pleasure their husbands. Female orgasm was viewed as important in order to receive the maximum benefit from yin essence. Even though a balance between yin and yang was valued within each individual, yin was viewed as more passive and subservient and, since women were believed to have more of this essence naturally, they were expected to be subservient to the men in their lives–fathers, husbands and sons. Polygamy, a male with multiple wives and concubines, was commonly practiced.

Optional additional resources if you would like to explore these topics further:

Hufnail, M. (2014). History of sex. Eastern world. New York, NY: A & E Television Networks. video permalink

McClure, L. (2002). Sexuality and gender in the classical world : Readings and sources . Oxford, UK ; Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell. eBook permalink

Younger, J. (2005). Sex in the ancient world from A to Z. London; New York: Routledge. eBook permalink

Voss, B., & Casella, E. C. (eds.) (2012). The archaeology of colonialism intimate encounters and sexual effects. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. eBook permalink

Psychological Theories

As we begin to explore these different perspectives, begin thinking which theories seem to make the most sense to you. Analyze what has occurred in your life to make certain explanations click with you more and why others do not seem quite right. If you were a researcher and theorist, what gaps in these might you try to fill?

Evolutionary Theories

Both sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are based on the initial work of Charles Darwin

Sociobiology–“the application of evolutionary biology to understanding the social behavior of animals, including humans” (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017, p. 23)

Evolutionary Psychology–“the study of psychological mechanisms that have been shaped by natural selection” (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017, p. 25)

Evolution–subtle changes occur over generations that influence how all livings things were in the past, are in the present and will become in the future, as genes are past down from parents to offspring.

Natural selection–evolution occurs through this process; plants and animals that are better suited for their particular environment have the greatest chance of passing on their genes.

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology assert the following (specific to attraction and sexual behavior):

  • We are attracted to what signifies producing healthy offspring
  • Parents bond emotionally because, if they stay together, their children have higher rates of survival
  • Sexual selection–differences in males and females to increase competition; males will compete with other males and females will provide preferential treatment to whom they deem the most genetically fit to reproduce with

Western Psychological Theories from Freud to Now

Psychoanalytic Theory

Developed by Sigmund Freud

“Sigmund Freud” by Psychology Pictures is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Libido–“sex energy or sex drive” which Freud believed to be one of the two motivating factors to behavior (the second being death) (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017, p. 26)

The parts of our personality are divided into three parts:

Id–contains libido and operates off of the pleasure principle; if unchecked, would give in to all temptations and desires imaginable

Ego–reality principle; navigates between the id and superego to help us decide our final course of action

Superego–“contains the values and ideals of society that we learn” (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017, p. 26)

Erogenous zones–areas of the body that are a focus for our libidinal energy will cause us to become aroused when they are touched in certain ways

Stages of Psychosexual Development–oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital (this will be covered in PSY 232 in greater detail as we explore sexual development across the lifespan)

Oedipus and Electra Complexes–we have an innate competition with our same-sex parent and have a sexual attraction to our opposite-sex parent through adolescence

  • For boys (Oedipus Complex), castration anxiety, or a fear of having their penis cut off by their father causes them to shift from competing to identifying with their father and taking on his gender role in society.
  • For girls (Electra Complex), they experience penis envy in that they wish that they too could have a penis. In this realization that they cannot have a penis, they begin to desire to be impregnated by their father. Since girls have already lost their penis, women will live their lives stunted and less developed than men.

Keep in mind, Freud lived during the Victorian Era, and I encourage you to do a little research on what this time period was like, especially for women. A fun little fact: doctors at this time began helping “hysterical” women achieve orgasm as a cure to this “mental disorder” and this is how the vibrator was invented–the doctors’ hands got too tired to keep up with all the demands.

Learning Theory

While evolutionary theories attempt to answer the “nature” behind sexuality, learning theory seeks to answer the “nurture” part of the puzzle.

Classical Conditioning–a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus in order to produce an unconditioned response. Think of Pavlov’s dogs in which the bell (neutral stimulus) is paired with food (an unconditioned stimulus) to produce salivating (unconditioned response). This is done so often that the food (unconditioned stimulus) can now be removed and a once neutral stimulus (the bell) can produce the unconditioned response (salivating) on its own. In terms of sexual behaviors, women’s underwear (neutral stimulus) is paired with porn (unconditioned stimulus) producing arousal (unconditioned response) enough times that now the women’s underwear produces arousal on its own without porn.

Operant Conditioning–certain behaviors can be “reinforced” to support that they continue or “punished” to try to make them stop

Behavior Modification–utilizing operant conditioning techniques to influence someone’s behavior

Social Learning Theory–imitation and identification are the two main processes to this; in other words, we seek to imitate those who we identify with. For instance, if a child sees a character in a movie who they identify with then they will seek to imitate the behaviors of that character. This is particularly helpful in understanding the internalization of gender roles.

Self-Efficacy–a feeling of competence when engaging in a certain behavior; we are more likely to engage in behaviors we have seen others practice and that we have practiced ourselves

We will discuss many parts of Learning Theory in PSY 232 in greater depth as they relate to the development of fetishes and paraphilias.

Social Exchange Theory

This theory believes that people are hedonistic, meaning they are pleasure-seeking. Humans engage in activities that produce rewards and minimize costs.

Relationships are maintained only when the benefits outweigh the costs.

Matching hypothesis (we will discuss this when we explore the theories on love in greater depth in a few weeks).

Cognitive Theory

Our perception becomes our reality–the way we think about sexuality influences the way we behave sexually.

Schema–think of this as a general blueprint, framework or map that you have for some general concept

Sandra Bem, whose notable research was published in the 1980s, would be considered a cognitive theorist. She conducted her research attempting to understand the development of gender roles. She believed that all of us have gender schemas which are “a cognitive structure comprising the set of attributes (behaviors, personality, appearance) that we associate with males and females” (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017, p. 33). These gender schemas are based on stereotypes and influence us to label certain behaviors as “male” or “female.” Stereotype-consistent behaviors are accepted while stereotype-inconsistent behaviors are viewed as a fluke or a rare occasion, causing us to believe the stereotypes despite many examples in our lives to disprove the stereotypes. You will take the Bem Sex-Role Inventory during Week 4 developed by Sandra Bem.

The takeaway: Stereotypes are a trap that we often get stuck in because society operates off of them and upholds them. In order to combat this, question everything, especially your own beliefs. Schemas save us time to have everything set aside in our minds in neat little boxes, but life is actually quite messy and disorganized.

Current Critical Theories

Both Feminist Theory and Queer Theory are social constructionist perspectives in which they believe that gender and sexuality are constructed and given meaning by society.

Feminist Theory

  • Seeks to call attention and analyze the inequality of power in society regarding gender, especially challenge patriarchical bias.
  • Asserts that male control over female sexuality leads to repression and depression amongst people in these types of societies.
  • Analyzes the development and continuation of restrictive gender roles
  • Intersectionality, as was mentioned during the week 2 reading, has gained particular usage in which gender as it connects with other identities, such as race and ethnicity, is explored and analyzed

Queer Theory

  • Challenges binaries, such as in sexuality and gender
  • Challenges heteronormativity, which is the belief that being straight (or heterosexual) is what is normative and natural

Sociological Theories

Symbolic interaction theory–“human nature and the social order are the products of communication among people” (Hyde & DeLamater, 2017, p. 35)

  • Role taking–viewing ourselves from the perspectives of others in order to predict and meet their needs and achieve our goals
  • Sexual scripts–think of this as a script you were asked to perform in a theater play, except this is a script that you believe is how you should behave sexually in your real life based on the messages you have received from the directors of the play (your parents, society, media, peers, teachers, religion, culture, politics, law, medical field, etc.)
  • Sexual fields–context is important; invisible social boundaries exist that influence our behavior
  • Social institutions–religion, economy, family, medicine (medicalization of sexuality), and law; these institutions then regulate our sexuality in various ways to uphold the norms in a given society

Takeaway: Society and culture shape and control our sexual expression in very profound, yet often unrealized ways.


Arnold, J., Sunell, S., Nigra, B., Bishop, K., Jones, T., & Bongers, J. (2016). Entrenched disbelief: Complex hunter-gatherers and the case for inclusive cultural evolutionary thinking. Journal of Archaeological Method & Theory, 23(2), 448–499. Article permalink

Carroll, J. L. (2019). Sexuality NOW: Embracing diversity (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.

Hyde, J. & DeLamater, J. (2017). Understanding human sexuality (13th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw/Hill.

What is a bonobo? (2020). Hominoid Psychology Research Group, Duke University. Retrieved from https://evolutionaryanthropology.duke.edu/research/3chimps/chimps-bonobos


Introduction to Human Sexuality by Ericka Goerling & Emerson Wolfe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



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Chapter 2 - Human Sexuality Theories Copyright © 2022 by Ericka Goerling, PhD and Emerson Wolfe, MS is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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