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The following lesson explores the different views on the place that sexual feelings and attitudes have in our society. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Theoretical Analysis of Sexuality

The concept of sexuality is often met with confusion or embarrassment because people may not fully understand what sexuality is and why it needs to be studied.

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Sexuality is viewed as a person’s capacity for sexual feelings. Thus, in the area of sociology, sociologists focus their attention on sexual attitudes and practices, not on physiology or anatomy. Studying sexuality is of particular interest to sociologists because sexual behavior is culturally universal across the entire human race.But while sexual feelings that humans have are universal, how people express them may differ. Thus, sociologists use different theories to explain why one person or culture expresses their sexuality one way and another person or culture expresses their sexuality another way. The three most common theories that sociologists use in their explanations of sexuality are the same three theories that we have discussed elsewhere in this chapter: structural functionalism, social conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Structural Functionalism

The basic explanation of structural functionalism is that everything in society has a purpose, job, or function.

So, when a sociologist uses functionalism to look at the concept of sexuality, it is generally to explain how regulating sexual behavior ensures marital and family stability. A second assumption made in functionalism is that the family unit is the most integral component in society. Functionalists therefore maintain a strict focus on the family at all times and argue in favor of social arrangements that promote and ensure family preservation.Social norms surrounding family life have, traditionally, encouraged sexual activity within the family unit (i.e.

, marriage) and have discouraged activity outside of it, such as premarital and extramarital sex. In fact, if you’re familiar with the famous novel The Scarlet Letter, you may be aware of how disapproving society can be of adulterers. In the novel, an adulterous woman was made to wear a red-colored letter A on her clothes to identify her actions to others.From a functionalist point of view, the purpose of encouraging sexual activity in the confines of marriage is to intensify the bond between spouses and to ensure that having children occurs within a stable, legally recognized relationship. This structure gives offspring the best possible chance for appropriate socialization and gives them resources to survive and create families of their own one day.Consequently, from a functionalist standpoint, homosexuality cannot be promoted on a large scale as an acceptable substitute for heterosexuality, because if this happened, having children would eventually cease, leading to the decline of the family and society as a whole. Thus, functionalists see homosexuality as a dysfunction in society because it doesn’t promote the purpose or job of creating and sustaining a family unit.

However, this criticism does not take into account the increasing legal acceptance of same-sex marriage or the rise in gay and lesbian couples who choose to bear and raise children through adoption and a variety of other available resources. This view also doesn’t take into account the shifting view away from the traditional concept of what a family is.

Conflict Theory

Another way of explaining the concept of sexuality is through the conflict theory perspective. Just as the name implies, conflict theory states that society is always experiencing a state of tension or conflict.

This view sees society as a collection of haves and have-nots, and the difference between the two results from the distribution of power and control among the groups. According to sociologists, sexuality is another area in which power differences are present and where dominant groups work to promote their economic interests. One of the biggest sources of conflict in terms of sexuality that we currently see is the battle in many states to allow gay marriage.For conflict theorists, there are two key dimensions to the debate over same-sex marriage: one is ideological, and the other is economic. Dominant groups (in this instance, heterosexuals) have a worldview that embraces traditional marriage and the nuclear family. They want this to win out over what they see as a threat to the secular institution of marriage.

On the other hand, many gay and lesbian activists argue that legal marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied based on sexual orientation and that, historically, there already exists a precedent for changes to marriage laws. In the 1960s, interracial marriages were made legal across the country. From an economic perspective, activists in favor of same-sex marriage point out that legal marriage brings with it certain entitlements, many of which are financial in nature, like Social Security benefits and medical insurance.

Conflict theory suggests that as long as heterosexuals and homosexuals struggle over these social and financial resources, there will be some degree of conflict.

Symbolic Interactionism

Another perspective that sociologists often use in their studies is how people give meaning to and use symbols in their interactions, which we call symbolic interactionism. In the area of sexuality, interactionists primarily focus on the meanings associated with the concept of sexual feelings and with sexual orientation. Since femininity is devalued in American society, those who adopt such traits are often ridiculed. This is especially true for boys or men. Just as masculinity and being manly is the culturally accepted norm, so too is being heterosexual.

However, there was a time when the American Psychological Association, or APA, defined homosexuality as an abnormal or deviant disorder, and interactionists have recognized the impact this label has had. The APA was powerful in shaping social attitudes toward homosexuality by defining it as a mental disorder. Today, however, the APA no longer cites any association between sexual orientation and mental illness and sees homosexuality as a normal aspect of human sexuality.Another aspect of how interactionists look at homosexuality is the assumptions and subsequent labels that are placed on gays and lesbians. Labels such as ‘queen’ and ‘fag’ are often used to demean homosexual men by feminizing them. This subsequently affects how homosexuals perceive themselves. Constant exposure to derogatory labels, jokes, and pervasive homophobia can lead to a negative self-image, or worse, self-hate.

Because of this, homosexual youths who experience high levels of social rejection are much more likely to have high levels of depression and instances of attempted suicide.

Lesson Summary

The concept of sexuality primarily centers around the sexual feelings men and women have and how different groups and cultures express those feelings. Sociologists use different theories to explain these phenomena. There is structural functionalism, which looks at what role sexuality plays in supporting and promoting marriage and the family system. There’s also conflict theory, which looks at how power, namely through ideological and economic differences, leads to tensions between heterosexual and homosexual groups. Finally, there’s symbolic interactionism, which looks at how society labels the differences in sexual preferences that people may have and the consequences that those labels create.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define the concept of sexuality
  • Identify the importance of studying sexuality in the field of sociology
  • Describe how structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism are used to analyze sexuality

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