Sexuality is believed to be shaped by social and cultural norms; however, it is also recognized that sexuality is shaped by other social differences such as gender, race/ethnicity and class. In general, norms are identified as social rules and expectations which guide individual or group behavior. Many cultures reflect their social norms on sexuality by identifying what is considered as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ sexual behavior within society. According to Costa and Wood (2005, p9) “sexuality is an integral part of the human experience with physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual dimensions. While deeply personal, sexuality occurs within specific social, economic, cultural, political and religious contexts”. These contexts, in turn, strongly shape an individual’s sexual experience through possibilities and limitations, as well as structuring their social outcome. In order to understand sexuality and how it is shaped, we must identify other forms of social and cultural contexts in which it is constituted. This essay will illustrate sexuality through social and cultural norms. I will discuss the impact of socially constructed sexuality, which is ultimately shaped by certain forms of social differences. In saying so, the endeavour over sexuality is deeply significant, as it not only demonstrates how societies behave towards one another, but how societies are able to maintain acceptance to coexist.
The function of norms is to coordinate the expectations in individual interactions; as norms impose consistency of behavior within a given social group, but often vary substantially among groups (Durlauf & Bloom 2008). In saying so, all human sexuality is socially constructed though a wider spectrum; shaped by social differences in gender, class structure and specific historical stipulations. Most cultures contain social norms with regard to sexuality. Particular guidelines are put forward to be followed and obeyed in order to be socially accepted. Abiding by social norms, maintains an individual’s acceptance within a group; alternatively, ignoring the social norm puts an individual at risk by becoming unaccepted or in extreme situations even becoming a social outcast. For instance, it is suggested that sexual acts are ranked hierarchically. The positive social norm is identified as a heterosexual marriage, which ultimately ranks at number one on the top of the hierarchy. Consequently, masturbation, homosexuality, adultery and other sexualities that deviate from societal norms are ranked closer to the bottom, with very little or no tolerance at all.
One approach that focuses primarily on the sociology of sexuality is sexual scripts. Flood (2010) states that sexual scripts are guidelines that help define who, where, when and why individuals have sex. They are social rules, regulations and roles which guide appropriate and acceptable sexual behaviour. Sexual scripts come from various sources such as; family, peers, media and institutions. Kornblum (2008, p203) suggests that the concept of sexual script is a metaphor that helps explain differences between sexual expectations and actual sexual conduct. Research has indicated that most people have not memorized actual ‘scripts’ to guide their sexual activity, but they do have definite ideas about sexual conduct that influence the way they sexually behave. The concept of sexual scripts emphasizes the social and cultural influences on sexual behaviour and this is seen more influential as opposed to the biological and natural framework of sexuality.
Another form of representation shaped by society is gendered constructions of sexuality. The development of sexuality is reflected by gender. Gender differences in sexual behaviour are often included in gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure and intimacy. Sexuality is generally constructed through, fantasies, and desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships. The modern ideology of sexuality is that lust is the province of men and purity that of a woman. Flood (2010) illustrates several examples regarding gendered scripts for sexual relations as; male sexuality is seen as uncontrollable, sex is organized around men’s pleasure, women are objects rather than subjects of sexuality, women as the gatekeeper’s and the guardians of sexual safety and health, and sexual double standard and the policing of female sexual reputation. Parker and Aggleton (p,170) express the socially constructed assumption that even pornography and pervasions have been considered part of a male domain.
It is apparent that gender differences and inequalities exist; ideologies have claimed that women as opposed to men should be pure prior to marriage. Ilkkaracan and Jolly (2007) argue the norms around sexuality and what is considered acceptable according to context. They suggest that in many cultures there is a huge pressure to be married and sometimes forced to an early marriage. Other kinds of sexual behavior such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are discouraged by social stigma with legal penalties made apparent. A commonly shared ideology is to be a ‘proper man’ or ‘proper woman’ and to conform to gender stereotypes and express desires for or have relations only with people of the ‘opposite’ sex. In the early eighteenth century distinctive minorities emerged and were labeled as homosexuals. However, society emerged and opposed their sexuality, and drew the line with social norms. This was perceived as a taboo to traditional masculine behaviour.
Men are generally assumed to have greater access than women to the pleasures of sexuality. This is socially constructed though ideological perspectives that men; are risk takers, insensitive, sexually sinful, have a high sex drive and sexually experienced. On the other hand, the gendered constructions of women’s sexuality represent them as innocent, sensitive, slut or frigid, responsible with regard to pregnancy and STIs, passive in sex, seduced and ignorant (Flood 2010). Although apparent social and cultural norms create gender differences in sexual behavior, it is believed that women’s sexual experience is coming closer to men’s. This is due to the sexual revolution and women’s movements (Flood 2010). However the gender inequalities continue to be present, with men in contrast to women having more pleasurable sex. Further closely related to this concept is the theory of the sexual double standard. Although it is recognized that the primary principle is that all people, regardless of their gender, class, age, religion, marital status and race/ethnicity have the right to decide on their sexuality.
The term double standard is a set of principles or provisions, generally situated to social norms and is perceived as either acceptable or unacceptable. Kornblum (p,406) describes sexual double standard as the belief that women must adhere to a different more restrictive social or moral code than that applied to men. The sociological view on double standards is shown to suggest that sexuality is divides women in to ‘good’ if they are wives and virgins, ‘and bad’ if they are sexually active and prostitutes (Randall & Waylen p,86).However men’s sexual behavior is free of social constraint. Flood (2010) describes two standards of sexual behaviour, one for men and one for women, associated with having sex and various sexual partners. Additionally, women’s sexual behavior is socially policed and highly controlled in comparison to men’s. Further, women who are sexually active are believed to be ‘sluts’ as opposed to men who are known as ‘studs’. Consequently, sexual reputations are socially controlled; this can be to an individual’s advantage or disadvantage, depending on the gratification of the social norms.
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