This chapter examines sexuality as a social construction; that is, while there is a biological
component to sexuality, like everything else in our society, it is a product of our social context.
While heterosexuality remains the norm in our society, sexual norms have changed over
time; for example, some acts that were considered deviant a few decades ago are now tolerated
and even accepted. An example of this point is homosexuality: thirty years ago homosexuality
was considered both abnormal and illegal; however, today, there is widespread acceptance of
homosexuality, including rights enshrined in the law, such as marriage. Homophobia—especially
when it is manifested as discrimination against gays and lesbians—is no longer socially or
While prostitution and pornography are widely condemned by the Canadian public, and to
some extent, the criminal justice system, it is noted that pornography and prostitution are both
divisive issues as far as sociologists are concerned. For example, functionalists maintain
prostitution actually promotes social cohesion, while critical and feminist sociologists focus on
the exploitation of women and the commodification of women’s bodies. While pornography is
celebrated by some as the liberation of sexual desires, it is reviled by others who argue that it
degrades women and contributes to the increasing sexualization of our culture.
In this chapter, you will
• learn that sexuality is socially constructed;
• consider why some forms of sexual behaviour are considered deviant and how these
views change over time; and,
• gain perspective on the sexualization of our culture.
double standard: The notion that women are supposed to feel or behave differently from men
where sexual matters are concerned. 2
heteronormativity: The social institutions, practices, and norms that support an automatic
assumption that other people are or should be heterosexual.
heterosexism: A belief in the moral superiority of heterosexual institutions and practices.
heterosexuality: A sexual or romantic attraction to people of the opposite sex.
homophobia: An overt or covert hostility toward gay and lesbian people, sometimes stemming
from an irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals.
homosexuality: A sexual or romantic attraction to people of the same sex; in males, called
‘homosexuality’ and in females, ‘lesbianism’.
homosociality: A social preference for members of one’s own gender.
paraphilia: Any sexual deviation or departure from the norm.
pornography: The explicit description or exhibition of sexual activity in literature, films, or
elsewhere, intended to stimulate erotic, rather than aesthetic, feelings.
prostitution: The provision of sexual services for reward, usually money.
sex: Both the biological characteristics that define a person as male or female and the act of
sexual infidelity: Sexual relations between a married (or cohabiting) person and someone other
than his or her spouse.
sexuality: Feelings of sexual attraction and any behaviours related to them.
sexual scripts: The guidelines that describe socially acceptable ways of behaving when
engaging in sexual activities.
Adams, M. L. (1999). The Trouble with Normal: Post-War Youth and the Making of
Heterosexuality. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
This is an excellent discussion of the social construction of sexuality after World War II,
showing how the view of heterosexuality as normal was tied in with both politics and the
larger social context.
Berlant, L. G. (ed.) (2000). Intimacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 3
This collection shows the ways in which intimate lives are connected with the institutions
and ideologies that organize people’s worlds. Showing how intimacy has entered the public
spheres of culture, politics, and capitalism, the book challenges traditional notions of private
Laqueur, T. W. (2003). Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York: Zone
In this book, the author addresses the changing nature of Western culture’s continuing
obsession with masturbation. Masturbation’s history is filled with anxiety, since it was often
thought to irreversibly harm its practitioners. This long-lasting belief seemingly no longer
persists. The author outlines how this turnaround occurred and why.
Laumann, E. O., Ellingson, S., Mahay, J., Palk, A., & Youm, Y. (eds.) (2004). The Sexual
Organization of the City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The findings in this study are based on results from the Chicago Health and Social Life
Survey, which was designed to assess how people meet their sexual partners. The authors
propose the existence of a ‘sex market’, a spatial and cultural arena in which individuals
search for sex partners. According to their theory, sex markets constrain people’s choices in
expressing their sexuality.
Nelson, C., & Martin, M. H. (eds.) (2004). Sexual Pedagogies: Sex Education in Britain,
Australia, and America, 1879–2000. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
This thought-provoking volume looks at over a century of efforts, in Britain, the United
States, and Australia, to shape citizens’ understandings of their own sexual needs. The
anthology of essays examines the interplay of radical and conservative ideologies of sex,
noting the influence of market forces, cultural beliefs about childhood and gender, and
sometimes geopolitics. Understandings of sexuality and sex education have changed
dramatically, yet in many ways the link between what is taught and what is practised is as
little understood as ever.
Seidman, S. (2004). Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life. New York:
This book is based on interviews with gay and lesbian individuals, exploring the experience
of living ‘in the closet’ and of ‘coming out’ of it. The findings show differences in
experiences from gay and lesbians of different generations, races, and classes. They also
show changes in the ‘closet’ along with the social changes occurring in history.
Recommended Websites 4
Sieccan: The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
The Sex Atlas
Sexuality and U
Federal Initiative to Address HIV/AIDS in Canada
Prostitute Research and Education
Judith Butler at Theory.org.uk
Multiple Choice Questions
1. Which of the following statements about the social construction of sexuality is not true?
a) Sexuality is a product of our social context.
b) Biology does not play any role in the experience of sexual arousal.
c) Social structure is both liberating and confining where sexuality is concerned.
d) none of the above
2. __________ refers to both the biological characteristics that define a person as male or
female and the act of sexual intercourse.
b) Sexual scripts
d) Heteronormativity 5
3. Which of the following statements is true?
a) People are having sex at younger ages.
b) People are more accepting of sexual practices that deviate from the dominant norm.
c) The stigma of premarital sex is largely absent today.
d) all of the above
4. __________ is defined as feelings of sexual attraction and any behaviours related to them.
c) Sexual scripts
5. According to functionalists, prostitution
a) is inherently degrading to women.
b) decreases social cohesion.
c) helps keep families together and the family institution intact.
d) Both a and b are correct.
6. The guidelines that describe socially acceptable ways of behaving when engaging in sexual
activities are known as
a) sexual double standards.
b) heteronormative standards.
c) sexual scripts.
d) sexual gender roles.
7. According to the textbook, the __________ approach is useful in studying the social
construction of social problems around sexual activity.
a) symbolic interactionist
8. Which of the following statements regarding the feminist approach to sexuality is not true?
a) Homosexual behaviour is often a manifestation of our patriarchal society. 6
b) People are increasingly regarding the problems of teenage sex, pregnancy, and out-of-
wedlock births as problems resulting from the behaviour of boys and girls.
c) Feminists are more concerned with the rights and wrongs of prostitution, rather than the
financial imperatives that lead many women into prostitution.
d) all of the above
9. According to Michel Foucault,
a) sexual deviance provides people with varied sexual outlets.
b) modern thinking about sexuality is intimately associated with the power structures of
c) prostitution reflects gender inequality.
d) increased contac