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The Many Varieties of Sexual Behavior

15 February, 2016 - 15:43

Sex researchers have found that sexual behavior varies widely, not only between men and women but within each sex (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948/1998; Kinsey, 1953/1998). 1 About a quarter of women report having a low sexual desire, and about 1% of people report feeling no sexual attraction whatsoever (Bogaert, 2004; Feldhaus-Dahir, 2009; West et al., 2008). 2 There are also people who experience hyperactive sexual drives. For about 3% to 6% of the population (mainly men), the sex drive is so strong that it dominates life experience a nd may lead to hyperactivesexual desiredisorder(Kingston & Firestone, 2008). 3

There is also variety in sexual orientation, which is thedirection of our sexual desiretoward peopleof theoppositesex, peopleof thesamesex,or peopleof both sexes. The vast majority of human beings have a heterosexual orientation—their sexual desire is focused toward members of the opposite sex. A smaller minority is primarily homosexual (i.e., they have sexual desire for members of their own sex). Between 3% and 4% of men are gay, and between 1% a nd 2% of women are lesbian. Another 1% of the population reports being bisexual (having desires for both sexes). The love and sexual lives of homosexuals are little different from those of heterosexuals, except where their behaviors are constrained by cultural norms and local laws. As with heterosexuals, some gays and lesbians are celibate, some are promiscuous, but most are in committed, long-term relationships (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). 4

Although homosexuality has been practiced as long as records of human behavior have been kept, and occurs in many animals at least as frequently as it does in humans, cultures nevertheless vary substantially in their attitudes toward it. In Western societies such as the United States and Europe, attitudes are becoming progressively more tolerant of homosexuality, but it remains unacceptable in many other parts of the world. The American Psychiatric Association no longer considers homosexuality to be a “mental illness,” although it did so until 1973. Because prejudice against gays and lesbians can lead to experiences of ostracism, depression, and even suicide (Kulkin, Chauvin, & Percle, 2000), 5 these improved attitudes can benefit the everyday lives of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

Whether sexual orientation is driven more by nature or by nurture has received a great deal of research attention, and research has found that sexual orientation is primarily biological (Mustanski, Chivers, & Bailey, 2002). 6Areas of the hypothalamus are different in homosexual men, as well as in animals with homosexual tendencies, than they are in heterosexual members of the species, and these differences are in directions such that gay men are more similar to women than are straight men (Gladue, 1994; Lasco, Jordan, Edgar, Petito, & Byrne, 2002; Rahman & Wilson, 2003). 7 Twin studies also support the idea that there is a genetic component to sexual orientation. Among male identical twins, 52% of those with a gay brother also reported homosexuality, whereas the rate in fraternal twins was just 22% (Bailey et al., 1999; Pillard & Bailey, 1998). 8 There is also evidence that sexual orientation is influenced by exposure a nd responses to sex hormones (Hershberger & Segal, 2004; Williams & Pepitone, 2000). 9

Psychology in Everyday Life: Regulating Emotions to Improve Our Health

Although smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, using recreational drugs, engaging in unsafe sex, and eating too much may produce enjoyable positive emotions in the short term, they are some of the leading causes of negative health outcomes and even death in the long term (Mokdad, Marks, Stroup, & Gerberding, 2004). 10 To avoid these negative outcomes, we must use our cognitive resources to plan, guide, and restrain our behaviors. And we (like Captain Sullenberger) can also use our emotion regulation skills to help us do better.

Even in an age where the addictive and detrimental health effects of cigarette smoking are well understood, more than 60% of children try smoking before they are 18 years old, and more than half who have smoked have tried and failed to quit (Fryar, Merino, Hirsch, & Porter, 2009). 11Although smoking is depicted in movies as se xy and alluring, it is highly addictive and probably the most dangerous thing we can do to our body. Poor diet and physical inactivity combine to make up the second greatest threat to o ur health. But we can improve our diet by eating more natural and less processed food, and by monitoring our food intake. And we can start and maintain an exercise program. Exercise keeps us happier, improves fitness, and leads to better health and lower mortality (Fogelholm, 2010; Galper, Trivedi, Barlow, Dunn, & Kampert, 2006; Hassmén, Koivula, & Uutela, 2000). 12And exercise also has a variety of positive influences on our cognitive processes, including academic performance (Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008). 13 Alcohol abuse, and particularly binge drinking (i.e., having five or more drinks in one sitting), is often the norm among high school and college students, but it has severe negative health consequences. Bingeing leads to deaths from car crashes, drowning, falls, gunshots, and alcohol poisoning (Valencia-Martín, Galán, & Rodríguez-Artalejo, 2008). 14 Binge-drinking students are also more likely to be involved in other risky behaviors, such as smoking, drug use, dating violence, o r attempted suicide (Miller, Naimi, Brewer, & Jones, 2007). 15 Binge drinking may also damage neural pathways in the brain (McQueeny et al., 2009) 16and lead to lifelong alcohol abuse and dependency (Kim et al., 2008). 17 Illicit drug use has also been increasing and is linked to the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C (Monteiro, 2001). 18

Some teens abstain from sex entirely, particularly those who are very religious, but most experiment with it. About half of U.S. children under 18 report having had intercourse, a rate much higher than in other parts of the world. Although sex is fun, it can also kill us if we are not careful. Sexual activity can lead to guilt about having engaged in the act itself, and may also lead to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV infection. Alcohol consumption also leads to risky sexual behavior. Sex partners who have been drinking are less likely to practice safe sex and have an increased risk of STIs, including HIV infection (Hutton, McCaul, Santora, & Erbelding 2008; Raj et al., 2009). 19 It takes some work to improve and maintain o ur health and happiness, and our desire for the positive emotional experiences that come from engaging in dangerous behaviors can get in the way of this work. But being aware of the dangers, working to control our emotions, and using our resources to engage in healthy behaviors and avoid unhealthy ones are the best things we can do for ourselves.


  • Biologically, hunger is controlled by the interactions among complex pathways in the nervous system and a variety of hormonal and chemical systems in the brain and body.
  • How we eat is also influenced by our environment, including social norms about appropriate body size.
  • Homeostasis varies among people and is determined by the basal metabolic rate. Low metabolic rates, which are determined entirely by genetics, make weight management a very difficult undertaking for many people.
  • Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, affect more than 10 million people (mostly women) in the United States alone.
  • Obesity is a medical condition in which so much excess body fat has accumulated in the body that it begins to have an adverse impact on health. Uncontrolled obesity leads to health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, arthritis, and some types of cancer.
  • The two approaches to controlling weight are to eat less and exercise more.
  • Sex drive is regulated by the sex hormones estrogen in women and testosterone in both women and men.
  • Although their biological determinants and experiences of sex are similar, men and women differ substantially in their overall interest in sex, the frequency of their sexual activities, and the mates they are most interested in.
  • Sexual behavior varies widely, not only between men and women but also within each sex.
  • There is also variety in sexual orientation: toward people of the opposite sex, people of the same sex, or people of both sexes. The determinants of sexual orientation are primarily biological.
  • We can outwit stress, obesity, and other health risks through appropriate healthy action.


1.   Consider your own eating and sex patterns. Are they healthy or unhealthy? What can you do to improve them?