Human Sexuality and its Problems, 3rd Edition
The thread of sexuality is woven densely into the fabric of human existence. There are few people for whom sex has not been important at some time and many for whom it has played a dominant part in their lives. Sex is a motive force leading two people to intimate contact. They may have nothing in common except mutual sexual interest. Their encounter may be brief or it may lead on to the principal relationship in their lives, and often the formation of a family.
The preceding paragraph opened the introduction to the last edition of this book in 1989. Twenty years later it is no less relevant. Sexuality continues to play a fundamental part in the lives of many of us. However, there are ongoing changes in the sexual world. Interestingly, a turning point relating to these changes happened around the date of the second edition of this book. In the two to three decades before 1989 there had been noticeable changes, most marked in the sexuality of women. It seemed that the longstanding societal repression of women’s sexuality was lessening, enabling them to express their sexualities more openly, and revealing a much greater variability among women than had previously been apparent. This pattern and the challenge of comparing and contrasting the sexuality of men and women is an important theme in this third edition, and I have ventured into potential political incorrectness in my attempts to theorize about this gender comparison. Since 1989 we have not seen any reversal of this change in relation to women’s sexuality, but in general the previous phase of increasing sexual permissiveness, described as the era of sexual liberation or revolution, depending on one’s perspective, has not been so evident. This is most noticeably apparent in the cessation and to some extent reversal of the trend towards younger age at sexual initiation (see Chapter 5, p. 155). The trend towards more premarital sexual experience, on the other hand, has continued, at least in the Western world, largely because people are getting married later and less often (see Chapter 6, p. 205), and sexuality has become accepted as a manifestation of a ‘sexual relationship’ rather than of marriage per se.
By 1989, HIV and AIDS were having a major impact and have continued to do so ever since. In the early days of this epidemic, attention was focused on AIDS as a ‘gay disease’, with an associated intensification of anti-homosexual attitudes. The subsequent worldwide pandemic, however, has shown this to be a predominantly heterosexual problem, with more recent attention focused on the particular vulnerabilities of heterosexual women, an important demonstration of the consequences of gender inequality in human societies (see Chapter 14). We have also seen how HIV infection is characterized by relatively low infectivity, a long latency, but a major health consequence, AIDS. This is in striking contrast to the event-related and usually treatable nature of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and has added further complexity to the issues of responsible sexual behaviour. The new phase of sex survey research, reviewed in this volume, has been largely driven by this pandemic. Whereas it remains very difficult to obtain funding for sex research in general, the need to carry out large-scale surveys that would be informative about behaviours and attitudes relevant to HIV transmission has been acknowledged. This, however, has not gone unchallenged; the continuing political opposition to sex research is considered in Chapter 6 and is reviewed more comprehensively in Bancroft (2004). The view that it is better to ignore sex than to attempt to understand it, for fear that in the process you somehow encourage it, has persisted in various forms, particularly in the USA.
The final phase of my career brought me into close contact with this ‘sex negativism’. In 1995 I moved to the USA to become Director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. From the first day, I was contending with the ongoing anti-Kinsey campaign. Kinsey had become a scapegoat for what these campaigners regarded as a decline in sexual morality (Bancroft 2004). Fortunately, beyond that, my time at the Kinsey Institute had many positive consequences for me. I became much more aware of Kinsey’s work on individual variability, a central theme in much of my research in the subsequent 10 years. Through the amazing collections
at the Kinsey Institute, I experienced the many ways that sexuality has been expressed in the arts and literature. Above all, I had 10 years of working with a wonderful team of colleagues at the Institute. Only since retiring from that wholehearted investment, and returning to
the UK, have I been able to work on this third edition. The past 20 years have influenced my thinking in many ways that will be evident in this new edition. There has been a huge increase in the literature relating to human sexuality and its problems. Given that the objective of this book is to provide a broad cross-disciplinary perspective, the literature has been close to overwhelming. There are, I have no doubt,many important gaps in the next 15 chapters, and to those scholars and researchers whose work I have inadequately addressed, I can only apologize. I have, however, experienced a major transformation that I will try to explain. In the last edition I wrote that human sexuality was an enigma or a riddle. Since then this enigma has become endowed with even more significance for me. Scientific progress, while it may bring clear practical benefits, more often than not makes the human condition more rather than less difficult to understand. No doubt there are exceptions, but in my experience they have been few. One particularly telling example, which I will revisit at several points in this book, is brain imaging. We may use brain imaging to study what happens in the brain when we become sexually aroused, or to compare and contrast individuals with normal and low levels of sexual desire. What we find is a multiplicity of interactive brain functions that do not slot easily into our preconceived concepts of ‘sexual arousal’ or ‘sexual desire’. And why should they? The common assumption that we can work out,
with our brains, how those brains work, is one aspect of the arrogance of human beings. There are many, beyond the field of brain science, who believe that it is only a matter of time before science gets everything worked out. This has not made me nihilistic about scientific research, far from it; the practical benefits of research continue to be considerable. But it has made me more humble, and in the process has intensified my sense of spirituality.
As part of this process, it has become clearer to me that, rather than pursuing the ‘truth’ or the ‘reality’ of brain function, or hormone function, or neurotransmitter function, or by contrast, the impact of culture, we should endeavour to devise simplified models of reality. Their purpose is not only to help us grapple with the seemingly endless increase in complexity, of human sexuality and a lot more besides, but also to have heuristic value in various ways, such as making it easier to write a book like this, and hopefully for the reader to make sense of it. When we look back over the history of science we can find many examples of such models, which served to help the process of making sense, but after a while gave way to new models which could better deal with the next stage. In the field of medicine, where scientific understanding is of particular importance, and its heuristic value readily demonstrated, this process has been very evident.
I have therefore become more theoretical, which has not only influenced my research over the past 10 years, but also the structuring and writing of this third edition. This is explored closely in Chapter 2, one of the new components of this book. Through the other chapters the reader will encounter a variety of theories, ranging from testable hypotheses, to models intended to aid in the organization of our thinking. I feel somewhat frustrated, as this late emergence of a more theoretical approach has generated numerous researchable questions when it is too late for me to attempt to answer them. I have included many of them in this book, in the hope that others might want to pursue them. As with the previous two editions, I have struggled over the best way of structuring this book. This reflects the core theme; that human sexuality results from an interaction between the psychobiological mechanisms inherent in the individual and the culture in which he or she lives. To some extent, it is possible to focus on the fundamentally biological process of sexual differentiation, as in Chapter 3, and on the psychobiological mechanisms involved in sexual response, as in Chapter 4. But the development of gender identity, sexual identity and our emerging patterns of sexual behaviour require more attention to socio-cultural factors. I have considered these more closely in Chapters 5 and 6, and in relation to homosexual identity in Chapter 8
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