Sexual Relationships in Society: Definitions and Concepts

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  • 0:08 Sexual Relationships
  • 0:57 Families
  • 3:19 Exogamy vs. Endogamy
  • 5:19 Forms of Marriage
  • 9:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wind Goodfriend

Wind has her PhD in Social Psychology and Master's in Social Psychology from Purdue University.

Explore many types of sexual relationships, including combinations that are considered more or less acceptable in different cultures. Concepts covered in this lesson include family, incest, endogamy vs. exogamy, and different forms of marriage (e.g., monogamy, polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry).

Sexual Relationships

For most adolescents, an important step on the way to adulthood is forming a dating relationship. Through romantic relationships, we learn how to be intimate with another person, both psychologically and physically. When you were in your teenage years, what type of person did you imagine dating or maybe even one day marrying? It's very likely that the type of relationship you envisioned was influenced by your culture.

This lesson is going to discuss how different cultures value and encourage different types of romantic and sexual relationships. For example, did you ever considering marrying more than one person at a time? How about marrying your own brother or sister? Let's talk about different forms of sexual relationships and how cultures differ in how much they accept each form.


Before we discuss sexual relationships, think about your earliest relationships, which for most people is their biological family. Your nuclear family is your closest and direct family members, typically including two parents and their children. In the United States, it's most common for nuclear families to live together in a single home and for most distant family members to live separately.

However, you also have an extended family, which is any biological or marriage-based relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. While extended family members usually live separately in the United States, in many other cultures, it's typical for many extended family members to live together, such that multiple generations live in the same home. Living together with extended family members means that you can have closer relationships with each other and share the cost of living expenses.

So, one cultural difference that social scientists study is how much a certain culture encourages extended family members to live together versus encouraging separate homes made up of only a nuclear family. However, regardless of these differences, there is one value that is a cultural universal, meaning that we see this value shared by every culture ever studied. This universal is the incest taboo. The incest taboo is a social norm forbidding sexual relationships or marriage between certain close biological relatives. In other words, every culture all over the world finds sexual relationships between parents and children or between siblings to be unacceptable. State and national laws typically make the penalty for incest very severe to establish that incest is not allowed.

While incest is considered unacceptable, it's interesting to think about how society might be more accepting of sexual relationships between extended family members. For example, you might not consider marrying your own brother or sister, but what about a fourth cousin you never met until you were an adult? In the United States, it wasn't against the law to marry your own first cousin until after the Civil War. Now, half of the states have laws against it, but half of the states allow marriage between first cousins. Would you consider marrying your cousin? Do you think cousins marrying each other counts as incest?

Exogamy vs. Endogamy

Many people have two reasons to worry about incest. First, sometimes sexual relationships between family members are not consensual and therefore also include sexual assault, abuse, or even rape. However, even if the two people in the relationship are consenting adults, some scientists believe that if close family members have children together, those children are more likely to suffer from genetic diseases. For this reason, some U.S. states allow marriage between cousins but only if both people are too old to have children.

The concern about possible genetic diseases in children is one reason why many cultures encourage people to have sexual relationships with people outside of their immediate family or group. Looking for suitable marriage partners outside of one's group is a cultural practice called exogamy. In other words, exogamy is defined as sexual relationships or marriage between people of different social groups. The social group could be your family, as we've been discussing. But exogamy can also refer to other kinds of social groups, such as people of different ages, races, religions, or social classes.

The opposite of exogamy is endogamy. As you can guess, endogamy is defined as sexual relationships or marriage between people of the same social group. Again, this could mean looking for a partner of a similar age, social class, race, or religion as yourself.

Many cultures value both exogamy and endogamy at the same time. Most modern cultures encourage people to marry someone similar to themselves in terms of age or social class, which is endogamy, but discourage people from marrying people within their own family (exogamy). In short, many cultures value marriage between two people who have a lot in common but not too much in common, like the same parents!

Forms of Marriage

So far, we've been talking about marriage and sexual relationships in terms of happening between two people. Most cultures today consider marriage between two people to be the only legal form of marriage. This form of marriage is called monogamy. Monogamy is a long-term sexual relationship between two people, and neither person has sex outside of that partnership. Even within monogamy, culture comes into play.

In the United States, the culture is changing to be more and more accepting of legalizing monogamous marriages between two men or two women and not just a man and a woman. But even though this debate is very important to many people on both sides of the issue, most people in the modern U.S. still think of marriage as only between two people. Other cultures think a little differently.

The alternative to monogamy is called polygamy, which is a long-term sexual relationship among more than two people. In other words, polygamy refers to plural marriage, when at least one person has sexual relationships with multiple other people, and everyone involved agrees that this arrangement is okay. Polygamous marriages are culturally acceptable in many parts of Africa and Asia.

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