Theoretical Analyses of Sexuality

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  • 0:01 Theoretical Analysis…
  • 1:00 Structural Functionalism
  • 3:05 Conflict Theory
  • 4:35 Symbolic Interactionism
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson explores the different views on the place that sexual feelings and attitudes have in our society. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Theoretical Analysis of Sexuality

The concept of sexuality is often met with confusion or embarrassment because people may not fully understand what sexuality is and why it needs to be studied. Sexuality is viewed as a person's capacity for sexual feelings. Thus, in the area of sociology, sociologists focus their attention on sexual attitudes and practices, not on physiology or anatomy. Studying sexuality is of particular interest to sociologists because sexual behavior is culturally universal across the entire human race.

But while sexual feelings that humans have are universal, how people express them may differ. Thus, sociologists use different theories to explain why one person or culture expresses their sexuality one way and another person or culture expresses their sexuality another way. The three most common theories that sociologists use in their explanations of sexuality are the same three theories that we have discussed elsewhere in this chapter: structural functionalism, social conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Structural Functionalism

The basic explanation of structural functionalism is that everything in society has a purpose, job, or function. So, when a sociologist uses functionalism to look at the concept of sexuality, it is generally to explain how regulating sexual behavior ensures marital and family stability. A second assumption made in functionalism is that the family unit is the most integral component in society. Functionalists therefore maintain a strict focus on the family at all times and argue in favor of social arrangements that promote and ensure family preservation.

Social norms surrounding family life have, traditionally, encouraged sexual activity within the family unit (i.e., marriage) and have discouraged activity outside of it, such as premarital and extramarital sex. In fact, if you're familiar with the famous novel The Scarlet Letter, you may be aware of how disapproving society can be of adulterers. In the novel, an adulterous woman was made to wear a red-colored letter A on her clothes to identify her actions to others.

From a functionalist point of view, the purpose of encouraging sexual activity in the confines of marriage is to intensify the bond between spouses and to ensure that having children occurs within a stable, legally recognized relationship. This structure gives offspring the best possible chance for appropriate socialization and gives them resources to survive and create families of their own one day.

Consequently, from a functionalist standpoint, homosexuality cannot be promoted on a large scale as an acceptable substitute for heterosexuality, because if this happened, having children would eventually cease, leading to the decline of the family and society as a whole. Thus, functionalists see homosexuality as a dysfunction in society because it doesn't promote the purpose or job of creating and sustaining a family unit. However, this criticism does not take into account the increasing legal acceptance of same-sex marriage or the rise in gay and lesbian couples who choose to bear and raise children through adoption and a variety of other available resources. This view also doesn't take into account the shifting view away from the traditional concept of what a family is.

Conflict Theory

Another way of explaining the concept of sexuality is through the conflict theory perspective. Just as the name implies, conflict theory states that society is always experiencing a state of tension or conflict. This view sees society as a collection of haves and have-nots, and the difference between the two results from the distribution of power and control among the groups. According to sociologists, sexuality is another area in which power differences are present and where dominant groups work to promote their economic interests. One of the biggest sources of conflict in terms of sexuality that we currently see is the battle in many states to allow gay marriage.

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