Connections between Sex and Aggression

Article excerpt

Connections between Sex and Aggression. Dolf Zillman. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984. 258 pp. $29.95 cloth.

Is there a biological linkage between sex and aggression in human beings, or particularly in men? Does sexual arousal naturally lead to aggressive behavior, or vice versa? Dubious assertions of the connections between sex and aggression abound in popular culture, and well-conceptualized hypotheses of sex-aggression linkages have been advanced in science. In his timely and useful book, Connections between Sex and Aggression, Dolf Zillmann (a) undertakes a review, integration, and assessment of theory and research on sex-aggression connections; and (b) develops a theory of connection between sex and aggression by means of the transfer of sympathetic excitation.


Zillmann notes that since connections between sexual and aggressive behavior have attracted scientific attention in various fields, the literature on this issue is scattered throughout the disciplines. There has been no integrative review of this literature, and investigators in each field are largely unaware of the work in the others. Zillmann, with the goal of bringing together the work on sex-aggression linkages, reviews voluminous research and provides a discussion of the hypotheses and evidence from comparative behavior, neurophysiology, endocrinology, and social psychology. A very brief summary of some of his main conclusions follows.

1. Research in comparative behavior does not suggest any general theory of a connection between sexual and aggressive behavior. Selective analogies with the sociosexual behavior of assorted animal species will not support conclusions about human sociosexual and aggressive-sexual behaviors. In human society, sex-related aggression is regulated by conduct rules (as all sociosexual behavior is), which vary significantly between cultures (pp. 35-60).

2. The hypothesis of excitatory spillage in the human brain from sexual stimulation to aggressive response, or vice versa, is not supported by research and raises more questions than it answers. It cannot at this point be assumed there is any sex-aggression link due to brain functioning (pp. 61-78).

3. Although androgen1 potentiates aggressive behavior in human beings, it appears to be mediated through the development of secondary sex characteristics such as muscular build and larger heart and lung capacity. For example, an aggressive disposition may arise out of the experience of winning fights because of superior fighting abilities rather than out of a direct effect (through the central nervous system) of androgen on disposition. Variations in androgen levels that occur naturally are for the most part not associated with co-varying levels of sexual or aggressive behavior. Thus, the influences of androgen on aggression are real, but indirect, and not subject to much variability without hormonal treatment at a massive and prolonged level (pp. 86-98).

4. Chromosomal aberrations in human beings may foster conditions (anatomical, dispositional, and social) that favor the development of aggressiveness but are not themselves directly implicated, nor do they enhance sexual propensity (pp. 98-102).

5. In studies of motivation and emotion, the view that aggressive drive (a hypothetical construct) readily converts to sexual drive, or vice versa, or that elements of the aggressive response are sexual, is not supported by the research. Thus, sexual stimulation does not generally facilitate aggressiveness nor vice versa. Neither do sex and aggression seem to disinhibit each other (pp. 115-129).

6. In studies of the facilitation of aggression by exposure to erotica, the key factors appear to be the excitatory potential (the potential for sympathetic and emotional arousal) and the hedonic valence (the subjectively experienced pleasantness or offensiveness) of the material, rather than the sexual theme. …