History of Sex


sex, term used to refer both to the two groups distinguished as males and females, and to the anatomical and physiological characteristics associated with maleness and femaleness. Sex relates to the type of reproduction in which specialized reproductive cells (gametes) form and, when united by fertilization, produce a zygote (fertilized egg) that develops into a new individual. The female gamete is called an egg or ovum, and the male gamete a sperm.

Sexual Differentiation

Differentiation into two sexes appears in some members of all divisions of the plant and animal kingdoms. Even in species where little or no sexual difference has occurred anatomically, an implied separation exists in forms in which conjugation occurs (e.g., among different strains in paramecia and between plus and minus strains in molds). Many lower forms reproduce within the one individual two different kinds of cell that unite to form a new individual; in others, male and female cells form in different individuals. Among the vertebrates, the sexes are usually readily distinguishable by their primary sexual characteristics, i.e., the structure of their reproductive organs. In the highest group of plants, the seed-bearing plants, the female organ is the pistil and the male organ is the stamen. The stamens and pistil may appear in the same flower, in different flowers of the same plant, or in the flowers of separate plants. Secondary sexual characteristics include the bright coloration of many male birds and fish, the antlers of male deer, the beard and deepened voice of human males, and the mammary glands of female mammals. In higher animals, hormones released by the sexual organs under stimulation from the pituitary hormones play a dominant role in the control of sexual characteristics and the sexual processes of reproduction (see pituitary gland).

Genetic Basis of Sex and Sex-linked Traits

The modern science of genetics has provided a scientific explanation about how an offspring becomes either female or male. Based on the discovery that among the chromosomes present in the body cells, a special pair of sex chromosomes exist that bear the genes determining the sex of the offspring. In the human female, these chromosomes are identical and are called X chromosomes (indicated by XX). The male has one X chromosome and one smaller Y chromosome, which is dominant for maleness. During the process of producing reproductive cells (see meiosis), each of these chromosomes is segregated into a different gamete. Thus, when fertilization occurs, according to Mendelian law, 50% of the offspring will be XX (female) and 50% XY (male). Deviations from this rule do occur, but it is generally true.

The rule also helps to explain the inheritance of sex-linked characteristics such as hemophilia (a blood clotting disorder) and red-green color blindness, since the X chromosome also carries some genes for nonsexual traits. The Y chromosome carries very few genes for nonsexual traits; these few (including one for hairy ears) are called holandric genes. Certain inherited characteristics comprise X-linked traits, so called because a single X chromosome occurs in males. A recessive characteristic, e.g., when a gene leads to the expression of a disease such as hemophilia, may locate on the X sex chromosome in males and thus appear in that family.

Genetic Variability

Because of the myriad genes in the nucleus of every parent cell, the probability of two individuals inheriting identical characteristics is almost zero; thus, innumerable new variations (see mutation) constantly undergo testing for survival advantages in the individual's environment. The evolutionary flexibility that results from sexuality at some stage of the reproductive cycle seems not only beneficial but necessary in maintaining the adaptability of the species. The Human Genome Project is mapping and sequencing the approximately 30,000 human genes. The goal of this international scientific effort focuses on discovering the genetic basis for diseases in order to help humans avoid having children with severe or fatal genetic disorders.


See study by J. Maynard-Smith (1978).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

History of Sex: Selected full-text books and articles

Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality By Bruce S. Thornton Westview Press, 1997
Sexual Practices & the Medieval Church By Vern L. Bullough; James Brundage Prometheus Books, 1994
Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699 By Roger Thompson University of Massachusetts Press, 1986
The Making of Victorian Sexuality By Michael Mason Oxford University Press, 1995
Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America By Asunción Lavrin University of Nebraska Press, 1989
Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s By Hilary Radner; Moya Luckett University of Minnesota Press, 1999
Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 By Nan Alamilla Boyd University of California Press, 2003
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