Sex Therapy and the Cultural Construction of Sexuality

By Pertot, Sandra | Contemporary Sexuality, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Sex Therapy and the Cultural Construction of Sexuality


Pertot, Sandra, Contemporary Sexuality


THE EARLY CROSS-CULTURAL STUDIES by anthropologists such as Malinowski and Mead on sexual practices in non-western cultures were significant landmarks in creating awareness that sexual attitudes, beliefs and expression, even cues for sexual arousal, are influenced by social context (Caplan, 1987; Connel & Dowsett, 1992). Although there are points of difference in the theories on the cultural construction of sexuality proposed by influential figures such as Foucault and the team of Gagnon and Simon (Connell & Dowsett, 1992), there is agreement that "sexuality" is not a static concept but varies across time and place (Villaneuva, 1997). The essential message is that ideas about normal and appropriate sexual behavior, whether these relate to gender roles, sexual identity, or the experience and expression of sexual desires, arise as a result of the interaction of social and cultural forces and do not reflect innate biological imperatives (Villaneuva, 1997).

Although the influence of social factors on sexual expression has been acknowledged for more than a century (Eriksen & Steffen, 1999), sex researchers and therapists have not always recognized the impact of current sexual norms on the way they conduct their own work or formulate their own conclusions. Eriksen and Steffen, in their history of sex surveys in the United States, found that the sex researchers across the twentieth century reflected the sexual values and assumptions of the times in the questions they asked and in the interpretation of their data, and at the same time helped change the cultural construct when they reported on their work, as, for example, the impact of Kinsey's data on the perception of homosexuality.

Therapists have a long history of recognizing the role of social factors on the sexual problems of their clients but failing to see their own cultural biases. An early example is the work of Freud, who identified repressive societal attitudes as central to the development of adult neuroses, but at the same time he failed to recognize his own socially driven beliefs about female sexuality when he characterized women as mutilated males, and developed his theory of castration anxiety (Freud, 1962).

Similarly, the work of Masters and Johnson into human sexual function and dysfunction can now be seen to have been influenced by the social and political forces of the times (Masters & Johnson, 1970). For example, one of their most steadfast conclusions was that there are no differences of any significance between male and female sexuality, yet this view is now challenged by sex therapists that argue that it hindered the understanding and treatment of female sexual distress (Basson, 2000).

In addition, Masters and Johnson set the paradigm for future sex therapy by their focus on behavioral deficits as evidence of sexual inadequacy (Masters & Johnson, 1970). While ground breaking at the time, it led to the notion that sexual competence was the cornerstone of a good sexual relationship (Eriksen & Steffen, 1999), and this concept of teaching clients to do sex better (as opposed to accepting and/or appreciating what is already happening) has remained the core concept of modern sex therapy.

During the 20th century, sex manuals became a popular method for sex experts to provide information and advice to members of the public who were experiencing difficulties of one kind or another in their sex life. While these no doubt were of benefit to many couples who had been raised in sexual ignorance, the benefits were often tempered by the cultural biases in their views, such as advice to women not to take the initiative in sex (Brothers, 1962).

Today there is a constant flow of information to the public on sexual matters. Books, magazine articles, television talk shows, and the Internet give ready access to ideas about how to solve a sexual problem or just generally spice up a sexual relationship. Much of this information is provided by people with no particular expertise in sexual matters, but sex therapists with a sound educational and clinical background also utilize these forms of media to educate the community about sexual issues. …

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