The world of sexual behavior

The world of sexual behavior

Sexual behavior might be called a “universal language;” it is something that every adult person—and animal—knows how to perform. From a strictly biological standpoint, sexual activity is the manifestation of our drive to reproduce. What may surprise you are the number of creative ways to insure that that drive is satisfied.

In many cultures, sexual unions are based upon mutual attraction. Generally, there is some sort of initial period of courtship, or seduction, followed by mating. What happens before, during and after the mating process involves a fascinating series of behavior that varies from culture to culture, and species to species.

The mysteries of attraction

There is a story from the Greek philosopher Plato that theorizes about the source of male/female attraction. Once upon a time, people were one entity—a type of hermaphrodite which contained both male and female characteristics. This entity became so powerful that it rebelled against its creator. In order to put this entity in its place, the god Zeus sliced it in half, so that man and woman became separate beings. Ever since, the two sexes have been passionately trying to reunite to become “complete” again.

What is the secret of attraction? Philosophers, biologists, sexologists, anthropologists, and many more have debated this question endlessly. Depending upon your viewpoint, there are many responses, but no one singular answer. The mysteries of attraction ultimately lie in the powerful blueprints of human thought, biology and emotion.

One of the most primitive lures is provoked by the sense of smell. Humans have the capacity to detect over ten thousand different types of smells; however, this is only a fraction of what certain animals, such as dogs and cats, can sniff. Both humans and animals exude subtle chemical pheromones—a smell that is detectable (unconsciously in humans) by the opposite sex, which elicits a specific response in a potential mate.

It takes less than a trillionth of a microgram of pheromones to stimulate a male gypsy moth.

In men and women, these scents waft through our apocrine glands, located in the armpits, around the nipples, and in the groin. (These scents are not the sometimes distasteful smells we associate with perspiration.) Apocrine secretions begin at puberty when sex hormones are developing, and differ in men and women. Although most people have these scent glands, it is interesting to note that amongst Asians, the axillary scent glands are extremely rare. In fact, in Japan, strong-smelling underarm odor is considered a disease, and was at one time a legitimate reason to be excused from military duty.

Another important component to attraction is the physical traits that have evolved over time which are attractive to the opposite sex. Darwin called this the process of sexual selection: women consistently chose strong, virile men to mate with, and men chose women with larger breasts, which ethnologists believe may have signified a belief in their increased fertility.

In addition to body chemistry and physical traits, sexual attraction is also determined by each individual’s unique perceptions of what comprises an ideal partner. Sexologist John Money calls these “love maps”—templates for what arouses a person, and causes them to fall in love with one person instead of another. Money believes that these maps are developed early in childhood, between the ages of five and eight, and are based on the experience of family, friends, and associations.

Courtship: the mating dance

Once two people have signalled attraction for one another, the subtle process of courtship begins.

Kissing is one way that new lovers show affection. Although there are some cultures which traditionally do not kiss—such as the Somali, the Siriono of South America and the Thonga of South Africa—affectionate kissing has been found in over 90% of all recorded cultures. Kissing may be performed mouth to mouth, or by rubbing noses, as in Balinese and Eskimo cultures.

It has been said that the world’s greatest kissers are the Hindus and Westerners.

There are many theories regarding the origins of kissing. Some believe that the proximity of the nose to the mouth gives the kisser a dual bonus: a chance to smell as well as “taste” their partner. Others point to the satisfying oral pleasure which is reminiscent of childhood suckling. And still another theory says that kissing actually has its roots in a very primitive ritual: that of a mother pre-chewing food, and then transferring it by mouth to her eager baby. Perhaps the last theory may dim some of the romanticism we associate with the sensual kiss, but anyone who has watched a mother bird feed her young cannot argue with the theory’s plausibility.

As courtship behavior continues, certain patterns emerge. Just as male peacocks fan out their brilliant plumage to impress their potential mate, an observant onlooker will note similar swaggering behavior in men directed towards women in any modern singles bar. The subtle exchange of information—whether it’s given in a shy, acquiescent smile or a furtive glance—is all part of the delicate mating dance that takes place.

Sexual customs

Every person carries an internal map of what he or she considers erotic, what sexual behavior is acceptable and expected, and what is considered taboo, as dictated by their culture. These ideas are powerfully ingrained in the psyche, and often do not change over a lifetime.

What’s really fascinating is how varied these ideas can be. Consider the following beliefs about:

Homosexuality:In certain Native American cultures, as well as the South American Lache and Caquiteros tribes, homosexuals are considered to be a “third gender,” and are respected for their spiritual role as dreamers or visionaries in tribal customs. There is often a public tribal ceremony which acknowledges the role of these “berdache;” it is believed that any attempts by other people to “reform” the berdache can result in dire consequences.

Transvestism:The practice of wearing clothes of the opposite sex may have originated from the belief that the devil would be fooled by (and uninterested in) a woman. Yet another explanation is that some tribes, such as the Zulu, believed that a change of clothes would result in a change of luck; hence, men sometimes donned women’s girdles to reverse drought conditions.

Importance of time and place:The Masai of Africa only have sex during the night; they believe that during the day, the blood of the male will flow into the womb of the woman, leaving only water in the man’s veins.

In contrast, the Chenchu tribe of Hyderabad, India will only have sex during the day, fearing that a child conceived in darkness will be blind.

The Gond tribe in India believe that intercourse must never take place in the same place that valuables are kept. If this rule is violated, it is believed that the couple may suffer financial misfortune by incurring the wrath of the Goddess of Wealth.

Sex and death:In some cultures, people take great pains to separate the forces of life and death. When men of the Western Caroline Islands serve as pallbearers, they must refrain from having sex for four days. And the Jivaro in South America prohibit intercourse for all close relatives of the deceased for several days.

The realization of these wide variances in beliefs and practices can be eye opening. Perhaps it may be wise to take our cues from the Polynesians: in their culture, sex is a life-giving activity that is a source of pleasure and enjoyment. They have no vocabulary for anything that describes sex as obscene, because they believe that sex is never considered a source of shame or embarrassment.

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