Dimensions of Human Sexuality Development

Dimensions of Human Sexuality Development

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Human sexuality is a broad concept that involves the interrelationship between biological, physiological and socio-cultural dimensions. There are numerous definitions that have been advanced for the term ‘human sexuality.” Among the most comprehensive definitions is one that is given by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECU) which regards human sexuality as encompassing sexual behaviors, beliefs, knowledge, values and attitudes of individuals (Carroll, 2009). SIECU suggests that there are three dimensions of sexuality which can grouped into; biochemistry, anatomy and physiology of the sexual response system; orientation, identity, personality and roles; and relationships, thoughts and feelings. As Carroll (2009) explains, the expression of sexuality in human beings is influenced by cultural, ethical, morals and spiritual concerns. On the other hand, the Alberta Society for the Promotion of Sexual Health (ASPSH) perceives human sexuality as a concept that can be understood in different ways: it can refer to reproduction, the roles played by individuals in the society or the feelings that people have about themselves (Golanty & Edlin, 2011). ASPSH perceives human sexuality as encompassing the physical, spiritual and emotional feelings, thoughts and responses of individuals. Considering the above definitions, it is clear that the concept is not limited to how human beings have sexuality or engage in sexual activities. Generally, human sexuality behavior is more about who individuals are than what they do. The overall human sexuality development of a human being is influenced by psychological, biological and socio-cultural factors. This paper adopts a comprehensive approach through exploring the psychological, socio-cultural and biological dimensions that influence the growth and development of human sexuality.

Some scholars have chosen to concentrate on the biological perspective of human sexuality. Generally, studies that have concentrated on biological dimensions of human sexuality have focused on genetic development of reproductive systems and physiology of sexual arousal and coitus. As Greenberg, Bruess and Conklin (2010) explain, knowledge about how human body works biologically forms the basis of human understanding of sexuality. Essentially, factual information is usually given priority by individuals in the process of decision making. As Greenberg et al (2010) argue, one cannot think critically about sexuality without having understood the facts involved. The greater the knowledge that one has about how the body works, the more likely that he/she is going to comprehend sexuality. As well, the knowledge that an individual has about sexuality influences his/her drive to take responsibility for own sexual health. On the other hand, some scholars have focused on the behavioral or psychological aspect that affects human sexuality. In particular, psychological dimensions have much to do with how an individual’s sense of being affects sexuality. Others have sought to explore the socio-cultural dimensions of sexuality. The socio-cultural dimensions of sexuality encompass all social and cultural factors that influence an individual’s thoughts and actions. Unlike other scholars who emphasized that the perception of human sexuality is largely shaped by biological or physiological factors, Tiefer (as cited in Golanty & Edlin, 2011) emphasizes on the significance of socio-cultural factors.

Considering the different perspectives, it can be argued that human sexuality involves various dimensions which can be summed up into three major categories – biological, psychological and cultural dimensions. This paper describes the three major dimensions of human sexuality and evaluates the influence of each on sexuality. The paper examines the influence of biological, psychological and socio-cultural factors in influencing sexual behaviors, sexual behaviors, beliefs, knowledge, values and attitudes of individuals at local, national and global levels. Although they are discussed separately for clarity, it is essential to note that every sexuality-related decision made by an individual is influenced by more than one dimension. The figure below describes how the three major dimensions interact to shape an individual’s sexuality.

Figure 1.0: The individual in the society SourceIndividual

Socio-cultural Factors


Ethical influences

Socioeconomic factors

Multicultural influences

Media influences

Media Influences

Biological Factors

Genetic Development

Physiological development

Psychological Attributes

Source: Bolin (2009)

Biological Dimension

Biological dimensions of human sexuality involve two components; the genetic and physiological components (Greenberg et al, 2010). Biological dimensions influencing sexuality are summarized in table 1 below.

Table 1: Biological dimensions influencing human sexuality

Sexual Dimensions Male Female

Chromosomes XY XX

Gonads Testis Ovaries

Hormones Androgens Estrogens

External genitalia Penis, scrotum Labia, clitoris, vaginal opening

Internal accessory organs Vesicles, vas deferens seminal prostate Uterus, vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes

Secondary sex characteristics Enlargement of sexual organs, sperm emission, growth of pubic hair Menstruation, breasts

Sexual orientation Heterosexual, bisexual, gay Heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian

Source: (Greenberg et al, 2010)

Genetic Component

There is vast research into human sexuality that has concentrated on genetic factors that lead to sexual differentiation. A research on human sexuality carried out by Fisher (as cited in Rathus, Nevid & Fichner-Rathus (2007), for instance, focused on genetic aspects that influence sexual behavior. According to Fisher, human beings have a common nature that their sexual behavior is influenced by a set of unconscious tendencies that are encoded in their genes. Rathus et al (2007) support this view and suggest further that although individuals are not aware of these predispositions, they influence and motivate their behaviors and actions. Fishers recognizes the impact of social-cultural factors but he believes that biological make up of human beings forms the essence of sexuality (Rathus et al, 2007).

According to Rathus et al (2007), the genetic difference between men and women makes sexual reproduction possible. The difference emanates from the fact that females have two X chromosomes while male have two different chromosomes; X and Y. Therefore, the presence or absence of Y chromosome is the basis of the difference between male and female. The absence of Y chromosome leads to development along female lines. As Rathus et al (2007) explain, the Y chromosome has a unique part called the sex-determining gene region of the Y chromosome (SRY) which aids in development of a male. During early stages of fetal development, the SRY facilitates the development of primitive gonads into testis instead of ovary. The resulting testis releases testosterone which aids in the development of male reproductive organs or the male genitalia. As well, the testis produces Mullerian Inhibiting Factor (MIF) which plays the role of suppressing parts of the fetus that would develop into female reproduction organs. As well, the testosterone produced by the testis stimulates the development of certain parts of the central nervous system, which increase the likelihood for the fetus to portray behaviors associated with male after birth (Rathus et al, 2007. Researchers have determined that there could be other effects that occur in the central nervous system that are stimulated by the testosterone and SRY but are yet to be identified.

Therefore, the genetic development in the initial stages of fetal development leads to clear differentiation, such as the suppression of the development of the ovary and the development of testis. However, the processes of development of some parts of the body such as the nipples of male are not fully suppressed (Bolin, 2009). Despite this, conflict does not arise since such parts of the body do not play a direct role in the process of reproduction. Normally, genetic XX and XY status of female and male respectively is the basis on which an individual’s identity is developed. Attribution to a certain gender determines the societal or cultural roles that are assigned to an individual by the society after birth. In some cases, the process of sexual differentiation can go wrong, resulting in intersex conditions. However, the local society tries to find the gender which best matches the degree of differentiation of individuals with such conditions and fixes them in that gender (Bolin, 2009). In some cases, genetically may influence an individual to be attracted by people of the same gender. However, depending on local and national culture in which an individual is brought up, homosexuality may be allowed or disallowed. For instance, the law of US recognizes the rights of gay couples, whereas gay relationships are legally discouraged in Saudi Arabia.

Physiologic Component

The role of physiological factors in influencing sexuality has also been given adequate attention. For instance, the famous models of human sexual response cycle developed by Masters and Johnson focused more on physiology (Bruess & Greenberg, 2008). According to Bruess and Greenberg (2008), the biological dimension of sexuality partly involves the physical appearance of human beings. It involves the development of physical sexual traits, the general growth and development of human body, the ability to control fertility and to reproduce and human response to sexual stimulation. As Bruess and Greenberg (2008) explain, the development of physical sexual characteristics starts immediately after conception and changes continue during the life time. However, the functioning of human reproduction organs starts during the puberty stage of human development. There are numerous physiological changes that occur in human body from during puberty and adolescent stages, from 12 to 19 years. Among the changes that are experienced by boys are growth and enlargement of sexual organs, growth of pubic hair and production of sperms (Carroll, 2009). On the other hand, girls experience changes such as growth of breasts, growth of pubic hair and menstruation. The development of such physical characteristics influence changes in biological functioning related to sexuality in human beings, which is part of the natural functioning of the body.

Psychological Dimension

As mentioned earlier, an individual’s sexuality is also influenced by his/her sense of being, although the sexual activity is physical. As Carlson and Heth (2007) explain, body image is the main factor that affects sexual wellness in human beings. A positive self image is usually associated with the feelings of sexual wellness. On the other hand, a negative body image can lead to psychological disorders such as binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, and muscle dysmorphia (Carlson & Heth, 2007). As well, negative self image can lead too drug abuse (use of diet pills and steroids). According to Kim and Monique (2007), psychological dimension of sexuality is one of the learned aspects of sexuality. Human beings start developing feelings and attitudes about themselves very early in life. As soon as a child develops awareness of the world, he/she starts getting signals from significant others telling them how to act and think. A child is learn about what right and wrong, the meaning of words such as “cleanliness” and ‘dirty” and not to mention some parts of the body. Children also learn to be careful about interacting with certain people and to avoid discussing controversial topics with certain people. As well, individuals learn to hide feelings that they think that others would not find acceptable and they learn how to pretend. Some people grow up with more negative experiences than others. Regardless of whether an individual grows up with negative or positive experiences, his/her learned responses from the society become integral to sexuality (Kim & Monique, 2007)

Socio-Cultural Dimensions

As mentioned earlier, the psychological and biological components interact with cultural and social factors to shape an individual’s sexuality. According to Tiefer (1995) (as cited in Golanty & Edlin, 2011), the ever-changing environment in which people live influence and modify their experiences and sexual identities. This perspective to sexuality is called social constructivism. Scholars who support this perspective argue that individuals acquire and assemble values, skills and meanings from significant others or other people in the society. This, perspective forms the basis for the socio-cultural dimension on sexuality, which encompasses all social and cultural influences that affect individual actions and thoughts, both contemporarily and historically (Rathus et al, 2007). For instance, historical influences become evident when one considers certain customs as well as the roles of males and females. It is also clear that each individual is surrounded by social influences in his/her sexuality. The major sources of influences are multiculturalism, religion, ethics, socio-economic status, politics and the media.

Religious Influences

Religious beliefs influence feelings about sexual behavior, morality, adultery, premarital masturbation, contraception, abortion and divorce. A meta-analysis conducted by Hammer (as cited in Rathus et al, 2007) indicated that there are numerous factors that influence the attitudes of college students towards sexuality and controversial issues related to sexuality. Despite this, religion has emerged as one of the major influences in most studies. The impact of religion on sexuality is well illustrated by the findings of research survey conducted by UCLA Higher Education Research Institute on college students since between 1999 and 2009. In a survey conducted in 1999 on fresh college students, 40% of the respondents indicated that it is not wrong for two people who like each other to engage in sexual intercourse even if they have not known each other for a long time (Golanty & Edlin, 2011). This percentage increased to 41.8% and 42.2% after the survey was repeated on the freshmen in 2001 and 2002 respectively. In a survey that was carried out on freshmen in 2005, the percentage rose to 46.2%. The results of the survey are presented in the figure below:

Figure 2.0: Level of freshmen’s support for sexual intercourse

Source: Golanty & Edlin (2011)

In 1999, abortion was supported by 50% of the students but this percentage increased to 53.9% in 2001 and 55% in 2002. The number of female who supported the idea was almost equal to the number of men in all the three surveys. In 2005, the percentage declined to 53.9% whereby the number of males and females supporting the idea was almost equal. The percentage rose to 56.9% and 58.2% in other surveys that were conducted in 2007 and 2009 (Golanty & Edlin, 2011). These findings are presented in the figure below:

Figure 3.0: Level of freshmen’s support for abortion

Source: Golanty & Edlin (2011)

Generally, in all these instances, UCLA Higher Education Research Institute established that the support for the controversial sexual issues was negatively related to strong attachment to religion. Throughout the years, UCLA Higher Education Research Institute has found that strong attachment to religion influences the frequency of certain forms of sexual behavior, number of sexual partners, types of sexual behaviors, the age at first sexual intercourse, marital satisfaction and even standards regulating sexual behavior before marriage (Golanty & Edlin, 2011). Another study conducted in Southeastern University indicated that students who reported weaker religious feelings and less frequent worship attendance were more likely to participate in controversial sexual activities in comparison with those who reported stronger religious feelings and frequent worship attendance (Golanty & Edlin, 2011). In some countries where a given religion is emphasized nationally, such as Islamic nations, the level of support for controversial sexual activities is likely to be very low.

Multicultural Influences

Studies have shown that culture influences an individual’s perception of sexuality (CoonDennis & Mitterer, 2007). To facilitate better understanding of the issue, it is prudent to differentiate between ethnicity and ethnic background. Ethnicity refers to the degree to which an individual identifies with a certain ethnic group. On the other hand, ethnic background is in most cases determined by birth and is related to an individual’s race, native language, religion and country of origin. Coon and Mitterer (2007) highlight that people from cultural backgrounds in the United States have different perceptions of sexuality. The differences are quite apparent since the percentage of immigrants in United States is high. A study conducted in several colleges in United States by Leitzmann et al (2007) indicated that 1 out of the 10 respondents was from another country. Further, Leitzmann et al (2007) found that each student’s cultural background influenced his/her understanding of body, morality and health. In turn, this influenced his/her support for abortion and the use of contraceptives. Students brought up in US perceived abortion as a contraception. On the other hand, most students from other countries perceived abortion as primary method of birth control. Leitzmann et al (2007) support these findings and add that women in the US might have as many as five abortions while women in countries such as Saudi Arabia might not be willingly engage in abortion.

Another study conducted in Brazil found that men from other religions other than evangelistic ones were more likely to report having had unprotected sexual intercourse with other persons other than their intimate partners in the last one year (Leitzmann et al, 2007). Region of residence was also found to influence inclination to engage in extramarital sex. The study showed that men in northern Brazil were three times more likely to have engaged in extramarital sex over the last one year compared to men in Southern and Central of Brazil. The findings from another study conducted in China showed that Chinese women with beliefs that women are supposed to be subordinate to men were likely to be subjected to intimate partner violence. 45% of the women surveyed reported that they either had been sexually or physically abused by their intimate partners, with 26% reporting that they had experienced intimate partner violence during the last 12 months. The study revealed several factors that indicated adherence to gender roles, which were also highly associated with experience of intimate partner violence. For instance, women who believed that men are justified to beat their wives, women who left jobs because of their partners and women who believed that wives should never deny their husbands conjugal rights were more likely to report cases of physical and sexual abuse from their intimate partners (Leitzmann et al, 2007).

There are numerous examples of how multicultural influences can affect an individual’s perception of sexuality. In Turkey, for instance, virginity is highly valued and virginity tests are conducted in many cases. In schools, principals are allowed to expel girls who have lost virginity through sexual intercourse (Schacter, 2011). In 2001, it was declared that only virgins could be nurses. Schacter (2011) noted that in Mexico, cervical cancer is sometimes treated using hysterectomy. Schacter (2011) suggested that this could be caused by inadequate knowledge as a result of multicultural influences. In Sweden, issues related to sexuality are more openly discussed. Teens are usually provided with information about sexuality, including how to use contraception. Parents are also likely to know about the sexual activities of their children. As well, abortion among the youth is subsidized by the country’s government (Schacter 2011). According to Schacter (2011), these practices and attitudes have led to lower rate of sexual transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies in Sweden in comparison with United States.

Socioeconomic Status

Sexual behavior and attitudes are also shaped by socioeconomic status, at least within the same community or ethnic group. For instance, studies carried out globally have shown that individuals with lower incomes in the society tend to have different attitudes regarding sexuality and are more likely to have children outside marriage and to have sexual intercourse at an early age (Russon, 2009). Sexual behavior has also been shown to be influenced by education. For instance, studies have shown that individuals who have attended college are more likely to have many sexual partners compared to individuals who have not attended college. As well, studies have shown that more educated individuals are more likely to masturbate compared to persons with less education (Russon, 2009). Socioeconomic status has been shown to have a greater influence than just on sexual activities. The poor are less likely to access birth control, proper health care, positive sexual models, day care for children, and care during pregnancy (Russon, 2009).

Ethical Influences

Ethical influence with regard to sexuality refers to questioning of the way people treat themselves and how they treat other people. Individuals often come across situations in which they need to refer to ethical standards of behavior to establish solutions to sexually-oriented ethical dilemma (Heon-Jin Lee1 et al, 2009). An individual may come across situations where he/she has to decide whether or not to engage in a certain sexual behavior, whether it is ethical to use a prostitute, whether it is right to use power influence to obtain sexual partners, whether it is right to engage in sexual activities with a minor, or whether it is right to disclose own sexual history to a new partner. It is essential to note that ethical issues are different from legal concerns. In the US, for instance, prostitution is not allowed, except in some parts of Nevada (Weiten, Dunn & Hammer, 2011). The law disallowing the activity may be applied uniformly to persons found engaging in prostitution. However, ethical standards require that morality of engaging in prostitution be given consideration. The ethical questioning may require one to reconsider decision in a case where the accused has decided to sell her body as the last resort to survive. The law in most cases has set an age of maturity, after which individuals are deemed of age to engage in sexual activities (Weiten et al, 2011). In the US, the law has set age of maturity at 16 years. Thus, having a sexual partner who is below that age is illegal. However, in Tokyo, Japan, the age of maturity for girls is set by law at 12 years. Although this is legally allowed, an individual may not find it ethically correct to engage in sexual activities with a 12 year old partner. The way an individual considers such ethical questions and makes judgment on what is right or wrong greatly shapes his/her sexuality. An individual’s ethical decision-making influences the extent to which he/she takes responsibility for his/her sexual wellness (Weiten, Dunn & Hammer, 2011).

Media Influences

For a long time, media has been recognized as one of the major factors that shape people’s perspectives regarding sexuality, sexual behavior and gender roles. Sexuality has for a long time been depicted in the media, either to promote goods and/or services of for entertainment reasons (Nothup, 2013). The media modifies the presentation of sexuality to the extent that the public is hardly provided with realistic depictions. In Western nations today, television shows and films are filled with content that portrays “double meaning” comments and sexual activities. In the US, sexual images are increasingly being portrayed in the music industry. Most of the currently popular songs contain sexual content. Books, Tabloids and Magazines have contributed immensely to the sexual content that bombards the public. This is quite evident in the magazines and other related materials that are displayed in supermarkets (Kilchevsky et al, 2011). Sexual themes are increasingly being used to advertise products and services. For instance, advertisements are popular that tell the public that people look sexier and more attractive when they buy the right cloths, cars, toothpaste or soap (Kelly & Breslin, 2010). It has been argued that if they can choose, advertisers and the media in general can portray realistic sexual information to the public that would promote sexual wellness, rather than cause damage to the public (Kim & Monique, 2007). For instance, advertisers and the media might show how relationships and sexuality can be effective, how physical and verbal interactions can be respectful, importance of engaging in responsible sexual activities, healthy sexual encounters, importance of using condoms and contraceptives to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies and how to respond to controversial sexual topics and situations.

Political Influences

Public policy also plays a role in shaping individual’s perceptions towards sexuality as well as the resultant sexual behavior. For instance, the Healthy People projects established by the US government in 2000 and 2010 attempt to use health promotion to increase the number of women who seek prenatal care, decrease frequency of unwanted pregnancies and increase public awareness of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDs (Durham, 2012). As well, the constitutional right for free speech established in the US allows for the distribution of pornographic content in the internet. As Durham (2012) explains, political elections (including voting on ballot and selecting elected officials) can affect the policies formulated regarding sexuality and overall thinking about human sexuality. In the US, for instance, the Republicans Party which occupied the White House between 2002 and 2008 had strong influence on policy issues related to sexuality. The party openly supported limiting of the rights of women to carry out abortions and emphasized on abstinence from sexual activities before marriage. In doing so, the party aimed to control sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies among young people (Durham, 185). The party went as far as to provide funding to certain educational programs that taught the public about the importance of abstinence. The Republicans Party was also not very supportive of homosexual relationships. In the elections that were held in 2008, many policy issues that were discussed were related to sexuality. During presidential campaign, debates and platforms included discussions about comprehensive sexuality education versus abstinence-only, stem cell research, rights for homosexuals, and legality for abortion (Durham, 2012). Among other sexuality issues, these issues, continued to influence politics in the US after Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in early 2009. In turn, political issues have continued to influence sexuality in many ways (Durham, 2012).

Interactive nature of Human Sexuality Dimensions

As it has been established, there are numerous biological, social-cultural and physiological factors that influence the nature of sexual interactions between human beings. As such, the extent to which an individual is sexually active is a result of the various factors. Sexual arousal, for instance, is a physiological function. Psychologically, an individual’s feelings of self-worth and body image may inhibit getting involved (Santrock, 2008). A man’s arousal or drive for action may be inhibited by the feeling that he/she is not attractive or good enough for a certain woman. Arousal may also be inhibited by lack of self-worth. Cultural factors help to develop sense of what is attractive in the eyes of individuals (hair style, weight, skin tone and height). Ethical and legal considerations affect sexual undertakings, as do religious beliefs. In addition, sexual undertakings are influenced by role models set by friends and family members. General, all these dimensions interact constantly and influence the sexuality of human beings (Santrock, 2008). Carlson and Heth (2007) explain that the biological aspects work together with other dimensions of human sexuality to produce total sexuality. In turn, total sexuality forms part of an individual’s total personality.

As Light et al (2006) illustrate, the first comments that are made after delivery of a child declare its biological gender: “it’s a girl” or” it’s a boy.” In response, the parents may purchase cloths that are designed for the child’s gender. As soon as a child starts comprehending the world, he/she learns about his/her gender. Boys and girls are taught to play in different styles and are provided with different sets of toys. Children are also taught about gender roles and responsibilities. During teenage stage, boys are, in most cases, allowed to be sexually active. However, girls are usually disallowed from engaging in such activities. Psychologically, boys are encouraged to suppress their emotions, whereas girls are allowed to show them. Generally, this illustrates how social cultural dimension interacts with biological and psychological dimensions. In turn, the interaction between the dimensions makes an individual’s sexuality (Light et al, 2006).


In conclusion, human sexuality can be understood as the sum of the biological, psychological and socio-cultural factors that influence sexual development, behaviors and responses. Biological dimensions of sexuality involve the genetic and physiological development of a human body. As demonstrated in the analysis, the biological development with regard to sexuality begins after conception, during development of the fetus. Genetic development leads to growth of sexual organs, resulting in sexual differentiation between male and female. Physiological development also starts after conception but its impact is more evident from puberty stage, characterized by factors such as enlargement of sexual organs, growth of beards and production of sperms in boys and menstruation and growth of breasts in girls. On the other hand, psychological dimensions encompass refers to behavioral factors affecting an individual’s sense of being and hence, shaping perceptions and attitudes towards sexuality. The feeling of sexual wellness is associated with responsible sexual behavior. On the other hand, feelings of unworthiness may lead to irresponsible sexual behaviors.

Socio-cultural dimension involves all the social and cultural factors that affect sexual behaviors and attitudes towards sexuality. Among the major socio-cultural factors that affect sexuality are the media, socioeconomic status, religion, multicultural factors, ethical influences and political influences. As demonstrated in the essay, individuals with strong religious beliefs are less likely to engage in controversial sexual behaviors. As the attachment to religion decreases, the likelihood of engaging in controversial sexual activities increases. It has also been shown that individuals with lower incomes are likely to have children outside marriage. Factors such as education have been shown to have an impact on an individual’s inclination to engage