The thread of sexuality is woven densely into the fabric of human existence. There are few people for whom sex has not been important at some time and many for whom it has played a dominant part in their lives. Sex is a motive force bringing two people into intimate contact. They may have nothing in common except mutual sexual interest. Their encounter may be brief or it may lead on to the principal relationship in their lives. This is important not only at an individual, personal level, but also socially and politically. The nature of the relationships between men and women is crucial to our social and political systems.
The dominance of men over women is one important dimension of the more general issue of dominance of one group over another. Sex is a political issue in another sense. The sexual values of a society are clearly identified with the establishment, and rejection of sexual value has always been one expression of political revolt or alienation. Perhaps only recently has such sexual revolt figured in political theory. People may differ in what they regard as mature sexual behavior; such judgment inevitably involves values. But few would disagree that their route to sexual maturity is complicated, with many points of possible and untoward departure.
When we look at this developmental process a number of points strike us. First, that even before birth important stages may go wrong. Second, through childhood and early adolescence various strands of development eventually combine to produce the sexual adult. Third, the adult continues to develop sexually well into the latter part of his or her life. When considering an individual’s development from the early embryonic stage to the mature sexual adult we are faced with a dynamic process shaped by a multitude of influences. Various theoretical models have been offered to explain this process.
None, it is probably true to say, claims the ability to predict how an individual’s development will proceed, but rather explains in retrospect what has gone before. Certain limited stages of development, e. g. prenatal sexual differentiation, may be looked at separately, allowing the generation of testable hypotheses. But when we attempt to fit the whole developmental story into one explanatory system our powers of prediction are soon overwhelmed. And yet we must not lose sight of these many influences if we are to avoid being misled.
Although argument has raged as to whether sexual development depends on inborn determinants (nature) or environmental influences (nurture), few scientists now enter such debate as it is evident that both are involved. The challenge is rather to formulate in a useful way the continuing interaction between these two sources of influence. There are now well described models of sexual differentiation based on biological mechanisms, including the mediation of genetic effects and the organizing action of reproductive hormones.
These mechanisms are most clearly relevant prenatally, but they are possibly important during post natal development as well. We will consider these biological mechanisms later. We must also consider appropriate models of learning as they apply to sexual development, in particular the social learning (Mischel 1966) and cognitive learning (Kohlberg 1966) paradigms. Kohlberg (1966) drew the distinction between these two paradigms with the following illustration. ‘In social learning “I want reward, I am rewarded for doing boy’s things, therefore I want to be a boy”.
In cognitive learning “I am a boy, therefore I want to do boy’s things, therefore the opportunity to do boy’s things is rewarding”. ‘ To take this illustration further, any reward given for behaving like a boy will, through cognitive processes, strengthen the concept ‘I am a boy’. Failure to be rewarded, or to be punished for such behavior will challenge and possibly weaken the concept ‘I am a boy’. How we conceptualize and categories our environment and experiences must also develop.
Piaget has elegantly shown how this ability goes through crucial stages of development in a stepwise rather than continuous fashion, analogous to the development of the motor nervous system. Curiously, the Piagetian school has almost totally ignored the development of thinking as it applies to sexuality and reproduction. We will return to this later. But cognitive learning is of particular significance for the gender development of the child, who at some time between the ages of 18 months and 3 years becomes able to categorize people in simple ways and assigns itself to the category of boy or girl.
It is also possible that this same process of ‘either or’ categorization or labeling plays an important part much later in development when the young adolescent is responding to socially prescribed categories such as homosexual or heterosexual. The best known and most influential model of sexual development has been the psychoanalytic model. Some of the major modifications of psychoanalytic theory to be more useful, in particular those of the ego-analysts such as Erikson (1950).
This may be because the ego-analysts have concerned themselves with explaining the normal rather than extrapolating from the abnormal, which is more characteristic of orthodox psychoanalysis. Miller & Simon (1980) have usefully compared various models of sexual development. They point out that, in the Freudian view, the child enters adolescence with ‘an articulated set of erotic meanings that seek appropriate objects and behavior’, whereas Erikson (1950) sees the child making this entry with a number of skills which are relevant to the sexual encounters of adolescence but not confined to them, e. . the capacity for intimacy and trust.
Erikson also proposes useful ways of recognizing and describing different stages of identity development which allow us to see childhood experiences as crucially important to later sexual development without requiring the assumption of the degree of early sexual organization which is central to the Freudian view. In our society one of the major crises in growing up occurs with the coming of puberty and throughout the period of adolescence–popularly known as the “teen age. Adolescence is marked by certain striking changes.
Particularly obvious are those associated with sexual maturation and with the attainment of adult physique. The boy rapidly outgrows his clothes; his voice changes; he often becomes difficult to understand and difficult to manage. The most important feature, of course, is the coming of sexual maturity. The girl’s body, changing from the slender, somewhat boyish type of figure, becomes rounded and more distinctly feminine.
Sexual development brings new feelings and new problems of personal hygiene. Intellectually both boys and girls soon attain their adult potentiality, which becomes evident in the degree of their success in school. Then, too, their behavior and their attitudes often impress their elders as wild and bizarre. Often their social adaptation is profoundly modified. In all these matters we have an excellent illustration of the importance of cultural definitions in relation to individual conduct. Often the severity of the crisis is overemphasized.
Many traditional discussions of the physiological factors in puberty assume that these changes operate independently of other factors in producing the difficulties of personal adjustment in the boy or girl. But actually the physiological, intellectual, and emotional changes in puberty and adolescence can be properly understood that is, for purposes of personality analysis only in relation to cultural influences. This is clear from the descriptions of how other peoples meet or define these problems.
In our own society, at least in certain classes, parents are culturally predetermined to experience difficulties with their adolescent children. That is, there is an expectation or anticipatory pattern built up in the parents, and likewise in the children, that puberty and adolescence will prove to be difficult. It should now be clear that the variety of problems relating to human sexuality requires a broad spectrum of help and treatment. Not only do we have to consider physical or medical factors, but also individual problems in the acceptance of sexual feelings as well as conflict within sexual relationships.
Such problems may arise in the context of conventional sexual relationships, or relate to homosexuality or to other unconventional, stigmatized or deviant manifestations of sexuality. Over the past 50 years there have been major changes in social and professional attitudes to the treatment of such problems. These stem from influences which are mostly emotive or ideological rather than rational. The situation is still in a state of flux but there is reason to think that progress towards a rational approach is being achieved.
Whilst there have been these substantial developments in both psychological and physical methods, the amount of dialogue between the exponents of these contrasting approaches has until recently been minimal. In fact ideological barriers have existed. Until recently there has been little attempt to place these contrasting approaches into a common perspective, or to explore factors that might in particular cases indicate one approach rather than another, or favor a combination of approaches. In the past 5 years this situation has started to improve, with growing collaboration between surgical, physiological and psychological researchers.