Sexual behavior is a form of physical intimacy that may be directed to reproduction (one possible goal of sexual intercourse) and/or to the enjoyment of activity involving sexual gratification.
This article concentrates on physical activity. Social and psychological issues are covered in other, related articles such as heterosexuality and homosexuality.
Sexuality and sensuality
There is no clear borderline between sexual and nonsexual enjoyment of touching someone else's body. For example, holding hands may or may not have a sexual connotation, depending on culture, situation and other factors. There are, however, actions that are clearly sexual by almost anyone's definition but which have been argued by an accused as not having sexual relations since the most common form of heterosexual sexual intercourse had not occurred. The distinction between sexual and nonsexual behavior can be relevant due to social rules.
Some criteria that may be applied are:
While enjoying touching the body of someone else implies enjoying one's own body also, the latter may also happen without another person; enjoying one's own body also may or may not be of a sexual nature. If it is, it is called autoeroticism.
The whole of one's sexual activities (including erotic and wet dreams and waking sexual fantasies and daydreams) is called one's sex life.
Desire and fantasy
Sexual desire or libido is the desire for sexual behavior. Most people focus their sexual desire on someone that they have a sexual relationship with, or would desire to have a sexual relationship with. See also sexual arousal, sexual orientation.
Many people enjoy fantasizing about, or reading or viewing depictions of, sexual fantasies of activities that they do not wish to engage in in their own lives, or that they would be unable to engage in in their own lives; see pornography and erotica.
Opinions and norms vary about whether an emotional bond of a certain intensity and durability should be a prerequisite for sex (see also below).
Like other primates, Homo sapiens use sexuality for reproduction and for maintenance of social bonds. It is generally acknowledged that children are capable of feeling sexual pleasure, even if they are not yet able to engage in sexual intercourse with each other, and/or are not yet biologically able to reproduce. Yet, child sexuality has historically been severely limited in western societies; in the late 19th century, the hysteria surrounding so-called "self-abuse" (masturbation) among children reached its peak and fueled the adoption of circumcision (including female circumcision) in some cultures.
Many sexual activities can be engaged in by same sex or opposite sex partners. However some, most notably vaginal sexual intercourse, can only be engaged in by partners of opposite sexes. And others, such as tribadism and "swordfighting" can only be engaged in by partners of the same sex.
As with other behaviors, our high intelligence and complex societies have produced in us the most complicated sexual behaviors of any animal. Most people experiment with a range of sexual activities during their lives, though they tend to engage in only a few of these regularly. Most people enjoy some sexual activities. However, most societies have defined some sexual activities as inappropriate (wrong person, wrong activity, wrong time, etc.) Some people enjoy many different sexual activities, while others avoid sexual activities altogether for religious or other reasons (see chastity, sexual abstinence, asexuality). Historically, most societies and religions have viewed sex as appropriate only within marriage. There is still a widespread belief that sex acts are devalued when engaged in outside of a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship, but extra-marital sexual activity and casual sex became increasingly accepted in modern society during the sexual revolution.
Norms and rules
Sexual behavior, like other kinds of social activity, is generally governed by rules which are culturally specific and vary widely (see sexual morality, sexual norms).
Some activities are actually illegal in some jurisdictions even between (or among) consenting people (see sex crime, sodomy law, incest).
Some people engage in various sexual activities as a business transaction; this is called prostitution.
Nearly all cultures consider it a serious crime to force someone to engage in sexual behavior or to engage in sexual behavior with someone who does not consent. This is called sexual assault, and in the case of sexual intercourse it is called rape, the most serious kind of sexual assault. Details on this distinction may vary. Also, precisely what constitutes effective consent to have sex varies from culture to culture and is frequently debated. Laws regulating what constitutes consent, including the minimum age at which a person can consent to have sex, are frequently the subject of debate; see age of consent.
Whilst the best-known sexual behavior is vaginal intercourse, the wide range of human sexual activities includes, but is not limited to:
Generally less common, but still widespread, are the various paraphilias. Some of the more common ones are:
Some forms of sexual activity involve someone else, but not touching the other:
Other special forms of human sexual behaviour:
Body fluids and birth control
All sexual behaviors that involve the contact of semen with the vagina or vulva may result in pregnancy. To prevent pregnancy, many people employ a variety of birth control measures.
All sexual behaviors that involve contact with another person or the bodily fluids of another person entail some risk of transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, which is why safer sex techniques are recommended. These techniques are generally seen as less necessary for those in committed monogamous relationships with persons who have been demonstrated to be free of disease; see fluid bonding.
Different-gender sexual practices
Different-gender sexual practices are sexual activities between two or more individuals of more than one gender, usually one man and one woman. People who engage exclusively in different-gender sexual practices do not necessarily identify themselves as straight or heterosexual, though (unlike homosexual for same-gender sexual practices) most definitions of "heterosexual" would include them despite varying levels of activity, frequency, and interest. In fact, they may identify themselves as straight or heterosexual, bisexual, or not at all. Likewise, an individual who practices both same and different sex sexual behaviour may identify himself or herself as gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, or not at all.
Many situations, like public high school, and cultural factors, such as anti-gay bias and harassment, heterosexism and heteronormativity, may cause or encourage people who ordinarily would not have sexual relationships with people of a different gender to do so, but once gay people are away from such situations, they will usually return to same-sex sexual activity. In other cases, people may experiment with different (and/or same) gender sexual activity before settling on a sexual identity, if ever.
Though often associated with gay men, anal sex is a common different-gender sexual practice. The anus is "tighter" than the vagina and thus may be preferable to the male during penetration; additionally, many people enjoy flouting cultural sexual taboos. Anal sex is not advisable as birth control as it is still possible, though unlikely, for semen to enter the vagina. Rap and hip hop culture is known for frequent statements such as Sir Mix-a-Lot's, "I like big butts, and I cannot lie," and artists such as Slick Rick have made explicit their preference for anal sex.
Different-sex sexual practices are limited by laws in America and many other places. In America marriage laws may serve the purpose of encouraging people to only have sex (and children) within marriage. Sodomy laws may be seen as encouraging different-sex sexual practices. Laws also ban adults from committing sexual abuse, committing sexual activities with anyone under an age of consent, performing sexual activities in public, and engaging in sexual activities for money (prostitution), though these laws all cover same-sex sexual activities they may differ with regards punishment and may more frequently or only be enforced on same-sex sexual activities. Laws also control the making and viewing of pornography, including different-sex sexual activities.
Courting, or dating, is the process through which people choose potential sexual and/or marital partners. Among straight (presumably middle-class) teenagers and adolescents in the mid-20th century in America, dating was something one could do with multiple people before choosing to "go steady" with only one, the eventual goal being either sex, marriage, or both. More recently dating has become what going steady was and the latter term has fallen into disuse.
Different-sex sexual practices may be monogamous, serially monogamous, or polyamorous, and, depending on the definition of sexual practice, abstinent or autoerotic (including masturbation).
Different moral and political movements have waged for changes in different-sex sexual practices including courting and marriage, though changes are usually made only slowly in all countries. Especially in the USA, campaigns have often sparked and been fueled by moral panic. There, movements to discourage same-sex sexual practices often claim to be strengthening different-sex sexual practices within marriage, such as Defense of Marriage Act and the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.
Same-gender sexual practices
Same-gender sexual practices are sexual activities involving two or more individuals of the same gender. If one or more partners involved does not identify as homosexual they may use the term same-sex or same-gender sex.
Despite stereotypes and common misconceptions, there are no forms of sexual activity exclusive to same-gender sexual behavior that can not also be found in opposite-gender sexual behavior, save those involving contact of the same sex genitalia (see tribadism, frot)
In certain situations, like incarceration or single-sex schools and other sex-segregated environments, may often lead people who ordinarily would not to seek sex with others of their own gender.
In other cases, some people may experiment or explore their sexuality with same (and/or different) gender sexual activity before defining their sexual identity. Health campaigns and officials often seek to target self-identified "straight" or bisexual "Men who have Sex with Men" or "Men who like Sex with Men" (MSM) as opposed to self-identified "gay" or homosexual men.
People who engage exclusively in same-sex sexual practices do not necessarily identify themselves as "gay" or "lesbian", and different definitions of homosexual may include or exclude people with varying levels of activity, frequency, or interest.
Among some sectors of African-American homosexual sub-culture (called "men on the DL" or "down-low"), same-sex sexual behavior is sometimes viewed as solely for physical pleasure. Men on the "down-low" may engage in regular (though often covert) sex acts with other men while continuing sexual and romantic relationships with women. These men often shun the more commonly-known "gay" as a term applying to stereotypically flamboyant and effeminate men of European ancestry there, a group from which some may wish to distance themselves.
Some sociologists and researchers in queer studies have suggested that this mostly African-American subculture may have come about because of stronger stigmas against same-sex behavior in African-American communities, and, due to more widespread poverty, greater dependence on possibly homophobic family networks for support.
See also: cottaging, cruising for sex, gay bathhouse, men who have sex with men.
Various forms of same-gender sexual activity is prohibited under law in many areas at different times in history. In 2003, the Lawrence v Texas United States Supreme Court decision overturned all such laws in the US.
Usually, though not always, such laws are termed sodomy laws, but also include issues such as age of consent laws, "decency" laws, and so forth. Laws prohibiting same-gender sexuality have varied widely throughout history, varying by culture, religious and social taboos and customs, etc. Often such laws are targeted or applied differently based on gender as well. For example, laws against same-gender sexual behavior in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, sodomy or "buggery" laws were aimed specifically at male same-gender sexual activity and did not target or even address female same-gender sexual activity. A well known example of such laws applied in modern times can be found in Alan Turing.