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Sexual Behavior in the Human Female

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Originally published in 1953, the material presented in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was derived from personal interviews with nearly 6,000 women; from studies in sexual anatomy, physiology, psychology, and endocrinology. The study revealed the incidence and frequency with which women participate in various types of sexual activity and how such factors as age, decade of birth, and religious adherence are reflected in patterns of sexual behavior. The authors make comparisons of female and male sexual activities and investigate the factors which account for the similarities and differences between female and male patterns of behavior and provide some measure of the social significance of the various types of sexual behavior.

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1. SCOPE OF THE STUDY

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The present volume constitutes the second progress report from the study of human sex behavior which we have had under way here at Indiana University for some fifteen years. It has been a fact-finding survey in which an attempt has been made to discover what people do sexually, what factors may account for their patterns of sexual behavior, how their sexual experiences have affected their lives, and what social significance there may be in each type of behavior.

Our first report was based upon 5300 white males whose case histories provided most of the data which were statistically analyzed in our volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.1 The case histories of 5940 white females have similarly provided most of the statistical data in the present volume, but this volume also rests on a considerable body of material which has come from sources other than case histories (see Chapter 2).

Throughout the fifteen years involved in this research, it has had the support of Indiana University, and during the past twelve years it has been supported in part by grants from the National Research Council’s Committee for Research on Problems of Sex. This Committee has been responsible for the administration of funds provided by the Medical Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. The present project is incorporated as the Institute for Sex Research. The Institute is the legal entity which holds title to the case histories, the library, and the other materials accumulated in connection with the research, receives all royalties from its publications, incomes from private contributions and other sources, and is responsible for the planning and administration of the research program. The staff of the Institute has included persons trained in biology, clinical psychology, anthropology, law, statistics, various language fields, and still other specialties. Sixteen persons have served on the staff of the Institute during the preparation of the present volume, and each of these has had a specific part in the making of this report.

 

2. THE SAMPLE AND ITS STATISTICAL ANALYSIS

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The present volume is based on reported, recorded, and observed data which we have accumulated in the course of the last fifteen years. As in our previous volume on the male, the reported data have been derived from case histories secured in personal interviews. The recorded data have included sexual calendars, diaries, personal correspondence, scrapbook and photographic collections, artists’ paintings and drawings, and still other documentary material supplied by a series of our subjects (Chapter 3). Observations of sexual behavior in fourteen species of mammals, and clinical material supplied by a long list of medical consultants, have been the chief sources of the observed data (Chapter 3).

Over the course of the past fifteen years, 16,392 persons have contributed their histories to this study. To date, we have secured the histories of 7789 females and of 8603 males. Our more general information and thinking on female sexual behavior are based on this entire body of material, even though the statistical analyses have been restricted to a portion of the female sample. Because the sexual histories which we have of white females who had served prison sentences (915 cases) prove, upon analysis, to differ as a group from the histories of the females who have not become involved with the law, their inclusion in the present volume would have seriously distorted the calculations on the total sample. Neither has the non-white sample (934 cases) of females been included in the calculations, primarily because that sample is not large enough to warrant comparisons of the subgroups in it. The statistical analyses in the present volume have, therefore, been based on our 5940 cases of white, non-prison females. In order to standardize the statistical calculations, histories acquired since January 1, 1950, have not been used.

 

3. SOURCES OF DATA

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The specific sources of the reported, recorded, and observed data utilized in making this volume are described in the present chapter. The use that we have made of the previously published studies on human sexual behavior is also described. Since the data reported in our series of case histories constitute an important part of this volume, the nature of those data is described in some detail in this chapter, and critical tests of the reliability and validity of the case history data are also presented here.

All of the case histories in this study have been obtained through personal interviews conducted by our staff and chiefly by four of us during the period covered by this project. We have elected to use personal interviews rather than questionnaires because we believe that face-to-face interviews are better adapted for obtaining such personal and confidential material as may appear in a sex history.1

Establishing Rapport. We believe that much of the quality of the data presented in the present volume is a product of the rapport which we have been able to establish in these personal interviews. Most of the subjects of this study—whatever their original intentions in regard to distorting or withholding information, and whatever their original embarrassment at the idea of contributing a history—have helped make the interviews fact-finding sessions in which the interviewer and the subject have found equal satisfaction in exploring the accumulated record as far as memory would allow. Persons with many different sorts of backgrounds have cooperated in this fashion. Females have agreed to serve as subjects and, on the whole, have contributed as readily and as honestly (p. 73, Tables 3–8) as the males who were the subjects of our previous volume. Apart from rephrasing a few questions to allow for the anatomic and physiologic differences between the sexes, we have covered the same subject matter and utilized essentially the same methodology in interviewing females and males.2

 

4. PRE-ADOLESCENT SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT

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What an individual does sexually will depend on the nature of the stimulus with which he or she comes into contact, on the physical and physiologic capacities of the individual to respond to that stimulus, and on the nature and extent of the individual’s previous experience with similar stimuli.

The child is born with a physical equipment and physiologic capacity which allows it to respond to various sorts of stimuli. As a newborn infant and even before birth it may react to touch, to pressure, to light, to warmth, and to still other types of physical stimulation. Some of its reactions may be of the sort which we call sexual. What distinguishes a sexual response from any other type of response is a matter which we shall not attempt to define until we can examine the nature of those responses in the pages which follow (especially in Chapters 14 and 15). Suffice it for the moment to point out that a sexual response in any mammal involves a considerable series of changes in the normal physiology of the body. In the course of those changes, there is a build-up of neuromuscular tensions which may culminate at a peak-from which there may be a sudden discharge of tensions, followed by a return to a normal physiologic state. This sudden release of neuromuscular tensions constitutes the phenomenon which we know as sexual climax or orgasm. Orgasm is distinct from any other phenomenon that occurs in the life of an animal, and its appearance can ordinarily if not invariably be taken as evidence of the sexual nature of an individual’s response (Chapter 15).

 

5. MASTURBATION

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Of the six possible types of sexual activity, heterosexual petting is the one in which the largest number of females engage before marriage, and marital coitus is the one in which the largest number of females engage after marriage. Masturbation is the one in which the second largest number of females engage both before and after marriage.

Among all types of sexual activity, masturbation is, however, the one in which the female most frequently reaches orgasm. Even in her marital coitus the average female fails to achieve orgasm in a fair proportion of her contacts (Tables 102 ff.), and this is true in most of the petting which she does prior to marriage; but in 95 per cent or more of all her masturbation, she does reach orgasm.1

This is due to the fact that the techniques of masturbation are especially effective in producing orgasm. Socio-sexual relationships usually demand some adjustment of the interests, the desires, the physical capacities, and the physiologic reactions of the partner in the activity. In coitus, a female who is not strongly aroused by the psychologic aspects of the relationship may find that some of the adjustments which she has to make interrupt the steady How of her response, and she is, in consequence, delayed or completely prevented from reaching orgasm (pp. 385, 668). She may prefer the socio-sexual relationship because of its psychologic and social significance, and the delay in reaching orgasm may in actuality increase her pleasure, but the fact remains that the techniques of masturbation usually offer the female the most specific and quickest means for achieving orgasm. For this reason masturbation has provided the most clearly interpretable data which we have on the anatomy and the physiology of the female’s sexual responses and orgasm (Chapters 14, 15).

 

6. NOCTURNAL SEX DREAMS

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The nocturnal sex dreams1 of males have been the subject of extensive literary, pornographic, scientific, and religious discussion. The male, projecting his own experience, frequently assumes that females have similar dreams, and in erotic literature as well as in actual life he not infrequently expresses the hope that the female in whom he is interested may be dreaming of him at night. He may think it inevitable that anyone who is in love should dream of having overt sexual relations with her lover.2 But relatively few records of female dreams have been available to establish such a thesis.3 Even some of the best of the statistical studies of sexual behavior have failed to recognize the existence of nocturnal dreams in the female.4

This is curious, for it has not proved difficult to secure data on these matters. Females who have had nocturnal sex dreams seem to have no more difficulty than males in recalling them, and do not seem to be hesitant in admitting their experience. Whether or not they reach orgasm in these dreams is a matter about which few of them have any doubt. Because the male may find tangible evidence that he has ejaculated during sleep, his record may be somewhat more accurate than the female’s; but vaginal secretions often bear similar testimony to the female’s arousal and/or orgasm during sleep. As with the male, the female is often awakened by the muscular spasms or convulsions which follow her orgasms. Consequently the record seems as trustworthy as her memory can make it, and the actual incidences and frequencies of nocturnal orgasms in the female are probably not much higher than the present calculations show. The violence of the female’s reactions in orgasm is frequently sufficient to awaken the sexual partner with whom she may be sleeping, and from some of these partners we have been able to obtain descriptions of her reactions in the dreams. There can be no question that a female’s responses in sleep are typical of those which she makes when she is awake.

 

7. PRE-MARITAL PETTING

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Sexual activities may be solitary, involving only the single individual, or they may be socio-sexual, involving two or more individuals. Masturbation (Chapter 5) and nocturnal dreams (Chapter 6) are the two chief types of solitary sexual activity. To judge on the basis of our sample, these solitary activities may provide about a quarter of the orgasms which females have (Table 170, Figure 109). Heterosexual petting, heterosexual coitus, and homosexual relationships are the three main types of socio-sexual activity. They may provide about three-quarters of the orgasms which females in the American population have; and because of their social significance, the socio-sexual outlets are more important than their frequencies might indicate. The interplay of stimulation and response which characterizes a socio-sexual relationship may make it of maximum significance for each of the partners, and give rise to situations which affect more than the immediate participants in the relationship. They may have, in consequence, considerable social significance.

 

8. PRE-MARITAL COITUS

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About two-thirds (64 per cent) of the married females in our sample had experienced sexual orgasm prior to their marriage. Some of them had had limited experience, some of them had had frequent and regular experience in orgasm. Masturbation, nocturnal dreams, heterosexual petting, heterosexual coitus, and homosexual contacts were the five sources of essentially all of this pre-marital outlet (Table 171).

Coitus had provided only a sixth (17 per cent) of the orgasms which these females had had before marriage. Although many persons think of “intercourse” and “sexual relations” as synonymous terms, true vaginal intercourse had accounted for only a part, albeit a significant part, of the sexual activity before marriage. The social significance of the coitus was, of course, more important than its function in providing a physiologic outlet for the female. In our culture, its significance has been enhanced by the moral and legal condemnation of such activity before marriage, and this has made it difficult to secure any objective evaluation of the relation of pre-marital coitus to the individual’s sexual needs and to society’s intrinsic interests.

 

9. MARITAL COITUS

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For most females and males, coitus in marriage provides, in the course of their lives, a larger proportion of their total sexual outlet than any other single type of activity (Tables 170, 171). Moreover, marital coitus is socially the most important of all sexual activities, because of its significance in the origin and maintenance of the home.

Throughout most human groups, everywhere in the world, the home has been recognized as the basic unit of the social organization. In only a few instances have there been serious attempts to abandon the family organization, and to substitute some state-centered institution which would abolish the long-time associations of adults and their offspring. Such an abandonment of the family was attempted in ancient Sparta, and in the communal groups such as the Brook Farm Colony, the New Harmony Colony, the Oneida Colony, and the various other experimental societies which developed in the United States a century or more ago. Something of the sort has been attempted more recently in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China. None of these’ schemes, however, has provided satisfactory substitutes for the home, and most of them have been short-lived. History confirms the importance of the family, even though it does not justify some of the other customs which are a part of our culture.

 

10. EXTRA-MARITAL COITUS

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It is widely understood that many males fail to be satisfied with sexual relations that are confined to their wives and would like to make at least occasional contacts with females to whom they are not married. While it is generally realized that there are some females who similarly desire and actually engage in extra-marital coitus, public opinion is less certain about the inclination and behavior of the average female in this regard.

Most males can immediately understand why most males want extramarital coitus. Although many of them refrain from engaging in such activity because they consider it morally unacceptable or socially undesirable, even such abstinent individuals can usually understand that sexual variety, new situations, and new partners might provide satisfactions which are no longer found in coitus which has been confined for some period of years to a single sexual partner. To most males the desire for variety in sexual activity seems as reasonable as the desire for variety in the books that one reads, the music that one hears, the recreations in which one engages, and the friends with whom one associates socially. On the other hand, many females find it difficult to understand why any male who is happily married should want to have coitus with any female other than his wife. The fact that there are females who ask such questions seems, to most males, the best sort of evidence that there are basic differences between the two sexes (Chapter 16).

 

11. HOMOSEXUAL RESPONSES AND CONTACTS

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The classification of sexual behavior as masturbatory, heterosexual, or homosexual is based upon the nature of the stimulus which initiates the behavior. The present chapter, dealing with the homosexual behavior of the females in our sample, records the sexual responses which they had made to other females, and the overt contacts which they had had with other females in the course of their sexual histories.

The term homosexual comes from the Greek prefix homo, referring to the sameness of the individuals involved, and not from the Latin word homo which means man. It contrasts with the term heterosexual which refers to responses or contacts between individuals of different (hetero) sexes.

While the term homosexual is quite regularly applied by clinicians and by the public at large to relations between males, there is a growing tendency to refer to sexual relationships between females as lesbian or sapphic. Both of these terms reflect the homosexual history of Sappho who lived on the Isle of Lesbos in ancient Greece. While there is some advantage in having a terminology which distinguishes homosexual relations which occur between females from those which occur between males, there is a distinct disadvantage in using a terminology which suggests that there are fundamental differences between the homosexual responses and activities of females and of males.

 

12. ANIMAL CONTACTS

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Universally, human males have shown a considerable interest in unusual, rare, and sometimes fantastically impossible types of sexual activity. In consequence there is a great deal more discussion and a more extensive literature about such things as incest, transvestism, necrophilia, extreme forms of fetishism, sado-masochism, and animal contacts than the actual occurrence of any of these phenomena would justify.

From the earliest recorded history, and from the still more ancient archives of folklore and mythology, there are man-made tales of sexual relations between the human female and no end of other species of animals. The mythology of primitive, pre-literate peoples in every part of the world has included such tales.1 Classic Greek and Roman mythology had accounts of lovers appearing as asses, Zeus appearing as a swan, females having sexual relations with bears, apes, bulls, goats, horses, ponies, wolves, snakes, crocodiles, and still lower vertebrates. The literary and artistic efforts of more recent centuries have never abandoned these themes; erotic literature and drawings, including some of the world’s great art, have repeatedly come back to the same idea.2

 

13. TOTAL SEXUAL OUTLET

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In the present study, we have tried to secure data on (1) the incidences and frequencies of sexual activities among the females in the available sample; (2) the incidences and frequencies of their responses to socio-sexual contacts and to psychosexual stimuli; and (3) the incidences and frequencies of the responses which led to orgasm.

From most of the subjects it has been possible to secure incidence data on the overt, physical contacts which were recognizably sexual because they were genital or because they brought specific erotic response. From most of the subjects it has also been possible to secure frequency data on most of those contacts, but this has not always been possible because there are situations in which the genital anatomy is not involved, and then it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the contacts or emotional responses are sexual in any real sense of the term (Chapter 15). It has been difficult, for instance, to secure exact data on the incidences and frequencies of self-stimulation which was non-genital, on the frequencies of sexual dreams which did not lead to orgasm, and on the incidences and frequencies of the non-genital socio-sexual contacts. As we have already pointed out (p. 235), there is every gradation between a simple good night kiss or a friendly embrace, and a kiss or an embrace which is definitely sexual in its intent and consequences.

 

14. ANATOMY OF SEXUAL RESPONSE AND ORGASM

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In our previous volume (1948) we presented data on the incidences and frequencies of the various types of sexual activity in the human male, and attempted to analyze some of the biologic and social factors which affect those activities. In the previous section of the present volume we have presented similar data for the female. Now it is possible to make comparisons of the sexual activities of the human female and male, and in such comparisons it should be possible to discover some of the basic factors which account for the similarities and the differences between the two sexes.

In view of the historical backgrounds of our Judeo-Christian culture, comparisons of females and males must be undertaken with some trepidation and a considerable sense of responsibility. It should not be forgotten that the social status of women under early Jewish and Christian rule was not much above that which women still hold in the older Asiatic cultures. Their current position in our present-day social organization has been acquired only after some centuries of conflict between the sexes. There were early bans on the female’s participation in most of the activities of the social organization; in later centuries there were chivalrous and galante attempts to place her in a unique position in the cultural life of the day. There are still male antagonisms to her emergence as a co-equal in the home and in social affairs. There are romantic rationalizations which obscure the real problems that are involved and, down to the present day, there is more heat than logic in most attempts to show that women are the equal of men, or that the human female differs in some fundamental way from the human male. It would be surprising if we, the present investigators, should have wholly freed ourselves from such century-old biases and succeeded in comparing the two sexes with the complete objectivity which is possible in areas of science that are of less direct import in human affairs. We have, however, tried to accumulate the data with a minimum of pre-judgment, and attempted to make interpretations which would fit those data.

 

15. PHYSIOLOGY OF SEXUAL RESPONSE AND ORGASM

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The responses which an animal makes when it is stimulated sexually constitute one of the most elaborate and in many respects one of the most remarkable complexes (syndromes) of physiologic phenomena in the whole gamut of mammalian behavior. The reactions may involve changes in pulse rates, blood pressure, breathing rates, peripheral circulation of blood, glandular secretions, changes in sensory capacities, muscular activity, and still other physiologic events which are described in the present chapter. As a climax to all these responses, the reacting individual may experience what we identify as sexual orgasm. There is every reason for believing that most of the physiologic changes which are described in the present chapter take place even in the mildest sexual response, even though the gross movements of the body may be limited and the individual fails to reach orgasm.

The gross aspects of sexual response and orgasm may differ considerably in different individuals. The stimuli which initiate the response may vary in intensity, continuity, and duration, and the animal’s responses may depend not only on such variation in the nature of the stimuli, but upon its physiologic state and psychologic background. There is nothing more characteristic of sexual response than the fact that it is not the same in any two individuals. On the other hand, the most obvious variations lie in the gross body movements which are part of the response, and particularly in the spasms or convulsions which follow orgasm; and while these variations are striking and sometimes very prominent, the basic physiologic patterns of response are remarkably uniform among all the mammals, including both man and the infra-human species. Even more significant is the fact that the basic physiology of sexual response is essentially the same among females and males, at least in the human species.

 

16. PSYCHOLOGIC FACTORS IN SEXUAL RESPONSE

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It might properly be contended that all functions of living matter are physiologic, but it is customary to distinguish certain aspects of animal behavior as psychologic functions. The distinctions can never be sharp, and they probably do not represent reality; but they are convenient distinctions to make, particularly in regard to human behavior.

Usually physiologists have been concerned with the functions of particular parts of the plant or animal, and with an attempt to discover the physical and chemical bases of such functions. Psychologists, on the other hand, have more often been concerned with the functioning—the behavior—of the organism as a whole. Many of the psychologic studies record—and properly record—the behavior of an animal without being able to explain the bases of that behavior in the known physics or chemistry of living matter. When psychologists try to explain behavior in physico-chemical terms, it is difficult to say, and quite pointless to try to say, whether such studies lie in the field of psychology or physiology.

 

17. NEURAL MECHANISMS OF SEXUAL RESPONSE

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The data which we have now accumulated on the gross physiology and psychology of sexual response and orgasm make it possible to recognize some of the internal mechanisms which may be involved.

Since there are no essential differences between the responses of females and males to tactile and other sensory stimulation (Chapters 14, 15), such responses must depend upon internal mechanisms which are essentially the same in the two sexes. On the other hand, since there are marked differences between females and males in their responses to psychologic stimuli, it seems apparent that those responses must depend upon some mechanism which functions differently in the two sexes.

It is the function of the exploring scientist to describe what he finds, whether or no the observed phenomena are explainable in terms of the known anatomy and known physiologic processes. We have described, as far as we have been able to obtain the data, what happens to the mammalian body when it responds sexually. While it now seems possible to identify some of the internal mechanisms which may account for that behavior, at points we shall find that there is nothing yet known in neurologic or physiologic science which explains what we have found. These are the areas in which, it may be hoped, the neurologist and physiologist may do further research.

 

18. HORMONAL FACTORS IN SEXUAL RESPONSE

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We have seen that sexual responses depend upon a basic anatomy which is essentially the same in the female and the male (Chapter 14), and involve physiologic processes which, again, are essentially the same in the two sexes (Chapter 15). Throughout the present volume we have found, however, that there are differences in the sexual behavior of females and males, and we have presented data which suggest that some of these may depend upon differences in capacities to be affected by psychosexual stimuli.

Some of the most striking differences between the sexual patterns of the human female and male are not, however, explainable by any of the data which we have yet presented. Throughout the present volume we have emphasized, for instance, the later development of sexual responsiveness in the female and its earlier development in the male. We have pointed out that the male’s capacity to be stimulated sexually shows a marked increase with the approach of adolescence, and that the incidences of responding males, and the frequencies of response to the point of orgasm, reach their peak within three or four years after the onset of adolescence (Figure 143). On the other hand, we have pointed out that the maximum incidences of sexually responding females are not approached until some time in the late twenties and in the thirties (Figures 99, 150), although some individuals become fully responsive at an earlier age.

 

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