In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sexuality Across the Life Course

  • Introduction
  • Data Quality and Data Sources
  • Across the Life Course

Sociology Sexuality Across the Life Course
Shari M. Blumenstock, John DeLamater
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0224


Sexuality is a multidimensional aspect of human life that includes sexual behaviors, sexual feelings, and sexual orientation (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology article “Sexualities” by Nancy Fischer). Sexual expression is influenced by psychological factors such as attitudes, emotions, and the learned residues of past experience, as well as social factors such as social norms and laws, and one’s social identities and relationships, including (potential) partners and social networks. Sexuality and sexual expression also have a biological base, as genetic inheritance and the resulting anatomy and physiology of the human body set the parameters of human sexual behavior, both solo and partnered. Thus, we need a biopsychosocial perspective to incorporate the relevant influences on an individual’s sexual expression and lifestyle. Sexuality and its expression play critical roles throughout an individual’s life. Scholars have often focused on sexuality in a single stage of life—childhood, adolescence, adulthood, later life—or within a specific type of relationship—noncommitted (i.e., casual or “hookups”), premarital, marital, divorced, cohabiting. In reality, sexuality undergoes a continuous process of development from birth to death. Thus, in addition to a biopsychosocial perspective, we need a perspective that has the breadth to encompass this lifelong process. The life course perspective (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology article “Life Course” by Deborah Carr) is based upon four key assumptions: 1) lives are embedded in and shaped by historical context; 2) individuals construct their own lives, within the constraints of historical and social context; 3) lives are intertwined through social relationships; and 4) the meaning and impact of a life transition depends on when it occurs. Applied to sexuality, this perspective recognizes the impact of biology via inheritance at birth; biological processes such as puberty, menopause, and aging; and influences related to the body. The historical and social context, particularly extant norms and laws relating to sexual practices, intersecting social identities, and relationships is also important. Sexual expression is further influenced by families, social networks, and intimate relationships. Moreover, within the constraints related to their biological, social, and historical contexts, individuals exercise agency and play an active role in constructing their sexuality. Lastly, life events, and their timing, have a major impact on an individual’s current and later sexuality (e.g., consider the effects of pregnancy at 15 versus 25 versus 45 years of age). Combining an interdisciplinary biopsychosocial perspective on sexuality with a broad life course perspective on the influences on individuals’ lives yields a powerful and nuanced analysis of sexual expression throughout life.

Data Quality and Data Sources

Data quality is a concern in every area of inquiry, and there have been concerns about the quality of data regarding human sexual practices since the publication of the Kinsey volume on female sexuality in 1953. Wiederman and Whitley 2002 compiles chapters on several methodologies, methods, and other data-based issues within sexuality research. Michaels 2013 provides an in-depth introduction to the issues involved with data quality in sexuality science. Collecting data in a way that enables an analysis of stability and change over time, consistent with the life course framework, requires a longitudinal design. In this design, researchers collect data from the same participants at multiple points in time. This allows them to analyze changes in, for example, specific types of sexual activity. It also allows them to measure other contextual and biopsychosocial changes or both between waves of measurement (e.g., relationship status changing from single to cohabiting), and how those changes relate to changes in behavior. There are several longitudinal data sets that extensively measure aspects of sexuality over time, particularly in the United States. Two of these are listed below, along with one major cross-sectional study. The Add Health: National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health research began during the 1994–1995 school year. A nationally representative sample of US adolescents (grades 7–12) were interviewed, and the cohort has been followed into adulthood (aged 32–42), with the fifth wave of data collection completed in 2018. Data collection has included several in-home interviews and surveys, as well as biological markers (e.g., height and weight, immune functioning, DNA). The NHSLS: National Health and Social Life Survey interviewed men and women ages 18 to 59 in 1992, and so provides a snapshot of adult sexuality. Some of the published analyses compare birth cohorts to assess change in sexuality over time (see Das, et al. 2012 cited under Across the Life Course). NSHAP interviewed older adults 57 to 85 at wave 1, and again five years later. Thus, these data sets taken together cover persons aged 12 to 85. The data from each of these are available to qualified researchers. For more information, visit the URL. For data quality discussions specifically with regards to sexual dysfunction, see McDonagh, et al. 2014 and Rizvi, et al. 2011 in Sexual Health.

  • Add Health: National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.

    Extensive school-based longitudinal study of over twenty thousand US adolescents, beginning in 1994–1995. Data includes several aspects of respondents' well-being (e.g., social, economic, psychological); community and interpersonal contexts; and achievement outcomes. Widely used in sexuality research given its large, nationally representative sample and variety of data regarding romantic and sexual relationships, including sexual attitudes and behaviors, contraception, sexual health, and victimization, as well as information from partners and parents.

  • Michaels, S. 2013. Sexual behavior and practices: Data and measurement. In International handbook on the demography of sexuality. Edited by A. K. Baumle, 11–20. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    Michaels describes the development of methods used to survey sexual behavior, asserting the goal is to capture the variation in sexual expression and relate it to social and individual characteristics. He challenges the erroneous belief that sexuality research is “special.” He discusses two major issues in collecting high-quality data, sampling issues and measurement error, and reviews steps that researchers are taking to reduce both.

  • NHSLS: National Health and Social Life Survey.

    Conducted in 1992, this cross-sectional survey of over three thousand 18–59-year-olds in the US provides data regarding sexual attitudes and beliefs; sexual behaviors; partner relationship processes, and several background characteristics. Considered the first extensive sexuality study since the Kinsey studies, it was designed to explore patterns of sexual behaviors and partnering across the life course, including associations with satisfaction and social characteristics. Nationally-representative sample, with an oversample of Blacks and Hispanics.

  • NSHAP: National Social Life, Health and Aging Project.

    Longitudinal study investigating the health and well-being of older adults; explores several aspects of health, including physical, mental, emotional, social, sexual and interpersonal. Data has been collected via interviews, biomeasures, and questionnaires. Nationally-representative sample of US older adults aged 57–85. Wave 1 data collected in 2005–2006 (3,005 respondents), wave 2 in 2010–2011 (3,377 respondents), and wave 3 in 2015–2016 (2,409 returning respondents along with 2,368 newly responding and respondents' partners).

  • Wiederman, M. W., and B. E. Whitley. 2002. Handbook for conducting research on human sexuality. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum.

    Comprehensive volume that includes several practical chapters on specific methods for data collection, analysis, and interpretation, as well as critical pieces of sexuality science such as measurement validity and reliability, and other special topics (e.g., diversity, navigating institutional ethics boards, and careers in sexuality science).

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