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

  • Introduction
  • Early Studies
  • Edited Volumes
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality
  • Sexual Diversity across Time and Space
  • Sexuality and Science
  • The Political Economy of the Body
  • Sexual Politics and Sexual Rights

Anthropology Sexuality
Richard G. Parker, Laura R. Murray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0059


Research on sexuality (and related topics such as gender, reproduction, and kinship relations) has figured prominently in anthropology since the formative years of the discipline. Work carried out in the 1920s and 1930s by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski was pioneering both in developing cross-cultural comparisons of diverse sexual mores and customs and in legitimizing ethnography as a key methodological approach for the study of sexuality. Research on these issues expanded significantly beginning in the 1970s, heavily influenced by changes in social norms and values that had taken place in the 1960s, and was stimulated in important ways by the emerging feminist and lesbian and gay movements, and by scholarly work in women’s studies and gay and lesbian studies. Much of this work focused on what were described as “sexual meanings” and sought to explore the ways in which gender, sexuality, and reproductive relations vary across cultures. Anthropological research has focused on the investigation of sexual cultures and the social and cultural construction of sexual practices, playing an especially important role in documenting sexual diversity and same-sex sexual relations in different societies, including contemporary Western society. As this body of work developed during the 1980s and the 1990s, it also addressed the cultural and social dimensions of a range of important practical issues, such as the HIV epidemic, the changing shape of reproductive health and new reproductive technologies, sex work, tourism, migration, same-sex marriage, and globalization. Since the mid-1990s, growing anthropological attention has also focused on structural factors that shape sexuality in different social settings, and on political struggles that have emerged in relation to sexuality and sexual rights. As the research focus has expanded to these areas of social concern, anthropologists studying sexuality have been increasingly influenced by work in feminist theory, queer theory, history, and other social sciences, and have also emphasized the ways in which sexuality intersects with other axes of power and identities.

Early Studies

Anthropology has often been seen to be unusually preoccupied with sexuality and the “exotic” sexual practices of other societies and cultures. In large part, this view is little more than a stereotype that lay people hold about the discipline. But as with many stereotypes, there are reasons why this view has evolved. A number of highly visible early works in anthropology that focused on sexuality did indeed receive a good deal of attention both within the discipline itself and in the popular media. Works by Margaret Mead (Mead 1928, Mead 2001), and Bronislaw Malinowski (Malinowski 2001, Malinowski 1929) on a number of different societies in the South Pacific and Melanesia were especially influential in this regard, receiving significant media attention and presenting a view of sexual life and mores among so-called savage or primitive peoples as contrasting in important ways with the moral patterns and restrictions that characterize contemporary Western societies. This emphasis on the sexual meanings and behaviors among other societies as a kind of mirror that can be used to contrast with and often question the values of Western societies has been an ongoing theme in anthropological research, from early studies on the subject of sexuality on up to the present. Work carried out by anthropologists has sought to review cross-cultural data on sexual practices analytically (see Goldenweiser 1929) and empirically (Ford and Beach 1951) by comparing data in multiple ethnographic reports. Early anthropological research also played a key role in documenting the cross-cultural record on gender and sexual diversity, including institutionalized transgender roles (see Clastres 1969) and same-sex relations (see Devereux 1937 and Evans-Pritchard 1970).

  • Clastres, Pierre. 1969. The bow and the basket. Social Science Information 8.3: 145–162.

    DOI: 10.1177/053901846900800309

    Analyzes the symbolism and separation of males and females in the gender system of the Guayaki of South America, and discusses the transgender performance of a small group of males who cross-dress and adopt the symbols of the female gender.

  • Devereux, George. 1937. Institutionalized homosexuality of the Mohave Indians. Human Biology 9:498–527.

    Describes an intermediate gender role among the Mohave, and analyzes this role as the cultural equivalent of homosexuality in Western societies.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1970. Sexual inversion among the Azande. American Anthropologist 72.6: 1428–1434.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1970.72.6.02a00170

    Based on his ethnographic research and analysis of narratives taken down in the 1930s, Evans-Pritchard describes female and male homosexual relations among the Azande of the Sudan. He argues that while both were common, homosexual relations were encouraged among men and disapproved of among women.

  • Ford, Clellan S., and Frank A. Beach. 1951. Patterns of sexual behavior. New York: Harper.

    An overview of the literature on sexual behavior that integrates data from 191 different cultures. Ford and Beach also include comparisons between human sexual behavior and the sexual behavior of other animal species.

  • Goldenweiser, Alexander. 1929. Sex and primitive society. In Sex in civilization. Edited by V. F. Calverton and S. D. Schmalhaunsen, 53–66. New York: Macaulay.

    An analytic review of early anthropological concern with sexuality.

  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The sexual life of savages in north-western Melanesia: An ethnographic account of courtship, marriage, and family life among the natives of Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

    Based on his extended ethnographic research among the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski provides a detailed description of the social organization of sexuality across the life cycle and argues that sex dominates nearly every aspect of culture and social life. Includes a preface by the well-known sexologist Havelock Ellis.

  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 2001. Sex and repression in savage society. London and New York: Routledge.

    Develops a cross-cultural approach to investigating sexuality, based on long-term ethnographic field research, and challenges the universality of Western psychological constructs such as Freud’s Oedipus complex. Originally published in 1927.

  • Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of age in Samoa: A psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation. New York: Morrow.

    Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Samoa, Mead challenges the Western view of adolescence as a period of tension and generational conflict and presents a detailed picture of a social and cultural setting in which casual sexual relations take place without significant social approbation.

  • Mead, Margaret. 2001. Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: HarperCollins.

    Compares gender power and sexual relations in three different societies, and challenges the notion of universal male dominance, arguing that females are dominant among the Tchambuli of the Sepik river basin in Papua New Guinea. Especially influential in calling for a distinction between biologically based sex from socially constructed gender. Originally published in 1935.

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