Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 13

The Anthropology of Sexuality

A series of locks are locked against a chain link fence.

In this unit (to accompany SAPIENS podcast S6E7), students will explore sexuality through the lens of anthropology. Students will investigate the influences of cultural, social, and historical factors on human sexual behaviors and identities. Students will use an anthropological framework to examine the challenges of studying sexuality, including researching in diverse cultural settings.

Learning Objectives
  • Investigate how cultural, social, and historical factors influence human sexual behaviors and identities.
  • Indicate the challenges of studying sexuality within an anthropological framework, including conducting research in diverse cultural settings.
Sexual behavior
  1. Behaviors involving acts or parts of the body that are considered sexual.

Professor Talking Points
  • The study of sexuality from an anthropological perspective focuses on investigating sexual experiences in different cultures and the social and cultural constructs of sexual practices and identities.
  • Relativized sexuality is the idea that sexual experiences are not the same across all cultures and identities. Essentially, people have different lived experiences based on their cultural identity and other characteristics.
  • Starting in the 1830s, Samoan culture began rapidly changing. Christian missionaries came to the country in pursuit of evangelization, and many Samoans were converted. Cultural practices and views continued to change through the century as outside influences impacted and interacted with the Samoan people. It is possible that the current culture of Samoa no longer aligns with Mead’s interpretations of Samoans’ view of sexuality due to the influences of Christianity and a possible cultural shift in Samoa.
Academic Articles
  1. Baxi, Pratiksha. “Sexual Violence and Its Discontents.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014):139-154.

  2. Maksimowski, Sophie. “A Brief History of the Anthropology of Sexuality, and Theory in the Field of Women’s Sex Work.” The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology 20, no. 1 (2012): 1-13.

  3. Schneider, Luisa T. “Sexual Violence During Research: How the Unpredictability of Fieldwork and the Right to Risk Collide with Academic Bureaucracy and Expectations.” Critique of Anthropology 40, no. 2 (2020): 173-193.

Student Discussion Questions
  • Why is sexuality relative? Provide examples as you discuss with your peers.
  • What are some challenges with studying sexuality through an anthropological framework today?
  • What, if any, are some ethical concerns for studying sexuality?
  • Why do you think it can be so challenging to discuss the topic of sexuality today?
  • Consider the idea that sexuality is relative and explain what this would say about sexual violence in different cultures.
  • How do culture, history, and social influences impact human sexual behaviors and identities?
  • Create a discussion post to reflect on Mead’s work as it relates to adolescence and sexual experiences. Consider how different cultural, social, and historical factors may influence sexual experiences across cultures. Respond to two or more peers.
  • In a three-to-five-page paper, compare and contrast two different frameworks of studying sexuality. One framework should be anthropology. For instance, you can compare sexuality from an anthropological lens and a biological, sociological, or psychological lens.
  • Develop a study using methods from anthropology. Explain the details of the study, including your research question (i.e., what you are trying to answer), the method(s) you will use to conduct your research, and the challenges you might face during the research process. Refer back to unit materials to help you.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: Jennifer Hasty’s “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Anthropology

  2. Video: La Trobe University’s “Sex, Gender and Sexuality an Anthropological View

  3. Video: Marc Breedlove’s TEDx Talk “Prenatal Influences on Sexual Orientation

  4. Video: Deepak Modi’s TEDx Talk “Science Behind Sexuality

Unit By

Chelsea Wheeler, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 14

Reading Sia Figiel