Table of contents
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 and investigate the influences of cultural, social, and historical factors on human sexual behavior and identity. 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 behavior and identity.
  • Indicate the challenges of studying sexuality within an anthropological framework, including conducting research in diverse cultural settings.
Sexual Behavior
  1. Behavior involving acts or parts of the body that are considered sexual.

Professor Talking Points
  • Explore the study of sexuality from an anthropological perspective and discuss with students how it focuses on investigating sexual experiences in different cultures and the social and cultural constructs of sexual practices and identity.
  • Relativized sexuality is the idea that sexual experiences are not the same across all cultures and identities. Discuss with students how people have different lived experiences based on their cultural identity and other characteristics.
  • Samoan culture began rapidly changing in the 1830s when many Samoans were converted to Christianity by missionaries. Discuss with students how cultural practices and views continued to change throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as outside influences impacted and interacted with the Samoan people. Explore how it is possible that the current culture of Samoa no longer aligns with Margaret Mead’s interpretations of Samoans’ view of sexuality.
Academic Articles
  1. Baxi, Pratiksha. 2014. “Sexual Violence and Its Discontents.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43: 139–154.

  2. Maksimowski, Sophie. 2012. “A Brief History of the Anthropology of Sexuality, and Theory in the Field of Women’s Sex Work.” University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology 20 (1): 1–13.

  3. Schneider, Luisa T. 2020. “Sexual Violence During Research: How the Unpredictability of Fieldwork and the Right to Risk Collide with Academic Bureaucracy and Expectations.” Critique of Anthropology 40 (2): 173–193.

Student Discussion Questions
  • Why is sexuality relative? Provide examples as you discuss with your peers.
  • What are some of the challenges with studying sexuality through an anthropological framework today?
  • What, if any, are some ethical concerns for studying sexuality?
  • Why can it be so challenging to discuss the topic of sexuality?
  • Consider the idea that sexuality is relative and explain what this says about sexual violence in different cultures.
  • How do culture, history, and social influences impact human sexual behavior and identity?
  • 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 essay, compare two frameworks of studying sexuality. One framework should be anthropology. For instance, compare sexuality from an anthropological lens and either 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 may face during the research process. Refer back to unit materials for guidance.
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