Human male sexuality

"Male sexuality" redirects here. For sexuality of non-human male animals, see Animal sexual behaviour.
Male masturbation detail from a Greek krater, 560 to 550 BCE
The shield and spear of the Roman god Mars represents the male sex.

Human male sexuality covers physiological, psychological, social, cultural, and political aspects of the human male sexual response and related phenomena. It encompasses a broad range of topics involving male sexual desires and behavior that have also been addressed by ethics, morality, and religion.

There are a number of factors that influence male sexuality and sexual behaviour, including expected parental investment, and paternal presence during development.

There are many sexual strategies that males can employ in order to gain mates. This includes sexual coercion.

Sexual orientation

Male homosexuality

See also: Homosexuality, LGBT, Gay male culture, Category:Male homosexuality, and Masculinity § Men

The Western "homosexual" category has been related to the non-Western "third gender" category, being cast as a redefinition and expansion of the latter category to include all biological males who acknowledge having same-sex attractions (instead of only effeminate males). This extension of "third gender" is due to various factors that were unique to the Western world, including the widespread influence of Christianity and the resultant encouragement of opposite-sex relationships. Before the concept of sexual orientation was developed in the modern West, only effeminate males who sought to be anally penetrated by men (oral sex was far less common than today) were seen as a belonging to a different gender category.[1] The Western equivalent of the third-genders (and not all men with same-sex attractions) were the ones who started and propagated the Western concept of a homosexual identity.[2][3][4][5]

Many non-Western societies show hostility towards the concept of homosexuality, which they view as a pernicious Western practice and a legacy of colonialism and (Western) sexual tourism. However, and strangely to Western eyes, such societies do accept both men who have sex with men and third-genders who have sex with men as an unremarkable part of society, so long as they're not called "homosexuals".

In the West, a man often cannot acknowledge or display sexual attraction for another man without the homosexual or bisexual label being attached to him.[6] The same pattern of shunning the homosexual identity, while still having sex with men, is prevalent in the non-West,[7][8] where sexual attraction between men is often seen as a universal male phenomenon—and practised, either quietly or openly—even if held morally wrong in the larger society, sexual attraction between men being seen as a universal male quality, not something limited to a minority.[9][10][11][12]

Male homoeroticism

History and evolution of male homoerotic behaviour

There is evidence of the long standing existence of homoerotic behaviour dating back to early human history. From cave paintings of men engaging in sexual acts[13] to modern history, homoerotic behaviour is still prevalent today. Due to its universality and history it has been theorised that homoerotic behaviour has origins in evolution.[14] From an evolutionary perspective homoeroticism is seen as counter-productive as it doesn’t directly contribute to successfully producing offspring.[15] However, male-male sexual behaviour has been argued to have served an adaptive function and an indirect reproductive advantage for males. Evidence suggests that male-male sexual relations in evolutionary periods often occurred between younger adolescent boys and older males. Sexual acts have been viewed as a psychological factor in societies used for bonding.[16] These same-sex relations between young adolescent boys and older men brought many benefits to the younger males such as; access to food, protection from aggression and overall helping them attain personal survival and an increased social standing. These direct effects on survival also led to indirect effects of reproductive success. The attributes the young males would obtain from their sexual relations with older men made them a more desired mating choice amongst females. The age and status difference between the men involved, suggests that a dominance-submission dynamic was an important factor in these relations.[16]

The Alliance theory of male-male sexual behaviour in early humans states that this sexual behaviour was a feature that developed to reduce aggression between different males and to enforce alliances.[17] It is believed that young adult males and adolescents were segregated from society and living on the outskirts of communities due to their perceived sexual threat by the older men. Therefore, same-sex behaviour allowed younger men to have reinforced alliances with other older males, thus later gaining them access to resources and females which were both scarce.[18] Similarly, Kirkpatrick’s [19] theory of reciprocal altruism states male-male sexual behaviour is a result of males helping each other out through resource exchange.

In support of the evolutionary perspective, much of modern history demonstrates higher and lower status roles between two men involved in sexual relations.[18] There is evidence of males seducing each other for social gain as well as sexual pleasure. Examples of this in modern history include; Roman Emperors such as Augustus Caesar who supposedly acquired the throne in part due to their sexual relations with their predecessors.[20]

Functions of homoerotic behaviour

Homoerotic behaviour has been thought to be maintained by indirect selection, since it does not encourage reproduction. The kin-selection hypothesis, which argued that homosexuals contribute to their nephews’ and nieces’ survival, and the female fertility hypothesis, were both findings which support the idea that homoerotic behaviour is an evolutionary by-product that serves no beneficial function by itself. Relatively newer studies suggest that similar to how heterosexual bonds provide non-conceptive benefits, including the maintenance of long-term bonds, homoerotic behaviour aid in same-sex alliances that help in resource competition or defense.[21] Emotions that are homosexual in nature could help to foster and reinforce supportive relationships, one example of which would be the Azande society[22] in which homosexual relationships were very common, and the Sambia, who engage in homoerotic behaviour between the initiates in their militia, and their behavour buttress bonds that were important in survival.[23] In various societies, many individuals exhibit homoerotic behaviour during certain stages of their life, notably during adolescence, and generally before their heterosexual marriage, possibly because that same-sex alliances are more important in one’s early life than later, when the concern for sexual reproduction comes into play, and individuals who engage in homoerotic acts obtain benefits applicable to their reproductive lives. Before that period of their life, same-sex alliances are important in aiding survival, and among the K’ekchi’ of Belize, significantly more children survive past six months for men with same-sex alliance due to the increase in productivity of agricultural labour.

Same-sex alliances do not need to be sexual in nature, although when competition for partners is especially severe the sexualisation of same-sex alliances occur more often.[21] Displays of commitment between partners are adaptive because of the cost in terms of efforts invested in maintaining the alliance.[24] Sex could be argued as a type of currency in in long-term relationships, and signify to an individual’s partner and to others a prominent level of connection and commitment, and homosexual/homoerotic behaviour become significant representation of one’s loyalty and affiliation in a same-sex alliance. Ultimately, homoerotic behaviour is not selectively disadvantaged, as homoerotic behaviour does not result in a net decrease to an individual’s reproductive success,[25] and the attraction to other individuals of same sex and the behaviour as result of that attraction is not contrary or alternative to the attraction to people of the other sex.[21]

Subsequent research in the role of homoerotic behaviour further support the “affiliation hypothesis” above.[26][27][28] A study published in 2014 sought to measure homoerotic motivation, and to investigate the how an affiliative context would affect homoerotic motivation in men, and it is found that men in an affiliative priming condition are more open to engaging in homoerotic behaviour. This effect is most pronounced with men with high progesterone, a hormone that is associated with affiliative motivation in humans, constituting evidence that homoerotic motivation, and subsequently homoerotic behaviour, holds the adaptive function of encouraging alliance formation and bonding.[29]

Origins of the heterosexual–homosexual classification

In the 1860s, German third-gender Karl Heinrich Ulrichs coined a new term for third-genders that he called "urnings", which was supposed to mean "men who like men". These "urnings" were "females inside male bodies", who were emotionally or sexually attracted to men. Ulrichs thought—as did most members of the third sex, who popularized the term "homosexual" for themselves—that masculine men can never have sexual desires for other men, and that a male necessarily had to be feminine-gendered, or had to have a female inside him, to be attracted to men. This was supported by Ulrichs's own experience as well as by the fact that men only had sex with men secretively, due to the cultural climate. Ulrichs termed men (as opposed to third-genders) as "diones", meaning "men who like women."

Later, Austrian third-gender and human rights activist Karl Maria Kertbeny coined the terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual". For most of this period, these terms were popular only amongst the third-gender and scientific communities, the latter of which was developing the concept of homosexuality as a mental disorder.

Thus, the idea of "men who like men" being different from "men who like women", as well as the idea of differentiating male sexuality between "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality", was born. The basis for the division, however, remained gender orientation (masculinity and femininity). Mainstream men, who were now decidedly "heterosexual", however, rarely related to these terms, as they saw themselves as neither heterosexual or homosexual. Even in 2010, "straight" men in the West, quite like men in the East,[30] seldom relate strongly to sexual identities.[31] These identities, however, remain a strong focus within the LGBT community.

Male Sexual Strategies

Sexual Coercion

Sexual coercion is forcing mate choice against a partner’s will or preference. Sexual coercion functions to increase the chance of a female mating with a male, and decrease the chance that the female will mate with another male.[32] There are several strategies by which sexual coercion can be achieved. These are harassment, intimidation, and forced copulation (rape).[33]

Evolutionary explanations

Thornhill and Palmer’s 'A Natural History of Rape' investigates the evolutionary causes of sexual coercion, particularly of rape, and suggest that such behaviour is a result of sexual selection, rather than Darwinian natural selection.[34] Of 10 hypotheses, they produced two reasonable hypotheses. The first, that rape is a by-product of an adaptation other than rape. The second, that rape as an adaptation (the rape specific adaptation hypothesis), which suggests that rape evolved because it was an adaptive, beneficial behaviour in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. Thornhill and Palmer argue that these two theories are the strongest of the ten for several reasons. For example, both hypothesis argue rape exists because it functions to increase matings, thus improving reproductive success. Because rape would be a costly behaviour to the male- he risks damage being inflicted by the victim, or being punished her social allies- it must have a strong overriding reproductive benefits for the behaviour to survive and be demonstrated today. Thornhill and Palmer also use several facts to support the idea that the two evolutionary based hypotheses are the most reasonable. They argue that the fact that most rape victims are of childbearing age, that married women and women of childbearing age suffer more psychological distress after rape than single or post-menopausal women, and that rape takes place in a variety of other species, all point towards an evolutionary heritage for the rape behaviour.[34]

Rape as a by-product evolutionary hypothesis

The 'rape as a by-product' explanation holds that rape behaviour evolved as a by-product of other psychological adaptations in men to obtain many mates.[34] This adaptation not only leads to rape but a number of other behaviours including overrating female sexual interest,[35] a desire for sexual variety, coercion, and sexual arousal which is not dependent on the consent of mate.[34][36]

Rape specific adaptation evolutionary hypothesis

The rape specific adaptation hypothesis suggests that rape is an evolved behaviour because it provides direct benefits to the rapist. In this case, the benefit would be a higher chance of reproductive success through increasing mate number. The hypothesis suggests that rape behaviour is the result of psychological mechanisms designed specifically to influence males to rape, unlike in the by-product hypothesis. This theory suggests that rape by a man which offers no chance of reproductive success, i.e. the rape of any other person who is not a female of reproductive age, is a maladaptive byproduct of this evolutionary adaptation.[34]

Support for the idea that rape provides males with a way to increase their reproductive success comes from a study by Barbaro and Shackelford,[37] who found that men in committed heterosexual relationships who had committed at least one act of violence/coercion towards their partner in the last month had more in-pair copulations per week

Some potential specific psychological adaptations that Thornhill and Palmer suggest might be present in men to induce rape include the evolution of a mechanism that helps males evaluate the vulnerability of potential victims, or mechanism that motivates men with a lack of sexual access to females, to rape- the mate deprivation hypothesis.[34]

The mate deprivation hypothesis alludes to the concept that the threshold for rape is lowered in males that lack alternative reproductive options. This idea is supported by the fact that rape is disproportionately committed by men with a lower socioeconomic status.[38] However, Malamuth[39][40] found a relationship between low socioeconomic status and a rearing environment in which social relationships were not committed, which in turn resulted in a male’s reduced ability to form enduring relationships in later life. This subsequently results in less alternative reproductive options. Therefore, while there is indeed a relationship between a lack of alternative reproductive options and rape behaviour, there are likely to be a number of co-morbid factors affecting this correlation, leading Thornhill and Palmer to conclude that the idea of a specific psychological adaptation that motivated men with a lack of sexual access to females is unlikely, and that further research need be conducted.

Rejected hypotheses

One of Thornhill and Palmer's rejected hypotheses for why men rape implicates violent pornography. Subscribers to the social science theory of rape[41][42] purport that one of the main reasons why the human male learns to rape is via learning imitative behaviour when watching violent pornography. However, this fails to explain why if males are likely to imitate behaviour witnessed in violent pornography they would not also imitate the actions of human males in other videos. Furthermore, no explanation is offered into why this behaviour is inspired in some men and not others. It is also limited in its ability to predict valuable variables surrounding why rape occurs (such as who, when or where). For this reason, Thornhill and Palmer argued that “although the removal of violent pornography may be desirable in its own right, it is very unlikely to solve the problem of rape”.[34]

Another of their rejected hypotheses is the 'choosing victim' rape-adaptation hypothesis which suggests that there is an evolved victim-preference mechanism to maximise the reproductive benefits of rape. This hypothesis suggests that men would be most likely to rape reproductive-age females. Research shows that the age of US rape victims correlates slightly better with age of peak fertility than age of peak reproductive potential.[38] However, this explanation does not explain the rape of those with no chance of reproductive success e.g. girls, boys, males and post-menopausal women.

Naturalistic Fallacy

The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is natural and evolved is morally correct, but scientists in this field are keen to reiterate that this is certainly not the case. Whilst rape and sexual coercion are natural and evolved behaviours which provided benefits to humans in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, they are not morally sound behaviours in modern civilisation.

Male Sexual Entitlement

Coercive behaviour of males towards the opposite sex can be argued to be a result of male sexual entitelement. Gender stereotypes view males as being the more typically aggressive sex.[43] Subsequently, male’s may act aggressively towards females in order to increase their chances of submission from the female. This is known as male sexual entitlement – the belief that the female owes the male sex due to the sexual gratification of men being viewed as more important by society. This can result in men being more likely than women to view pressuring a female into sex as acceptable behavior.[44] Male sexual entitlement, which consequently can predict sexual entitlement due to societal norms, has been found to predict rape-related attitudes and behaviors.[45] If men feel that their own sexual needs are more important, it is likely that they will have rape-related attitudes, as such attitudes reinforce their own sexual entitlement as being the more dominant sex.

Compromising Sexual Strategies

Sexual strategies are essential to males when pursuing a mate, in order to maximize reproductive potential in order for their genes to be passed on to future generations. However, in order for a male’s sexual strategy to succeed with a female, it is the male who is in need of compromising their own sexual strategies because of their uncertainty over the paternity of a child. Women have the greater responsibility over the raising of a child due to higher levels of parental investment and confidence in their paternity because they are the ones to carry the child, compared to males who have no objective way of knowing if the child they are raising is biologically theirs. Because of this, males have to adjust their own sexual strategies to fit those of the female.

Factors influencing male sexual behaviour

Expected Paternal Investment

Elizabeth Cashdan[46] proposed that mate strategies among both genders differ depending on how much parental investment is expected of the male, and provided research support for her hypotheses. When men expect to have to provide a high level of parental investment, they will attempt to attract females by emphasising their ability to invest. In addition, men who expect to invest will be more likely to highlight their chastity and fidelity than men who expect not to invest. Men with the expectation of low parental investment will flaunt their sexuality to females. The author argues the fact the research supports the idea that men expecting to invest emphasise their chastity and fidelity, which is a high cost strategy (because it lowers reproductive opportunities), suggests that that type of behaviour must be beneficial, or the behaviour would not have been selected.[46]

Early Childhood Experiences

A relationship between the early experiences and environment of boys, and their later sexual behaviour, has been drawn by several studies. Research suggests that father absence can lead to an increase in rape behaviour. Research conducted by Malamuth[39] found that men raised in the absence of their father (or where resources were scarce) reported more use of sexual coercion in the past, and were more likely to indicate being more willing to rape, in the event that there was no chance of them getting caught. Research has also found that parental divorce and rape correlate positively.[47]


Males who are in a committed relationship, in other words have a restricted sociosexual orientation, will have different sexual strategies compared to males who have an unrestricted sociosexual orientation. Males with a restricted sociosexual orientation will be less willing to have sex outside of their committed relationship, and adjust their strategies according to their desire for commitment and emotional closeness with their partner. It has been found that such males are less likely to approach attractive females who have greater waist-to-hip ratios (0.68-0.72).[48] It has been found that a greater waist-to-hip ratio, the ideal being 0.7, is associated with youthfulness, physical attractiveness and reproductive potential.[49] Therefore, such females would be viewed as a risk to the male’s current sexual partner. Consequently, males will adjust their sexual strategies by showing less willingness to approach such females.

See also


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  4. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell R. Pomeroy and Clyde E. Martin Quote: "Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white.
  5. A false birth Quote: "... It is argued that 'Whitman himself stubbornly resisted the notion of a distinctive homosexual sensibility' (D'Emilio 1993)"
  6. 'I want to do what I want to do': young adults resisting sexual identities Fiona J. Stewart, Anton Mischewski, Anthony M. A. Smith; Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. Quote: "I don't think I was actually afraid of being gay, what I was afraid of was having a gay identity imposed upon me without my control over it..."
  7. Prevalence of Same-Sex Sexual Behavior and Associated Characteristics among Low-Income Urban Males in Peru, PLoS ONE,"Researchers studying same-sex sexual contact and related risk behaviors among Latino men have described a construction of sexuality that links penetration with masculinity and receptive intercourse with femininity, through which male same-sex sexual contact does not necessarily presume a homosexual identity."
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  12. In order to understand the origins of male sexuality, a variety of demographics need to be researched, including race. According to Zea (2003), "to study sexual attitude, identities, and behaviors of Latino gay and bisexual men, it is necessary to understand the role of culture"(p.282).
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