Meaning of “Sexual Behavior”

Different sciences like biology, psychology, and anthropology have given different meanings to sexual behavior. Biologists define sexual behavior as ‘any behavior that increases the likelihood of sperm and egg combining.’[1] This definition emphasizes the role of reproduction. The biological definition of sexual behavior began with the discovery of sperm by ‘Anton van Leeuwenhoek’ and his colleague ‘John Hamm,’ leading to the first fertilization of an egg by ‘Oscar Hertwig’ in 1875 using sperm in a sea urchin. Although the female egg cell in humans was not directly observed until the 19th century, biologists preferred to define sexual behavior based on fertilization and reproduction.

Psychologists also define sexual behavior as ‘behavior that creates sexual arousal and increases the likelihood of reaching sexual climax.’[2]

Anthropological and social psychological studies show that in different cultures, methods of sexual gratification and, in other words, sexual behaviors are realized in various ways.

With the growth and advancement of behavioral sciences, the study of human sexual behavior seems essential. Kinsey’s reports (1953) on the sexual behavior of men and women are among the important researches in this field. He interviewed 5300 men and 5900 women in a historic study. The results of these interviews provided not only important information but also a comparative standard. Kinsey believed that the best indicator of a person’s attitude is their overt behavior[3]. Based on this belief, Kinsey conducted studies on women’s attitudes and emotional reactions and reported the results.

Hunt also wrote his findings on sexual behavior in men and women compared to Kinsey’s studies in a book named ‘Sexual Behavior’ in 1969 and published it in the early 1970s. The comparison of Hunt’s and Kinsey’s research indicates that in recent decades in America, premarital sexual intercourse has become more common, the differences in gender roles between men and women have decreased, and the difference in sexual gratification across social classes has vanished.

Hunt conducted his research in 24 states of the United States, involving 982 men and 1044 women. Of these, 90% were white, 10% were black, 71% were married, 25% were single, and 4% had been married for a long time[4]. The results of Hunt’s research show an increase in premarital sexual intercourse in America, indicating that the society of that time was somewhat more liberal in sexual behaviors compared to the past.

Fundamental Concepts in Sexual Behavior Studies

 The most important concepts discussed in the study of sexual behavior include the following:

A- Gender or Sexual Orientation:

This concept is used in two senses; the first meaning is the libidinal activity that leads to pleasure or reproduction, and the second encompasses the biological concept of sex. The presence of female chromosomes, ovaries, and vagina is crucial for determining female sex, although having a feminine sense is more important for being a woman. Similarly, the presence of male chromosomes, male genitalia, and testes are necessary for identifying male sex; however, these features do not necessarily indicate a sense of masculinity[5]. Having masculine psychological traits clarifies the sense of manhood and leads to differentiation between masculine and feminine feelings.

B- Gender Identity:

This concept refers to an individual’s recognition of themselves as male or female. Gender identity is based on an individual’s biology and is influenced by their social experiences and needs time to become stable and enduring.[6]

By the age of 2-3 years, nearly every child can assertively say, “I am a boy” or “I am a girl.” According to Robert Stoller, gender identity implicitly refers to the psychological aspects of masculinity and femininity, and the concept of sex indicates the social aspect, while gender shows the biological dimension of gender identity. Usually, there is a harmony between these two concepts; men behave in masculine ways and women in feminine ways. However, sometimes, sex and gender may develop in contradictory or opposing ways.

In terms of factors that form gender identity, besides biological and genetic aspects, one can also consider parental attitudes and cultural inclinations. In other words, family and social education, in addition to biological and genetic aspects, lay the foundation for a person’s gender identity.

C- Gender Role:

“Gender role” is a cultural expectation that defines how men and women interact with each other and also specifies individuals’ activities based on their values and interests.

Gender role is related to gender identity. A major factor in acquiring an appropriate gender role is individual learning. Sometimes, there is a conflict between gender roles and gender identity. A person might identify with a same-sex individual but choose clothes, hairstyles, or other characteristics typical of the opposite sex. A person might also identify with the opposite sex and, depending on the situation, choose behavioral traits typical of the same sex.

John Money defines gender roles as follows: whatever a person does to identify themselves as a boy or man, or a girl or woman, and to meet social expectations, is called a gender role. Gender role gradually forms through experiences that a person gains in interaction with the environment and yet through explicit instructions and inductions.

Sexual Ethics in the West

Advocates of sexual ethics reform claim that the old sexual morals were based on causes and reasons that have now disappeared or are disappearing. Now that these causes are no longer present, there is no reason to continue this ethical system, which at times was also associated with violence.

Moreover, the origins of these ethics were ignorant or oppressive acts that conflicted with freedom, justice, and human dignity. Therefore, for the sake of humanity and justice, it is necessary to fight against these ethics. They say that the old sexual morals were created by the following factors:

Male ownership of women, male jealousy, men’s efforts to ensure their paternity, ascetic and monastic beliefs in the inherent impurity of sexual relations, women’s sense of impurity due to their menstrual cycle, men’s avoidance of women during this period, severe punishments women have historically faced from men, and finally, economic factors that have always made women dependent on men.

As it is clear, these causes and reasons either have roots in aggression and oppression, stem from superstitions, or were necessitated by the limited living conditions of the time.

Now that male ownership of women has disappeared, paternal assurance can be obtained through the use of contraceptives developed by medical advancements, without resorting to old violent methods. Ascetic and monastic beliefs are declining, the sense of impurity regarding the menstrual cycle can be eliminated by raising awareness and understanding that it is a simple physiological function, the era of harsh and severe punishments is over, the economic factors that made women dependent on men no longer exist, and women today have regained their economic independence. Furthermore, the government is gradually expanding its institutions and supports women during pregnancy and breastfeeding, making them independent of men. The government effectively becomes a substitute for the father. Jealousies should be eliminated through ethical training. With all these changes, there is no longer a need to cling to these old morals.

These are the criticisms and objections raised against the old sexual ethics, and these are the reasons that necessitate a reform in this aspect of human morals.

Now let’s see what elements are proposed in this ethical system. Of course, we must remember from the outset that all these reformative elements revolve around breaking old restrictions and lifting past legal prohibitions and limitations.

The first issue that has been addressed is the free and dignified sexual fulfillment of both men and women or in other words, the freedom of love. They say that not only should men and women enjoy pleasurable sexual relations freely before marriage, but marriage should also not be a barrier in this regard. The philosophy of marriage and the selection of a legal spouse is to ensure paternity in relation to a child born from a specific woman. This assurance can be obtained by using contraceptives, especially with today’s medical advancements.

Therefore, both men and women can have numerous lovers besides their legal spouses. A woman is obliged to use contraceptives during intercourse with her lovers to prevent childbirth, but when she decides to have a child, she must necessarily use her legal spouse.

‘Sexual communism’ is only impractical in that it cuts off the generational relationship between fathers and children. Humanity cannot disregard generational trust; every father wants to know his child, and every child wants to know from which father they came.

The philosophy of marriage and the choice of a legal spouse is just this and nothing more. Sexual exclusivity should be limited to this extent, and with the aforementioned provision for the generational relationship, there is no reason for further restrictions.

Bertrand Russell says, ‘Contraceptive methods have made procreation a matter of choice, removing it from being an inevitable result of biological relationships (compulsory childbearing due to intercourse). For various economic reasons explained in previous chapters, fathers will likely be less important for the upbringing and provision for children. Therefore, there is no reason for a mother to choose the same man for the father of her children, whom she desires for love and companionship.

The future ‘mother’ may avoid this commitment without harming her happiness. For men, choosing the mother of their children will be even easier. Those who, like me, believe that sexual relations only become a social issue (and subject to restriction) when a child is born, must accept these two conclusions: firstly, love without children is free; and secondly, childbearing should be under stricter regulations than what exists today…’[7]

Russell later addresses another social problem, the improvement of the human race. He says that when sexual relations are based on this foundation, society can only allow certain men and women, who are personally and hereditarily qualified, to procreate. A woman with a procreation permit will use men, recognized for their hereditary qualities, for fertilization and procreation, while other men, who would be good lovers, will be deprived of paternal rights.[8]

Russell gradually gives an ethical aspect to his statements and proposals, preaching and advising, because he believes one of the roots of old sexual ethics is jealousy. He advises men and women to abandon jealousy, saying: ‘In the way I propose, it is true that couples are absolved from fidelity to each other, but in return, I impose the difficult duty of overcoming jealousy. A conscious life is impossible without self-control. In this case, it is better to regulate a strong and disturbing emotion like jealousy, and not let it hinder the development of romantic feelings. The mistake of old morals is not that it recommends self-restraint, but that it errs in its application’ (Russell means that the ancients advised self-restraint for moral reasons, I also advise self-restraint. But their view of self-restraint was to limit sexual instinct, while mine is to stop jealousy in sexual matters, which they called honor. Men who feel uncomfortable with their wives’ affairs with others should practice self-restraint and forbearance, not interfere, but be grateful to those strangers who have made their beloved wives happy and joyful!).

He also says: ‘Childbearing should only occur in marriage, and relationships outside of marriage should be neutralized by various means. Husbands should turn a blind eye to their wives’ lovers as much as Easterners did to castrated slaves (referring to eunuchs and harem guards). The fundamental problem with this approach is the little assurance in contraceptives on one hand and women’s sincerity on the other (not to get pregnant from their lovers and betray their husbands). However, this problem will diminish over time.’

Reform and improvement! It does not end there; other subjects such as covering nudity, prohibition of incest, distribution of obscene images, masturbation, same-sex attraction, abortion, intercourse during menstruation, and the like are also discussed. Some of these topics, such as the necessity of covering nudity and banning the distribution of so-called obscene images, are explicitly criticized, while others, such as masturbation, are considered outside the realm of ethics and classified as medical. Occasionally, if recognized as medically inadvisable, a person concerned about their health will avoid it, but in any case, it cannot have a moral prohibition!

Laws and Principles Governing the Gratification of Instincts in Islam

Instincts are natural and undeniable in human existence. Proper guidance and fulfillment of these instincts pave the way for individual and societal reform, whereas deviation from this can be the source of numerous individual and social corruptions. On this basis, the noble religion of Islam, through a comprehensive and precise program, assists humans in their evolutionary journey and in preventing their downfall. It provides suitable solutions that address all human instincts while preventing excess and deficiency. These solutions include:

1. Prohibition of Repression of Instinct

Repression means to subdue or degrade someone or something.

The first important principle emphasized by Islam is the principle of not repressing instincts. Martyr Motahari, may Allah have mercy on him, referring to research and discoveries of the past century, states that the repression of instincts and desires, especially the sexual instinct, brings numerous harms and dangers. He says: “Repressed and unfulfilled instincts, hidden from consciousness, undergo processes that are extremely costly for humanity, both individually and socially.”[9]

He further states: “Psychologists have identified the root of many distressing neurological symptoms and mental and social diseases in a sense of deprivation, especially in sexual matters. They have proved that deprivations are the origin of complexes, and complexes can sometimes manifest as dangerous traits such as inclination towards oppression and crime, arrogance and envy, isolation and introversion, cynicism, etc. This principle in the context of the harms of instinct repression is among the most valuable psychological discoveries and ranks among the most significant achievements of mankind.”[10]

Islam not only opposes the repression of instincts, considering it to lead to the dormancy of instincts and render their creation futile but also emphasizes the complete fulfillment of instincts according to religious directives.

In contrast, some have interpreted non-repression as absolute freedom. The mistake of these individuals, who have proposed a free moral regime to prevent the repression of instincts and the development of talents, arises from overlooking the profound difference between humans and animals. They have failed to recognize that the desire for infinity is inherent in human nature and will not stop at any point if left unchecked.

2. Balance Between Instincts

Another principle governing the fulfillment of instincts is the principle of balance in instincts. The foundation of Islam is based on balance and moderation in matters. Extremism and sluggishness throughout history have left unpleasant effects and caused numerous problems. Based on this perspective, Islam strictly forbids both absolute freedom in instincts and their repression and prohibits the development of one instinct in a way that harms other instincts; as instincts are like a river that, if channeled, can be useful and calming, but if left uncontrolled and imbalanced, they can be as destructive as a flood.

Perhaps the cause of many extremes can be attributed to a lack of understanding of real needs; because if a person recognizes their true needs and responds adequately to each instinct, there will never be debauchery in the instinct of lust, gluttony in the instinct of hunger, accumulation of wealth and desire for status in the instinct of superiority, and arrogance and self-admiration in the instinct of self-love.

The motto of Islam for all human needs is the principle of moderation. “Neither negligence nor stimulation, but moderation.”

Control of Instincts

Now that the principle of balance and its necessity in instincts have been explained, it is important to note that in Islamic society, control does not mean restriction. The establishment of appropriate solutions indicates that Islam aims to combat excess and deficiency and counter the effects resulting from them. For example, if Islam fights against all forms of debauchery and illicit relationships, on the other hand, it emphasizes marriage in various forms and considers not marrying as breaking tradition. Supporting this point is the narrative of a woman who approached Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him) and said: “I am a woman who has chosen celibacy.” The Imam asked, “What do you mean by celibacy?” She replied, “I have decided never to marry.” He asked, “Why?” She said, “To attain virtue and perfection.” The Imam responded, “Abandon this decision! If abstinence from marriage had any virtue, Fatimah (peace be upon her) would have been more deserving of it than you. No one has surpassed her in virtue.”[11]

3. The Overindulgence of an Instinct

As mentioned, the balance between instincts and the prohibition of their repression are two important and fundamental principles emphasized by Islam. In this context, it is important to note that neglecting these two principles can disrupt the balance of other instincts and desires. Therefore, excessive or deficient gratification of instincts inevitably disturbs an individual’s mental and emotional balance, which will certainly manifest itself elsewhere sooner or later. For instance, repeated masturbation leads to impotence over time and deprives one of the pleasures of lawful sexual relations, while overeating diminishes the joy of worship.

For this reason, Islam views instincts like a river that, if properly channeled, can be useful and calming. However, if left uncontrolled and imbalanced, they can be as destructive as a flood.

The tradition of marriage is heavily emphasized, and even temporary marriage and polygamy are permitted if necessary to adequately satisfy sexual instincts…

4.  Gradual Satisfaction

Another very important principle is gradual satisfaction. Premature attention to an instinct can have dire consequences for the individual and those around them. For example, Islam strongly cautions parents against factors that could lead to premature sexual arousal in children and adolescents.

Prohibiting sleeping on one’s stomach, separate sleeping areas for parents and children, not allowing children of the same or opposite sex to sleep under the same cover, avoiding tight pants, and appropriate dressing of non-mahram women in front of discerning adolescents are among the instructions issued to prevent premature arousal of sexual desire.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Separate the sleeping places of a boy and a boy, a boy and a girl, and a girl and a girl when they reach ten years of age.” [12]

Imam Ali (peace be upon him) said: “A man should not sleep on his face, and if you see anyone sleeping on their face, wake them up and do not let them be.” [13]

Based on this important educational principle, Islam considers entering the parents’ resting place at three specific times conditional upon permission. The Holy Quran says: “O you who have believed, let those whom your right hands possess and those who have not [yet] reached puberty among you ask permission of you [before entering] at three times: before the dawn prayer and when you put aside your clothing [for rest] at noon and after the night prayer. These are three times of privacy for you.” [14]

5.  Delay in Gratification is Prohibited

 Just as premature arousal of instincts has negative consequences, delaying gratification and not responding in a timely manner also brings many negative effects.

This principle is one of the important educational principles that the Holy Legislator has emphasized. The recommendation to marry and hasten it is among the advice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He said: “There is no foundation built in Islam more beloved to Allah, the Exalted, and more precious than marriage.” [15]

He also said: “O young people! Whoever among you can afford to get married should do so, for it helps to lower the gaze and guard modesty.” [16]

He also said: “The worst of my community are those who remain unmarried.” [17]

The main reason for the prohibition of delay in gratification is that sexual desire, like other desires, does not disappear without being fulfilled and does not bring peace to the individual.

Psychologists believe that while sexual desire is related to the body, the accompanying spiritual thirst does not easily disappear without satisfaction, and delaying it will cause many harms to both body and soul. This is also observed in other instincts; for instance, if thirst and hunger are not promptly satisfied, in addition to harming the body, they also damage the psychological system.

Therefore, Imam Ali (peace be upon him), addressing some men who were looking at a beautiful woman passing by, said: “The gazes of these men are lustful and excited. If any of you is amazed by a woman, let him go to his wife, for she is a woman just like that one.” [18]

6.  Attention to the Compatibility

 Another important principle is the alignment of all Islamic instructions regarding instincts with the laws of nature and their compatibility with modern scientific findings.

If Islam considers overeating harmful to the body, masturbation as an unnatural path of gratification prohibits stimulation without gratification forbids gratification through unlawful means, considers excess and deficiency in an instinct harmful to body and soul, deems all stimulating aspects unlawful, and cautions parents against the consequences of early puberty, then all Islamic slogans in all human necessities are based on the principle of moderation. “Neither negligence nor stimulation, but moderation.”

When we compare other instances emphasized by Islam with natural laws and the results of scientific research, we will understand the accuracy of Islam and the harmony of the laws of instincts with natural laws.

Of course, empirical sciences and human knowledge will never fully grasp the essence of Islamic and heavenly instructions and can only unveil some details and subtleties.

In summary, keeping sexual relations between parents hidden at home, discreet control of children outside the home, identifying the needs of youth and adolescents and recognizing the correct ways to satisfy them, and responding appropriately to those needs are among the duties of parents. If parents, especially mothers, perform their duties competently at home and can provide a suitable spiritual environment, and if the Islamic government, with its extensive cultural, political, economic, judicial, and law enforcement capabilities, employs all its resources, they can play a significant role in reducing sexual deviations and properly satisfying instincts. Deciding which films, music, books, and magazines are permissible and what policies should be implemented to reduce the gap between puberty and marriage, among many other issues, are the responsibilities of the rulers.

Lastly, educating parents, as well as young people and adolescents, about instincts and the correct ways to satisfy them is a duty placed on the shoulders of esteemed preachers.


[1] Understanding human Sexuality, Hyde, J Mc. Grow, New York, 1986: 3

[2] ibid

[3] Human Sexuality and its Problems, Bancroft, J, Edinburgh, Churchill Living stone, 1983: 108

[4] Human Sexuality and its Problems, Bancroft, J, Edinburgh, Churchill Living stone, 1983: 276

[5] Psychology, Lindzy & Thompson, New York, Worth Publishers , INC , 1988: 417

[6] Ibid

[7] Marriage and Morals P. 122-123

[8] ibid

[9] “The Collection of Works of Martyr Motahari,” Vol. 19, p. 656.

[10] ibid

[11] “Al-Furu’ min al-Kafi,” Vol. 5, p. 509.

[12] “Wasā’il al-Shīʿa,” Vol. 20, p. 231.

[13] “Al-Khisal,” Sheikh Saduq, Al-Alami Foundation for Publications, Beirut, First Edition, 1990, Vol. 2, p. 613.

[14] Quran, Surah An-Nur (24), Verse 58.

[15] “Bihar al-Anwar,” Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, Dar Ihya al-Turath, Beirut, Vol. 100, p. 222.

[16] “Makarim al-Akhlaq,” Allama Tabarsi, Al-Alami Foundation for Publications, Beirut, 1971, p. 197.

[17] “Bihar al-Anwar,” Vol. 100, p. 222.

[18] “Nahj al-Balagha,” Wisdom 420.

Rate this post

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.