There is a white office building with dark green van parked on the right and a tree next to it. A sign made from wooden boards outfront reads in all capital letters, "Masturbation Headquarters".

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For anything to be deviant, there must be something to deviate from. In the case of sexual deviance, that something is the mainstream ideas about how, when, why, and what people can have sex. However, mainstream beliefs about sexuality change over time and space and sexual deviance is no different. Some behaviors that we think of as deviant today used to be facts of life, and some things that would make people of the past shudder are now acceptable. For instance, in the Victorian Era, medical professionals spread misinformation about the dangers of masturbation; they claimed it would cause a lower sex drive, blindness, or prostitution in the case of women (Foucault 1978: 42; Mason 2013). Authorities responded by enacting measures on boarding schools that would make it difficult for youth to find the time to masturbate (Walton 2017). Today, while some religious people still condemn masturbation and many find it an awkward subject, we now know through statistics that most people will masturbate within their lifetime (Schwyzer 2013). Also in 1995, the sex shop Good Vibrations declared May as National Masturbation Month in protest when Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was fired for suggesting schools should teach masturbation as part of sex education (2013). So, while masturbation is still far from being a common dinner table topic, the fact that people organized an entire month for it demonstrates a huge shift in mainstream sexual beliefs.


Social Construction

Sometimes things that were once acceptable become deviant. In the case of deviant sexuality, it is useful to look at Michel Foucault’s example of a farm hand in the village of Lapcourt from his groundbreaking work, The History of Sexuality. For many years in this village, there had been a few men who had no set house or family but simply wandered around and did work in exchange for shelter. Sometimes these men would pay young girls to play a game called, “curdled milk.” As the title implies, it was a very sexual game. It had also occurred many times on the outskirts of the village. However, one day in 1867 a farm hand decided to play this game and the girl’s parents called the authorities and the man was taken away to be medically examined and separated from society, going so far as to measure his facial bone structure (1978: 31). Whether or not one views this game as right or wrong, the fact remains that it used to be a socially acceptable practice until there was a movement to pathologize behaviors, like this game. We view all behaviors through moral lenses, but those lenses shift throughout time and culture. Authorities such as medical experts or government officials will often use their power to define what is morally acceptable by labeling certain behaviors, like sodomy, as disorders or making them illegal entirely (Foucault 1978: 41).

A black and white painting of a bald man with glasses done on a tan brick wall with black paint in the bottom right corner..

Foucault Portrait. Image by thierry ehrmann.

Certain behaviors can remain deviant, but be defined so for different reasons. For instance, the Christian Church has condemned homosexuality dating back to its inception. However, homosexuality was not an existent word until 1892 so it is impossible that they could know what that term means (Halperin 1990: 15). The reason they considered homosexuality wrong was because it was sexual pleasure without the intention or possibility of reproduction; they placed these acts alongside others like fellatio or bestiality (Abraham 2017: 117). However, during the 19th century there was a huge movement to classify and pathologize these acts as against nature rather than simply morally wrong. In the famous words of Foucault, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (1978: 43). Basically, before homosexuality was defined, any homosexual act was simply a misguided act; it did not have any say about the fundamental essence of a person except that they needed more spiritual guidance. Once it was defined and pathologized, people needed medical treatment. This shift in response demonstrates how the reasons people are defined deviant can create a large change in response even if they are responding to the same behavior.

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American Context


The American idea of sexual deviance relies on the subjugation and shifting reactions to and of the raced and classed female body. Ironically, the sexual control of female bodies relies on perceived moral and physical celibacy, while also demanding that women engage in reproductive sex. Therefore, women must balance the prize of virginity and motherhood, while they avoid the stigma of promiscuity; “the solution to anti-social conduct is not the repression of sex, but rather its expression in conformity to social sanction” (Ehrlich 2014: 68).

Protestors holding signs with messages against the criminalization of sex work

Third wave feminism critiques the criminalization of women’s bodies (Image courtesy of Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance).

The false Madonna-whore paradox runs into trouble when it meets young women who acknowledge and act on their erotic imaginations and desires for sexual pleasure; sociologists and critical gender scholars call this breakdown “the Girl Problem” (Potts 2002: 17; Ehrlich 2014: 62). “The Girl Problem” exposes women’s erotic power, the ability to reject social mores, and claim right to their own bodies— this threatens the patriarchy (Lorde 1984: 90). Under the guise of “protecting young girls” and “progressive reform,” the new, American juvenile justice system began to redirect, regulate, and dismiss the “female sexual delinquent,” often to publicly-funded reformaries (Ehrlich 2014: 63). Though male sexual delinquents outnumbered their female counterparts, they did not experience the same state control (Ehrilich 2014: 71). For girls, the depth of consequence hinged on class and race. While middle- and upper-class girls did not escape repercussions for perceived sexual engagement, their class did insulate them from any debilitating consequences (Alexander 1995:34). Comparatively, upper-class, white, heterosexual parents used the legal system to prevent class and racial female mobility, a transitory behavior colloquially known as “marrying up.” Jane Addams, a predominant social reformer and closeted lesbian, argued that immigrant girls who had the “capacity to ‘be assimilated into civilization,’” whereas, “‘due to their lack of inherited control’ […] young black women did not have the ‘same capacity for cultural improvement’” (Addams qt. Hicks 2010: 186). This dehumanization must be seen as a tool to perpetuate existing systems and matrices of oppression. In other words, how we, as American society, discuss and envision sexual deviance ultimately reinforces social systems that oppress people.

Reframing Sexual Deviance: Late 20th Century

As women gained more sexual freedom over the course of the 20th century, they began to experiment and exercise their erotic power. For example, more and more young people began to publicly acknowledge that they engage premarital sex (Greenwood, Fernández-Villaverde, Guner 2010: 1). In response, neo-conservatives and Christian evangelicals created a moral entrepreneurial campaign to align young, sexual behavior in with “a moral agenda that call[ed] for a return to traditional values regarding gender and sexuality” (Doan and Williams 2008: 436). The moral entrepreneurial campaign’s legislative success led to the inclusion of Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) in the Social Security Act in 1981. Any federally-funded sexual education program must adhere to:

(A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;

(B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;

(C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;

(D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

(E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;

(F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;

(G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and

(H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity (1981).

Text on top reads in all capital letters, "abstinence-only education." below, a text message chain: sender: he don't have sex ever ok (pain emoji, perfecto emoji) it's bad (pizza emoji) then from the sender: im pregnant..... and I got herpes sry. To the right of the text there is a drawing of a mother holding her teenage daughter

Abstinence-only education often plays up shame and fear to dissuade teenagers from sex. (Image courtesy of Rebecca Watson)

The Supreme Court overturned the AFLA with 1991 case, Kendrick v. Sullivan. This educational curriculum, in part, created a conservative, sex-negative landscape in the late 20th century for more contemporary subcultures to resist: riot grrrl, burlesque, BDSM, Roller Derby, Suicide Girls, and ficcers (Haenfler 2014: 74-76). In turn, the growth of these subcultures laid the necessary cultural groundwork for abstinence pledgers to resist new subcultural norms (Bailey 1988: 79).

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Levels of Construction and Subcultures


The larger society and dominant culture has shunned, accepted, and praised  sex throughout time and across cultural boundaries, from the complex non-monogamous relationships in Oneida Community in the mid 1850s, to the arresting of erotic fiction writers in the early 1900s (Doyle 2018; Talese 1980). The sociological meaning of sex creates the norms for sexual activity and at the same time what is not normal, or deviant. These meanings are created at different levels, the individual, interactions amongst individuals, and interactions of individuals and structures.

At the micro, or the individual level, individuals enjoy some sense of agency in regards to the use of sexuality, how to use it, what strength it holds, and what power it can release. An individual can masturbate and feel the pleasure of orgasm, and it is not necessarily deviant to them. They get to somewhat decide what that behavior means outside of the context of social structures that control the dominant narrative. While it is true that individuals who engage in activity viewed as deviant by other sometimes embody the shame others may cast on them, at the individual level individuals have some agency in deciding what is deviant to them. Say an individual likes to masturbate while watching others engage in sexual intercourse, to the individual themself, it is not deviant. This is actually the subject of Gay Talese’s book, The Voyeur’s Motel. A hotel owner installed a number of peepholes in the rooms for rent, and would watch people have sex, and occasionally masturbate. It was normal to him, because he is not interacting with structure or the larger “normal” sexual society (2017). Even if individuals from the outside world would judge this as deviant, the individual engaging in it does not determine that the act is deviant.

Black and white image of an older white man smiling and dressed in a suit and fedora.

Gay Talese. Image from Tom Blunt.

At the meso level individuals interact with the structures around them, try to negotiate the stigma of their micro level desires and sexuality. Women have typically been pushed by society to assume a double consciousness of the sexuality they hold. They are told to me pure, to wait to have sex, and if they have too much sex or have it too early, then they are tainted. Yet, at the same time women are expected to be sexual for men. They are supposed to receive sex and enjoy it, but they are not supposed to have it… double consciousness. We can also return to the concept of the voyeur. After Talese’s book was released, the actions of the hotel owner had to be held in comparison to surrounding social constructions of the normal. People who read the book can see his behavior as a voyeur as weird and deviant, because of the way we have created a dominant narrative of sexuality and sexual expression(2017).

At the macro level, the structural level, there exists widely accepted dominant sexual scripts. Sexual scripts are an example of how sex between people happens. The script is important to sociology because it can be used to “describe virtually all human behavior in the sense that there is very little that can in a full measure be considered spontaneous” (Gagnon & Simon 2013:26). In the world of sexuality, sexual scripts become a way of understanding the “organization of mutually shared conventions that allows two or more actors to participate in a complex act involving mutual dependence” and “the motivational elements that produce arousal or at least a commitment to [sexual] activity” (Gagnon & Simon 2013:27). Finally, we can understand sexual scripts as also the way in which we combine “bodily activities” that result in certain biological responses (Gagnon & Simon 2013:28). An example of a sexual script could be the process by which two heterosexual people have sex in the United States: the man kisses the woman, this leads to caressing, which leads to oral sex, which leads to penetrative sex. Again, the previously mentioned voyeur is constructed as sexually deviant, because of how his actions deviant from the normal sexual narrative, or the dominant sexual script.

A white man in a button up short sleep white shirt mans the desk of a hotel. He smiles with a stamp in hand.

Gerald Foos, the subject of The Voyeur’s Hotel by Gay Talese. Image by PressReader.

Sexual deviance is constructed through not following the dominant sexual script. This could be through homosexuality, having multiple partners in a relationship or during a sexual act, and through simply crafting new sexual scripts that do not require penetration.



A woman wearing all black and dark makeup sits in a staircase. She is looking into the camera with no facial expression.

A goth woman. Image by NFG photo.

While the goth subculture is predominantly made up of middle-class white men and women, these individuals find ways to deviate from the normal and dominant sexual script through non-monogamous and non-heterosexual relationships (Wilkins 2004). This resistance is done in-order to challenge the subservient sexual position that women are assumed to take in the dominant sexual script. Doing so allows for subversion of the normal, and redirecting power to women within the subculture.

Women within the goth subculture are encouraged to be the active participants within sexual intercourse as compared to when men are, or the more traditional route:

Goth women engage in strategies of active sexuality (proactive sexuality and nonmonogamy) to create gender egalitarianism within the Goth scene. This approach has a number of benefits for Goth women: First, it allows them to be perceived as and to feel sexy despite physical self-presentations that are often not sexually validated in the mainstream culture. Second, it allows them to engage in sexual play with multiple partners while sidestepping most of the stigma and dangers that women who engage in such behavior outside the Goth scene frequently incur (Wilkins 2004: 329). 

Goth women are able to create a feminist identity that they feel confident in, and allows for them to view the Goth subculture as a more egalitarian society than the one at large.

Similar to many other subcultures, the Goth subculture can also reinforce some of the dominant culture, specifically sexuality.

Riot Grrrl

Two women are on stage in a small concert venue. One has medium dark hair, and the other has bleached blond short hair. The audience are extremely close to the stage, and the room is packed.

Bikini Kill concert (1991). Image by Brad Sigal.

Riot Grrrl subcultural punk has deviated from sexual norms through the reclamation of words such as cunt, queer, pussy, and girl (Attwood 2007). These words have typically been used to punish deviant sexual women, but Riot Grrrl has taken these words and used them to give power back to grrrls within the subculture. For example, during shows, the artists will wear ripped clothing displaying the previously mentioned words all over their bodies. This is an act of resistance, as well as empowerment for those attending the shows(Attwood 2007).


Riot Grrrl subcultural punk has deviated from sexual norms through the reclamation of words such as cunt, queer, pussy, and girl (Attwood 2007). These words have typically been used to punish deviant sexual women, but Riot Grrrl has taken these words and used them to give power back to grrrls within the subculture. For example, during shows, the artists will wear ripped clothing displaying the

Members of Riott Grrrl subcultural bands such as Mish Way of White lung would also engage in fashion styles that would challenge what is sexual. Love’s style, often described as Kinderwhore, was a way of subverting sexualization of women:

Kinderwhore was a strong feminist statement. It was about so much more than a little velvet dress, ripped tights and a dumb media-made label. It was about intentionally taking the most constraining parts of the feminine, good-girl aesthetic, inflating them to a cartoon level, and subverting them to kill any ingrained insecurities. It was about taking back the power and screaming, ‘You want the female sex? Here you go. Here it all is. You can’t even handle it.’ It was about power (Way 2015).

Riot Grrrl subverted cultural standards through sexual deviance in-order to empower women.

Abstinence Subculture

A white man wearing a fedora stands in from of a crowd of people with his hands in the air. At the bottom of the image it reads Silver Ring Thing.

Silver Ring Thing, teenage abstinence group. Image by Geneva College.

In the late 20th Century, Christian groups within the United States believed that American youth were quickly becoming too comfortable with deviant sexuality. Too many young people were having sex, and not waiting until marriage. So, Christian religious groups enacted a number of moral entrepreneurial campaigns to promote abstinence (Williams 2011). This is an example of a subculture deviating from a changing dominant social script, that no longer required individuals to be married in-order to have sex.

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Let’s Talk About Sex

Rachel Ashley talks to her young, Christian viewers about how the should approach sexuality. She blends trendy, mainstream culture with conservative views.

Sex Education: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

John Oliver, a liberal cultural critic, examines sex education policy in the United States.

“17 Easy Ways to be a Good Girlfriend to Your Boyfriend”

This guide for “how to be a good girlfriend” is an online resource that outlines sexual scripts for young people. This guide reinforces cisheterosexism and gender essentialism.


Glee, a teen soap that ran on FOX from 2009-2015, plays out two young people, Rachel and Jesse, deciding whether or not to have sex. This scene also demonstrates the ingrained power of the social construction of virginity and commitment.

Kinsey (2004)

Kinsey is a film from 2004 about the Alfred C. Kinsey, one of the first sex researcher in the United States. The film explores his early childhood, struggles with sexual norms, and the creation of the Kinsey Institute, previously known as the Institute for Sex Research.


A Netflix adaptation of The Voyeur’s Motel (2017), Voyeur looks into a Gerald Foos, a hotel owner, who installed an observation deck in his hotel to watch patrons have sex. Foos must manage the stigma of coming out to the public about his deemed deviant behavior.

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Significant Scholarship






J. Shoshanna Ehrlich

 The back lace of a white corset. Text moves vertically down the picture. Reads, "Copyrighted Material. J. Shoshanna Ehrlich. Regulating Desire. From the Virtuous Maiden to the Purity Princess."

J. Shoshanna Ehrlich is a an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She focuses on the intersection of law, sexuality, and reproductive rights.








Alfred C. Kinsey

Alfred Kinsey 1955. An older white man is hunched over a table with hands closed into each other.

Alfred Kinsey 1955. Image by Wikimedia.

Just a little under a decade before Second-wave feminism began in the early 1960s, Alfred Kinsey established the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. In 1948, just a year after opening, the institute released Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Indiana University 2018). This book described the sexual nature of men derived from hundreds if not thousands of sex-histories and interviews of individuals by Alfred Kinsey. Finally, in 1953, the complementary book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was released (Indiana University 2018). This books acted as proof to individuals that sexual behavior was normal, and should be encouraged due to the pleasurable nature.








John H. Gagnon

John H. Gagnon. An older white man with black rimmed square glasses appears to be speaking mid-sentence.

John H. Gagnon

The late John H. Gagnon was a sociologist of human sexuality and sociology professor at the State University of New York who wrote and edited over a hundred different books and articles. His most noted work is the book Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality.




Wilkins, Amy C. 2004. “‘So Full of Myself as a Chick.’” Gender & Society 18(3):328–49.

Amy Wilkins, a sociologist of intersectional inequalities at the University of Colorado, Boulder, details female sexuality in the mostly insulated Goth scene. Using participant observation and extensive field work, Wilkins argues that while Goth women escape and refute certain aspects of dominant sexuality, their limited critique and challenge to hegemonic practices, restricts the gender equality within the Goth subculture.

Attwood, Feona. 2007. “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.”  Journal of  Gender Studies, 16:3,233-247, DOI: 10.1080/09589230701562921

Feona Attwood, a professor of cultural studies and communication at Middlesex University London, uses a socio-historical and sociolinguistic lens to examine “sluts.” She argues that this term is loaded with sexist and homophobic connotations. Therefore, as some contemporary feminists are already embracing, “slut” can be a site of patriarchal resistance and queer femme empowerment.

Williams, Jean Calterone. 2011. “Battling a ‘Sex-Saturated Society’: The Abstinence Movement and the Politics of Sex Education.Sexualities 14(4):416-443.

In this piece, Dr. Jean Williams, a Professor of Political Science at California Polytechnic State University, summarizes and analyzes the rise of the Abstinence Movement in the United States. She looks at how abstinence subcultures view themselves as marginalized, and their push for changes within restrictions of sexual education by the United States federal government.



DeLamater, John and Rebecca F. Plante, eds. 2015. Handbook of the Sociology of Sexualities. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research. Switzerland: Springer.

This book takes a comprehensive look at the academic world of sexualities through the disciplines of sociology and social psychology. It explores the broad range of sexual relationships and interactions studied by prominent academics in the corresponding field.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin. 1948. Sexual Behavior of the Human Male. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

This is the first of the “Kinsey Reports” that reported the findings of thousands of interviews and sex-histories of individuals who corresponded with Alfred Kinsey. The book attempts to normalize the sexual behavior of men and explore believed deviant sexual behavior.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin. 1953. Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

This is the second of the “Kinsey Reports” that summarizes the finding of sex-histories and interviews from women. This book attempts to look at what is normal for women sexually and understand deviant sexual behavior by women.

Gagnon, John H. and William Simons. 1973. Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd.

This was the first book on the topic of the Sociology of Sexuality. Gagnon and Simons explore how sexuality and sex are socially constructed and how meaning is created.

Humphreys, Laud. 1975. Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Transaction Publishers.

This book is about a controversial study where the author, Laud Humphreys, acted as a lookout for sexual encounters between men in public restrooms. After observing these encounters he took the men’s license plate numbers without their knowledge and followed up with them a year later in a disguise as a social health surveyor. This questionable strategy enabled him to break new territory in the studies of sexual deviant behavior. Originally published in 1970, it was published again in 1975 addressing ethical concerns.

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Other Scholarship



Fritz, Niki, and Bryant Paul. 2017. “From Orgasms to Spanking: A Content Analysis of the Agentic and Objectifying Sexual Scripts in Feminist, for Women, and Mainstream Pornography.” Sex Roles 77(9-10):639-652.

Greenwood, Jeremy, Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, Nezih Guner. 2010. “From Shame To Game In One Hundred Years: An Economic Model Of The Rise In Premarital Sex And Its De-Stigmatization,” Journal of the European Economic Association, European Economic Association, 12(1): 25-61.

Schippers, Mimi. 2000. “The Social Organization of Sexuality and Gender in Alternative Hard Rock: An Analysis of Intersectionality.” Gender and Society 14(6):747-764.

Sun, Chyng, Ana Bridges, Jennifer A. Johnson and Matthew B. Ezzell. 2016. “Pornography and the Male Sexual Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 45(4):983-994.

Valocchi, Stephen. 2005. “Not Yet Queer Enough: Lessons of Queer Theory for the Sociology of Gender and Sexuality.” Gender and Society 19(6):750-770.


Abraham, Erin V. 2017. “5 Heirs of Sodom Sexual Deviance, Pollution, and Community.” Pp. 117–44 in Anticipating Sin in Medieval Society: Childhood, Sexuality, and Violence in the Early Penitentials. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Alexander, Ruth M. 1995. The Girl Problem: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Bailey, Beth L. 1988. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Doan, Alesha E. and Jean Calterone. Williams. 2008. The Politics of Virginity: Abstinence in Sex Education. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Doyle, Michael. “The Oneida Community.” Pp. 29-33. in The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality by Michael Doyle. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2018.

Ehrlich, J. Shoshanna. 2014. Regulating Desire: from the Virtuous Maiden to the Purity Princess. Albany: SUNY Press, State University of New York Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Gagnon, John H. and William Simon. “The Social Origins of Sexual Development’.” Pp. 22-31 in Sexualities: Identities, Behavior, and Society, edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Rebecca F. Plante. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haenfler, Ross. 2014. Subcultures: the Basics. London: Routledge.

Halperin, David M. 1990. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: London.

Hicks, Cheryl D. 2010. Talk with You like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

hooks, bell. 1992. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks. 21-39. Boston: South End Press.

Lorde, Audre. 2007. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.

Mason, Diane. 2013. The Secret Vice – Masturbation in Victorian Fiction and Medical Culture. Manchester University Press.

Potts, Annie. 2014. Science/Fiction of Sex Feminist Deconstruction and the Vocabularies of Heterosex. Florence: Taylor and Francis.


Indiana University. 2018. “Dr. Alfred Kinsey.” Retrieved November 28, 2018 (

Schwyzer, Hugo. 2013. “Masturbation Is at the Root of the Culture Wars.The Atlantic. Retrieved December 7, 2018 (

Social Security Act. 2010. 5 U.S.C. § 510. Separate Program for Abstinence Education. Retrieved from

Walton, Geri. 2018. “Masturbation Among Victorian Youth in Boarding Schools.” Geri Walton. Retrieved December 6, 2018 (

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