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What Is a Sexual Network?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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A sexual network is a kind of social network, a group of people connected by social relationships. A sexual network is a social network that links people connected by sexual activity. In other words, individuals who are part of sexual networks must have had sexual relations with at least one other person in the network. Many social networks are chiefly of interest to sociologists and marketers. Sexual networks, on the other hand, play an important role in sexual health and the spread or prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Sociologists have been studying the ways human beings interact since the late 19th century. In the mid-20th century, social scientists such as Harvard’s Stanley Milgram realized that human social connections followed certain patterns that could be traced and mapped. Sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking research proved that this applied to sexual relationships as well. In a community such as a small town or a university campus, a significant percentage of the population will be connected in an interlinked sexual network. Other sexual networks form around specialized groups, like a large workplace or the patrons of a particular nightclub.

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Sexual networks can take different forms depending on their originating social network. In 2004, researchers at Ohio State University traced the sexual network of an anonymous Midwestern U.S. high school. Previous studies of sexual networks had shown that a few individuals with high levels of sexual activity acted as hubs, linking most of the rest of the network. By contrast, this study showed the high school’s sexual network was spread widely across the student body. This suggests that young people, exploring their sexuality for the first time, have not established the roles and habits that often determine the shapes of adult sexual networks.

Study of sexual networks can help epidemiologists monitor and control outbreaks of STDs. This was particularly true after the discovery of HIV/AIDS, a fatal and incurable STD. In the early 1980s, the general public believed AIDS affected only homosexual men, and few people exercised caution in their sexual behavior. Scientists soon discovered that the viral disease could infect anyone, and its early spread among a sexual network of gay men led to the misconception that heterosexuals would not be affected. This led to new understanding of sexual networks and STDs, as well as widespread changes in sexual attitudes and behavior, including the concept of safe sex.

The tracing of the sexual network related to HIV is well documented in the best-selling Randy Shilts book about the early AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On. The 1993 film based on the book also portrays this. One aspect of the study revealed how sexual networks were changed and expanded by the advent of readily affordable air travel. Sexual networks continue to change as emerging technologies allow people to connect in new and surprising ways.

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