Explaining Sexual Deviance Using Robert Merton’s Anomie Theory
Society is governed by a set of rules, regulations, and mores that ensure the safety of its citizens and help maintain order in society. Citizens who do not conform to the set rules are considered to be deviants. Deviance is “the recognized violation of cultural norms” (p. 210) so in accordance with that definition, sexual deviance would be violation of cultural norms in terms of sex and sexuality. In that respect, prostitution is a form of sexual deviance; prostitution is the “selling of sexual activities” (p. 197) People resort to sexually deviant acts such as prostitution because of the barriers that society presents in the achievement of culturally approved goals, such as financial success. Social scientists are always looking for ways to understand the actions of members of their society; some use what is called a situational approach. A situational approach is a theoretical viewpoint that emphasizes the importance of the environmental situation, rather than his or her innate personality disposition, in determining a person’s behavior. A situational approach to deviance such as anomie theory is not an adequate way to understand sexual deviance
According to Robert Merton, “deviance depends on the extent to which society provides the means to achieve cultural goals.” (p. 213) Conformity lies in pursuing cultural goals through approved means. In the Strain Theory of Deviance, Merton created a theory that combined a person’s view of cultural goals and the conventional means to obtain them, which allowed home to identify various types of deviants. In terms of anomie theory, a person can fall into one of five categories: conformist, innovator, ritualistic, retreatist or rebel. According to Merton’s theory, prostitutes would be considered innovators; they stray from social convention in order to achieve a societal goal.
Merton developed his theory using the example of the “American Dream.” He stressed that attaining wealth and stability are major goals of members in a society, but not all members possess the means to do this, especially members who belong to minority and disadvantaged groups. Members of such groups may resort to extreme measures such as drug dealing, theft, and prostitution in order to achieve social goals and realize the “American Dream”. Prostitution is not considered to be an approved mean of achieving a goal in our society. Society persecutes both prostitutes and their clients because they are breaking laws in order to obtain the means to achieve their goals. In the general sense of anomie theory, sexual deviance is explainable, but there are some important aspects of deviant acts that are not explained.
While anomie theory does take into consideration the societal roadblocks to achieving goals including low social status and stigmatism, it does not allow for learning deviance or internal motivations. Merton’s anomie theory is too general in its approach and does not lend itself to scientific study. There are internal and external influencing factors that can affect the way that people make decisions, and these factors are not taken into consideration by anomie theory.
While anomie theory may prove to be useful in explaining certain aspects of society and the behavior of the members in those societies, it is often deficient in explaining the emotional factors that influence an individual’s behavior, the choices they make, and how those choices affect society. It is important to be able to understand the influences that behavior has on society and how to interpret trends, like the rising rate of prostitution, that present themselves in society. While Merton’s anomie theory works well as a premise, it does not allow room for human emotion and will not produce accurate scientific results; therefore, is not effective in explanations of deviance.
Macionis, John J. and Gerber, Linda M. 2009. Sociology, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall