Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.
What Is Sexual Script Theory?
Julie is a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. If she wants a job, she applies. If she wants to go on vacation, she books a flight. But when it comes to sex, Julie doesn't always go after what she wants. Sometimes, she pulls back when she wants to get closer. What's going on?
There are many reasons why Julie might be hesitant when it comes to sex. One sociological theory is the sexual script theory, which says that human sexual behaviors follow a type of social script. For example, a common script is that women act coy or hesitant when it comes to sex, while men act aggressively and go after what they want.
Julie wonders if she's not going after what she wants in the bedroom because of sexual scripts. To help her figure out if that's the reason, let's look at the key ideas in sexual script theory, as well as the development of scripts.
When Julie was in high school, she was in a play. As part of the play, Julie was given a script, which was just the play written down. That way, Julie and the other actors could know their lines and what to do. If she ever got lost, Julie just looked it up in the script.
According to sexual script theory, our ideas and behaviors regarding sex are also written into a script. This script isn't literally written out in paper, but is given to us through society. Our culture tells us how to behave (and how not to behave) through media, education, and conversations.
Everyone has their own, individual script, but there are certain elements that are seen in most sexual scripts. The idea that women are coy and hesitant with regards to sex is an example of a common element in many scripts.
As our sexuality is expressed within our culture, it makes sense that sexual scripts would be based on it. But there are some problems with cultural-based scripts. They are often heteronormative (meaning that they focus on heterosexuality), when there are people who are not heterosexual. They can also be outdated (which we'll discuss in a moment), as cultures change.
So sexual scripts start out as cultural scripts. But, they don't stop there. The cultural scripts then are translated into interpersonal scripts because this is when people interact with others. For example, when Julie is with a sexual partner, she might act according to the cultural script: she might, for example, act coy or hesitate to have sex, even though she wants to.
This specific moment in which Julie acts this way is an interpersonal script between Julie and her partner. That is, they are acting out a script. ''Interpersonal'' means ''between people,'' so this is a script between Julie and her partner.
Sometimes, these interpersonal scripts begin repeating themselves in relationships. For example, Julie might get into a pattern with her partner, where Julie never initiates sex. Instead, she always waits for the other person to make the first move. Over time, this interpersonal script becomes a pattern.
Those scripts then often become intrapersonal scripts. The word ''intrapersonal'' means ''within a person,'' and that's what is going on here: a person is internalizing the sexual script and making it part of who they are. For example, Julie might decide that she's just too timid to initiate sex. She's internalized the script and has decided that it says something about her.
The internalization of a sexual script can have a powerful influence on a person. For example, if Julie decides one night to initiate sex with her partner, she might feel guilty or think something is wrong with her because she's not acting like a typical girl. In this case, the intrapersonal script has influenced her thoughts and emotions.
To some people, the idea that men go after what they want in the bedroom, while women hesitate around sex, sounds pretty old-fashioned. In fact, sexual script theory was first developed in the early 1970s, as social scientists noticed that many behaviors, including sexual ones, followed certain socially constructed scripts.
However, times and society change. Traditional scripts around sexuality hold that ''normal'' men and women follow traditional gender norms. That is, men act like men and women act like women. In the case of sexual scripts, this means that we end up with the traditional view that men are more aggressive and women more coy when it comes to sex.
Another common traditional sexual script is that men who have many sexual partners are studs, while women who sleep with many people are whores or sluts. But as cultural rules and expectations change, so can sexual scripts. Contemporary sexual scripts then often reflect new thinking about sexuality. For example, it is less taboo for women to have multiple sexual partners today than it was 50 years ago.
Let's look at another contemporary sexual script. Seventy-five years ago, it was very unusual for an unmarried couple to live together. It didn't follow the traditional sexual script that said that marriage came before sex.
But in contemporary America, it isn't that uncommon for couples to live together outside of marriage. The sexual script has changed enough that many people feel that it is normal to have sex before marriage. The point here is that, because sexual scripts are culturally based, they change as society changes.
All right, let's take a moment or two to review. As we learned, sexual script theory says that human sexual behaviors follow a social script. These scripts start as cultural scripts, become interpersonal scripts when people engage in sexual behaviors together, and then become intrapersonal scripts when a person is internalizing the sexual script and making it part of who they are. Because they begin in society, sexual scripts can change as the predominant culture changes. However, they can also pose problems for heterosexual couples when they're outdated by current cultural standards and when they're heteronormative in relation to homosexual couples.
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