Sexual Scripts

Take a Minute…

Think of a time when a significant other or a potential partner did something that put you off. Something small, nothing major or abusive, of course, but it just didn’t sit well with you.

If you are not into romantic relationships, think of a friend’s story you may have heard.

What did this person do and what was the situation?

What did you expect them to do?

Analyze your knee jerk reaction and think about why you were immediately repelled.

What are Sexual Scripts?

Sexual Scripts are ideas of how males and females are supposed to interact with each other, including how each gender should behave in sexual or romantic situations. Like a script for a TV show or movie, a sexual script is a mental story detailing specific events and assigning certain roles (parts that each actor plays in the story).

For example, if a male asks a female out to the movies, the sexual script suggests that he is expected to pay for both his ticket and his date’s ticket. If he does not, then he is violating the traditional sexual script for a date. If his date subscribes to the traditional version of this script then he might fail to meet her expectations, with the possible consequence that she will not go out with him again. Sexual scripts are based on shared cultural ideals and social norms. They are learned from and reinforced by our family, friends, church, the media, and other people around us.

Gagnon and Simon

The idea of sexual script brings a new metaphor and imagery for understanding human sexual activity as social and learned interactions. The concept was introduced by sociologists John H. Gagnon and William Simon in their 1973 book Sexual Conduct.

The idea highlights three levels of scripting: cultural/historical, social/interactive and personal/intrapsychic. It draws from a range of theories including symbolic interactionism, discourse theory and feminism.

The theory of sexual scripting brings sociological, cultural, anthropological, historical and social psychological tools to the study of human sexualities.

Whereas human sexuality is usually seen as the province of the biologist and the clinician, scripting helps research and analysis to understand sexualities as less biological and more cultural, historical and social.

Human Interaction

“Scripts are a metaphor for conceptualizing the production of behaviour within social life.”

“For behaviour to occur, something resembling scripting must occur on three distinct levels: cultural scenarios, interpersonal scripts, and intrapsychic scripts.”

Cultural Scenarios

“Cultural scenarios are the instructional guides that exist at the level of collective life. All institutions and institutionalized arrangements can be seen as systems of signs and symbols through which the requirements and the practice of specific roles are given.”

Our socialization is always working in the background

Interpersonal Scripts

“The possibility of a lack of congruence between the abstract scenario and the concrete situation must be resolved by the creation of interpersonal scripts. This is a process that transforms the social actor from being exclusively an actor to being a partial scriptwriter or adapter shaping the materials of relevant cultural scenarios into scripts for behaviour in particular contexts.”

This is where our free will or choice comes in

Intrapsychic Scripting

“The need to script one's behaviour, as well as the implicit assumption of the scripted nature of the behaviour of others, is what engenders a meaningful 'internal rehearsal', which becomes significant when alternative outcomes are available. This intrapsychic scripting creates fantasy in a rich sense of that word: the symbolic reorganization of reality in ways to more fully realize the actor's many layered and sometimes multivoiced wishes.”

This is the subjective reality that guides us in our interpretations and processing


paradigmatic societies vs. postparadigmatic societies

Essentially this refers to those societies where you have a strict cultural scenario versus those where the cultural scenario acts as a more abstract guideline

“The cultural scenario that loses its coercive powers also loses its predictability and frequently becomes merely a legitimating reference or explanation. The failure of the coercive powers of cultural scenarios occasions anomie, personal alienation and uncertainty. Much of the passionate intensity associated with anomic behaviour might best be interpreted as restorative efforts, often desperate efforts at effecting a restoration of a more cohesive self, reinforced by effective social ties.”

Sexual Behavior

“The significance of some aspect of behaviour does not determine the frequency with which that behaviour occurs, but only the amount and intensity of attention paid to it.”

Again, sex and sexual interactions become tantamount to who we are, to our very happiness, only because we assign them so much significance.

Sociogenic versus ontogenic

When society tells you sex is important versus your own experiences of sex

“Sociogenic and ontogenic factors are closely interrelated. These are societal settings in which the sexual takes on a strong meaning and successful performance or avoidance of what is defined as sexual plays a major role in the evaluation of individual competence and worth.”

Society’s Influence

“The most basic sources of sociogenic influence are the cultural scenarios that explicitly deal with the sexual or those that can implicitly be put to sexual uses. Such cultural scenarios not only specify appropriate objects, aims, and desirable qualities of self/other relations, but also instruct in times, places, sequences of gesture and utterance and, among the most important, what the actor and coparticipants (real or imagined) are assumed to be feeling.”

“These instructions make most of us far more committed and rehearsed at the time of our initial sexual encounters than we realize.”

Society’s Influence

“When there is a fundamental congruence between the sexual as it is defined by prevailing cultural scenarios and experienced intrapsychically, consequent behaviour is symbolic. It is entirely dependent upon the shared significant meanings of collective life. The sexual takes a natural air obscuring that virtually all the cues initiating sexual behaviour are embedded in the external environment.”

Society’s Influence

“A lack of congruence between levels of scripting transforms the sexual into more obscurely metaphoric behaviour, as it may become a vehicle for meaning above and beyond conventionally shared meanings: private sexual cultures grow within the heart of public sexual cultures.”

It may well have been the growing number of individuals in Western societies experiencing such a lack of congruence that made prevailing eighteenth-and nineteenth-century discourses on the nature of the sexual so highly effective in gaining widespread adherence to modern Western sexual values and idealized patterns of behaviour.”

Partners and Desire

“Interpersonal scripting, representing the actor's response to the external world, draws heavily upon cultural scenarios, invoking symbolic elements expressive of such scenarios. Among other functions, interpersonal scripting serves to lower uncertainty and heighten legitimacy for both the other or others as well as the actor.”

“For virtually all, at one time or other, desire will follow rather than precede behaviour.”

“As might also be said for any significant area of behaviour, there are many more reasons for behaving sexually than there are ways of behaving sexually.”

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