Man holding a bouqeut of flowers behind his back for his partner, who is sitting on a bench outside in a green dress.
Illustration by Marta Pucci

Sexual Scripts

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
12/23/2021
Last updated:
5/8/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
12/23/2021
Last updated:
5/8/2022

TL;DR

  • Each of us has a sexual script that has been 'written' for us by our upbringing, environment, everyday influences and existing sexual experience.
  • These scripts are viewed as a social construction that govern our attitudes, beliefs and sexual activity.
  • Sexual scripts can be both positive and negative, but there is no 'right' or 'wrong' script since the way they are written is largely out of our control.
  • Mismatching sexual scripts can sometimes cause problems within sexual relationships but this can be addressed with good communication and a willingness to grow together.

Most of us have a fairly good idea of what we like in bed. We know the type of people we're attracted to, the things that turn us on, and our favorite sexual positions. We're also probably aware of our general views on sex - how we feel things 'should' be done, and what we consider to be 'normal' sexual behaviors. 

But we might not have an individual understanding of how our sexual attitude is governed by what's called a sexual script, and how these scripts can have a big impact on our sexual activity.

What are sexual scripts?

Sexual scripts, or Sexual Script Theory, was first introduced by sociologists John Gagnon and William Simon in their 1973 book Sexual Conduct. However, the concept has existed for probably just as long as people have been having sex!

Sexual Script Theory says that every person's sexual relationships follow a type of script which has been 'written' for them by multiple external influences, such as media, movies, culture, politics and language. These broadly fall into the categories of cultural scripts, interpersonal scripts, and the intrapsychic script (impulses within the mind). 

Everybody's sexual scripting is different, and it informs each individual's attitude towards all things sex-related, including the way we feel our sexual partners should behave and respond to our sexual needs, and how we should behave in turn. Our scripts can also differ in a relational context, depending on who we are with, or where we are.

What are some examples of sexual scripts?

Our understanding of sex helps to shape our attitudes towards a host of concepts, from sexual orientation and gendered behaviors, to sexual consent and the way we get sexual satisfaction within sexual relationships.

Common sexual scripts include:

  • Men should be the ones to initiate sex.
  • Heterosexual sex is over once the man ejaculates.
  • Women should be coy and demure.
  • Female orgasms are hard to achieve.
  • Woman should be able to orgasm solely through penetrative sex.
  • It's acceptable for heterosexual men to have had many female partners, but women should be less experienced. 
  • Sex should only take place within committed relationships.
  • Women are primarily driven by emotional intimacy, rather than sexual satisfaction.

These are just a handful of examples of perceived sex roles. Everybody's own sexual script will be entirely unique, guided by social context, cultural scripts, their own sexual experiences and their existing beliefs about their sexual realm.

However, some generalizations can be made. For example, common sexual scripts are typically heteronormative and related to gendered behaviors, especially in countries with strict religious or political laws. Meanwhile, younger people's sexual scripting is often quite different to older people's, because of shifting generational attitudes and more socially-progressive ways of thinking.

There's no such thing as a 'right' or 'wrong' sexual script, since they are largely written by influences outside of our individual control. But if your script is having a negative impact on your sexual relationships, it's time to take a closer look at it.

What does your sexual script look like?

Taking the time to understand your sexual script at an individual level can be hugely beneficial to your sexual satisfaction. This will give way to richer sexual experiences, greater sexual satisfaction and higher intimacy in romantic relationships even outside the bedroom.

For a start, your sexual script might be based on things you think you should want, rather than the things you really want. This is especially prevalent within heterosexual feminine sexuality, where commonly scripted sexual roles mean female participants don't feel comfortable asking for the things that make them feel good. For example, you might be curious about sexual subcultures such as role playing or BDSM, but not feel comfortable pursuing them because it's 'not the done thing' or you feel it's only for more experienced individuals. 

Or, the weight of some parts of your script might already be interfering with your sexual relationships. You might feel under pressure to assume traditional gender roles. Men in heterosexual relationships might feel under pressure to last longer in bed because that's what their script says they should do. While women might abandon hope of an orgasm altogether because their script says their sexual needs are secondary to their partner's. In any case, these scripts don't make for a fulfilling time!

It's worth spending some time reflecting on your sexual script, considering whether your needs are being fulfilled and if not, why not? Could it be related to restrictions imposed by your script? For some people, many of their beliefs and attitudes will be based on things they were taught growing up which could well be outdated now, or simply downright false. So if there are any particular trigger points within your script, spend some time reading and researching them - you might be surprised at what you discover!

How do sexual scripts affect a relationship?

Two aligned sexual scripts is usually a great recipe for lovemaking. When you and your partner are on the same page in terms of what's expected, what sexual behaviors are acceptable, what's off-limits and what boundaries can be pushed (consensually, of course), then you have the safety and freedom to really boost your sexual satisfaction. 

Of course, your individual scripts needn't be perfectly in sync for you to enjoy great sex with each other. Being open to trying new things, offering reassurances around potential trigger points and taking the time to learn about one another's preferences and beliefs is all part of the fun! 

However, if two scripts are very mismatched, there can be problems. Sexual frustration is the big one, obviously, but conflicting scripts can cause issues within everyday life, too. One partner may feel as if they're not being heard or respected, or may experience feelings of inadequacy or shame. Some sexual scripts, especially cultural gender scripts and those related to issues around gender inequity, may influence the dynamics of the relationship outside of the bedroom. These issues can result in frustrations and resentment that can challenge even the most committed relationships.  

What happens when two sexual scripts don't match up

When something doesn't feel right in a relationship, communication is vital, and dealing with a mismatch in sexual scripts is no different. Talk to your partner about your sexual lives and beliefs in a calm and non-judgmental setting. Identify the areas where you align and where there are gaps.

Next, negotiate. Which scripts do you feel it's important to keep, and which ones are constricting you? Perhaps you both hold onto particular scripts because you feel like you should, or because it will make your partner happy, when that might not be the case at all.

Of course, switching up a lifetime of beliefs and attitudes won't happen overnight, so be patient, both with each other and yourselves. Make time to check in regularly with one another to revisit how you're feeling and how things are evolving. And if things feel frustrating, remember that sex is supposed to be fun and enjoyable, and by putting in this work you'll both benefit from a better, more fulfilling relationship status both in and out of the bedroom.

Become aware of your scripts
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