By Cecilia Wishneski, Clinical Mental Health Intern

Think back to how you learned about sex growing up.

Take a Look…

Did you receive formal education on sex at all?

In 2023, thirty-eight (38) states plus the District of Columbia require sex education for students in schools. (Guttmacher Institute, 2023). This education often includes information about contraception and safe sex, abstinence, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Some schools offer information on HIV. Others provide information on healthy relationships and dating violence.

Did you learn about sex from your parents, friends, or peers?

Parents today are giving their children the birds and the bees talk at higher rates and at earlier ages than in decades past (Axis, “A Parent’s Guide to the Sex Talk”). Millennials may not have received the talk until late adolescence or early adulthood, GenX’ers report not receiving the talk until they were well into their adult years, and generations before that sometimes received no talk from their parents at all.

When parents rely on the education system or other leaders in the community to teach their children about sex, the responsibility often falls into the hands of the peer groups that children run in. This, unfortunately, leads to many misconceptions about puberty, romance, and sex. Many misconceptions disseminate false information about STIs, pregnancy, sex differences, safe sex, and pleasure.

Did you learn about sex through movies and television, or maybe even video games and the internet?

Whether we like it or not, children learn about sex and gender roles through the movies, television, and videos they watch. In recent decades, video games and the internet have contributed to this informal education, as well. A 1999 study (Gruber & Grube) found that upwards of 80% of cable broadcasts had sexual content, and many messages fail to present the risks and necessary precautions of sexual intercourse. Children in the late nineties reported learning more about sex through friends and the media than they did through school or other important figures (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999).

Sexual Scripts and Their Impact on our Lives

The information we received growing up and into adulthood contribute to what is known as our sexual scripts. Simon and Gagnon (1986) created sexual script theory in which they define sexual scripts as “the approved norms regarding sexuality that individuals embrace, internalize, and endorse through a process of socialization.” Sexual scripts guide what we believe are socially appropriate roles, processes, and interactions regarding sex and sexuality.

There are three concepts that contribute to our sexual scripts: cultural scenarios, interpersonal scripts, and intrapsychic scripts.

Cultural scenarios are what our society or culture tell us are appropriate sexual behaviors and gender roles. These scenarios are often learned from family, community, religion, school, peers, and media. A gender role script in some cultures is the stigma attached to women who have many sexual partners but the pride that men have when they have many partners.

Interpersonal scripts are learned through interactions with our partners, both romantic and sexual. These relationships inform us on what is expected of us during sex and within the relationship.

Intrapsychic scripts refer to our individual personality traits and our personal histories that affect our sexuality.  This can also refer to our individual sexual preferences, such as our turn ons and offs.

Netflix and Chill: A Sexual Script

Izienicki, a professor of sociology at Purdue University,  (2021) created a teaching tool for college students that is a great way to explain the concept of sexual scripts. Izienicki had his students break into small groups and write out the steps that are to be expected during a “successful Netflix and Chill” session, including which activities occur and in what order.

Students then shared their steps with the class. They were surprised to find that they had nearly the same set of guidelines for a successful Netflix and Chill date, such as “touching comes before kissing, kissing comes before heavy petting, and oral sex occurs before penetrative intercourse.” Where there were differences, Izienicki pointed out that they may be due to cultural or personal differences. This classroom activity reveals that sexual scripts are culturally constructed and learned through social institutions. It also reveals the “scripted” aspect as opposed to the spontaneity that media often portrays sex to have.

Assess Your Own Sexual Scripts

Assessing your sexual scripts can offer you greater insight into your personal, relational, and sexual lives. Within a relationship context, discussing sexual scripts can bring you and your partner closer through a shared understanding of sexual contexts, expectations, and roles. Here are a few questions to ask yourself or your partner to start a conversation about sexual scripts: (adapted from The Center for Growth):

  1. What gender roles were you taught growing up?
  2. What does your gender mean to you?
  3. How did you learn about sex from your parents, if at all?
  4. How did you learn about sex in school, if at all?
  5. What kind of conversations do you remember having with your friends, family and professionals (religious leaders, doctors, therapists, teachers etc) around sex?
  6. What myths or misconceptions did you hold surrounding sex growing up, or even today? Did these myths influence your view on sex or on your sexual encounters?
  7. What are your views on masturbation? Are there positive, negative, or neutral feelings attached to masturbation? How did your culture or society impact your views on masturbation?
  8. How satisfied are you in your romantic and sexual relationships?
  9. How important is your pleasure in your sexual relationships?
  10. How important is your partner’s pleasure in your sexual relationships?
  11. What have your past sexual interactions taught you about the way sex “should” be?
  12. Do you feel comfortable discussing sex with your partner? With your friends? With your family? With a medical or mental health professional?

The way you talk, think, and feel about sex is related to the messages you received as a child and the ones you receive today. Sexual scripts are often engrained in us at a young age, but this does not mean that they cannot change. Sexual scripts change most easily when starting a new relationship. As you and your partner learn about each other, both inside the bedroom and out, you begin to rewrite the scripts. And whether you are in a relationship or not, you have the power to change the narrative and write a script that feels safe and comfortable for you.

Join us for our upcoming free workshop series!

If you and your partner are interested in adding to your toolbox skills for discussing sex and sexuality, our upcoming workshop “Reigniting Lost Desire” may be right for you! Join us to learn how to talk about sex, to identify barriers to sexual desire, and to gain skills for reconnecting.

Consider attending one or both of our upcoming free workshops in Untethered Therapy’s upcoming Couples Workshop Series to take your relationship to the next level.

Workshop topics, in order, are as follows: 

Reigniting Lost Desire on Saturday, March 18th from 12pm-2pm
Effective Communication and Conflict Management on Saturday, April 22st from 12pm-2pm 

Register today for one or both of the sessions – or contact with any questions!