Communicating Interest in Sex: Verbal and Nonverbal Initiation of Sexual Activity in Young Adults’ Romantic Dating Relationships

Abstract

Relatively little is known about the day-to-day initiation of sexual activity between young adults in committed relationships, notably the ways in which young people communicate interest in sexual activity. Sexual script theory (Simon and Gagnon, Society 22:53–60, 1984) posits that men are traditionally the initiators and women the restrictors of sexual activity early in relationships. However, research suggests that these patterns may be different for individuals in committed relationships. The current study used a diary method to examine verbal/nonverbal and indirect/direct initiation strategies, responses to initiations, and patterns between initiations and responses. Participants included 31 men and 32 women between the ages of 18 and 24 years who were involved in committed heterosexual relationships. Men initiated more frequently than did women and most initiations were nonverbal initiation (91%) rather than verbal (65%). Responses to initiations tended to match the initiators’ choice of strategies, suggesting that synchrony plays an important role in initiation patterns. The findings have implications for understanding sexual communication as well as relationship and sexual satisfaction among young adults.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge research support from NICHD R01-HD41721 (to Lucia F. O’Sullivan, Ph.D.). The authors thank the students for their participation in the project, Patricia Antoniello and the administration at Brooklyn College, Susie Hoffman, David Seal, Abigail Harrison, and Curtis Dolezal for help with designing the project, Giovanna Rodriguez and Megan McCrudden for help with recruitment and data collection, and Julie Sharp for assisting with data coding.

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Correspondence to Lucia F. O’Sullivan.

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Vannier, S.A., O’Sullivan, L.F. Communicating Interest in Sex: Verbal and Nonverbal Initiation of Sexual Activity in Young Adults’ Romantic Dating Relationships. Arch Sex Behav 40, 961–969 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-010-9663-7

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Keywords

  • Sexual behavior
  • Initiation
  • Gender differences
  • Young adults
  • Diary