Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 16, March 14, 2013


Perceptions of Heterosexual Activities by Heterosexual Individuals

Laura Goins, M.A., Rutgers University – Camden
Luis Garcia, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Rutgers University – Camden
Jordan Barger, B.A., Rutgers University – Camden

Acknowledgment: The authors wish to thank Susan Krisch for her help in collecting and scoring some of these data.

Correspondence should be addressed to: Luis Garcia,
Department of Psychology, Rutgers University – Camden College
311 N. Fifth St. Camden, NJ 08009
Email: lgarcia@camden.rutgers.edu
Phone: 856-225-6149 Fax: 856-225-6737


This study examined heterosexual individuals’ perceptions of heterosexual activities along the dimensions of romanticism, deviancy, and eroticism.  One hundred and five women and 102 men (n = 207 participants) completed measures assessing experience with 17 heterosexual activities presented and a series of ratings for each activity along the dimensions listed above. Results indicate that, overall, men rated the activities as more erotic than women, except activities where women are the recipient (i.e. petting breasts). In looking at perceptions of romanticism and deviancy, men and women rated the activities very similarly.  Rankings of the activities on the romanticism dimension were correlated positively with the eroticism dimension, but higher for women than for men.  Deviancy ratings were negatively correlated with eroticism for everyone.  The results are discussed in terms of script theory.


In sexual relationships, individuals rely on various sources for information about which acts their sexual partner(s) prefer. The cues about partners’ sexual preferences may be apparent when individuals are interacting with their partners, in the behaviors they engage in and even an individuals’ internal dialog about their experience. Sexual script theory (Simon & Gagnon, 1986) examines sexual activity as a social interaction where the participants follow a script that provides them with meaning and direction.  Sexual scripts inform participants of the situation (when and where they should have sex), the actors (with whom people have sex), and the behavior (what and why they do sexual things) (Gagnon & Simon, 1973, p. 17; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael & Michaels, 1994, p. 6).  Scripts provide direction to participants to as to an appropriate sequence of sexual behavior, influencing their interactions at three possible levels: intrapsychic, interpersonal, and at the cultural level. 

In sexual interactions, cultural scripts are those that are shared by a group and are less likely to illustrate individual variation given that the meanings are created and shaped by the socializing agents (e.g. media, educators, researchers, etc.). Interpersonal scripts take into account the expectations and behaviors of the other person and they essentially account for what cultural scripts lack. Intrapsychic scripts are put into action as the individual begins connecting cultural scripts and interpersonal scripts.  Because cultural scripts are shared by individuals within a culture, they are likely to show less variation across individuals than both interpersonal and intrapsychic scripts (Gagnon, 1990).

Sexual script theory, as applied to sexual activities, has tended to focus on the sequence of behaviors rather than the specific sexual activities that individuals prefer.  For example, in discussing sexual scripts, Jemail and Geer (1977) reported that there is high agreement among individuals in terms of the sequence of heterosexual activities that are most likely to occur in a heterosexual encounter (e.g., kissing followed by manual stimulation of the breasts, etc.).  Furthermore, in their study, Jemail and Geer demonstrated a fairly high degree of agreement between men and women when examining sexual activities sequences, suggesting that they may be following a learned, cultural script.  Similarly, Rose and Frieze (1993) provided evidence for a “first date” cultural script that prescribes the sequence of actions taken by individuals.   More recently, Muehlenhard and Shippee (2010) used sexual script theory to look at how orgasms fit into the sequence of sexual activity and how this script influences when people fake orgasms.  This sequence can be culturally prescribed (cultural script), but may also vary from individual to individual (interpersonal and intrapsychic scripts).   

Sexual scripts may also be helpful in understanding the meanings individuals assign to sexual activity. In their research, MacNeil & Byers (2009), suggest that sexual script theory may be useful in better understanding the disclosure of sexual likes/dislikes. Other authors, however, have suggested that discussing sexual issues is difficult for many individuals (Anderson, Kunkel & Dennis, 2011; Fisher, Miller, Byrne, & White, 1980), even those who are dating (Byers & Demmons, 1999).  When the sexual interaction involves individuals who are relative strangers (e.g., hookups) one would expect sexual communication to be even more problematic.  In these situations, it’s likely that individuals’ sexual behavior will be guided by their own sexual scripts which may show some variability across individuals.

These studies lead us to inquire how sexual script theory might be useful in understanding individuals’ perceptions of specific sexual activities. For example, do individuals perceive specific activities similarly or might oral sex be perceived as romantic by some individuals but not by others?  As such, it is useful to study how individuals perceive or assign meaning to various sexual activities –something that few researchers have investigated. One study (Garcia, Cavalie, Goins, & King, 2008) investigated how enjoyable heterosexual individuals perceived specific heterosexual activities, as well as how much they perceived the other gender would enjoy those same sexual activities.  The authors reported that  even though men and women tended to agree on which sexual activities they enjoyed the most, men tended to rate the activities as more enjoyable than women.  Furthermore, a similar trend was found for people’s attributions to the other gender – whereas men and women were fairly accurate in predicting which activities the other gender would enjoy the most, they were relatively inaccurate in predicting the actual level of enjoyment. While useful in beginning to understand how much people enjoy or are aroused by specific sexual activities (along with Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; and Purnine, Carey, & Jorgensen, 1994), these authors did not look at the various meanings that are assigned to these activities – the meanings that may lead us to understand why they are perceived as enjoyable and thus part of our sexual scripts.   For example, it is possible that some people are not aroused by anal intercourse because they perceive it as deviant or they simply may not perceive it as romantic. According to Gagnon (1990), the sexual script is a determinant of the feelings (pleasure, desire, disgust, etc.) that individuals experience when engaging in sexual activity.

With an understanding of sexual scripts as our guide, perhaps we can begin to explore the possible meanings individuals might assign to sexual activities. While perceptions will vary across individuals, few dimensions will capture those feelings Gagnon (1990) noted. Eroticism, Romanticism, and Deviancy are useful dimensions in attempting to examine the meanings, or feelings, individuals might associate with particular sexual activities.

Eroticism, as a dimension, refers to acts perceived as arousing or pleasurable. Erotic acts are an especially important dimension to examine, as ‘pleasure’ and/or ‘arousal’ are primary consequences of sexual activity and a major reason why people engage in sexual activities.  These authors (e.g., Hill & Preston, 1997; Leigh, 1989; Meston & Buss, 2007) have reported that pleasure/arousal was one of the most frequently mentioned reasons for engaging in sexuality.  

In examining romanticism and sexuality, especially as it relates to gender differences, there appears to be a higher correlation between romanticism and eroticism for women than for men.  For example, Kimmel and Plante (2002), as well as Zurbriggen and Yost (2004), reported that there is a higher romantic and emotional component in the sexual fantasies of women than in men’s fantasies.  Thompson (1994) looked at teenage girls’ narratives about sex and romance and found that narratives about sex typically were closely tied to romance.  It’s also the case that for many individuals, especially women, there is a close relationship between sexuality and romantic involvement (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2004).

Deviancy has clearly been established in relation to sexuality in the literature.  In a study by Garcia and Carrigan (1998) on sexual self-perception, individuals were asked to list traits that could be used to describe people’s sexuality and the traits were then organized into various dimensions – one of which was deviancy.  While this study dealt with traits that described people, not activities, researchers of Attribution Theory (e.g. Weiner, 1992) have shown that people are described in a particular way because of inferences about the activities in which they engage. For example, people may be described as “kinky” or “deviant” to the extent that they engage in “kinky” or “deviant” behaviors.  

Aims of the Present Study

In this study we sought to investigate how college-aged heterosexual individuals perceive sexual activities along the dimensions of eroticism, romanticism, and deviancy. While these dimensions are not exhaustive, they are especially relevant to sexuality, especially gender differences.   Specifically, we wanted to investigate whether or not men and women would differ in their perceptions of the activities along the various dimensions. Further, we wanted to investigate how these dimensions might be related for men and for women. For example, are women more or less likely than men to perceive activities as more romantic? Or perhaps more erotic, or deviant?

We predicted that, in general, men would rate activities higher than women on the dimension of eroticism.  In a review of the literature on gender differences, Oliver and Hyde (1993) found that women are more likely than men to report negative feelings in response to sexual behavior.   Garcia, Cavalie, Goins, and King (2008) report in their study that men indicated that they enjoyed more than did the women engaging in a variety of sexual activities.  Similarly, Laumann et al. (1994) asked men and women to indicate how appealing they found a list of various sexual activities and they reported that, in general, men rated the sexual activities as more appealing than women.  Of course, in both of these studies there were some exceptions.  For some activities (e.g., cunnilingus) women rated the activities as more enjoyable or appealing than did men.  It appears that for activities in which the woman is the recipient of the stimulation, women may perceive the activity higher than the men in eroticism.  In the present study, we did not expect any gender differences in the participants’ ratings of the activities on the dimensions of romanticism and deviancy.  The reason for this is that perceptions of romanticism and deviancy are likely based more on a cultural than an interpersonal or intrapsychic script.    In fact, the very notion of deviancy implies a deviation from some cultural norm.  However, we expected a gender difference in the correlation between ratings of eroticism and romanticism such that female participant’s ratings for these two dimensions would be more highly correlated than male participant’s ratings. This is based on research findings (see above) indicating that for the traditional, heterosexual female gender role, much more than for the heterosexual male gender role, there is a close association between romanticism and sexuality.    

We also predicted a negative correlation for the sexual activities on the dimensions of deviancy and romanticism.   In a study by Garcia and Carrigan (1998), the authors showed that those who perceived themselves as high on romanticism tended to rate themselves lower on deviancy.  Because this is a cultural script to which everyone is exposed, no gender difference was predicted in the present study.

Finally, we looked at the participants’ level of experience with these activities to see whether it was associated with their perceptions.  Since, as noted above, pleasure/arousal is one reason for engaging in sexual activities, we predicted that having engaged in a particular sexual activity would be correlated with rating that activity high on eroticism.



One hundred and five women and 102 men participated in this study.   Participation in the study was restricted to heterosexual individuals who were at least 18 years old and students at a major public university in the Northeastern United States. Participants were recruited through class announcements (“Introduction to Psychology,” “Social Psychology,” “Psychology of Human Sexuality” courses) and were offered research participation for their involvement. The average age for the sample was 22.04 years.   The majority of the participants self-identified as Caucasian (58%), followed by African-American (22%), Hispanic (9%), Asian-American (5%) or “other” (6%).  Ninety-three percent indicated that they were single and 7% reported that they were married.  Even though the study was advertised for heterosexual individuals, there were five participants who indicated that they were homosexual, bisexual, or unsure about their sexual orientation.  These participants’ data were not included in the presented analyses.


At the end of a class period, participants were given a booklet with the instructions, a sheet asking for personal background information, and the questionnaires, all to be returned to the experimenter the next class period.  The instructions stated that participants would be completing some questionnaires dealing with human sexuality, and that because their answers were anonymous they should be honest in their answers.  This study was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board.


Initially, a measure on background information was administered asking the participants to indicate their gender, age, marital status, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation.  A Sexual Experience measure consisted of a list of 17 heterosexual activities used in a previous study (Garcia, Cavalie, Goins, & King, 2008).   Participants were asked to indicate whether or not they had engaged in each activity, and if so, approximately how many times they had done so in the previous 12 months. If they answered “No”, they were asked to indicate whether they would like to engage in this activity in the future .  The activities, along with the number of times men and women had engaged in this activity, are presented in Table 1.

Measures of the perceptions of the sexual activities consisted of having the participants rate each of the 17 sexual activities on a series of traits designed to reflect the created dimensions of eroticism (arousing, enjoyable, pleasurable), romanticism (romantic, loving, affectionate), deviancy (deviant, kinky, perverse), and masculinity/femininity (masculine, feminine, forceful). Participants were exposed only to the terms (e.g. “arousing” “enjoyable”) they might assign to an act, not to the dimensions we were measuring. The participants were asked to rate each activity on these traits using a 5-point scale where 1 indicated “Not at All” and 5 indicated “Very.” 


A measure of sexual experience was included in this study to see if there is a gender difference in sexual experience that would need to be controlled for in the analyses.  First, we looked at the participants’ overall level of sexual experience by analyzing the total number of activities that they had engaged in.  Although sexual experience can be measured in different ways, Garcia (2006) indicated that the more sexual activities individuals engage in, the more sexually experienced they are perceived by the participants.  We found that there was no significant difference between male participants and female participants on the number of sexual activities they had engaged in, t(204) = 0.94, p > .05.  The mean number of activities engaged in by male participants and female participants were 10.05 and 10.59, respectively.   Similarly, for 16 of the 17 activities, there were no differences in the number of times that male participants and female participants had engaged in over the past 12 months (all ps > .05).  The only activity for which a significant difference was found was “being spanked/tied up” where female participants reported an average of 13.93 and male participants reported 3.65, t(169) = 2.97, p < .05.   

Initially, we looked at gender differences in their ratings of the various sexual activities along the various dimensions.   We computed an eroticism score, romanticism score, and deviancy score by averaging the ratings of the three traits in each dimension.  Using Cronbach’s alpha as a measure of internal consistency, we computed alphas for each of these dimensions for each activity.  The alphas ranged from .93 to .99 for the eroticism measure, from .92 to .97 for the romanticism measure, and from .67 to .85 for the deviancy measure.  Thus, all three dimensions had adequate levels of internal consistency.  The alpha coefficients for the masculinity/femininity dimension, however, were not acceptable.  The range of these alphas were .28 through .73 with only two of them at .65 or higher.  This lack of internal consistency is probably due to the fact that masculinity and femininity should be conceptualized as two independent dimensions (Constantinople, 1973; Bem, 1974), not a single dimension.  As such, we dropped this variable from the analysis.

Table 2 shows the mean ratings for male participants and female participants on the different activities in the dimensions of eroticism, romanticism, and deviancy.  The total score was obtained by averaging the ratings for all sexual activities.  As can be seen, the overall eroticism score was higher for male participants than for female participants, t(202) = 2.15, p < .05, but analyses of the individual activities showed that male participants rated seven of the seventeen activities significantly higher than female participants, and female participants rated five of the activities higher than did male participants.  As predicted, female participants rated the activities in which they were the recipients of the stimulation (petting of breasts, cunnilingus, and stimulation of the clitoris) higher than did the male participants.  The other two activities which female participants rated as more erotic than did male participants were kissing and being spanked/tied up. Also noteworthy is that the three activities in which the male participants’ and female participants’ ratings were on opposite sides of the midpoint on the scale were: anal intercourse, two men/one women threesome, and being spanked/tied up. These three activities all tend to be rated relatively high on the measure of deviancy. 

For romanticism, as predicted, there was no overall significant difference between male participants and female participants (p > .05) and only five of the 17 activities showed a statistically significant difference.  Similarly, there was no difference between male participants and female participants ratings on the deviancy ratings (p > .05) and only two of the activities showed a significant difference.

Another way of looking at gender differences (or agreement) in their perceptions of the activities is to analyze their rankings of the activities.  Are the sexual activities ranked as more erotic, romantic and deviant by women ranked similarly by men?  As noted by Cronbach (1955) agreement can be analyzed by looking the actual difference between ratings (difference score method) or the rankings (correlation method) because it could be that one group rates activities higher than the other group, but the relative rankings of the activities are similar.  To look at the agreement, we rank-ordered the mean ratings of each gender and conducted a Spearman rank order correlation.  For eroticism, the correlation between the male participants’ rankings and the female participants’ rankings was not significant (r = .26, ns).  However, there was near perfect agreement in male participants’ and female participants’ rankings of the most (and least) romantic (r = .98, p < .001) and deviant (r = .94, p < .001) activities.

We also predicted that for female participants there would be stronger correlation than for male participants between the ratings of romanticism and eroticism.  To test this hypothesis, we rank ordered the mean ratings on eroticism and romanticism for the 17 sexual activities separately for male participants and female participants, and then computed a Spearman rank-order correlation between the ranks for eroticism and romanticism.  The results supported the prediction – the correlation for female participants was .82 (p < .001) and for the male participants the correlation was .46 (p < .03).   Although both correlations were statistically significant, the correlation for the female participants was significantly higher than for the male participants (z = 4.67, p < .001). 

The prediction that ratings of the activities on the deviancy and romanticism dimensions would be negatively correlated for male participants and female participants was also supported.  The Spearman rank order correlation between the ratings on the deviancy and romanticism dimensions was negative for male participants (r = -.89, p < .001) and also for female participants (r = -.94, p < .001).  These two correlations were not significantly different from each other (p < .05). 

We also found a gender difference in the correlation between the rankings of the activities for deviancy and eroticism.  For male participants, this correlation was not statistically significant (r = -.35, ns) whereas for female participants the correlation was -.73, p < .01.


Script theory has been useful in understanding a wide range of sexual interactions.  While much research derived from script theory has been conducted on how individuals perceive or assign meaning to sexual actors and situations, very little attention has been devoted to understand how individuals perceive sexual activities, and most of this research has focused on how scripts guide the sequence of sexual activities (e.g. Jemail & Geer, 1977).  In this study, we investigated how college-aged heterosexual people perceive or assign meaning to heterosexual activities along the dimensions of eroticism, romanticism and deviancy.

Consistent with the existing literature, we found that the men in our study, in general, perceived the sexual activities higher on the eroticism factor.  However, this is misleading because, also consistent with previous findings (e.g., Garcia, et al., 2008), we found that the female participants in this study found some activities more erotic than did the male participants.  These tended to be activities, not surprisingly, in which women were the recipients of the stimulation.  In addition, kissing and being spanked/tied up (activities not exclusively enjoyed by female participants) were also perceived as more erotic by the women in this study than by the male participants.  The reason that kissing was rated higher on eroticism by the women is probably due to the fact that this activity was also perceived as very romantic, and women, to a greater extent than men, tended to rate romantic activities higher on eroticism.  Women, however, did not rate being spanked more romantic than men.  Perhaps the reason why women rated this activity as more erotic is that in erotic portrayals women, to a higher extent than men, are portrayed as submissive in sexual activities (Garcia & Milano, 1990) and why the women in the present study were more than twice as likely as men to have been spanked/tied up. 

That there was no agreement between heterosexual men and women on which activities were perceived as the most and least erotic indicates that the way individuals perceive the eroticism of sexual activities is not as dependent on a cultural script that everyone shares.  This is not to say that culture does not partly influence what we find erotic.   Cultural differences in what individuals find erotic has been well-documented (e.g., Gregersen, 1996).   However, it is also shaped by the experiences that individuals have had with those activities.  That is to say, they are also shaped by an interpersonal script because as we sexually interact with others we learn from those interpersonal experiences. 

The results on how participants perceived the activities on the romanticism and deviancy dimensions indicated, as predicted, that there was no overall statistically significant different between men and women in the level of romanticism or deviancy assigned to the sexual activities.   Furthermore, there was near perfect agreement in the rankings made by heterosexual men and women in terms of which sexual activities were the most and least romantic and which activities were the most and least deviant.  This prediction was based on the notion that romantic meanings assigned to sexual activities derive primarily from a general cultural norm that everyone is exposed to.   It is likely that the mass media plays a large role in shaping these cultural scripts (see Brown, 2002; Kunkel, Eyal, Donnerstein, Farrar, Biely, & Rideout, V., 2007).  Future research should address specifically the role that the media and other socializing agents may play in formulating these scripts.

Unlike perceptions of eroticism, which are also partly influenced by a cultural script, perceptions of romanticism and deviancy may be more influenced by the cultural script to which most individuals are exposed. What is considered erotic could also be shaped by the individuals own experiences while engaging in sexual activities, hence the greater lack of consensus as to which activities are considered erotic.  For example, the sexual arousal experienced by individuals while engaging in a particular sexual activity leads them to assign erotic value to that activity.   The arousal serves as a salient, personal referent to indicate that they find the activity erotic.  This is in line with self-perception theory (Bem, 1972) which argues that individuals rely on their behaviors and responses to make attributions about themselves. There is no such individual referent for romanticism and deviancy which could explain why there is a much higher level of agreement on how these activities are viewed on those two dimensions.  Future research should investigate how this gender difference may create conflict in a relationship, or how individuals negotiate this conflict.

This study also addressed the relationship among the three dimensions for heterosexual men and women.  We found that for the male and female participants in this study, the activities that were rated as most romantic tended to also be rated as the most erotic and that this association was stronger for the female participants than for the male participants.  The association between romanticism and eroticism is part of a cultural script that promotes sexuality within the context of a romantic relationship. While the literature examining perceptions of sexual activities is somewhat limited, we suggest a link, may exist between romanticism and eroticism in sexual activities.  Furthermore, the correlations found between romanticism and deviancy were negative for both the male and female participants in this study, indicating that cultural scripts for romantic activities and deviant activities are in opposition to one another.  What is interesting is that for the women in this study, but not for the male participants, there is a high negative correlation between the activities that are perceived as deviant and the activities that are perceived as erotic.  As with romanticism, we see that the cultural script is different for heterosexual men and women.  For the women in this study, much more so than for the male participants, erotic activities are also seen as romantic and not deviant. 

Knowing how individuals perceive various sexual activities may also be useful in understanding why individuals engage in different sexual activities depending on the relationship with the other person.  For example, Jonason, Li, and Richardson (2011) reported that individuals’ sexual activities varied depending on whether they were engaged in a one-night stand, a booty-call relationship, or a long-term relationship.  Specifically, they found that sexual activities characterized by the authors as “emotional” were less likely to be found in one-night stands than in the other two types of relationship. 

In summary, in this study we began to shed some light on how men and women perceive various heterosexual activities.  Future researchers should begin to examine these perceptions by studying couples rather than individuals.  How two individuals who are sexually interacting with one another differ (or not) in their perceptions of various sexual activities could shed some light on potential conflicts in their relationship.  The current sample consisted of college-aged (m= 22.04) mostly single, heterosexual individuals. It will be important for researchers to study these behaviors among older populations and also among those who are involved in romantic relationships. Past researchers (e.g. Jonason et. al, 2011) suggest that the nature of the relationship may influence the perception of the activity. Also, it is important to study sexual activities among homosexual samples.  We are now in the process of analyzing data from lesbian couples and we hope to follow up with a sample of gay couples. The implications of this research among both heterosexual and homosexual couples could be significant for furthering our understanding, as researchers, of sexual scripts and sexual communication in the context of romantic relationships. We look forward to developing this line of research further.


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Question of “Would you like to engage in this activity in the future” did not yield any useful contribution to the present study and was removed from analyses.

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Table 1
Percentage of men and women who engaged in sexual activities

Sexual Activities







     man on top



    woman on top



    side by side



    rear entry



    woman on top, facing away



anal intercourse









fondle genitals



stimulate clitoris



petting breasts



mutual oral stimulation



two men/one woman



two women/one man



Mild S&M

spanking/tying up



spanked/tied up



Table 2

Mean ratings for men and women on all dimensions for all sexual activities

tr> tr> tr>
 Eroticism   Romanticism     Deviancy
















    man on top

4.50 4.42 4.15 4.17 1.65 1.62

    woman on top

4.47 4.34 3.81 3.74 2.05 1.91

    side by side

4.06 3.63* 4.09 3.98 1.78 1.59

    rear entry

4.47 4.08* 2.89 2.52* 2.41 2.28

    woman on top, facing away

4.35 3.59* 2.82 2.26* 2.22 2.13

anal intercourse





















fondle genitals







stimulate clitoris







petting breasts







mutual oral stimulation







two men/one woman







two women/one man







Mild S&M

spanking/tying up







spanked/tied up







Total score







Note: Asterisks indicate that the difference between men and women for that dimension is statistically significant at p< .05.

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