Let’s talk about sexual scripts.
What’s a script? Script theory, originally proposed by Silvan Tomkins, expands upon the way we as humans understand the world around us; it posits that we form meaning and understanding of situations in the world by constructing a list of scripts that, when followed, make sense, give us meaning, and make us feel positively. There is a script that we have to going to a movie: we find a movie we like, we buy a ticket, we enter the theater, use our ticket, perhaps buy food or drink, and then sit through a movie in our theater seat. Scripts tell us what is “appropriate” in any given situation, and tell us what to expect. When scripts aren’t followed, discomfort, confusion, or other negative emotions may result.
I have a pretty strong script around going out to eat. We choose a restaurant, we go out, we eat, we talk, and then… the bill comes. My script is specifically about paying for the bill. It dictates that when the check comes, one of us picks it up, it doesn’t matter who. But it says that both players must offer to pay for the check. It is scripted so we have to argue over the bill, both offer to pay multiple times, both say no and become more insistent, and maybe we even throw some cash at each other and refuse a bunch before someone ultimately pays (it doesn’t even matter who, we just have to both want to pay, and go back and forth). My script was given to me by my father. I wasn’t born with it, I learned it along the way. Not even intentionally. But it affects my life. If I’m out and someone doesn’t offer, I feel uneasy. If I don’t offer, I feel selfish. If there’s not enough fighting and carrying on over who’s paying, I feel like one or both of us is taken advantage of.
Does this make sense? Of course not! Does it affect my life? Yes, but mostly negatively. The positive outcome is the script is fulfilled and I feel like the box is checked. But the negative outcome is feeling bad, having a bad experience, or potentially worse, impacting my relationships with others. Ultimately, the positive of following a script does not outweigh the potential negatives of breaking a script.
So, how does this fit into sexuality? There are, of course, sexual scripts too. Can you think of some?
Gagnon and William first proposed sexual scripts in their 1973 book, Sexual Conduct. Since then, their ideas around sexual scripts have been expanded upon, but at the core, it remains: there is a “right way” to have sex, at least in our American culture.
We all know what it looks like. I bet you could tell me even if you have never considered this before in your life. What’s the (stereotypically heteronormative) “right” way to have sex? (You know I think this is BS but bear with me).
Does it look like this? There’s two partners at a time, most often in private. They have to be relatively youthful, thin, and white. They express desire for one another and are in a committed relationship. They are a man and a woman of typical gender presentation. The man initiates the sexual encounter. He and the woman kiss, and then touch one another. Clothes come off. The kissing becomes more insistent. The man has no trouble getting or maintaining an erection, and his penis is of a certain size. Then there’s some oral. Goodness forbid it goes for “too long” because we don’t want it to be the main event, right? The partners move into having PIV sex. Probably missionary. The sex ends when the man has an orgasm, and it isn’t “too short” but it also doesn’t last “too long” either. Then maybe there’s some cuddling. Right? Is this what yours looks like, too?
If I could give a quiz to most people on “what happens during normal sex,” it would probably come out just like this (if people even want to talk about sex). What’s that about? Can we frankly (or in my case, sardonically) answer, how often does sex really look like this?
And yet, people feel pressure to follow this script. If sex is too long or too short, it’s laughable, right? People feel pressured to “get it right” lest they face embarrassment or shame. If something doesn’t “look right,” if there’s a stretch mark or body hair or we need to reach for the lube or it takes a while for someone’s body to get aroused, that’s “bad,” right? If people don’t look like models or there’s other genders or partners up in that situation, that’s no good, right? If one or both partners don’t orgasm, then the whole thing was a “waste of time,” right?? Ugh.
Where did we learn this? Can you think of how you learned about sex and sexuality, growing up until now? How did you learn sex “is a thing?” From whom? What have you seen, heard, been told, asked, and learned about sex?
Emily Nagoski in her phenomenal book Come As You Are proposes there are 3 messages folks get around sex: the moral message, the medical message, and the media message. I’ll include an excerpt here from her book —
The Moral Message: “You are Damaged Goods.” If you want or like sex, you’re a slut. Your virginity is your most valuable asset. If you’ve had too many partners (“too many” = more than your male partner has had), you should be ashamed. There is only one right way to behave and one right way to feel about sex—not to feel anything about it at all but to accommodate the man to whom your body belongs. Sex is not part of what makes a woman lovable; it can only be part of what makes a woman unlovable. It may make her “desirable”—and many women try to be desirable, but only as a lesser alternative to being lovable. If you are sexually desirable, you are, by definition, unlovable. And a slut…
The Medical Message: “You Are Diseased.” Sex can cause disease and pregnancy, which makes it dangerous. But if you’re ready to take that risk, sexual functioning should happen in a particular order—desire, then arousal, then orgasm during intercourse simultaneously with your partner—and when it doesn’t, there is a medical issue that you must address. Medically. Women’s sexual response is biologically analogous to men’s, though most women want sex less than men and take longer to achieve orgasm. To the extent that a woman’s sexual response differs from a man’s, she is diseased. Except for pregnancy, which is what sex is for…
The Media Message: “You Are Inadequate.” Spanking, food play, ménages à trois . . . you’ve done all these things, right? Well, you’ve at least had clitoral orgasms, vaginal orgasms, uterine orgasms, energy orgasms, extended orgasms, and multiple orgasms? And you’ve mastered at least thirty-five different positions for intercourse? If you don’t try all these things, you’re frigid. If you’ve had too few partners, don’t watch porn, and don’t have a collection of vibrators in your bedside table, you’re a prude. Also: You’re too fat and too thin; your breasts are too big and too small. Your body is wrong. If you’re not trying to change it, you’re lazy. If you’re satisfied with yourself as you are, you’re settling. And if you dare to actively like yourself, you’re a conceited bitch. In short, you are doing it wrong. Do it differently. No, that’s wrong too, try something else. Forever.
I meet so many people of all genders who struggle to break away from sexual scripts. I get it. It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. What am I supposed to believe if you don’t fight with me over the bill? Am I being taken advantage of? Are you just using me to get extra guacamole?
In the same vein, people feel bad about having sex that “isn’t normal.” What if I’m fat? What if I’m queer? What if I want to have sex with multiple people? What if I don’t orgasm? What if I can’t get wet or hard? What if my O face is weird? What if I haven’t showered in the last thirty minutes? What if I am managing an STI or STD? What if I don’t want to do PIV sex? What if I’m no good at oral? What if I don’t want to have sex? Fill in the blanks here.
The queer, kinky, and nonmonogamous communities are great because they have been fighting the good fight against sexual scripts because their very existence depends upon this strength, resilience, and push back against social sexual norms.
The first of many steps involves deconstructing the things we have “learned” about sex. Emily Nagoski likens this to a garden: suppose we are given a garden on the day we were born. Throughout our life, people have planted things in the garden. Then, somehow, by the time we come of age, we are given the keys to our garden. To it we return: overgrown, wild, decomposing. It’s our job to prune the plants back, to decide which to rip out by the roots, which to keep, which to trim until they’re to our liking. And, which new plants to add to spruce the place up a bit. Maybe your garden was full of weeds when you returned to it and it feels overwhelming. That’s OK. All of this takes time.
Sex is not a performance. There are no “shoulds,” there is no script to follow, there is no punishment for “going off-script.”
In my opinion, the building blocks for “good” sex are enthusiastic consent, communication, and authenticity. From there, it’s your call.
Here’s to you and outgrowing these social scripts. And to creating a beautiful garden.