Faculty Publication: Sexual Language Use in U.S. College Students

Sarah Murnen, Samuel B. Cummings Professor of Psychology, has published an article, “Sexual Language Use in U.S. College Students Across Twenty Years”, along with Paige E. Bullock ‘21, Eleanor J. Tetreault ‘21, Sydney A. Matteson ‘20, and Lauren Redman ‘22, in the June 2021 issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior. In this research, Professor Murnen and her student collaborators compared a study conducted two decades ago with present day conversational terminology  to discover any changes that may have occurred.


Study 1: Students (N = 256 women, 129 men, and 13 nonbinary individuals, 61.8% heterosexual) from the same college campus studied 20 years ago (Murnen, 2000) reported on terms they used to refer to male genitals, female genitals, and “having sex” either within the context of an intimate partnership, talking with friends of their gender, or talking with friends in a mixed-gender group. Terms for genitals were coded as degrading or not, and terms for sex as aggressive or not, based on the previous study. Whereas in the past almost three-quarters of men used a degrading term for female genitals, that amount decreased to about one-quarter in the present sample. On the other hand, among women there was a significant increase in the use of a degrading term for women’s genitals in the intimate partner context, particularly among sexual minority women. Degrading and aggressive language use was predicted by pornography use and endorsement of gender stereotyped sexual attitudes. Study 2: Interpretations of sexual terms were studied among 29 sexual minority women, 81 heterosexual women, 16 sexual minority men, and 54 heterosexual men. We found that few terms were perceived as degrading or aggressive today (unlike 20 years ago) and that students believe that societal changes such as sexual education and the #MeToo movement were perceived as responsible for changes in sexual language use.

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