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Sexual Language Use in U.S. College Students Across Twenty Years

Abstract

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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Correspondence to Sarah K. Murnen.

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All procedures were performed in accordance with ethical guidelines for research, reviewed and approved by the institutional review board at Kenyon College.

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Informed consent was obtained from all participants in the two studies.

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Murnen, S.K., Bullock, P.E., Tetreault, E.J. et al. Sexual Language Use in U.S. College Students Across Twenty Years. Arch Sex Behav 50, 2189–2201 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-021-02022-8

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Keywords

  • Sexual language
  • Pornography
  • Degradation