Academic journal article
By Bogart, Laura M.; Cecil, Heather; Wag, David A.; Pinkerton, Steven D.; Abramson, Paul R.
The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 37, No. 2
Because sexual behavior is private and cannot easily be measured or verified, social scientists rely on individuals' self-reports of their sexual behaviors. This information can be obtained through face-to-face interviews, surveys, or the use of computer-assisted technologies (Wagstaff, Abramson, & Pinkerton, 2000). The accuracy and reliability of the data so obtained depend upon respondent and instrument-related characteristics (for reviews on measurement error in sexual behavior surveys see Berk, Abramson & Okami, 1995; Catania, Binson, van der Straten, & Stone, 1995; Catania, Gibson, Marin, Coates, & Greenblatt, 1990). For example, survey respondents may under- or over-estimate how often they engage in a given sexual activity because the survey items or terms are not clearly understood or have different meanings for individual respondents (Catania et al., 1996; Cecil & Zimet, 1998; Weir, Roddy, Zekeng, Ryan, & Wong, 1998).
Research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s provides evidence that men and women interpret and use sexual behavior terms differently. Robinson, Balkwell, and Ward (1980) found that men and women associated different meanings with the word intercourse. Men tended to associate words with intercourse that were body-centered (e.g., words like breast, kiss, and vagina), whereas women associated words with intercourse that were relationship-centered or associated with intimacy (e.g., love or marriage). Other researchers have found that men and women assign different connotative meanings and imagery to sexual words (Campos & Sueiro, 1991; McDermott, Drolet, & Fetro, 1989), and that men can list more slang expressions for terms associated with sexual activity than can women (Kutner & Brogan, 1974; Sanders & Robinson, 1979; Walsh & Leonard, 1974).
Recent research indicates that survey participants may hold different views on what constitutes a particular sexual behavior (Sanders & Reinisch, 1999; Sonenstein, Ku, & Pleck, 1997). For example, Sanders and Reinisch asked college students to indicate whether or not they would say that they had sex with someone if they had engaged in a particular activity with that person. The activities included manual-genital contact or oral contact with breasts or nipples, oral-genital contact, penile-vaginal intercourse, and penile-anal intercourse. Almost all participants considered engaging in penile-vaginal intercourse as having had sex. In contrast, approximately 60% and 20% reported that they would not consider oral-genital contact and penile-anal intercourse as having had sex.
The findings of Sanders and Reinisch (1999) confirm the qualitative field work conducted by Sonenstein et al. (1997). Their interviews with young men between the ages of 15 and 19 years indicated that participants differed in their interpretations of the term having sex. For instance, one youth believed that touching a woman's breast constituted having sex. In addition, these young men held different opinions as to whether fellatio was sexual intercourse.
In American culture, sex is associated closely with the male orgasm, which is sometimes viewed as the natural culmination of all sexual activity (Abramson & Pinkerton, 1995; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Masters, 1966). Because many sexual activities, such as vaginal intercourse, do not invariably lead to female orgasm (Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953; Maines, 1999), American women might be expected to be less likely to define sex solely in terms of orgasm (i.e., his or her orgasm). In line with this thinking, Berk et al. (1995) found that female college students reported that they had engaged in oral sex more frequently than did the male college students surveyed. This is an inconsistent finding if, as assumed by the authors, their participants represented an interdating population. The authors suggested that women might be more likely to remember and report oral sex experiences, because oral sex is more salient to women. …