Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Social Norms and General Sexual Satisfaction: The Cost of Misperceived Descriptive Norms

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Social Norms and General Sexual Satisfaction: The Cost of Misperceived Descriptive Norms

Article excerpt

Abstract: Past research has identified important correlates of sexual satisfaction, but more theoretically-driven research is needed to integrate these findings and identify the causes of variance in sexual satisfaction. The purpose of the two exploratory studies presented here was to examine the utility of Social Norms Theory in understanding the impact of misperceived norms on general sexual satisfaction in unmarried college students. The findings of Study 1 indicated that, consistent with previous research, participants overestimated the sexual activity and permissiveness of their peers and thus perceived self-other discrepancies. Overall, larger perceived discrepancies predicted lower general sexual satisfaction. Study 2 showed that a brief educational intervention could alter these misperceived discrepancies such that participants exposed to the intervention showed smaller self-other discrepancies with concomitantly higher levels of general sexual satisfaction. The theoretical implications of the findings are discussed.


Sexual satisfaction is an important component of well-being for most individuals. Studies have linked reported sexual satisfaction to increased self-esteem (Hally & Pollack, 1993), healthy disposition, life satisfaction (Apt, Hulbert, Pierce, & White 1996), "lovability" (Abadjian-Mozian 2006), relationship satisfaction (Byers, 2005), and emotional satisfaction and feelings of general happiness (Laumann, Palk, & Rosen, 1999). While it has proven difficult to determine the directionality of these results (Litzinger & Gordon, 2005), it seems clear that sexual satisfaction is related to overall satisfaction with one's life.

Given the importance of sexual satisfaction, many researchers have explored factors that account for the variability in reported satisfaction ratings. Research focusing on the interpersonal realm has examined issues such as the quality of communication between relational partners (Lawrance & Byers, 1995) and attachment style (Haig, 2004). While the majority of this research is relatively atheoretical, Lawrance and Byers have tested a comprehensive theory of sexual satisfaction in relationships based on exchange theory that focuses on factors such as rewards, costs, and comparison levels within romantic relationships to explain variance in sexual satisfaction (Byers, 2006; Lawrance & Byers, 1995).

In contrast to couple-focused research, there have also been a number of survey-based studies conducted to identify individual characteristics and behaviours associated with sexual satisfaction in all individuals (not just those in relationships). Findings in this area include the strong positive correlation between frequency and variety of sexual activity and sexual satisfaction (Haavio-Mannila, 1997; Hally & Pollack, 1993), the link between sexual dysfunction and lower satisfaction (Laumann et al., 1999), and the connections between sexual satisfaction and factors like marital status, age, and masturbatory habits (Barrientos & Paez, 2006).

While it is important to study sexual behaviours within the context of romantic relationships, findings from this second line of research indicate that it may also be useful to understand factors that determine how satisfied a person is with her or his sex life independently (or in the absence) of a current relationship. While theories regarding sexual satisfaction within the context of a relationship have been developed and tested (e.g., Byers, 2006), there is a conspicuous absence of theory in predicting the sexual satisfaction of a person whether or not he or she is in a relationship. Indeed, researchers have recently called for "more theoretically driven research ... to identify how factors associated with the individual, the relationship, and the environment might interact to affect sexual satisfaction" (Christopher & Sprecher, 2000, p. 1004). While current theories illuminate relational factors, individual factors have not yet received adequate theory-driven testing. …

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