Academic journal article Family Relations

Sexual Meaning Systems of Engaged Couples

Academic journal article Family Relations

Sexual Meaning Systems of Engaged Couples

Article excerpt

Meaning is an important component of human experience; however, the measurement of meaning is complex. While meanings attributed to sexuality are important in understanding sexual attitudes and behaviors, the measurement of sexual meaning has not been undertaken on any consistent basis.

This study is based on the assumption that all human experience has both cognitive and affective components that influence meaning (Osborne, 1981). Further, the study employed a dialectical approach to meaning in which both subjective meaning, which is unique to each individual, and culturally shared objective meaning interact to determine the nature of an experience (Nelson, 1985). Thus, meaning is defined as "the representation of lived experience in patterned ways, both internally to the self and externally to others (shared meanings)" (Maddock, 1988, p. 3).

The study reported here applied symbolic interaction theory and systems theory to the investigation of sexual meaning. Symbolic interaction theory addresses the connection between meaning, or the internalized interpretations of experience, and external interpersonal behavior (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993; Plummer, 1982; Schvaneveldt, 1981). Symbolic interactionists identify meaning as an essential component of interpersonal interaction. It is a frame of reference for understanding "how humans, in concert with one another, create symbolic worlds and how these worlds, in turn, shape human behavior" (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993, p. 136). Therefore, sexual behavior between two individuals is never meaningless; rather, participants create their own unique symbolic meaning as well as some degree of shared meaning. This congruence can exist as deep spiritual communication between two committed lovers, personal pleasure goals of casual dating partners, or a business transaction between a prostitute and customer. Of course, dyadic discrepancy in sexual meaning is also expected, for example, when erotic attraction is mistaken for romantic love or when one person seeking physical gratification speaks of love to persuade another person to engage in sexual activity.

Meaning and sexual meaning have several properties of systems and can be analyzed on three hierarchical systemic levels: individual (subjective), relational (shared), and cultural (objective) (Nelson, 1985). Ira Reiss (1989) employed a similar three level model of sexual scripts and distinguished between intrapsychic sexual scripts, interpersonal scripts, and cultural scenarios. The development of sexual meaning systems, like the learning of sexual scripts, is part of the larger process of socialization in which an individual acquires a sexual self-concept and sex-related knowledge, attitudes, and values (Gagnon & Simon, 1973; Gecas & Libby, 1976; Maddock, 1983b).

Individual sexual meaning systems are derived from a variety of sources, including affective qualities of body-related experiences, interaction with significant others, access to sex-related information, and the social atmosphere regarding gender and eroticism. Certainly, family life is a primary relational context for the development of individual sexual meaning as well as a major arena for the evolution of shared sexual meaning (Maddock, 1989). Culture-wide sexual meaning is closely intertwined with deeply rooted beliefs about human nature and the meaning of life. Cultural sexual meaning systems include social definitions of femaleness and maleness, attitudes toward physical embodiment, and moral values regarding sexual expression.

In summary, sex-related meaning is learned through social interaction (Reiss, 1986). Like other systemic phenomena, sexual meaning influences behavior and, in turn, is influenced by behavior (Breunlin, Schwartz, & MacKune-Karrer, 1992; Petras, 1978). This circularity can make it difficult to draw conclusions about the role of meaning in dyadic relationships. Although clinical and anecdotal impressions abound, empirical studies of sexual meaning are virtually nonexistent. …

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