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An investigation of gender differences and personal context variables related to the sexual self-schemata of women and men

posted on 14.02.2017, 02:44 authored by Swedosh, Donna
Sexual self-schema is a relatively new cognitive term developed to connote the cognitive self-view that is developed through sexual experience, whilst influencing sexual behaviour and attitudes. Originally developed by Andersen and Cyranowski (1994) as a measure of women’s sexual self-view, this construct was subsequently extended for use with men (Andersen et al., 1999). These two initial investigations gave rise to separate measures for women and men, and although the sub-scales of these measures shared considerable overlap, the main difference pertained to the inclusion of a negative subscale for women that was not found to exist for men. However, further investigation has seen development of a gender neutral scale (Hill, 2007) with women and men relying on similar dimensions (loving/warm, reserved/conservative, and direct/outspoken) in conceiving their sexual selves. Since conceptualisation of sexual selves in this manner, a moderate amount of research has investigated the sexual self-schema of women (e.g., Andersen & Cyranowski, 1995; Meston, Rellini, & Heiman, 2006). Yet a paucity of research exists in relation to the sexual self-schema of men. Moreover, gender comparisons of sexual self-schema are limited to Hill’s (2007) study. Thus, this study investigated the similarities and differences in women and men’s sexual self-schema using Hill’s (2007) gender neutral measure to allow for such a comparison. Relationship satisfaction associated with holding a positive sexual self-view is a concern for many individuals, and significantly contributes to an individual’s psychosocial wellbeing. Thus, for a tool such as the Sexual Self-Schema Scale to have clinical utility, identifying the personal context variables that influence an individual’s sexual self-view is important to target specific interventions. By definition, sexual self-schema is influenced by past sexual experience, and this has been evidenced in the literature to date (e.g., Andersen & Cyranowski, 1994, Andersen et al., 1999). However, mating behaviours in this context have also been linked to strategic mating and enactment of tactics to promote fulfilment of relational goals (e.g., Gangestad & Simpson, 1990). Therefore, this study included assessment of the relationships between strategic mating and tactical behaviours, and sexual self-schema. Additionally, Cyranowski and Andersen (1998) found an association between adult romantic attachment and sexual self-schema in women. However, further investigation of the influence of personal context variables (i.e., attachment) on an individual’s sexual self-schema has stalled. Furthermore, attachment is associated with the development of some psychopathological disorders (i.e., anxiety, depression, and eating disorders) that hold disorder specific schemata and influence interpersonal relationships (e.g., Bowlby, 1973,1980; Mikulincer, 1995). Accordingly, this study extended Hill’s (2007) research to investigate the personal context variables of attachment, psychopathology, and strategic mating, tactical behaviours and sexual experience that influence women and men’s sexual self-schema. Four research questions were addressed. First, what are the similarities and differences between men’s and women’s sexual self-schemata? Second, is romantic attachment related to sexual self-schema? Third, is psychopathology related to sexual self-schema? Fourth, are mating strategies, tactics and sexual behaviour related to sexual self-schema? The current research recruited 315 participants, including female participants (71.7%; mean age =36.1, SD =12.9) and male participants (28.3%; mean age =37.2, SD =12.3). The sample included 129 students and 186 non-students. Among the 315 participants, 97% had experienced sexual intercourse, 93% identified themselves as heterosexual, and 72% reported being in a current relationship. Analyses of the similarities and differences between women and men’s sexual self-schema confirmed differences found in previous research (Hill, 2007) on the loving/warm sexual self-schema dimension, with women holding a higher loving/warm sexual self-view than men. However, in contrast to prior research (Hill, 2007), there were no gender differences on the reserved/conservative dimension, and women endorsed a more direct/outspoken sexual self-schema than men. Analyses of the personal context variables associated with sexual self-schema revealed an association between attachment insecurity and loving/warm and reserved/conservative sexual self-schema dimensions, but did not influence a sexual self-view related to the direct/outspoken dimension. Depressive symptoms were the only psychopathological symptom set that was associated with all sexual self-schema dimensions for women, and the reserved/conservative and direct/outspoken dimensions for men. Furthermore, behavioural strategies held small associations with loving/warm sexual self-schema of both women and men, one behavioural tactic was associated with a direct/outspoken sexual self-schema for men, and past sexual experience was associated with a reserved/conservative and direct/outspoken sexual self-schema for both women and men. The final stage of analyses focused on assessment of the unique predictor personal context variables for each sexual self-schema for women and men. Holding a loving/warm sexual self-schema was associated similarly for women and men by attachment insecurity. However, differences emerged for depressive symptoms and mating orientation. In addition to the influence of attachment insecurity for both women and men, depressive symptoms were predictive of a loving/warm sexual self-view for women whereas short-term mating orientation was predictive for men. There were no gender differences for the reserved/conservative or the direct/outspoken sexual self-schema dimensions. Insecure anxious attachment, depressive symptoms, and past sexual behaviour predicted a more reserved/conservative sexual self-view. Furthermore, depressive symptoms and past sexual behaviour predicted a more direct/outspoken sexual self-schema. Together these results confirm that women and men in this sample hold more similarities than differences in their sexual self-view. This may be in part due to the older age of the wider community sample recruited for this investigation, and lends further support to contemporary evolutionary theories of human mating (e.g., Strategic Pluralism Theory; Gangestad & Simpson, 2(00), which posits that women and men employ conditional mixed mating strategies dependent on environmental cues. Furthermore, from the personal context variables investigated in this study, romantic attachment and depressive symptoms were found to exert the greatest predictive value over cognitive representations of the sexual self. It would appear that additional personal context variables (such as sexual self-esteem and personality) that directly relate to interpersonal interactions and behaviour (in contrast to those that indirectly influence behaviour, such as strategic mating) are worthy of future investigation. The results of the current study offer therapeutic implications such as identifying attachment insecurities and depressive symptoms of individuals experiencing relational difficulties, and targeting interventions to modify sexual self-beliefs.


Principal supervisor

J. Sabura Allen

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Psychology and Psychiatry

Campus location



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences