The way we talk about sex and sexual issues has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, a new study shows.

But researchers say men and women still don’t seem to see eye to eye when it comes to sensitive sexual subjects, such as rape and orgasm.

The study shows that the term “rape” is viewed much more negatively by both men and women than it was 15 years ago. The word prompted the most negative response of any sexual term among a group of male college students, but for women the most adverse reaction was associated with the term “date rape.”

“We interpreted these differences to possibly mean that rape to a man is a crime he can be charged with,” says researcher Virginia Noland, professor in health science education at the University of Florida, in a news release, “whereas date rape in his eyes is almost like an act of passion or something he doesn’t see himself as having much control over.”

“We found that young people’s evaluation of sexual terms has changed with recent shifts in the cultural landscape,” says Noland. “It’s very important to understand not only the dictionary meaning of words, but the emotions that people attach to them.”

Let’s Talk About Sex

In the study, which appeared in a recent issue of "Sex Roles: A Journal of Research," researchers asked 567 Midwestern undergraduate students to rate their impressions of 42 sexuality-related terms. The students rated them on a seven-point scale from extremely positive to extremely negative.

The results showed that men and women differed significantly in terms of what types of sex talk they viewed most favorably and negatively.

The most favorably rated sexual terms among women were: orgasm, vaginal sex, sexual intercourse, virginity, masturbation, oral sex, pro-choice, pregnancy, erection, and heterosexual.

The most negatively perceived sexual terms among women were: date rape, sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault, HPV (human papillomavirus (search), a common sexually transmitted disease), and HIV/AIDS.

Among men, the most positively rated sexual terms were: sexual monogamy, virginity, orgasm, vaginal sex and heterosexual. The most negatively rated terms were: rape, HPV, date rape, and sexual abuse.

Women and men gave significantly different ratings to two sexually transmitted diseases, gonorrhea and syphilis. Women rated gonorrhea and syphilis less negatively than men. Perhaps they don't view themselves as being at risk for these STDs, and therefore do not see them as threats.

Women also assigned a negative meaning to Chlamydia (search) and HPV. This may be because the diseases have special interest to women due to the long-term consequences to female reproductive health.

Men gave HIV/AIDS a slightly favorable rating, which may mean they sense they are at low risk for the disease, or the mistaken belief that HIV/AIDS is a problem for persons with a homosexual or bisexual orientation.

The biggest gender differences in perceptions of sex talk were found for 12 often controversial sexual terms that elicited strong visceral responses from the students.

For example, researchers found men rated the following words more positively than women:




—Sexual assault

Women, however, rated the following terms more positively than men:

—Breast enlargement



—Internet sex

—Oral sex




By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Noland, V. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, November 2004. New release, University of Florida.