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Sexual Cognitions

Despite the fact that some individuals appraise their sexual cognitions negatively and/or experience negative affect in association with their sexual fantasies, for the most part sexuality researchers have not differentiated between positively and negatively experienced sexual thoughts and fantasies. I have collaborated with a number of colleagues on research designed to better understand positive and negative sexual cognitions. The first study, conducted with Dr. Christine Purdon (University of Waterloo) and Dr. David Clark (Psychology, UNB) compared the sexual and nonsexual (negative) intrusive thoughts of 171 university students.

For her doctoral thesis, Dr. Cheryl Renaud developed the Sexual Cognitions Checklist in order to compare positive and negative sexual cognitions. We found that overall respondents reported more frequent and diverse positive sexual cognitions than negative sexual cognitions. However, men reported both more frequent and more diverse positive and negative sexual cognitions than did women. Further, compared to negative sexual cognitions, positive sexual cognitions were associated with more positive affect, less negative affect, more frequent subjective general physiological and sexual arousal, and less frequent self-reported upset stomach. Further, while a higher frequency of positive sexual cognitions was related to better sexual adjustment for men and women, the frequency of negative sexual cognitions was not related to sexual adjustment. Christie Little followed up on these findings for her Honours thesis. She investigated factors that influence individuals to appraise their experience of the same sexual cognition on one occasion and negative on another occasion. Taken together, these findings highlight the importance of distinguishing between positive and negative sexual cognitions in research.  

Our more recent work has focused on cognitions of sexual dominance and cognitions of sexual submission.  With respect to cognitions of sexual dominations, we found that compared to  women, men reported a significantly greater frequency of negative cognitions of sexual dominance but a lower frequency of positive cognitions of sexual dominance.  Both men and women who had used sexual coercion reported more positive sexual dominance cognitions than did participants who had not used sexual coercion.  Sexual violence was not uniquely associated with negative sexual dominance cognitions when the frequency of positive sexual dominance cognitions was controlled. 

With respection to cognitions of sexual submission, we found that when overall frequency of sexual cognitions was controlled, compared to  men,  women reported a significantly greater frequency of both positive and negative cognitions of sexual submission.  Submission cognitions were more often negative for women and were more often positive for men.  Men and women who had experienced sexual abuse in childhood reported more frequent positive sexual submission cognitions but not more negative sexual submission cognitions.  Conversely, men and women who had experienced sexual coercion in adulthood reported more frequent negative sexual submission cognitions but not more positive sexual submission cognitions.  Having used sexual coercion was associated with more frequent positive cognitions of sexual submission for both men and women.  

Currently I have a project with Krystelle Shaughnessy investigating the extent to which these positive sexual cognitions represent sexual interests and/or sexual experiences.

I also have a project with Nieves Moyano and Juan-Carlos Sierra of the University of Granada in Spain  investigating sexual cognitions in Spain and their association with sexual functioning.

The following publications are based on this work:

Renaud, C. A., & Byers, E. S. (2006).  Positive and negative cognitions of sexual submission:  Relationship to sexual violence.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35,  483-490.

Renaud, C.A. & Byers, E. S. (2005).  Relationship between sexual violence and positive and negative cognitions of sexual dominance.  Sex Roles, 53, 253-260. 

Renaud, C. A. & Byers, E. S. (2001). Positive and negative sexual cognitions: Subjective experience and relationships to sexual adjustment. The Journal of Sex Research, 38, 252-262.

Little, C. A. & Byers, E. S. (2000). Differences between positive and negative sexual cognitions. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 9, 167-179.

Clark, D. A., Purdon, C., & Byers, E. S. (2000). Appraisal and control of sexual and non-sexual intrusive thoughts in university students. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38, 439-455.

Renaud, C. A., & Byers, E. S. (1999). Exploring the frequency, diversity, and context of university students’ positive and negative sexual cognitions. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 8, 17- 30.

Byers, E. S., Purdon, C., & Clark, D. A. (1998). Sexual intrusive thoughts of college students. The Journal of Sex Research, 35, 359-369.

© 2004 Sandra Byers, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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