Sex Roles, Vol. 51, Nos. 9/10, November 2004 (
Connotative Interpretations of Sexuality-Related Terms
Virginia J. Noland,
Ellen M. Daley,
Judy C. Drolet,
Joyce V. Fetro,
Kelli R. McCormack Brown,
Coleen D. Hassell,
and Robert J. McDermott
In this study we examined the connotative interpretations of selected sexuality-related terms
by a cohort of university undergraduate students (n = 567). Forty-two sexuality-relevant con-
structs were rated on thirty 7-point semantic differential scales. Means of the scale sum scores
for men and women were compared using t tests. Among women the most favorably rated
constructs were orgasm, vaginal sex, sexual intercourse, virginity, masturbation, oral sex, pro-
choice, pregnancy, erection,andheterosexual. The most negatively evaluated terms were date
rape, sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault, HPV,andHIV/AIDS. For men, the most favorably
rated constructs were sexual monogamy, virginity, orgasm, vaginal sex,andheterosexual.The
most negatively evaluated terms were rape, HPV, date rape,andsexual abuse. There were
statistically signiﬁcant gender differences in the evaluation of 12 terms (p <.05). The evalua-
tions assigned to 30 possible attributes suggest that some sexuality-related terms elicit strong
visceral responses from university students. A discussion of the psychological and emotional
impact of sexuality-related terms (i.e., connotative meanings) may be warranted whenever
dictionary deﬁnitions (i.e., denotative meanings) are presented to students, other groups of
learners, and persons in health care and other settings. Moreover, a practitioner’s use of lan-
guage may elicit connotatively different responses for women and men.
KEY WORDS: gender; semantic differential; sex; sexual language.
The relationship between a word and its pos-
sible meanings is known as semantics (Megginson,
1996). Depending on context, this relationship may
add complexity to interpersonal communication. The
very mention of particular words can produce two
types of meaning: denotative, or referential, and con-
notative, or representational. A person may be able
to give the denotative meaning (i.e., dictionary deﬁ-
nition) of a word willingly, whereas, at the same time,
be reluctant to provide its representational mean-
Department of Health Education & Behavior (FLG 5),
University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
Florida Prevention Research Center, University of South Florida
College of Public Health, Tampa, Florida.
Department of Health Education and Recreation, Southern
Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois.
To whom correspondence should be addressed at University of
South Florida College of Public Health, Florida Prevention Re-
search Center, 13201 Bruce B. Downs, Blvd. (MDC 56), Tampa,
Florida 33612; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ing due to the emotional association brought about
by the word (Megginson, 1996; Weaver, 1974). Rep-
resentational interpretations of speciﬁc words can
be inﬂuenced by people’s previous experience and
sets of beliefs, and, thus, two people may assign en-
tirely different connotative meanings to the same
word (Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957). There-
fore, under certain circumstances, the communica-
tive value of language may be altered that could cre-
ate signiﬁcant communicative roadblocks.
An illustration of this phenomenon can be seen
in the inferred meaning of the word drug. Apart from
any “dictionary meaning,” to some people a drug
may be seen as a substance that provides therapeu-
tic effects on the body, thereby combating disease,
correcting any number of disorders, and assisting in
the restoration of health and well-being. To other
people, a drug may represent social deviance and
arouse thoughts of substance abuse and lawlessness.
Of course, still other people may embrace both sets
2004 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.