A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton

A Critique of Simon and Gagnon’s Theory of “Sexual Scripts”

One of the foundational theories that has made a significant contribution to the development of the claim that sexuality is “socially constructed” and which has been fundamental to the theory of “sexual fluidity” in Queer Theory is the theory of “sexual scripts”. This was put forward by William Simon and John H. Gagnon, first in their book Sexual Conduct (1973) and then summarized in their article “Sexual Scripts” published in 1984 in the sociology journal Society (22, 1), which has been regularly reprinted since then. The following is a critique of their article, and concludes by suggesting that the theory of “sexual scripts” is an inadequate tool for understanding sexuality.

They begin by observing the change in approach which was becoming apparent in the early 1980s: “Recent work in social history and psychohistory makes it less easy to treat the sexual as an unchanging constant”. In contrast to the traditional approach which they say is “largely [an] attempt to sustain a static model of the human within a landscape of changing ecologies and cultures,” they propose to develop an alternative model “that allows us to consider human sexuality in ways that are responsive to both the sociohistorical process and the necessary understandings that preserve a sense of individually experienced lives.” For this purpose they use the theory of “sexual scripts”: “Scripts are a metaphor for conceptualizing the production of behaviour within social life.” Note their use of the Marxist term “production” to describe human behaviour.

They open their analysis by claiming that “For behaviour to occur, something resembling scripting must occur on three distinct levels: cultural scenarios, interpersonal scripts, and intrapsychic scripts.” Let us examine each of these in turn.

Cultural scenarios: “All institutions and institutionalized arrangements can be seen as systems of signs and symbols through which the requirements and the practice of specific roles are given. The enactment of virtually all roles must either directly or indirectly reflect the contents of appropriate cultural scenarios.” Note that Simon and Gagnon have introduced the term “role” without defining it. Note also that they have drawn back from the Marxist idea of “production,” and instead of saying that roles are “produced” by society, they simply observe that roles “reflect” society. This is the standard cultural influence model of behaviour, and is perfectly straightforward, and contains no radical new observation.

Interpersonal scripts: “This is a process that transforms the social actor from being exclusively an actor to being a partial scriptwriter or adapter shaping the materials of relevant cultural scenarios into scripts for behaviour in particular contexts. Interpersonal scripting is the mechanism through which appropriate identities are made congruent with desired expectations.” Note here that this presupposes an identity that is outside of culture, which has to be shaped according to the expectations of culture. In other words, in this view, behaviour does not arise wholly from society; so this, again, is not radically different from the traditional view.

Intrapsychic scripts. Intrapsychic scripting is, they claim, a way of coping with “complexities, conflicts, and/or ambiguities” in cultural scenarios; it “creates fantasy in a rich sense of that word: the symbolic reorganization of reality in ways to more fully realize the actor’s many layered and sometimes multivoiced wishes. Intrapsychic scripting becomes a historical necessity as a private world of wishes and desires that are experienced as originating in the deepest recesses of the self must be bound to social life: individual desires are linked to social meanings. Desire is not reducible to an appetite, a drive, an instinct; it does not create the self, rather it is part of the process of the creation of the self.” This is the meat of the matter. But note that there are significant logical contradictions in this paragraph. Desire is not accounted for by scripting: Simon and Gagnon, despite their claim to the contrary, present it as a pre-existing personal appetite which conflicts with society and has to be dealt with by scripting in order to make it absorbable by culture. In other words, intrapsychic scripting presupposes personal desire as a given rather than a product.

Scripting is a process of meaning-making or sign-making, so let us examine Simon and Gagnon’s views about this more closely. For them, “The scripting of sexual behaviour implies a rejection of the idea that the sexual represents a very special, if not unique, quality of motivation. From a scripting perspective, the sexual is not viewed as an intrinsically significant aspect of human behaviour; rather, the sexual is viewed as becoming significant either when it is defined as such by collective life – sociogenic significance; or when individual experiences or development assign it a special significance – ontogenic significance.” It seems to me that this is a rather tautological argument, pointing out the obvious fact that something does not become significant until significance is attached to it. This uses sleight of hand to claim that personal significance is intrinsically irrelevant until cultural significance is assigned to it: by treating “significance” as denoting inherently and solely “cultural significance,” Simon and Gagnon have simply side-stepped the problem of personal significance or meaning. Thus they can say that sexual behaviour is not “intrinsically significant” precisely because they are using the term “significance” to mean “extrinsically significant”. Thus sexual behaviour cannot be intrinsic merely because by (their) definition it is not intrinsic. So this really does not advance their argument at all.

They explain away the feeling that sexuality has innately personal significance by arguing that sexuality is given “strong meaning” because “successful performance or avoidance of what is defined as sexual plays a major role in the evaluation of individual competence and worth.” Of course it is true that society plays a role in influencing the public presentation of sexuality, but Simon and Gagnon place far too much emphasis upon the dominance of cultural scenarios: the overriding power of society is not demonstrated by evidence put forward in their essay.

Simon and Gagnon ascribe to social expectations very wide powers indeed: “Such cultural scenarios not only specify appropriate objects, aims, and desirable qualities of self/other relations, but also instruct in times, places, sequences of gesture and utterance and, among the most important, what the actor and coparticipants (real or imagined) are assumed to be feeling. These instructions make most of us far more committed and rehearsed at the time of our initial sexual encounters than we realize.” Unfortunately Simon and Gagnon do not seem to account for the origin of these cultural scenarios: they do not address the possibility, for example, that sexual cultural scenarios originate under the influence of personal desire widely experienced by many people. They simply will not countenance the possibility (which I think is the likelihood) that most cultural expectations are congruent with personal desires because the cultural grows out of the personal, not the other way around.

To further reduce the possibility of arguing against their view, Simon and Gagnon assert that “The sexual takes a natural air obscuring that virtually all the cues initiating sexual behaviour are embedded in the external environment.” They jump to this very large claim without developing any intermediary arguments and without suggesting any evidence to support the claim. The notion that virtually all behaviour stems from the external environment is simply an extreme statement of behaviourism. They simply deny personal initiative – they deny the concept of the sexual subject – without presenting any argument or evidence for their view that “private sexual cultures grow within the heart of public sexual cultures.”. And yet they acknowledge, even emphasize, the growth of large numbers of individuals since the eighteenth century whose private sexual behaviour is not congruent with public expectations: but they fail to account for how that could be possible, if “virtually all the cues initiating sexual behaviour are embedded in the external environment.” Even though incongruence is fundamental to their theory of scripting, they cannot account for how incongruence comes about. They sum up their position: “While such scripts generally imply things about the internal feelings of the participants, only the representation of appropriate feelings need be manifested or confirmed. For virtually all, at one time or other, desire will follow rather than precede behaviour.” This is a statement of dogma rather than an argument from evidence. They themselves have just acknowledged the existence of internal feelings, but they do not grant them value because they remain amorphous until they are externalized by symbolic significance – by which stage they are defined as cultural scenarios! Heads you lose, tails you lose.

Essentially they are attempting to reconceptualize the nature of sexuality by the use of economic metaphor. “Desire, including the desire for desire, becomes one of the most pervasive currencies for negotiating exchanges across domains. The self in becoming a scripted actor becomes its own producer, managing resources, investing in long-term payoffs and short-term cash flow while becoming its own playwright.” This really ceases to be an analysis of sexual behaviour and becomes merely an exercise in Marxist metaphor. Basically Simon and Gagnon are attempting to theorize nonsexual motives for sexual behaviour, even “at times making orgasm possible.” This ludicrous assertion makes it clear how extreme their position is.

“This complex process of sexual scripting encourages the conservative, highly ritualized, or stereotyped character that sexual behaviour often takes. This conservative character is often cited as support for the view that the sexual is shaped early and possesses only a limited capacity for subsequent change. . . . Few individuals, like few novelists or dramatist, wander far from the formulas of their most predictable successes. . . . The stabilizing of sexual scripts, often confused with the crystallization of a sexual identity, occurs partly because it works by insuring adequate sexual performance and providing adequate sexual pleasure.” By this stage they seem to have left behind the important insight about lack of congruence – i.e. the radical or subversive element – in creating scripts, and are now saying that most plays are inherently conservative and formulaic. But conservation and disjunction cannot account for one another. Simon and Gagnon have by no means adequately countered the notion of identity crystallization (i.e. growth around a pre-existing core); they have merely dismissed it.

They conclude that “Much of the process of sexual scripting, while appearing in the obscurity of individual behaviour, remains in most critical aspects a derivative of the social process.” The fundamental problem with their argument is that they have dogmatically identified sexual scripting with sexual desire, even though their argument for the existence of scripting is based upon a theory of scripting as a mechanism for integrating personal desire with public culture. SCRIPTING is the intermediary dialectic between DESIRE and SOCIETY: it fails to account for DESIRE.

The last half of their essay is devoted to applying their theory of scripting to conceptualizations of life-cycle stages. Here we can see how inadequately their theory deals with dismissing the existence of non-cultural desires and facts. They say, for example, that an aging playboy is subject to ridicule because he does not meet the cultural expectations of old age (as being postsexual). Similarly, sex with children is seen as pathological because it does not meet the cultural expectations of childhood (as being presexual). S & D do not acknowledge that these cultural conceptions have roots in the biological experience of the very young and the elderly. Life-cycle stages are seen as being purely institutionally mandated, as if puberty has nothing to do with biology. “For example, the question of what constitutes minimal sexual maturity varies considerably across time and cultures; it varies dramatically across even the contemporary social landscape.” But the fact that different law systems have different definitions of the age of consent really does not prove that across the world there are utterly different conceptions of life-cycle stages. In any case this is really a different issue, an issue about perceptions and moral judgements about behaviour. The observation that social mores differ from society to society and from time to time, does not in itself disprove the traditional view that sexual desire and behaviour arise from within individuals rather than are imposed upon them.

The “sexual scripts” model of human behaviour suggests that individual players are given a script at the outset of the play, and that they follow the words and actions written by the playwright with virtually no freedom for adlibbing: It seems to me that this behaviourist model is even more determinist than the biological model, which suggests that erotic desire is a powerful motive force arising from within, which has the capacity of resisting the social forces that would attempt to restrain or redirect it. Within the “sexual scripts” model there is only one all-powerful force: society – “The actor ultimately must submit to the playwright.”


CITATION: Rictor Norton, "Critique of Simon and Gagnon's Theory of 'Sexual Scripts'," A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, 1 January 2018 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/scripts.htm>

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