Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Dawn T. Robinson

Second Advisor

Forrest A. Deseran


One of the cultural changes noted in American society in the last fifty years has been a noticeable increase in the public use of sexual profanity, particularly by women. Many commentators attribute this change to the sexual revolution of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, as well as the increasing emancipation of women from traditional gender roles. This dissertation examines the ideological foundations that have shaped both western sexual attitudes and the nature of modern use of sexual profanity, to question whether these changes are indicative of greater gender equity. Using a dramaturgical approach to gender identity, an alternative interpretation is presented that defines these changes as a cultural reaffirmation of the devaluation of women. The following presentation weaves together the threads of language and gender, the symbolism of sexual language and its relationship to sexual norms, and the relationship of these to our concepts of sexual deviance. The implications of sexual language for gender identity and sexual behavior, and how these have changed together, provide insights on gender relations that challenge existing literature that equates widespread use of profanity by women as an indicator of the change in status of women in our society. To test the degree to which traditional values regarding sexual language and gender-appropriate behavior still exist in American society, an empirical analysis of undergraduate students' reactions to users of sexual profanity is presented. Written vignettes were used to assess student ratings on items of interpersonal judgement involving measures of perceived sociability, potency, activity, and attractiveness. Manipulations included the presence or absence of sexual profanity, the gender of the actors, and blue collar and white collar workplace settings. MANOVA results found significant differences in respondents' ratings depending on whether the actor was male or female, and whether the actor swore. There were also significant differences between the ratings provided by male respondents and female respondents. The results indicated not only that sexual profanity is still considered deviant, but that the degree of devaluation attached to swearing differs significantly for men and women. If there is a connection of sexual language with the devaluation of women as argued below, then the conclusions warranted by these results indicate that women's status gains can be considered very uneven at best.