Sex and Romance: How it Begins

What is the first step in sex and romance?

It is the look of a man upon a women and her dawning realization that she is an object of desire.  Being seen as an object of desire initiates a sexual and romantic self-schema within women (mode of behaving/perceiving/feeling) that primes her to be open to advances.  Bogaert & Brotto (2014) have termed this Object of Desire Self-Consciousness (ODSC), and explain it thus:

A man notices a woman and looks attentively at her. The woman is aware of his appreciative look, and it raises her ODSC, which activates a series of linked cognitive and behavioral responses (i.e., a knowledge network) related to attraction, romance and sexuality that
form the beginning of her sexual/romance script. One of these early behavioral responses might be the tendency to engage in a “hair flip,” arguably one of a woman’s signals or displays that she is interested in romantic/sexual attention and may find the man (or men) with whom she is interacting attractive.

…ODSC, aside from acting merely in a cognitive way, should also operate in and be strongly linked to “hot” or affective (e.g., arousal, desire, excitement, joy, pleasure) processes.

ODSC is primarily a feminine phenomena, and this is because:

Boys and men are more likely to initiate any sexual/romantic activities than are girls and women, and are more likely to gaze and stare at girls/women in sexually interested/suggestive ways. Such attention, whether wanted or not, likely internalizes for an adolescent girl or young woman that romantic/sexual attention from men often begins with (or includes) her being the sexual object of his desire. In addition, a woman’s sexual self-concept (e.g., sexual scripts) will become defined partly by how others (i.e., boys and men) view her as an object of desire. A girl’s own emerging desire to initiate sexual activity and see boys and men as sexual objects may be overwhelmed by the persistent gazes and attentions that dictate to her that sexuality is linked to her being an object of desire. Third, and relatedly, men are more “category-” or “target-” specific in their choice of sexual objects

What is the proof for this theory?  It starts with women’s fantasies:

Perhaps the best evidence for the role of ODSC in women’s lives and its link to their sexuality
(as, for example, part of a sexual script) comes from sexual fantasies. Sexual fantasies are im-
portant within this context, perhaps more so than actual behaviors, because behavior, particularly partnered behavior, is the compromise of the individuals comprising the dyad. Fantasies do not reflect this compromise: they usually only reflect the desires of the individual herself (Ellis & Symons, 1990; Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Compared to women with low desire, women with higher levels of sexual desire reported that hearing a partner tell them that he fantasized about them was a strong trigger for sexual desire.


of the women’s seven most common scripted sexual fantasies, Maltz and Boss (1997) indicated that the most common can be called “the pretty maiden” script. Here, the authors argued, women directly view themselves as (innocent and passive) objects of desires and derive sexual pleasure from this theme. The women who create these pretty maiden scripts fantasize that they are very beautiful and sexy, the object of desire of a powerful and more experienced man, who sweeps them off their feet and seduces them in a romantic and/or torridly sexual haze.

The second most common sexual theme was that of being a “victim” of sexual coercion.  The authors suggest that

a “victim” sexual narrative may, in and of itself, be a reflection of an object of desire theme, in particular, an “irresistibility” theme. A man’s use of force toward her can be seen (implicitly) by some women, at least within the context of their fantasies, as an inevitable consequence of their irresistible beauty (see also Bond & Mosher, 1986; Hariton, 1973; cf. Hawley & Hensley, 2009). Thus, perceiving a man’s need to use force may serve to reinforce or validate a woman’s fantasy that she is an irresistible object of desire because his lust is “out of control” in the presence of her beauty. Perhaps this is why these coercive themes are surprisingly frequent in women’s fantasies (Leitenberg & Henning, 1995), because they partly reflect an extreme irresistibility theme and thus are likely to prime ODSC.

Finally, another popular theme in women’s fantasies is that of exposure, the one illegal sexual activity that is more popular with women than it is with men. Beyond its exciting forbidden quality, it may be that it is gratifying because by presenting their bodies to men as an object of desire, they are turning themselves on.  Women are turned on by arousing desire in desirable men.

When it comes to real world arousal, ODSC also plays a prominent theme. Women who do not perceive themselves as desirable have much greater difficulty gaining sexual arousal, and vice versa. The following comment from a female participant in a study on arousal was representative of a common sentiment:

“If I’m feeling unattractive, like I’ve gained weight or something . . . but if I’ve lost 5 pounds . . . I’m just like wanting to take my clothes off a lot . . . ”

Another was particularly aroused:

“when they’re attracted to you and it’s like they just have to touch you and they can’t do enough for you”

The paper goes on to point to studies that indicate that women with sexual desire dysfunction often feel a lack of sexual attraction validation, not only from their partners, but also from other men.  However, when a ODSC was experimentally induced in the lab, it led to increased arousal – and the increased arousal was directly related to how much them embraced the positive sexual self-schema.


Bogaert, A. F., & Brotto, L. A. (2014). Object of desire self-consciousness theory. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 40(4), 323-338.

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