Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Child and Family Studies

Major Professor

Spencer B. Olmstead

Committee Members

Elizabeth I. Johnson, John Orme, Deborah Welsh


Recent sexuality research has examined internalized sexual expectations and fears for one’s sexuality (i.e., sexual possible selves; Anders, Olmstead, & Johnson, in press) during the developmental period of emerging adulthood (EA). This dissertation extends the possible selves literature by examining the sexual possible selves (SPS) of EAs using three methodological approaches. Study 1 used a large national sample (N = 800) to compare sexual expectations, fears, and associated behavioral strategies between college-attending (n = 400) and non-college attending (n = 400) EAs. We used qualitative content analysis to examine prominent SPS themes across these two groups. Themes included abstinence, interpersonal relationship, sexual health/well-being, quantity, quality, explore/experiment, sex specific, maintain, sexual assault/coercion, self-focus, partner focus, increased sexual risk, and no expectations/fears. Responses were compared between groups to examine mean differences across categories. Differences were found for three expected SPS categories (abstinence, interpersonal relationship, and maintain). Sex differences were also found for several categories.

Study 2 used a short-term longitudinal design to examine continuity and change in SPS using a sample first semester college men and women. Data was collected at two time points in fall 2016 (T1 = first 4 weeks, N = 78; T2 = last 4 weeks, N = 40). Qualitative content analysis revealed similar emergent categories at both time points (e.g., abstinence); however, students’ expectations and fears did change across the semester. Further, behavioral strategies students use to attain their future oriented selves were dynamic and changed across time points.

For Study 3, semi-structured interviews were conducted to examine developmental influences on first semester students’ (N = 35) SPS. Interviews were conducted during the first four weeks of the fall 2016 semester and analyzed using Applied Thematic Analysis (ATA). Prominent expected SPS themes included sex and commitment, relationship focus, delaying sex, taking a passive approach, abstinence, and plans for sex. Feared SPS themes included sexual assault/coercion, reputation, sexual health, non-committed sexual avoidance, and identity loss. Central influences on participants’ SPS included family, peers, religion, media, college culture, alcohol and parties, and past experiences. Implications for EA sexuality research, sexual education and intervention programs are discussed across these studies.

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