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Sexual Communication: Are You Fluent?

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Sexual Communication: Are You Fluent?

Are you afraid to discuss sex with your partner?

Sex seems to be everywhere. In image, gesture, and word, allusions to sex permeate the culture and are used regularly to attract and distract, to scare and entertain, to get and sell stuff. The sex chatter that constitutes much of the characteristic noisiness of American culture concerns mostly gossip, platitudes, and other people’s lives. But talk to our partners candidly about sex, real sex that we ourselves are having? Not so much.

Not much has changed in the last 50 years

This difficulty with intimate sexual communication is not new. In fact it was one of the findings that compelled pioneer sex researchers Masters and Johnson in the 60s to devise their ‘sensate focus’ sex therapy technique, whereby intercourse is now allowed and couples are instructed to touch each other with the aim of learning about what feels good without the performance pressures that often dominate the sexual encounter.

For example, the British researchers Lester Coleman and Roger Ingham, studying a sample of adolescents in the late 90s, found that only about half discussed contraception with their partners prior to first intercourse. Laura Widman and colleagues reported roughly similar findings last year in a study with a sample of 603 youths. 

Communicating openly about sex is difficult

And not just for youngsters, or at the beginning of the relationship. Couples married for decades can have trouble communicating openly and honestly about what they like and dislike in bed. Reviewing 30 years of research on sexual communication, the Canadian researcher E. Sandra Byers several years ago found that rates of sexual self-disclosure, even in committed long-term relationships, were surprisingly low. 

When asked about the duration of foreplay and intercourse their partners prefer, people’s estimates correlate closely with their own sexual stereotypes but have little to do with what their partners actually want. According to the research reviewed by Byers, odds are you don’t know very much about what turns your partner on. You know even less about what turns them off. In Byers’ research, rates of self-disclosure about sexual dislikes were particularly low. By these data, you know only about a fourth of the things your partner finds distasteful sexually.

Why do we find discussing sex with our partner so painful?

But why? How come talking openly about our sexual likes and dislikes with our sex partners (be they one-night-stands or spouses) is so difficult?

Perhaps our problem is not with discussing sex per se, but with confronting large existential topics in general. Talking about sex in this context may be likened to talking about death—we all have sex and we all die, yet both issues are difficult to face head on and consider rationally since we feel intimidated, unsure of our grasp. Still, it’s easier to understand the reluctance to discuss death. After all, nobody wants to die. As Steve Jobs once said, even people who believe in heaven are in no hurry to get there by dying. But everybody ostensibly wants sex, more of it, and sooner rather than later. So the reluctance to communicate about it remains puzzling.

Perhaps sex is difficult to talk about in part because at its core, sexual passion is socially subversive. Sex is an impulse strong and selfish enough to confound our social judgment and undercut our social loyalties. Since we are all by design social creatures dependent on our social ties for survival, anything that by its nature works to disturb the social order will be perceived as risky to share and expose. To us, society is God, and anything about us that undermines it must dwell in the shadows, lest we incur the wrath of God.

Thinking less loftily, on the person-to-person level, perhaps we worry about sexual communication because we intuit the vast range of individual differences that exist with regard to sexuality. We feel strongly about our own tastes, and we sense that others do as well about theirs—whatever they may be. Thus we recognize that anything personal we say about sex has the potential to stir, scare, offend, and unsettle those who are close to us. Perhaps worse still, we sense that saying the wrong thing about our own sexual tastes or assumptions has the potential to unmask us as foolish, ignorant, or depraved.

Indeed, communication about sex is rife with opportunities for social embarrassment, rejection, and confusion. According to Coleman and Ingham (and others), fear of negative reaction to sexual discussion is an important suppressant of such discussions. The Australian researcher Dana Lear found in the 1990s that peer culture was a strong predictor of sexual communication patterns among college students: I’ll do it if everyone else is doing it; and since they don’t, I won’t either. It’s more acceptable to be silent, or even to talk dirty, than it is to give instructions, share preferences, and reveal secret desires.

Perhaps sexual communication is difficult also because we grow up with the myth that such communication is unnecessary. Common sex-related lore holds that: a) great sex comes naturally, b) your partner should know intuitively what you want and like, c) good sex must be spontaneous. In reality, more often than not, great sex, much like a great meal, does not just happen; rather it needs to be carried out with skill, thoughtfulness, and the right mix of selfish abandon and mutual attentiveness. People’s tastes, preferences and values with regard to sex–much as with food–differ greatly; you’re better off knowing something about your partner’s tastes before you get to cooking.

Commonly accepted social ‘scripts’ may also contribute to the lack of sexual communication. In particular, ‘sexual scripts,’ an idea introduced by John Gagnon and William Simon in the 70s, are action guidelines that help organize our commerce with the world in the sexual arena. Sexual scripts are heavily shaped by the culture and, once internalized, direct our perceptions, expectations, and behavior in sexual situations. In the U.S., males are expected by the common sexual script to “know what to do” while females are expected to be passive and sexually naïve; little wonder then that men don’t ask and women don’t tell. Doing so would violate the arousal scripts and hence constitute an automatic turn off.

Communicating openly about sex makes it better AND safer

Whatever the reasons, our difficulty communicating frankly and clearly about sex is problematic because evidence abounds to suggest that good sexual communication is linked to many good things, not the least among them safer and better sex.

Regarding the communication-contraception link, the evidence is quite robust that sexual communication predicts sexual safety and the use of protection. For example, Bianca Guzman of Cal State University and her colleagues in a study of over 1,000 Latino adolescents (2003) found that better sexual communication predicted delayed first intercourse, in itself a predictor of sexual health.

In 2006, Seth Noar and colleagues at the University of Kentucky conducted a meta analysis of 53 studies from 27 different journals and found small but significant positive correlations between partner communication and condom use. Recent work by Laura Widman and her colleagues at University of North Carolina found that lower communication rates were linked to lower rates of condom use.

Sexual communication leads to more satisfying sex

Research evidence has also pointed to a link between communication and satisfaction. For example, Tina Coffelt and Jon Hess of Iowa State University, in a study of 293 married individuals (average age: 40), found that disclosing sexual information was positively linked to relationship satisfaction and closeness. Researcher Elisabeth Babin of Cleveland State University, in a 2012 study of 207 participants (average age: 29), found that anxiety about communication was linked to decreased communication and lesser satisfaction. Jennifer Montesi and her colleaugues at Temple University, in a recent study of 101 heterosexual monogamous couples (average age: 22), found that open sexual communication was a significant predictor of both sexual and overall relationship satisfaction. 

Byers’ review (2011) proposed that sexual communication is linked to greater satisfaction through two main paths: the direct, instrumental path, by which the disclosure of sexual likes and dislikes is used to educate each other, and the more indirect, expressive path, in which self disclosure, sexual and otherwise, is used to increase intimacy, from which increased sexual satisfaction follows.

Our preference for non verbal sexual initiation may contribute to sexual coercion

One of the findings in the sexual communication literature is that when people do communicate, they prefer a nonverbal approach. For example, Canadian researchers Sarah Vannier and Lucia O’Sullivan in a 2011 study of 63 young adults, showed that most sexual initiations were nonverbal, and that responses tended to match the initiators’ strategies, leading to a predominantly nonverbal dialogue at sexual initiation. This finding is aligned with literature from the 80s and 90s showing that indirect nonverbal initiation of sex was more common and preferred over direct, verbal initiation.

This hegemony of nonverbal communication in sex appears intuitive. We often resort to nonverbal signals when we are not comfortable with words, or when verbal communication is absent. Moreover, sex is at its core a physical activity, not a verbal one, so nonverbal gestures are playing on their home turf. Indeed, Elisabeth Babin found that nonverbal communication was more closely linked to satisfaction than verbal communication.

However, the reliance on nonverbal communication may have a downside. For example, a recent study by Kristen Jozkowski  at the University of Arkansas found that using nonverbal cues to interpret consent might lead to miscommunication between males and females, which could contribute to instances of sexual coercion. According to Jozkowski’s study, men tend to rely more on nonverbal cues while women rely more on verbal cues in communicating consent. Men also rely on nonverbal cues in interpreting consent. Nonverbal communication is not easy to interpret reliably even under the best of circumstances. The interpretive challenges are compounded in the sexual encounter, with its myriad crosscurrents, ambivalences, and anxieties.

The downside of our failure to discuss sex openly is profound

In sum, we are bombarded daily with a lot of sex talk, which we consume quite happily despite the fact that much of it neither touches our personal lives nor is intended to benefit us. Yet just when sex talk could actually matter, when speaking candidly about sex would make our lives better, healthier, and happier, we too often fall suddenly silent.

As things now stand, a young adolescent finds it difficult or impossible to inquire about protection before first intercourse with his partner, a dating couple is afraid to confide in each other about their sexual wishes and worries, and a long married couple is destined to remain unaware of each other’s deepest desires and dislikes.

Perhaps it’s time we start talking about it.

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Noam Shpancer was born and raised on an Israeli kibbutz. Currently he is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University and a practicing clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is also a blogger at psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy and an op-ed columnist for the Jewish bimonthly The New Standard. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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