Sex is a regular part of the lives of many individuals. When discussing this topic area as both a researcher and professor, I often comment that people appear much more comfortable having sex than talking about sex.
Understanding sex as a communicative event, and the communication surrounding sex, is incredibly complicated—yet of the utmost importance to both examine and understand. Despite this fact, the manner in which we talk about sex, and communication before and after sex, is under-studied. With that in mind, this entry will review the recent work by Denes (2012) exploring pillow talk.
Denes explains pillow talk as “the conversations that occur after sexual activity (Veenestra, 2007). It is the communicative element of afterglow, which is the ‘blissful period of physical and mental relaxation after orgasm” (Dene, 2012, p. 92; Veenestra, 2007, p. 39).
Understanding communication and associated disclosures following sex is important as they can vary in positivity-negativity, and can be quite intimate. Oxytocin, a hormone level that increases during orgasm/sex, elevates feelings of trust, diminishes feelings of fear, and reduces the perception that another is a threat (e.g., Denes; Huber et al., 2005; Kirsch et al., 2005; Kosfeld et al., 2005). This increased hormone level can influence the communication following sexual activity.
Two hundred people participated in the Denes study, and they were roughly 20 years old. Participants based responses off of their most recent sexual experience, and about half the sample was in a committed relationship. Instructions requested that participants complete the survey within 2 hours of sexual activity.
In describing her sample, it was clear that participants engaged in a variety of sexual behaviors. Following these sexual behaviors, 2% of men and 38% of women reported they did not experience an orgasm. Her study has a number of interesting findings, but in the interest of space, only a few will be reviewed here.
She initially found that individuals who reported communicating positive disclosures following sexual activity also reported higher levels of trust, relational closeness, and relationship satisfaction. Interestingly, women reporting orgasms conveyed more disclosures following sexual activity than did men. This may be due to the differential effects of oxytocin, which can cause some men to “simply nod off postcoital” (Denes, p. 93; see Waldherr & Neumann, 2005). Falling asleep, then, would limit one’s opportunity to engage in any form of pillow talk.
When comparing committed versus casual relationships, individuals in committed relationships expressed significantly more positive disclosures compared to those individuals in casual relationships. This is consistent with rules for maintaining friends with benefits relationships, one of which is to restrict communication and emotional expressions (Hughes et al., 2005). Interestingly, individuals in casual relationships reported higher levels of regret for their post-sexual disclosures compared to those in committed relationships.
Collectively, then, the author’s findings suggest that individuals in committed relationships are more comfortable communicating after sexual activity, that the disclosures are positive in nature, and that participants do not regret such disclosures. The higher levels of trust and closeness, combined with oxytocin, likely account for the nature of communication following sex. As sex is a complicated message that may result in increased feelings of uncertainty, it is important that partners communicate following sexual activity. As documented here, the nature of the relationship is an influential factor in explaining the amount and nature of, as well as feelings following, communication after sex.
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Denes, A. (2012). Pillow talk: Exploring disclosures after sexual activity. Western Journal of Communication, 76, 91-108.
Hughes, M., Morrison, K., & Asada, K. J. (2005). What's love got to do with it? Exploring the impact of maintenance rules, love attitudes, and network support on friends with benefits relationships. Western Journal of Communication, 69, 49-66.