Is Honesty the Best Policy in the Bedroom?

Research into which partners are open about their history, and which aren't.

Posted Jul 19, 2016

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You might think that you know everything about your partner, including their sexual history. In your relationship, you and your partner have both said that you value honesty. Even when something happens that you’d rather not admit to, you still feel obligated to let your partner know.

That’s what intimacy is all about, isn’t it?

If you and your partner haven’t committed to being completely open with each other, you might still think that you would know when your partner isn't telling the truth. To quote Shakespeare's King Duncan in Macbeth, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Duncan thought he could trust Macbeth, but Macbeth murdered him at the first opportunity in order to become king himself, and the line becomes an ironic statement.

Let’s reverse the situation and ask whether you are completely honest with your partner about your sexual past: Are there any skeletons hidden in your closet? If you haven’t been honest, does it mean you don’t truly love or trust your partner?

As noted by Texas State University psychologist Sean Horan (2016), when sexual partners are honest with each other, they have the potential to build bonds of intimacy. Citing Floyd’s (2006) affective exchange theory (AET) as support, being honest should benefit your relationship, but it can also be risky when it comes to sexual tell-alls. Disclosing your past might inadvertently make your partner feel the need to compete to see who has a more storied history. Telling your partner about your past might not only lead to one-upmanship, but manipulation. If your partner tells you about a past affair with a mutual friend, are they telling you to be honest or to make you jealous?

Horan is interested in sexual honesty from the standpoint of its role in risky sexual behavior, specifically the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Not telling your partner about your past can put your partner at risk for developing an STI, especially if you’ve only been together for a short time. (Cheating on your partner obviously also puts him or her at risk, but this was not the focus of Horan’s study.)

Horan points out that there are other ways that partners engage in deception besides not revealing the details of their past. For example, faking orgasm is a relatively common form of deception. Even if it’s meant to help preserve a relationship, it is a lie nonetheless. According to AET, communicating your honest feelings should strengthen your connection to your partner; faking orgasms runs counter to that goal.

Horan’s study on sexual honesty involved college undergraduates, a good population given the chances that they haven’t settled down to a monogamous existence. Of the 183 individuals involved in the study (most of whom were heterosexual), about 25 percent reported having had six or more partners—and more than half had had been tested for an STI, with an average of three previous tests.

When asked about their knowledge of safe sex behaviors, almost all participants were aware of the need to use condoms and to disclose an STI to their partners. However, only 68% believed that telling their partner how many past partners they had would contribute to safe sex behavior. In fact, the participants tended to think that sharing their sexual history prior to intimacy was unimportant. Participants with a history of more sexual partners were particularly likely to avoid being truthful with current partners about their past. This might be because sexual history is a taboo topic. According to Horan, “discussions of previous partners may not happen out of fear of negatively impacting potential sexual activity” (p. 460).

From the standpoint of AET, which proposes that feeling and conveying affection are distinct processes, the Horan study shows how individuals “communicate deception about affection” (p. 461). By failing to convey the truth about their sexual past, not only do individuals put their partners at risk, but they jeopardize the foundation on which a relationship may eventually be built. You could go for decades thinking your partner had only one affair prior to your marriage or commitment, only to discover the truth about their past years later. Even if it happened before you knew your partner, and the years have proven your partner to be faithful, it feels bad to learn the facts after the passage of so much time.

Horan notes that AET doesn’t explain why some people are more reluctant to be honest about their past than others. Having a large number of previous partners could be part of the reason, but it may also be that some people just don’t feel comfortable sharing their darkest secrets with partners. Deceptive affection is, as the term implies, not true affection. You need to be truthful if you and your partner are to benefit from communicating your feelings, and your past.

Rather than relying, as King Duncan did, on “art” to learn about your partner’s past, AET suggests that you summon the courage to have an open and honest discussion. This means talking about your own past as well. Fulfillment in relationships depends on having solid bonds of affection with your partner. Honesty, though not always easy, still seems the best policy for keeping those bonds strong and vital.

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  • Floyd, K. (2006). Communicating affection: Interpersonal behavior and social context. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press
  • Horan, S. M. (2016). Further understanding sexual communication: Honesty, deception, safety, and risk. Journal of Social And Personal Relationships, 33(4), 449-468. doi:10.1177/0265407515578821 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016