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Sexual Agreements—Do We Need to Talk About This?

Understanding and preventing sexual misunderstandings.

Key points

  • Partners can genuinely misunderstand or disagree about their sexual agreement.
  • Partners may even disagree about whether a particular behavior meets the criteria for “having sex.”
  • Discussing a sexual agreement explicitly can reduce the likelihood of accidental misunderstandings.
  • Be respectful, direct, and thorough when discussing a sexual agreement, and expect an ongoing discussion.

Let's continue our look at sexual agreements. My previous post described them as “good but imperfect predictors of behavior.” Let's discuss some of the reasons why partners might misunderstand their sexual agreements and offer some ideas for resolving those misunderstandings

Sometimes, couples think they agree when they actually do not.

Studies that gather data from both partners in a couple are able to ask each of them about their sexual agreement. These studies with male couples have found that 5% to 20% of them have discrepant perceptions of their agreement (Dellucci et al., 2021; Hoff & Beougher, 2010; Mitchell, 2014; Parsons et al., 2012; Sharma et al., 2019). This typically means that one person in the couple believes they are monogamous (no sex with outside partners is happening), and the other believes that sex with outside partners is in some way permitted. Perhaps not surprisingly, when partners are not on the same page about their sexual agreement, they are also less satisfied (Mitchell et al., 2012) with their relationship and have worse communication overall (Dellucci et al., 2020).

How is it possible that two people in a couple could have such a discrepancy? Each couple has their own story. Nothing here can tell you for sure what happened for any specific couple you may know, but here are a few possibilities.

Implicit agreements are more easily misunderstood.

Broadly speaking, researchers distinguish between two kinds of agreements (Cain & Starks, 2024). Explicit agreements are verbally negotiated. The partners have, in some way, spoken directly about their sexual agreement or what behaviors are permitted with other partners. In contrast, implicit agreements are arrived at indirectly. Without talking about it, partners assume they have a shared understanding of what is acceptable.

There is nothing inherently wrong with implicit agreements. They are perfectly fine—when they work. The danger with implicit agreements is that it is relatively easier for partners to misunderstand one another. Implicit agreements often rely on shared norms (beliefs about how things ought to be) and signals (the meaning attached to various words and actions). The problem is that when those are misaligned, it can be hard to detect.

Consider this example.

Partner 1: “Hey, we’ve been together for a while, and I really like you. So I have been thinking, we are like ‘a couple,’ right?”

Partner 2: “Absolutely. You are too cute; I have been thinking that for a week or so now.”

Now, imagine that Partner 1 thinks “being a couple” means “we are not having sex with other people;” meanwhile, Partner 2 thinks “being a couple” is a meaningful step but not one that implies sexual exclusivity. It is entirely possible that Partner 1 would believe this exchange just confirmed their relationship is monogamous. At the same time, it might never occur to Partner 2 that this exchange has anything to do with sex at all. Unless this couple continues their conversation—and gets specific about what their sexual boundaries are now—there is the danger that both partners separately feel like they understand one another when they do not.

“Having sex” means different things to different people.

The question, “Did you have sex?” seems so simple. It has a straightforward (yes or no) answer. Unfortunately, this apparently simple question is psychologically complicated. People do not always agree about whether “yes” or “no” is the correct answer.

Findings are similar in studies of sexual minorities (Sewell et al., 2017; Shick et al., 2016) and heterosexual people (Byers et al., 2009; Randall & Byers, 2003; Sewell & Strassberg, 2015). Most everyone (90% or more in most studies) agrees that penetrative (penile-anal or penile-vaginal) intercourse constitutes “having sex.” After that, the potential for disagreement goes way up, especially when it comes to oral sex (mouth–genital contact). Between about half and roughly two-thirds of respondents count oral sex as “having sex.” Roughly half or fewer count (non-oral) genital touching as having sex. In a final twist, people are less likely to perceive a behavior as “having sex” if it stops before orgasm.

Why talking about it may help.

One way couples can clarify their sexual agreement and have a shared understanding of what “having sex” with someone else really means is to talk about it. No formula can guarantee a conversation will be easy or that you and your partner will always agree; however, for those interested, here are a few tips that come from years of helping couples have these discussions in the context of couples' HIV testing and counseling (Grabbe et al., 2014).

Starting the conversation (sometimes this is the hard part):

  • A neutral opening can help avoid perceptions of doubt or suspicion. This might be something like, “Hey, we have been together for a while, and I have been wondering where you stand on being exclusive.” You might even consider starting the conversation by mentioning that you heard about it somewhere (for example, “Hey, I read this post about sexual agreements, and it got me thinking.”).
  • Be thoughtful about time and place. Context can make a delicate conversation harder. If you and your partner just had a major argument, if you are in a social setting with lots of people around, or if you need to leave in 10 minutes, maybe that is not the best time to unpack your sexual boundaries.

Once you get started

  • Be careful with language. Lots of words relevant to sexual agreements can be loaded. Sometimes, people will use the word “committed” as a synonym for monogamy. Others might talk about non-monogamy in ways that shame people for being “promiscuous.” Expressing your preferences without judging others reduces the likelihood of conflict in the event you discover your partner has a different perspective.
  • Beware of euphemism. The problem with phrases like “sleep with someone else” or “hook up” is that they could imply a range of behaviors. This is a moment to be clear and direct. What “counts” as “sleeping with someone else?” What makes a “hook-up” a “hook-up” exactly?

Be thorough. When I talk with a couple about their sexual agreement, I usually ask a few things.

  • What rules or understandings do you two have about sex with other people?
  • [If a couple agrees to be monogamous.] Monogamy can mean a lot of things. For some couples, it means no touching or flirting. For others, only intercourse counts as sex. Where are you two?
  • [If a couple agrees to be non-monogamous.] Sometimes, couples who allow sex with others still set some boundaries. They might decide that certain people, places, or acts are off-limits. They might agree to communicate about sex before or after it happens. What rules, expectations, or limits (if any) would make sense for you two?

Some additional topics to consider.

  • Consider sharing why you think a particular agreement is a good fit. This can be especially helpful if you and your partner do not immediately see eye-to-eye about what your agreement should be. Telling your partner what you value about a particular agreement—and how it reflects what is important to you about your relationship—can help you find common ground and potential compromise.
  • Consider discussing how you might want to handle things if someone slipped up and broke your agreement. No one wants this to happen, but even in the best of relationships, sometimes, people may fall short of the goals they set for themselves. What would you want to know? How would you want to be told?

One final thought: working together with your partner to set and maintain the sexual boundaries of your relationship is more than just one talk. Staying on the same page as you write your story together might mean returning to this conversation periodically as your preferences and perspectives evolve.


Byers, E. S., Henderson, J., & Hobson, K. M. (2009). University students' definitions of sexual abstinence and having sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 665-674.

Cain, D., & Starks, T. J. (2024). Sexual Agreements and Arrangements. In A. E. Goldberg (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of LGBTQ+ Studies (2nd ed.): SAGE Publications.

Dellucci, T. V., Carmichael, C., & Starks, T. J. (2021). Arrangements versus agreements: Evaluating two approaches to measuring male couples’ rules and understandings around sex with outside sex partners. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(4), 1689-1700.

Grabbe, K., Jones, R., Barnes, J. L., McWilliams, A., Stephenson, R., Sullivan, P., Coury-Doniger, P., & Schwartz, A. (2014). Couples HIV Testing and Counseling (CHTC) in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hoff, C. C., & Beougher, S. C. (2010). Sexual agreements among gay male couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(3), 774-787.

Mitchell, J. W. (2014). Characteristics and allowed behaviors of gay male couples’ sexual agreements. The Journal of Sex Research, 51(3), 316-328.

Parsons, J. T., Starks, T. J., Gamarel, K. E., & Grov, C. (2012). Non-monogamy and sexual relationship quality among same-sex male couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(5), 669-677.

Randall, H. E., & Byers, E. S. (2003). What is sex? Students definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and unfaithful sexual behavior. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 12(2), 87-96.

Sewell, K. K., McGarrity, L. A., & Strassberg, D. S. (2017). Sexual behavior, definitions of sex, and the role of self-partner context among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(7), 825-831.

Sewell, K. K., & Strassberg, D. S. (2015). How do heterosexual undergraduate students deinfe having sex? A new aproach to an old question. The Journal of Sex Research, 52(5), 507-516.

Sharma, A., Garofalo, R., Hidalgo, M. A., Hoehnle, S., Mimiaga, M. J., Brown, E., Thai, J., Bratcher, A., Wimbly, T., Sullivan, P. S., & Stephenson, R. (2019). Do male couples agree on their sexual agreements? An analysis of dyadic data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(4), 1203-1216.

Shick, V. R., Rosenberger, J. G., Herbenick, D., Collazo, E., Sanders, S. A., & Reece, M. (2016). The behavioral definitions of "having sex with a man" and "having sex with a woman" identified by women who have engaged ins exual activity with both men and women. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(4-5), 578-587.

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