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How Honest Are Individuals About Their Sexual Histories?

Communication, sex, and risk

Sex is a natural part of any relationship, and given the potential for risk, public health officials and researchers advocate for individuals to “talk about their sex lives.” Such conversations are normally stressed so that individuals can negotiate safer sex practices.

Although the advice to “talk about your sex life” is often touted, research offers little empirical understanding of what the content of such conversations should be. Despite this lack of clarity, the Surgeon General’s Office and a variety of public health organizations encourage individuals to discuss their sexual histories. Although such conversations can entail a variety of topics, many advocate for the disclosure of one’s previous number of sexual partners prior to first time sexual activity. Lucchetti (1999) explains the specific rationale behind these conversations:

“The rationale behind promoting sexual history disclosure [previous number of partners] is thought to be that young people who have more information about a potential partner are more able to make sexual protective choices . . . [this] provides partners with information for assessing the risks associated with sexual activity within their relationship. Such information should promote the choice to negotiate safe-sex practices.” (p. 301)

In her original study, she examined how honest, or deceptive, individuals were in disclosures of their previous number of partners. She found that “99.7% of participants reported they knew what behaviors constituted safer sex, yet 42% failed to identify disclosure of number of previous partners as a safer sexual practice. Moreover, 37% disagreed that disclosure of previous partners was necessary before sex.” You can find a complete summary of her study in one of my previous entries, here.

In my most recent study, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, my goal was to re-investigate her main research question: essentially, how honest or deceptive are individuals with the (non)disclosure of their previous number of partners. To that end, I collected data in one of the nation’s largest cities as well as a traditional college campus. I also posed additional questions about safer sex choices to further explore sexual communication. What follows is a summary of some of these findings (please email me for a complete copy of the study).

*Study of 183 individuals. Average age of participants was 21.93 years old.

*159 of those individuals identified as heterosexual. Of those 159, 20 indicated prior same-sex sexual activity.

*Participants had an average of 7.86 sexual partners in their lifetimes. Only 53.6% of those participants had previously been tested for an STI. On average, they had been tested about 3 times.

*31.9% did not know disclosing one’s previous number of sexual partners was considered a safer sex behavior.

*“39.6% of participants fell into the never omitted sexual history disclosure category, 40.3% into the category of omitted disclosing sexual history to at least one partner, and 20.1% into the category of omitted disclosing sexual history to all sexual partners. Thus, about 60% of the sample has, at least once, acted deceptively when communicating about their number of previous sexual partners and 20.1% of that group routinely acted deceptively.”

*Individuals less comfortable with safer sex communication also reported a higher number of sexual partners.

*About 38% of participants agreed with the item gauging whether they had consumed drugs or alcohol prior to their most recent sexual experience.

*The number of alcoholic drinks a person consumed in a week was directly related to their number of sexual partners.

The above data represent a portion of the results presented in my most recent study. They collectively help us better understand sex, risk, and communication.

Though this study reported how (dis)honest individuals were when discussing their number of previous sexual partners, a lot remains to be learned about sexual history conversations. For instance, in early sexual encounters, individuals should discuss the time since their most recent STI test as well as infection windows. In more established relationships, individuals should discuss likes/dislikes. As Muise (2013), and others, have noted, sex is noticeably absent in many studies of relationships – thus future research would be wise to continue to explore this phenomenon.

The data reported in this study should be of use to public health officials and educators. Namely, it is not enough to tell individuals to talk about their sex lives, but instead, we have to guide them through a) what to discuss, and b) how to discuss it. Ultimately, these conversations should aid in facilitating safer sex choices.

Dr. Sean M. Horan is a Communication professor. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealDrSean. His expertise area is communication across relationships, with topics including deception, affection, workplace romance, sexual risk/safety, attraction, deceptive affection, and initial impressions.

This entry was based on an article that is forthcoming in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Current citation (will change once it appears in print):

Horan, S. M. (in press). Further understanding sexual communication: Honesty, deception, safety, and risk. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.