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How Do We Talk About Condoms?

A new study of sexual communication.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are not rare: around 20 million STIs are diagnosed each year (CDC). Though safer sex encompasses a variety of behaviors, one of the best ways to reduce your risk for STIs is through the use of a condom. Given the key role of communication in condom use (e.g., Noar, Carlyle, & Cole, 2006), my latest study (Horan & Cafferty, in press) examined the actual messages people used when talking about condoms before sex.

We studied 119 individuals who were about 20 years old. Individuals who fall within 15-24 account for a significant amount of new STIs (CDC), making this an appropriate age group to study. Four condom messages were identified:

Condom possession (e.g., do you have one?)
Condom exploration (e.g., should we use one?)
Condom demand (e.g., we can’t do it unless you have a condom)
Health concerns (e.g., messages about STIs and/or pregnancy)

A surprising theme throughout this research was the misconception of risk. That is, numerous participants discussed not using condoms because the female partner was on birth control. Related, participants cited the nature of activity (e.g., oral sex) as not warranting the use of a condom. This once again demonstrates that sexually active individuals do not fully understand what behavior involves risk (for related findings on this, see my 2016 study I summarized for PT).

Similar to the above is the fact that participants reported an average of around 6 sexual partners, yet 59.7 percent of participants had not ever been tested for an STI.

Communication about sexual safety between partners is important as it is repeatedly linked to safer sex behavior (e.g., Noar et al., 2006). Still, roughly half of our sample did not have any communication about condoms.

Health communication practitioners and trainers would be wise to specifically focus on sexual safety messages to be used between partners prior to sex. Future research should allow us to identify which messages are useful in leading to condom compliance and risk reduction.

Dr. Sean M. Horan is a Communication professor. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealDrSean. His expertise is communication across relationships, with topics including deception, affection, workplace romance, sexual risk/safety, attraction, deceptive affection, and initial impressions. His work/commentary has appeared on CNN, ABC, Fox, The Wall Street Journal, and more.


Horan, S. M., & Cafferty, L. A. (in press). Condom communication: Reports of sexually active young adults’ recent messages with new partners. Journal of Health Communication. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2017.1355420

Horan, S. M. (2016). Further understanding sexual communication: Honesty, deception, safety, and risk. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33, 449-468. doi: 10.1177/0265407515578821

Noar, S. M., Carlyle, K., & Cole, C. (2006). Why communication is crucial: A meta-analysis of the relationship between safer sexual communication and condom use. Journal of Health Communication, 11, 365–390. doi:10.1080/10810730600671862

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