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Why Aren't We Talking to Our Partners About Sex?

Chatter about sex can be heard everywhere, except where it’s most needed.

Sex seems to be everywhere. In image, gesture, and word, allusions to sex permeate the culture and are used regularly to attract and distract, to scare and entertain, and to get and sell stuff. The sex chatter that constitutes much of the characteristic noisiness of American culture concerns mostly gossip, platitudes, and talk of other people’s lives.

But do we talk to our partners candidly about sex, the real sex that we ourselves are having?

Not so much.

Our apparent difficulty with intimate sexual communication is not new. In fact, it was one of the findings that compelled pioneer sex researchers Masters and Johnson in the 60s to devise their "sensate focus" sex therapy technique, whereby intercourse is not allowed and couples are instructed to touch each other with the aim of discovering what feels good without the performance pressures that often dominate the sexual encounter.

Not much has changed in the last 50 years. British researchers Lester Coleman and Roger Ingham, studying a sample of adolescents in the late 90s, found that only about half even discussed contraception with their partners prior to first intercourse. Laura Widman and colleagues reported similar findings just last year in a study of 603 youths.

What We Don't Know. . . Is a Lot

Communicating openly about sex is difficult—not just for youngsters, and not just for couples at the start of a relationship. Couples married for decades can have trouble communicating openly and honestly about what they like and dislike in bed. Reviewing 30 years of studies on sexual communication several years ago, Canadian researcher E. Sandra Byers found that rates of sexual self-disclosure, even in committed long-term relationships, were surprisingly low.

When asked about the duration of foreplay and intercourse their partners prefer, people’s estimates correlate closely with their own sexual stereotypes but have little to do with what their partners say they actually want. According to the research reviewed by Byers, the odds are that you don’t actually know very much about what turns your partner on—and that you know even less about what turns them off. In Byers’ research, rates of self-disclosure about sexual dislikes were particularly low. According to her data, the average adult knows only about a fourth of the things his or her partner finds sexually distasteful.

But why? Why is talking openly about our sexual likes and dislikes with our partners—be they spouses or one-night-stands—so difficult?

Reasons Not to Talk

Perhaps our problem is not discussing sex, per se, but confronting large existential topics in general. Talking about sex can be likened to talking about death—we all have sex and we all die, yet both issues are difficult to consider head on and rationally since we feel intimidated, unsure of our grasp. Still, it’s easier to understand the reluctance to discuss death. After all, nobody wants to die. As Steve Jobs once said, even people who believe in heaven are in no hurry to get there. But most of us claim to want sex, and more of it, and sooner rather than later. So the reluctance to communicate about it remains puzzling.

Perhaps sex is difficult to talk about in part because at its core, sexual passion is socially subversive. Sex is an impulse strong and selfish enough to confound our social judgment and undercut our social loyalties. Since we are all by design social creatures dependent on our social ties for survival, anything that by its nature works to disturb the social order will be perceived as risky to share and expose. To us, society is God, and anything about us that undermines it must dwell in the shadows, lest we incur its wrath.

Thinking less loftily, on the person-to-person level, perhaps we worry about sexual communication because we intuit the vast range of individual differences that exist with regard to sexuality. We feel strongly about our own tastes, and we sense that others feel similarly about theirs—whatever they may be. We recognize that anything personal we say about sex has the potential to stir, scare, offend, and unsettle those who are closest to us. Perhaps worse still, we sense that saying the wrong thing about our own sexual tastes or assumptions has the potential to unmask us as foolish, ignorant, or depraved.

Indeed, communication about sex is rife with opportunities for embarrassment, rejection, and confusion. According to Coleman and Ingham (and others), fear of negative reaction to sexual discussion is an important suppressant of such discussions. Australian researcher Dana Lear found in the 1990s that peer culture was a strong predictor of sexual communication patterns among college students: I’ll do it if everyone else is doing it; and since they don’t, I won’t either. It’s more acceptable to be silent, or even to talk dirty, than it is to give instructions, share preferences, or reveal secret desires.

Perhaps sexual communication is also difficult because we grow up with the myth that it's unnecessary. Common sex-related lore holds that: great sex comes naturally; your partner should know intuitively what you want and like; and good sex must be spontaneous. In reality, more often than not, great sex, much like a great meal, does not just happen—it needs to be carried out with skill, thoughtfulness, and the right mix of selfish abandon and mutual attentiveness. People’s tastes, preferences and values with regard to sex—as with food—differ greatly. You’re better off knowing something about your partner’s tastes before you start cooking.

Commonly accepted social "scripts" may also contribute to the lack of sexual communication. In particular, "sexual scripts," an idea introduced by John Gagnon and William Simon in the 70s, are action guidelines that help organize our commerce with the world in the sexual arena. Sexual scripts are heavily shaped by the culture and, once internalized, direct our perceptions, expectations, and behavior in sexual situations. In the U.S., males are expected by the common sexual script to “know what to do” while females are expected to be passive and sexually naïve; little wonder then that men don’t ask and women don’t tell. Doing so would violate the arousal scripts and hence constitute an automatic turn off.

What Talking Can Do for Your Sex Life

Whatever the reasons for it, our difficulty communicating frankly and clearly about sex is problematic because evidence abounds that good sexual communication is linked to many good things, not least among them safer and better sex.

Regarding contraception, the evidence is robust that sexual communication predicts greater sexual safety and the use of protection:

  • In a study of over 1,000 Latino adolescents (2003), Bianca Guzman and her colleagues found that better sexual communication predicted delayed first intercourse, which is itself a predictor of sexual health.
  • In 2006, Seth Noar of the University of Kentucky and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 53 studies from 27 different journals and found small but significant positive correlations between partner communication and condom use.
  • Recent work by Laura Widman and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina found that lower communication rates were linked to lower rates of condom use.

Research also points to a link between sexual communication and sexual satisfaction:

  • Tina Coffelt and Jon Hess of Iowa State University concluded from a study of 293 married individuals with an average age of 40 that disclosing sexual information was positively linked to relationship satisfaction and closeness.
  • Elisabeth Babin of Cleveland State University found in a 2012 study of 207 participants with an average age of 29 that anxiety about communication was linked to decreased communication and lesser satisfaction.
  • In a recent study of 101 heterosexual monogamous couples with an average age of 22, Jennifer Montesi and her colleagues at Temple University found that open sexual communication was a significant predictor of both sexual and overall relationship satisfaction.
  • Byers’ review (2011) proposed that sexual communication is linked to greater satisfaction through two main paths—the direct, instrumental path, by which the disclosure of sexual likes and dislikes is used to educate each other; and the more indirect, expressive path, in which self-disclosure, sexual and otherwise, is used to increase intimacy, from which increased sexual satisfaction follows.

Do Actions Speak Louder Than Words?

One key finding in the sexual-communication literature is that when people do communicate about sex, they prefer a nonverbal approach. In a 2011 study of 63 young adults, Canadian researchers Sarah Vannier and Lucia O’Sullivan showed that most sexual initiations were nonverbal, and that responses tended to match the initiators’ strategies, leading to a predominantly nonverbal dialogue at sexual initiation. This finding is aligned with literature from the 80s and 90s showing that indirect nonverbal initiation of sex was more common—and preferred—over direct, verbal initiation.

This hegemony of nonverbal communication in sex appears intuitive. We often resort to nonverbal signals in situations in which we're not comfortable with words, or when verbal communication is absent. Moreover, sex is at its core a physical activity, not a verbal one, so nonverbal gestures play on its home turf. Indeed, Elisabeth Babin found that nonverbal communication was more closely linked to satisfaction than verbal communication.

But a reliance on nonverbal communication may have a downside. A recent study by Kristen Jozkowski of the University of Arkansas found that using nonverbal cues to interpret consent might lead to miscommunication between males and females, which could contribute to instances of sexual coercion. According to Jozkowski’s study, in communicating and interpreting consent, men tend to rely more on nonverbal cues and women on verbal ones. And yet nonverbal communication is not easy to interpret reliably even under the best of circumstances. The interpretive challenges are compounded in the sexual encounter, with its myriad crosscurrents, ambivalences, and anxieties.

In sum, we are bombarded daily with a lot of sex talk, which we consume quite happily despite the fact that much of it neither touches our personal lives nor benefits us. But when speaking candidly about sex would make our lives better, healthier, and happier, we too often fall silent.

As things now stand, a young adolescent finds it difficult or impossible to inquire about protection before first intercourse with his partner; a dating pair is afraid to confide in each other about their sexual wishes (or worries); and a long-married couple is destined to remain unaware of each other’s deepest desires and dislikes.

Perhaps it’s time we start talking about it.

[Next week: The dismal state of sexual communication between parents and children, and between health care professionals and their clients.]

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