How We Talk, and How We Should Talk, About Sexual History

New research finds dishonest communication about sexual history, and it is risky

Posted Jun 21, 2016

It is no secret that whether single or married when a relationship hits a snag, the dreaded words are these: "We need to talk."  Sometimes the talk is about the relationship and how it is progressing.  But new research in the Journal of Social Relationships points to another important discussion, the one about sexual history. Despite being aware of the value of disclosure, the new report found deception in 60 percent of participants.

With nearly half of all sexually transmitted diseases affecting 15 to 24 year olds, the simple question is this: Are you disclosing your sexual history to your partner?  Sean M. Horan, Ph.D., at Texas State University, recently studied the importance of communication and disclosure as a method of prevention. The CDC noted in a recent update that "sexual risk behaviors place adolescents at risk for HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and unintended pregnancy." Further understanding sexual communication. The full chart is here: CDC Sex Behaviors.

Because of the alarming rate of infections affecting young people, there was a media push advocating for testing several years ago seen from MTV to The Colbert Report. With CDC estimates that chlamydia is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in the country, Stephen Colbert pointed out: "Chlamydia is not a flower." To Condoms: With Love and No Thanks to Controversy. Testing is important and testing together with one's partner, helps with the honesty factor.

Despite awareness of the importance of disclosure, Dr. Horan reported:

Results indicated that roughly two-thirds of participants correctly identified disclosure of the number of previous sexual partners as a safer sex practice. Yet about 60% of participants had, at some point, acted deceptively with their representation of their number of previous partners, and of those, nearly 20% never disclosed their number of previous partners. Deception about number of previous partners accounted for some differences in safer sex behaviors.

Essentially, in a new relationship the topic of sexual activity outside the relationship, as well as any discussion of previous sexual activity and even condom use, can create conflict.  However, even if there is an understanding that the relationship is non-exclusive these partners would “likely not discuss their extra-relational sexual partners, despite that these individuals are at increased risk.”

Dr. Horan cited research on friends with benefits relationships found that “they were more likely to use condoms than were [those in a] committed romantic relationship.”

Deceptive affection

As someone who graduated with studies in epidemiology and public health, I very much appreciate studies that validate common sense.  We all find ways to interpret findings. But with young people, often, in a relationship, they are afraid to disclose the truth for fear of losing their partner.  Dr. Horan noted:

. . . “studies document sexual activity often contains deception. For instance, sex can be considered an affectionate message, yet it is unknown whether both parties engaging in sexual activity are having sex to represent affectionate feelings; thus, deceptive affection occurs.”

Three decisions and five simple "Do's and Dont's" might be helpful: 

  • The conversation decision:  “We probably each have a sexual history. Let’s talk about it or not.  But regardless, we should practice safe sex each and every time.”
  • The exclusivity decision:  "Do we want to be exclusive?" Whether that answer is “Yes” or “No” a partner who has had other sexual encounters may still put you at risk. As such, go with condoms.
  • The Friends with Benefits (FWB) decision: "Should we be FWBs?" If you decide to enjoy a friends with benefits relationship, yes, use condoms. New research shows that FWB’s use condoms more often that do committed couples.

When you decide to have "the talk" be tactful.

  • Do find a time for the conversation that is not rushed—never interrupt a sports event on television to begin the talk.
  • Do accept whatever he or she says without being judgmental.
  • Don’t say, “You’ve slept with HOW MANY other people!”
  • Do be positive about the relationship and stress how honestly will be beneficial to both of you.
  • Do suggest you both get tested and go to a testing site together.  Love-making, STD Awareness, and Sexual Politics | Psychology Today

Public health campaigns can play a valuable role.  However, it is often wise to involve the media so young people can see others involved in the situation. Within the television world, college undergraduate students often say they are binge-watchers. What would be important here is scripting conversation starters that are clear, concise, and meaningful. 

Copyright 2016 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved (


Horan, S.M. , “Further understanding sexual communication: Honesty, deception, safety, and risk.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 2016, Vol. 33(4) 449–468 / 

(Here is a blog link: Sean M. Horan, Ph.D., Psychology Today)