Why You Need to Talk About Sex With Your Partner
Open communication for a closer relationship.
Posted August 1, 2019
In one of his many YouTube lectures, popular Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson remarks that many young couples engage in sexual acts they dare not talk about with their partners. Despite sexual liberalization over the last half-century, there still seems to be a prevalent attitude in Western culture that sex is something you do, not talk about. Nevertheless, ample research shows that open communication regarding sexual matters is just as important as it is for any other aspect of a healthy relationship.
Feeling comfortable while talking about sex may be especially important for young adults who are entering into their first long-term relationships. Because of their relative inexperience, 20-somethings often hold misguided assumptions about the dynamics of intimate relations. As a result, they take risks with unprotected sex, leaving them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. In fact, about half of all new cases of STIs and unplanned pregnancies each year occur among young adults.
Young couples are often impatient to create what’s known as a “fluid bond” between them. This occurs when the couple has sex without a condom, relying solely on the woman to provide contraception against pregnancy. Such couples are said to have a fluid bond because they’ve exposed themselves to bodily fluids from their partner, putting them at risk of disease or unwanted pregnancy.
As long as both partners are disease-free and only have sex within the relationship, fluid bonding may deepen the couple’s emotional connection. But it does come with considerable risks, which can only be managed through open and honest communication.
Indeed, the high level of trust involved in fluid bonding may not be warranted, especially when the partners are young and the relationship is new. One study of young adults who believed themselves to be in committed relationships found that fully 30 percent of the persons had had sexual encounters with other people since becoming involved with their partners.
In a recent article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, University of Missouri psychologists Antoinette Landor and Virginia Winter argue that young women are especially vulnerable when they enter into their first long-term committed relationship, because women are often taught that they should be the passive partner in the relationship, relying on the man to take the lead.
And yet, women bear the brunt of the risk involved in sex. Although either partner can contract a disease from the other, men tend to have more lifetime sex partners than women do, making them more likely to be the carrier than the receiver of an STI. Furthermore, only women can get pregnant. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of the woman to take the lead in discussing sexual issues with her partner.
Following this line of reasoning, Landor and Winter asked whether women who are comfortable talking about sex with their partner have more satisfying relationships and better sexual health outcomes. For this purpose, they surveyed 339 young adult women between the ages of 18 and 25 who were currently in a monogamous relationship and not pregnant.
The participants responded to statements or questions regarding the following aspects of their relationship:
- Relationship quality. Sample items included sentences such as “It is important to us to make our relationship grow.”
- Comfort communicating about sex. Participants indicated the degree to which they found talking about sex with their partner to be a positive or negative experience.
- STI and pregnancy prevention. Participants were asked to indicate whether they’d discussed safe sex with their partner and whether they take precautions to avoid diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
The results were, for the most part, unsurprising. In general, women who reported that they were happy in their relationship and comfortable talking about sex were also more likely to have had conversations with their partners about disease and pregnancy prevention, and they were also more likely to take precautions against them. These findings are consistent with other research showing that open discussions about sex lead to more frequent and consistent condom use.
It may seem obvious that practicing sex safe requires open communication. Still, the more difficult question is how to overcome your reluctance—as well as that of your partner—to talk about sexual issues. To work through your awkward feelings, you’ll have to practice what you want to say until you can deliver your lines calmly and coherently.
When approaching your partner, you'll need to show sensitivity to your partner’s feelings. Statements such as “I understand this is uncomfortable for you” and “I really appreciate your willingness to talk about this” can go a long way toward helping the other person relax and open up. If they show too much resistance, back off and approach again on another occasion.
Fear can be immobilizing, keeping us from moving forward. But if we push through the initial discomfort, we often find that the actual experience is far less painful than we’d anticipated. The same goes for open communication about sexual issues with your partner. That first discussion about the rules of the relationship and the steps you both are going to take to prevent disease and pregnancy can be uncomfortable.
Yet, as the two of you successfully negotiate the difficult discussion of setting the bounds of your intimate relationship, you and your partner may find it easier to talk about other sexual issues, such as preferences and fantasies. It’s the self-disclosures of our most private thoughts and feelings that bring us closer to our partner. And this is why open communication is so essential to a satisfying relationship.
Landor, A. M. & Winter, V. R. (2019). Relationship quality and comfort talking about sex as predictors of sexual health among young women. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407519842337