Let's Talk About Sex! (Or, Not?)

channel__Dr. Chauntelle, Dr. Chauntelle, social psychology -

Let's Talk About Sex! (Or, Not?)

There are some things that are just difficult to talk about – breakups, personal finances, workplace everything... and sex.

From scholarly research findings and marketing data to informal polls taken amongst your friends, sex is always listed as one of the most uncomfortable topics of interpersonal discussion. Ironically, this discomfort is a key reason why we need to have these conversations. And like anything that’s difficult in life, this takes thoughtfulness and practice.

What does science say about relationship sex talk?
In the collection Communicating Interpersonal Conflict in Close Relationships (2016), authors Moon Sook Son, Lynne Webb, and Trish Amason contributed a chapter titled “Communication with Heterosexual Partners about Sexual Discrepancies: Conflict Avoidance, De-escalation Strategies, and Facilitators to Conversation.” In their chapter, the authors describe some interview-based research they conducted.

What are “sexual discrepancies”?
The authors spoke to thirty women from the United States about their efforts to communicate with their heterosexual partners about “sexual discrepancies” – differences in sexual desire, attitudes, and preferred activities – in their relationships. Analysis of the interviews revealed nine sexual discrepancies, including discordances around foreplay, specific sex acts, sexual positions, desire, and timing, among others. These discrepancies were discussed with variable frequency and in variable depth.

Though not specifically mentioned in this study, a potential “sub-discrepancy” within the areas of foreplay and/or specific sex acts (among other areas) might be a gap in willingness to engage in toy play and/or utilize a different kind of aide. A disconnect between partners here could certainly warrant conversation – as well as benefit from tips to have more effective interactions.

Ignoring Issues Doesn’t Fix Them
Amidst all these discrepancies though, here’s a big pattern to pay attention to: Seven of the 30 participants reported “never seriously discussing sexual discrepancies with their sexual partners” because there either were no discrepancies to discuss or those that did exist were no big deal. Along with those assertions, however, some of the discuss-nothing women also shared things like “...I try to learn to like discrepancies” and “I let him get to know my body naturally.”

However stray they may seem, these few disclosures from a mere seven women are extremely significant. Based on this research, women either aren’t talking because there’re no issues to discuss – excellent, but definitely not the norm – or, women aren’t talking because they’re just learning to suck up sexual dissatisfaction instead.

When Discussion Leads to Conflict (and how to fix it)
From the more “average” respondent group – the 23 of thirty women who reported talking about sexual discrepancies -- twelve reported “experiencing conflict during conversations about sexual discrepancies.” Meaning, things got brought up... and then things got heated.

According to these findings, over half the people who try to talk about sex stuff with their partners end up getting in some sort of conflict – over half. That’s a high percentage and I would guess that, for many people, the idea of conflict -- either happening again or happening at all -- is a big conversation deterrent.

As an interesting bonus, the participants who experienced conflict also shared their strategies for diffusing and deescalating skirmishes occurring during sexual discrepancy conversations. These included timing, word choice, and dude ego soothing. “Avoidance,” however, was the most frequently reported strategy to deescalate conflicts. Interestingly -- and sadly -- this brings us back to the women who opted to keep quiet and suck up dissatisfaction from the get go.

Talk Effectively Without Fighting
If talking about sex stuff is a stressful prospect that seems to lead most often to a fight, what are some tough conversation strategies to practice getting better at? Therapist Dan Mager has some ideas.

Make a Plan
For challenging or difficult topics, it’s best to plan to have the conversation in advance. Schedule your talk, the closer to the origin point of the issue as possible. Then, set some ground rules and procedure points.

Some “rules” for good productive conversation are obvious. Speak calmly and directly to the other person. Avoid finger pointing, both figuratively as well as literally. Avoid name-calling, yelling, insults, or threats. Be respectful, and try not to interrupt when your turn to speak is done. These all may sound like simple politeness, but the strategies can get more complex.

Use Your Words
According to Mager, when describing your concerns and things you’d like to happen differently, be as clear as possible and use specific examples. Avoid the words “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing.” Though you may feel like these words match your experiences perfectly, they are invariably overgeneralizations and are thus fundamentally inaccurate and unhelpful. Also, as difficult as this may be, don’t approach the conversation with the need to be right. What you need is to communicate and “being right” may or may not be part of that.

Other tips include staying focused, not walking out on the conversation (though you may take a break if everyone understands that process), and take responsibility for whatever you are contributing by speaking in “I statements.” You can only speak to you, so don’t try to sum up what you think others are doing.

Effective Sex Talk is Difficult, but It’s Worth It.
Like I said earlier, sex is one of the most difficult topics people can discuss – but getting better at it is worth it. For instance, researcher Bevan Kovitz spoke to heterosexual couples about their successful conversations about sex (2016). The participating couples all emphasized the importance of being open and managing conflict in order to have successful conversations. These successful conversations, in turn, were seen as being a significant part of the foundation of their relationships, resulting in enhanced feelings of closeness and sexual exploration.

So though sex talk is difficult, if things like closeness and sexual adventure time are part of your goals, having effective conversations is worth the effort it may take to get there. Like I said, things that are difficult in life take thoughtfulness and practice. If you work strategies to get there, even one or two at a time, you will see improvements in your communication – and the sky’s the limit from there!

Be well and be communicative,

Dr. Chauntelle

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