Communication is an important aspect of sexual relationships. As relationships change over the course of the lifespan, life events (e.g., birth of a child) and sexual problems (e.g., low sexual desire; erectile dysfunction) affect couple sexuality. Moreover, sexual miscommunication between couples can lead to unhealthy, frustrating and unsatisfying exchanges between partners and in some cases is one potential pathway to sexual assault. Examining how couples communicate and negotiate sexual behaviors may contribute to more effective sex therapy interventions and even sexual assault prevention strategies. The present research examines how couples communicate about sex and aims to understand the cues couples use to signal consent when engaging in sexual intercourse. In order to investigate sexual communication, I first conducted a critical review of the existing empirical literature on how couples communicate and negotiate sexual behaviors. Through this review I found that sex researchers have investigated how anxiety, types of sexual language, and sexual attitudes affect sexual communication. A major finding is that sexual self-disclosure (i.e., sharing one’s sexual likes and dislikes with their partner) is highly important for relationship and sexual satisfaction. However, few statements can be made to describe the specific communication patterns that couples use to discuss sexual topics. Based on the review I suggest that this finding may be attributed to the limitations of sexual script theory (one commonly used theory with which to view sexual communication) and the research’s historical emphasis on individual, rather than couple-oriented interventions for sexual problems. To identify how individuals use and interpret cues to engage in sexual intercourse, I conducted a cross-sectional study. Using Amazon Mechanical Turk, I surveyed individuals on how they indicate and interpret verbal and nonverbal cues to engage in sexual consent. Given that individuals in relationships may be more effective at signaling and reading their partner’s sexual cues, analysis of variance and regression equations were used to investigate how relationship length, sexual self-disclosure, and the interaction of the two affected their verbal and nonverbal communication patterns. The models suggest that gender, and not relationship satisfaction affect how individuals communicate consent. Surprisingly, statements about intoxication were also forms of communication that males and females used to signal consent to their partners. Currently, efforts to prevent sexual miscommunication have centered on affirmative sexual consent policies and dating education programs for children in middle school. The results of this study suggest that psychoeducation programs developed to prevent sexual communication should include information about how alcohol is used to signal consent and take into account gender differences that exist for how individuals signal and interpret communication cues. Implications of these two studies highlight the importance for understanding how couples communicate about sexual behaviors. Identifying specific combinations of verbal and nonverbal cues will address the limitations of sexual script theory and may classify patterns of sexual communication that reduce the chance of sexual assault. Future studies may benefit from diary study designs or the infusion of technology, such as virtual reality, in research designs to answer these questions.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. January 2018. Major: Family Social Science. Advisor: Steven Harris. 1 computer file (PDF); x, 91 pages.
Sexual Communication: An Exploration of How Couples Communicate and Consent to Sexual Behaviors.
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