Women who talk to their female friends about sex tend to have higher levels of sexual self-efficacy and self-esteem, according to new research published in the International Journal of Sexual Health. But the study also found evidence that sexual communication was associated with skewed norms about sex.
“I was initially interested in this topic because many of us value open communication about sex, and believe that people should be more open about sex, but we don’t really know if and how that can be a positive thing,” said Katrina L. Pariera of George Washington University, the author of the study.
“Moreover, much of the sex positive language we use is actually geared at encouraging women to be more sexual. So I wanted to explore how talking with friends about sex might be associated with various sexual attitudes and behaviors, to see if it’s all positive or if there are some potential negatives, too.”
For her study, Pariera surveyed 617 women from the United States regarding their sex life and their communication with peers.
Women who said a female friend had been supportive and provided positive comments when they talked about sex tended to have higher levels of self-efficacy in decisions about sexual behavior, such as asking a partner to change something about their sex life or asking a partner if they have been tested for an STD.
This sort of expressive sexual communication was also positively associated with higher sexual self-esteem.
Instrumental sexual communication, such as receiving advice about how to have better sex and asking for information about sex, was not associated with sexual self-efficacy or sexual self-esteem. But it did predict awareness of safer sex methods.
However, neither expressive nor instrumental communication was associated with safer sex practices. And both forms of communication were associated with overestimating the extent to which other women approve of risky sexual behaviors, such as having casual sex without protection.
“I think the big takeaway is that the way we talk to our friends about sex has some positive and negative associations,” Pariera told PsyPost.
“Sometimes when we talk a lot about sex we educate each other, help problem-solve, etc., but we might also increase pressure and skew norms about sex. So it’s not just that we need to communicate more, it’s that we also need to communicate better.”
All research includes some limitations, and the current study is no exception. Future research could benefit from a longitudinal design.
“The major caveat is that this is a correlational study. The next step is to conduct some experiments to see what happens when we encourage people to talk more to their friends about sex. Talking about sex is not easy, so we need to figure out how we can help people hone those skills,” Pariera explained.
“As a sexual communication researcher I am generally a proponent of more open and honest communication about sex, but I also know that all communication comes with risks. We need a better understanding of the risks and benefits of sexual communication so that we can do a better job of teaching important communication skills to people.”
The study was titled: “Women’s Sexual Communication with Their Peers and Its Association with Sexual Wellbeing“.