New psychology research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships sheds light on how young women talk about sex. The findings could have important implications for health promotion efforts.
“Talk about sex is generally taboo for most of us, which means we don’t know much about it — how much we talk, what we talk about, why we talk about it,” explained researcher Katrina L. Pariera, an associate professor of communication at The George Washington University.
“I wanted to study at least a small group of people (college women in the U.S.) to shed some light on how much we actually talk about sex on a daily basis. Without this kind of knowledge we just rely on our stereotypes, misperceptions, and random guesses.”
For the study, 96 female college students who were 19 to 21 years old kept a daily diary for one week in which they recorded any verbal or text-based communication related to sex. The participants kept track of factors such as conversation length, tone, and who they talked to.
The women submitted 1,211 diary entries in total, with an average of 13 instances of sexual communication per week per participant. The majority of conversations were with one other person and face-to-face. About 63% of the conversations took place between friends, followed by roommates (12.9%), and sexual partners (7.5%). Three quarters of the conversations were casual or humorous in tone, while 24.2% were reported to have a serious tone.
“Because women talk often to their peers about sex, peers may be an effective vehicle for transmitting sexual health campaign messages,” the researchers said.
The most common topic was conversations about specific sexual encounters, followed by conversations about sex-related issues specific to dating or relationships. The third, fourth, and fifth most common topics were planning ahead for sex, discussing sexual desires and likes, and conversations about sexual content in mass media, respectively.
The three most common reasons for the conversations were sharing views and opinions, recapping a specific sexual encounter, and gossiping about the sexual encounters of people not in the conversation.
“Talking with others about sex is a way to make sense of our own sexual attitudes and experiences, and it can help make us feel normal and help us bond with others. That said, sexual communication is not inherently positive or negative. Sometimes we spread misinformation, create peer pressure, or emphasize stereotypes when we talk to others about sex,” Pariera told PsyPost.
“We also risk embarrassment, rejection, and in some cases very serious ramifications for talking about sex. This study doesn’t prove whether talking about sex is bad or good, but it does show that young women are talking about sex frequently and they’re talking about a wide variety of topics.”
The participants also appeared to have inaccurate perceptions about their frequency of sexual communication, Pariera said.
“Whenever I talked to participants after they finished the study, all of them would say they were surprised at what they found when they kept their daily logs. Almost everyone thought they rarely talked about sex, but once they kept track of it daily they realized they did in fact talk about sex pretty much every day,” the researcher explained.
“Some participants assumed they talked about sex all the time, but realized they talk about it much less than they thought. The takeaway is that we don’t even know our own patterns when it comes to sexual communication. We can’t accurately guess how much we ourselves talk about sex, so we definitely can’t estimate how much other people do so.”
The study provides new information about sexual communication in young college women. But future research should examine other demographic groups, the researchers said.
“This study was only about young women in the U.S. attending college, so this study is by no means representative of the U.S. population. We have to avoid generalizing these findings to others. However, it still sheds a small light on something we know next-to-nothing about,” Pariera said.
“Also, this study suggests that some people might be talking much more to their friends about sex than to the people they actually have sex with, but more research is needed to confirm this.”
The study, ““We talked about our hookups”: A diary study of sexual communication among U.S. college women“, was authored by Katrina L. Pariera and Brianna Abraham.