Photo by Becca Tapert from Unsplash

By Eva Cohen

This blog is a summary of our published article: Merwin, K. E., & Rosen, N. O. (2020). Perceived partner responsiveness moderates the associations between sexual talk and sexual and relationship well-being in long-term relationships. The Journal of Sex Research. 57(3), 351-364. doi:10.1080/00224499.2019.1610151

Believe it or not, the key to keeping sex exciting and satisfying in long term relationships may be communication! We know that sexual communication (e.g., couples having a conversation about their sexual preferences at a time when they are not engaging in sexual activity) is beneficial for the relationship and sexual well-being of couples [1]. But what about the potential benefits of communication during sex?

Sexual talk refers to the communication that occurs between partners exclusively during sexual activity and that is about the sexual interaction itself (i.e., expressing to one’s partner the pleasure they feel while engaging in a sexual act) [2]. Yet, sexual talk has largely been kept under the covers一until now.

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To begin, let’s talk about the types of sexual talk!

Two types of sexual talk are:

Mutualistic talk: focuses on sharing the sexual experience with one’s partner.

Subtypes: short exclamations of excitement or pleasure, positive feedback or compliments, instructive statements, and messages that strengthen the intimate/emotional bond with one’s partner.

Individualistic talk: focuses on expressing one’s own sexual experience.

Subtypes: statements that are sexually dominant or submissive, messages of ‘sexual ownership’, and talking about sexual fantasies.       

What did we want to know?

It’s possible that a partner’s responses to sexual talk might be important, so participants were asked to rate perceived partner responsiveness (PPR)一the extent to which a person perceives their partner’s verbal and non-verbal responses to be accepting, understanding, validating and caring [3]. We know that how responsive a partner is perceived to be is quite important for satisfying, long-lasting relationships [3]. So, PPR to sexual talk may play a key role in how sexual talk is liked to sexual and relationship well-being. 

Our aim was to determine whether mutualistic and individualistic talk were associated with sexual satisfaction, sexual functioning, sexual distress, and relationship satisfactionas well as whether PPR moderated these associations.

What did we expect?

1. When a partner is perceived as very responsive to sexual talk (i.e., a partner’s responses are perceived as very accepting)一

-We expected using more mutualistic talk to be associated with greater sexual satisfaction and functioning, lower sexual distress, and greater relationship satisfaction.

-We expected using more individualistic talk to be associated with greater sexual satisfaction and functioning, lower sexual distress, but not greater relationship satisfaction.

2. When a partner is perceived as unresponsive to sexual talk (e.g., they ignore or invalidate a sexual fantasy)一

-We expected using more mutualistic talk to be associated with poorer sexual satisfaction and functioning, greater sexual distress, but not poorer relationship satisfaction.

-We expected using more individualistic talk to be associated with poorer sexual satisfaction and functioning, lower sexual distress, and poorer relationship satisfaction.

What did we do?

We recruited 303 sexually active people (of varying gender identities and sexual orientations) in long-term relationships. The participants completed an online questionnaire that asked about their use of sexual talk in their current relationship, sexual satisfaction, sexual function, sexual distress, and relationship satisfaction.

What did we find?

 

When a partner was perceived as very responsive to sexual talk:

-Using more mutualistic talk was associated with less sexual distress.

-Using more individualistic talk was associated with greater sexual satisfaction.

When a partner was perceived as unresponsive to sexual talk:

-Using more mutualistic talk was associated with more sexual distress.

-Using more individualistic talk was associated with poorer sexual satisfaction.

What does this all mean?

Sexual talk is important一but how a partner responds to sexual talk (or at least how their responses are viewed by their partner) may matter more! Overall, mutualistic talk seems beneficial for sexual and relationship well-being and individualistic talk seems to be associated with poorer sexual and relationship well-being. However, the most important thing might be how responsive a partner is to sexual talk一when people use sexual talk they perceive their partner to like, this is associated with better sexual and relationship well-being. Whereas when people perceive their partner as ‘just not that into’ a type of sexual talk but continue to use it anyway, this is associated with poorer sexual and relationship well-being

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Why does it matter?

Over the course of a long-term relationship, many couples’ sexual and relationship well-being decreases [4, 5]. We know that both relationship and sexual well-being are important for mental and physical health [6]. Ultimately, having a better understanding of sexual talk, which may be one of the unique ways that long-term couples can  maintain (or even enhance!) their sexual and relationship well-being, is beneficial for everyone involved.

References

[1] Byers, E. S. (2011) Beyond the birds and the bees and was it good for you?: Thirty years of research on sexual communication. Canadian Psychology, 52(1), 20-28. doi:10.1037/a0022048

[2] Jonason, P.K., Betteridge, G. L., & Kneebone, I. (2016) An examination of the nature of erotic talk. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(1), 21-31. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0585-2

[3] Reis, H. T., (2012). Perceived partner responsiveness as an organizing theme for the study of relationships and well-being. In L. Campbell & T. J. Loving (Eds.), Interdisciplinary research on close relationships: The case for integration (pp. 27-52). Washington, US: American Psychological association.

[4] Klusmann, D. (2002). Sexual motivation and the duration of partnership. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31(3), 275-287. doi:10.1023/A:1015205020769

[5] Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). The measurement of perceived relationship quality components: A confirmatory factor analytic approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(3), 340-354. doi:10.1177/0146167200265007

[6] Robles, T. F., Slatcher, R. B., Trombello, J. M., & McGinn, M. M., (2014) Marital quality and health: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(1), 140-187. doi:10.1037/a0031859

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