Interpartner Concordance of Self-Reported Sexual Behavior among College Dating Couples
Seal, David Wyatt, The Journal of Sex Research
Unlike many scientifically studied phenomena, most human sexual behavior is neither ethically nor pragmatically amenable to direct observation, given the highly private nature of this behavior. Thus, our understanding of human sexuality is derived primarily from self-reported sexual behavior. This reliance on self-reported behavior has led many critics to suggest that the scientific study of sexuality lacks both reliability and validity. Not surprisingly, then, much research has been focused on factors increasing the reliable assessment of sexual behavior (see Blumstein et al., 1990; Catania, Gibson, Chitwood, & Coates, 1990). Spurred in part by the continuing AIDS epidemic, researchers have made significant progress toward developing rigorous methodology for collecting reliable sexual behavior data (Blumstein et al., 1990; Catania et al., 1990). However, determining whether these data are valid has been much more elusive. To date, few objective markers of validity exist within sex research. Although some researchers suggested that measures of the interpartner concordance of self-reported sexual behavior may serve as an indirect measure of data validity (Clark & Wallin, 1964; Coates et al., 1988; Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953; Padian, Aral, Vranizan, & Bolan, 1995; Seage, Mayer, Horsburgh, Cai, & Lamb, 1992), other authors cautioned against the interpretation of interpartner concordance as a validity coefficient of self-reported sexual behavior without validation against some type of objective index (e.g., biological markers; Blumstein et al., 1990; Catania et al., 1990). Unfortunately, even "objective" indices such as biological markers are "imprecise, cumbersome, or expensive to apply in large population-based studies" (p. 341; Catania et al., 1990). For example, linking biological markers to non-vaginal intercourse sexual behavior may be difficult, if not impossible. Other biological markers such as population prevalence of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or pregnancy do not necessarily have direct one-on-one correspondence with individually reported sexual behavior.
Although interpartner concordance may be an inadequate marker of validity, Jacobson and Moore (1981) pointed out that if partner "reports of the events in their relationship are considered important in their own right, independent of their accuracy, then validity remains an issue unencumbered by standard reliability considerations" (p. 275). These authors suggested that the independent observations of partners constitute a viable area of study in their own right, as partners "are not passive and objective observers" of behavior, but rather "they are participants with biases, and these biases need to be understood" (p. 276; Jacobson & Moore, 1981; see also Catania et al., 1990; Julien, Bouchard, Gagnon, & Pomerleau, 1992). An understanding of the biases in partner reports of their own sexual behavior has utility for both clinicians and researchers. Methodologically, most dyadic sexual behavior assessment is not directly derived by data collection from both members of dyads. Rather, researchers and clinicians often ask participants to provide proxy information about their partner's sexual behavior and his or her perceptions of the relationship, or they use a single partner's self-reported behavior to represent the relationship. The extent to which these commonly used assessment methodologies are reliable may depend in part on the degree to which a single person's behavioral reports are concordant with his or her partner's perceptions. Within heterosexual couples, society's scripts and expectations for normative heterosexual behavior may differentially bias mens and womens self-reports. Other factors such as partners' sexual satisfaction (Clark & Wallin, 1964; Levinger, 1966), relational distress (Jacobson & Moore, 1981), relational status (married versus unmarried; Bromberg, Maher, Wang, Grijalva, & Cordell, 1993), and awareness of a partner's HIV status (Seage et al., 1992) may also influence interpartner concordance. In sum, the study of interpartner concordance has both empirical and clinical relevance.
Unfortunately, researchers' assessment of the concordance of partner reports of sexual behavior has been limited in scope. Researchers have historically focused on the interpartner concordance of the reported occurrence and/or frequency of sexual intercourse (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Booth & Welch, 1978; Clark & Wallin, 1964; Jacobson & Moore, 1981; Levinger, 1966). More recently, behavioral AIDS researchers have been interested in the interpartner concordance for the use or nonuse of condoms (Bromberg et al., 1993; Miller, Bartholow, Schoenbaum, & Webber, 1993; Padian, 1990; Padian et al., 1995; Upchurch et al., 1991). In general, researchers have found moderate to good interpartner agreement for both dichotomous (e.g., never/always) and continuous (e.g., frequency or percentage of occasions) reports of condom use and penetrative intercourse (i.e., oral, vaginal, and anal) across gay (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Coates et al., 1988; Seage et al., 1992), married and unmarried heterosexual (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Booth & Welch, 1978; Clark & Wallin, 1964; Guimaraes et al., 1993; Jacobson & Moore, 1981; Kinsey et al., 1948, 1953; Levinger, 1966; Miller et al., 1993; Schopper, Doussantousse, & Orav, 1993; Seage et al., 1992; Upchurch et al., 1991), and HIV-affected samples (Bromberg et al., 1993; Padian, 1990; Padian et al., 1995). With the notable exceptions of Kinsey's landmark research (Kinsey et al., 1948, 1953) and Coates et al.'s (1988) project with gay men, few researchers have assessed the interpartner concordance of reported nonpenetrative sexual behaviors. Researchers have also failed to consider interpartner agreement about intercourse-related attitudes and behaviors (e.g., alcohol use, safer sex talk). Finally, past researchers have provided little insight into factors influencing increased versus decreased interpartner concordance for reported sexual behavior.
In this article, I address some of these limitations. As part of a larger study of the sexual and safer sex behavior of heterosexual college dating couples, I collected data from both members of dating dyads about their past and current dating and sexual relationships. Although I did not specifically design the study as an assessment of the interpartner concordance of self-reported sexual behavior, the collected data facilitate such analyses. My analyses build upon past research in several ways.
First, I expanded previous research by assessing the concordance of self-reported sexual behavior among heterosexual college dating couples. Although numerous researchers have surveyed the sexual behavior of college students (e.g., Caron, Davis, Halteman, & Stickle, 1993; Fisher & Misovich, 1990; Johnson et al., 1992; MacDonald et al., 1990; Reinisch, Hill, Sanders, & Ziemba-Davis, 1995; Reinisch, Sanders, Hill, & Ziemba-Davis, 1992), little is known about the interpartner concordance of self-reported sexual behavior within this population.
Second, previous researchers have focused primarily on the assessment of interpartner concordance about either the frequency of sexual intercourse and condom use or dichotomous reports of these behaviors. In contrast, I assessed a broad range of behaviors and attitudes related to sexual intimacy in couples. These behaviors may be of interest not only to researchers, but also to clinicians dealing with sexual and safer sex behavior. Specifically, I examined six dimensions of interpartner agreement.
The first dimension I assessed was couples' agreement about whether they had ever engaged in a progression of sexually intimate behaviors (e.g., kiss to petting to intercourse) and the latency of time between first date and the first instance of a given behavior. Sexual intimacy extends beyond penetrative intercourse. For example, nonpenetrative sexual behavior (e.g., mutual masturbation) is an important component of many applied sexuality domains (e.g., therapy, disability, dysfunction; Masters & Johnson, 1970; Nevid, Fichner-Rathus, & Rathus, 1995; Seftel, Oates, & Krane, 1991). Nonpenetrative sexual behavior may also be an important outcome for sexual risk-reduction interventions (Ehrhardt, Exner, & Seal, 1995). Finally, penetrative intercourse is usually the culmination of a sequential progression of increasingly sexually intimate behavior (Bentler, 1968a,b; DeLamater & MacCorquodale, 1979). Thus, understanding nonpenetrative sexual behavior may be as important as understanding penetrative sex.
Interpartner agreement about the behaviors occurring in conjunction with vaginal and/or oral intercourse (e.g., condom use, alcohol use) during the first and/or current instances of these behaviors was also examined. Factors such as alcohol use, sexual communication, and spontaneity can affect people's sexual decision-making ability. These factors may have an impact on the way in which sexual scenarios are played out with implications for a range of sexual outcomes, including disease and pregnancy prevention, coercion and abuse, and sexual satisfaction.
I further investigated whether partners concurred about the type of safer vaginal and oral sex communication occurring before and/or since the first instance of these behaviors. Effective sexual communication is associated with a variety of positive safer sexual outcomes, including more effective contraceptive use (Inazu, 1987; Polit-O'Hara & Kahn, 1985), and increased condom use efficacy (Catania et al., 1989; Edgar, Freimuth, & Hammond, 1988; Edgar, Freimuth, Hammond, McDonald, & Fink, 1992; Edgar, Hammond, & Freimuth, 1989; Ford & Norris, 1995; Waldron, Caughlin, & Jackson, 1995). However, "effective sexual communication" is open to interpretation. For example, although many young adults report discussing safer sex with their partner, a closer examination of these data suggests that few have had specific discussions about past sexual histories and/or safer sex behavior pertinent to their sexual relationships (Bowen & Michal-Johnson, 1989; Cline, Freeman, & Johnson, 1990; Cline, Johnson, & Freeman, 1992). Subjective differences in partners' perceptions of what constitutes "safer sex talk" may further limit interpartner concordance. My study facilitates further insight into these issues.
As an extension of the aforementioned question concerning safer sex communication, participants' awareness of their partner's past and concurrent sexual behavior was also assessed. Past researchers reported that among young adults it is taboo to discuss extradyadic relationships, prior sexual relationships, and negatively valenced self-disclosures (e.g., disclosure of a positive STD infection history; Baxter & Wilmot, 1985). Finally, even when specific, relevant conversations do occur, young adults frequently lie about their past sexual history (Cochran & Mays, 1990). Thus, I assessed not only overall agreement about the occurrence of safer sex communication, but also the extent to which this discussion fostered accurate knowledge about a partner's past and concurrent sexual behavior.
Next, I assessed the extent to which partners agreed about how quickly or slowly their relationship progressed through increasing levels of commitment (e.g., casually dating, exclusively dating). Relational commitment may be important for several reasons. At an individual level, increased relationship commitment is associated with increased likelihood of engaging in more sexual intimate behavior (Christopher & Cate, 1984, 1985a, b; D'Augelli & D'Augelli, 1977; McCabe & Collins, 1984; Peplau, Rubin, & Hill, 1977). Increasing levels of trust and commitment toward a sexual partner are also associated with a decreased likelihood of condom use (Dolcini et al., 1993; Ehrhardt, Yingling, Zawadzki, & Martinez-Ramirez, 1992; Ishii-Kuntz, Whitbeck, & Simons, 1990; Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Seal & Palmer-Seal, 1996). At the dyadic level, commitment imbalances between partners may increase relational conflict and effect relational satisfaction and stability (Christopher & Cate, 1985b; Hill, Rubin, & Peplau, 1979; Peplau et al., 1977). Finally, researchers have suggested that, in general, women require greater relational commitment prior to sexual relations than do men. Thus, I investigated whether partners reported similar levels of dating commitment at the time of first oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse.
The final dimension of interpartner concordance that I examined was the accuracy of participants' perceptions of their partner's reported sexual attitudes toward casual sex, sexual responsibility, and condoms. The influence of perceived norms on behavior is well established in theoretical models of social behavior (Ajzen, 1988; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) and has been demonstrated for a wide array of behaviors, including sexual behavior (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Fishbein et al., 1992; Sack, Keller, & Hinkle, 1984; Winslow, Franzini, & Hwang, 1992). I further examined the correlation between people's reported attitudes and their perceptions of their partner's attitudes. Researchers report that in the absence of accurate information, people tend to rate their partner as more similar to themselves than they actually are (Byrne & Blaylock, 1963; Murstein & Beck, 1972). Thus, I assessed to what extent participants' determination of their partner's attitudes was merely a reflection of their own reported attitude.
Beyond examining general interpartner agreement, possible differences between those couples whose responses were highly concordant versus those couples whose responses were less concordant were explored, including participants' age, ethnicity (White versus Hispanic), and socio-sexual orientation (an individual difference measuring willingness to engage in uncommitted sexual relations; Simpson & Gangestad, 1991), as well as whether the participant was a virgin or nonvirgin prior to the current dating relationship. To control for the length of a person's recall period, the couple's dating length was included as a predictor of their concordance about the occurrence of sexual behavior and their knowledge about one another's sexual history. For analyses of oral and vaginal intercourse-related behaviors, the latency of time from the first occurrence of these behaviors to the couple's participation in the study replaced dating length as a measure of recall duration. Finally, whether safer sex had been discussed was also included as a predictor of participants' awareness of their partner's past and concurrent sexual behavior.
One hundred nineteen unmarried, nonengaged, noncohabiting heterosexual dating couples (N = 238 total) participated in this study. All couples reported being exclusively involved for a minimum of 30 days. Couples were recruited from the University of New Mexico (UNM) Psychology Department Human Subject Pool. Participants who were psychology students received two units of credit in partial fulfillment of an introductory psychology course research requirement. Each couple also received $5.00 for their participation.
The data reported in this article were collected as part of a larger study investigating safer sex behavior and communication in exclusive dating couples. Data were collected using the items described next (in order of presentation to participants).
The Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991) assessed participants' willingness to engage in uncommitted sexual relations. A sociosexuality score was calculated using the following items (Cronbach alpha = .74): (a) number of different sexual partners in the past year, (b) number of lifetime one-time sexual encounters, (c) number of different sexual partners foreseen in the next five years, (d) frequency of sexual fantasies (1 = never, 8 = at least once a day), and (e) three aggregated items (Cronbach alpha = 0.83) tapping attitudes toward casual, uncommitted sex (e.g., "Sex without love is ok"). Higher scores indicate an unrestricted sociosexual orientation. Relative to individuals with a restricted sociosexual orientation, unrestricted individuals are more likely to report multiple and …
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Publication information: Article title: Interpartner Concordance of Self-Reported Sexual Behavior among College Dating Couples. Contributors: Seal, David Wyatt - Author. Journal title: The Journal of Sex Research. Volume: 34. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1997. Page number: 39+. © 2007 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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