"Let's (Not) Talk about That": Bridging the Past Sexual Experiences Taboo to Build Healthy Romantic Relationships
Anderson, Mike, Kunkel, Adrianne, Dennis, Michael Robert, The Journal of Sex Research
Just as the decision to conceal or reveal information is an essential component of any relationship, the navigation of the dialectical tension between openness and closedness is fundamental to close relationships (Altman, Vinsel, & Brown, 1981; Baxter, 1990; Dindia, 1998; Pawlowski, 1998). Although self-disclosure is necessary for the development of relational intimacy, too much sharing can potentially hinder relational development (Dindia, 1994; Ijams & Miller, 2000; Rawlins, 1983).
Topics potentially considered "off limits" or "taboo" within relationships are likely to reside at the primary intersections of opposing desires regarding self-expression and privacy. Studies conducted on taboo topics often mention past relationships and past sexual experiences as topics that are frequently avoided (e.g., Baxter & Wilmot, 1985; Knobloch & Carpenter-Theune, 2004; Turk & Thielman, 2002). Dailey and Palomares (2004) defined topic avoidance as "a goal-oriented communicative behavior whereby individuals strategically try to keep a conversation away from certain foci" (p. 472). In the landmark study identifying a typology of taboo topics, Baxter and Wilmot (1985) included both prior relationships and extra-relational social activity. More specifically, with regard to sexual pasts, Desiderato and Crawford (1995) noted that almost one half of relational partners fail to disclose information regarding past sexual partners to their current partners, particularly if they had multiple past sexual partners. In addition, Lucchetti (1999) discovered that one third of her sample avoided disclosing their sexual experiences prior to becoming sexually involved with a partner.
This study was implemented to determine whether past sexual experience is an important prevalent subset of the prior relationship taboo, what reasons underlie the reluctance to discuss it, and whether these reasons vary between the sexes. Whereas Baxter and Wilmot (1985) explored the reasons for the existence of six different taboos "to determine if the taboo topics were avoided for similar reasons" (p. 258), we sought to identify reasons for the past sex experience taboo in order to serve distinct pragmatic and scholarly rationales.
Our practical imperative consists of the belief that ascertaining reasons for the past sex experience taboo will lead to more effective ways of broaching the topic. The discussion of past sexual experiences--undesired as it may be by some, if not most, partners--may lead to the sharing of vital health- and sexually transmitted disease (STD)-related information early in new relationships. Consistent with the dialectical perspective on disclosure and privacy in relationships, such discussion may also be desired in relationships by one partner for reasons of achieving further knowledge about, and increased intimacy with, their more reluctant other half. The source of such resistance may be addressed and alleviated in communicative attempts to elicit discussion. Indeed, Lucchetti (1999) noted that, even for those willing to do so, there are few good models for talking about past sexual experience with a potential lover and the identification of barriers may enhance facilitation of successful disclosure. Adelman (1991, 1992) stated that perception of the implicit face threats involved in acquiring information about a partner's previous sexual experiences would also be vital.
We also sought a more nuanced and complete understanding of the reasons underlying one taboo to demonstrate the complexity of cognition that contributes to the communicative phenomenon of topic avoidance. Baxter and Wilmot (1985) found five reasons for avoidance of the topic, state of the relationship talk, and no more than three for any of their other taboo topic categories. It may be argued that two of their six taboo topic categories, conflict-inducing topics and negative self-disclosure, were themselves actually reasons for avoidance. …