Beyond the Birds and the Bees and Was It Good for You?: Thirty Years of Research on Sexual Communication

Article excerpt


Sexual experience and expression is of fundamental importance to most people. However, most people do not communicate effectively about sexuality even when it is important to do so. For example, many parents see it as their responsibility to talk to their children about sexuality and yet do not engage in in-depth discussions with their children about sexual topics. Most romantic partners have difficulty telling each other what pleases and displeases them sexually. Many health care professionals do not meet their patients' needs for information about the sexual changes they experience as a result of their disease or treatment. Many psychologists also are not doing a good job of addressing sexuality in the classroom, in practicum and internship settings, and/or with clients. These instances of poor sexual communication are unfortunate as effective sexual communication can have a range of positive outcomes such as more satisfying relationships and positive sexual health and well-being over the life span. This paper reviews sexual communication in all of these contexts, focusing on findings from my program of research spanning more than 30 years.

Keywords: sexual communication, sexual education, couples, adolescents

It is a truism to state that sexual experience and expression is of fundamental importance to most people; indeed, this statement is not controversial and needs no citations. There is no place in which this is more evident than in the media. Certainly, sexual images and tips about enhancing our sexual relationships, sexual experiences, and ability to please our partner are ubiquitous in the media. There is a great deal that has been and could be said about the content and impact of these media messages, particularly about their negative effects, but that is a topic for another time and place and is not the focus of the present paper. Rather, this paper focuses on interpersonal sexual communication - between parents and their children, between partners, between health care professionals and their patients, between professors and psychology graduate students, and between psychologists and their clients. I have drawn on select data (i.e., data from larger studies) from several strands of my research program spanning more than 30 years to support my contention that there is a great deal of room for improvement in how we communicate about sexuality in every one these contexts. Because each section of this paper could be a review paper in its own right, I have not, for the most part, reviewed the results of studies by other researchers on these topics.

There are two major limitations to my research that are important to identify from the outset. One is that most, if not all, of the research I cite is with heterosexual individuals. This is because, typically, there have not been enough sexual minority participants for me to be able to analyse their data. The other limitation is that, in keeping with the population of New Brunswick where I conduct my research, the participants in my studies are primarily white and of European descent. Still, sexual communication among most ethnocultural minority groups living in Canada is even more limited than among the majority culture (Cappon et al., 1996; Manson Singer et al., 1996) suggesting that, if anything, the results would be stronger among these groups.

Parent-Child Sexual Communication or the Birds and the Bees

Most parents believe that they have a role to play in their children's sexual health education as a way to communicate family values, prevent negative sexual health outcomes, and prepare their children for adulthood (Croft & Asmussen, 1992; McKay, Pietrusiak, & Holowaty, 1998; Weaver, Byers, Sears, Cohen, & Randall, 2002). Although parents may not readily identify this as a goal of their sexual communication with their children, I believe that communicating positive attitudes toward both sexuality and talking about sexual topics is another important outcome of parent- child sexual communication. …