College age women reported talking about sex and sex-related topics with their best friend more than men did in a recent Penn State study and the researchers say these different communications styles could set men and women up for mismatched expectations about conversations with their partner in a romantic relationship.
Dr. Eva S. Lefkowitz, assistant professor of human development and family studies who directed the study, says, “In our study, women not only reported talking more about sex and sex-related topics with their best friend but also reported being more comfortable doing so than did the men. These findings suggest that when men and women get into a relationship they come from different sexual communication experiences on two levels – frequency and comfort. This mismatch may explain some of the differences and problems that other researchers have identified in marital communication.”
Lefkowitz presented her findings today (April 12) in a paper, “Communication with Friends about Sex-Related Topics During the Transition to Adulthood,” at the Society for Research on Adolescence meeting in New Orleans, La. Her co-author is Heather Petterson, former Penn State undergraduate.
The study was conducted via questionnaire with 124 women and 81 men, ages 18 to 25 at a large research university. Approximately 75 percent of the participants reported having had sexual intercourse at least once. The participants were predominately (78 percent) European American, about nine percent African American, nine percent Asian American, two percent Latino and about two to three percent mixed ethnicity. The participants were asked questions about their best friend of the same gender.
In the questionnaire, the participants were asked to rate the frequency of communication with their best friend about specific sex-related topics on a scale from one to four; one equaled never, two equaled once; three equaled a few times and four equaled often.
The most frequently discussed topic, by both men and women, was the physical appearance of the opposite sex. The least frequently discussed topic was date/acquaintance rape.
Females reported more communication overall than did males on all topics, except for masturbation, which males reported discussing more frequently than did females. Women talked more about sexually transmitted diseases, sexual feelings, contraception and rape. They also talked more frequently about dating and romantic relationships, abstinence, making out, their own physical appearance, pregnancy and menstruation.
Females also reported feeling more comfortable talking about sex-related topics with their best friends than did males. For instance, women were less likely to report feeling embarrassed and more likely to report feeling free to speak their minds when discussing sex-related topics with a best friend than were males.
The researchers also found that students who reported discussing sex-related topics with more frequency were more likely to be sexually active, to have more liberal views about sexuality and to feel more positive about condom use.
“These findings also suggest that, during the college years, communication with friends about sex-related topics is more common than with parents,” Lefkowitz notes. “Overall, the findings suggest the importance of understanding the influence of friends in the sexual attitudes and behaviors of emerging adults.”
The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.