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New Research Highlights from the Institute

When Couples Talk About Sexual Matters

“For better or for worse.” We’ve all heard that phrase before; it accompanies the litany of statements vowing to uphold marriage even when the going gets tough—so, even on the wedding day we acknowledge that relationships aren’t easy. One way to predict relationship satisfaction is to measure how well couples communicate with each other. According to Dr. Erick Janssen, research scientist at The Kinsey Institute, “the study of communication in intimate relationships has a long and rich history and has made an important contribution to our understanding of the variables and processes that make couples happy or unhappy together.”

In a widely used approach to the study communication processes, researchers ask couples to identify problems in their relationships, videotape the discussion, and then analyze the couples’ facial expressions and nonverbal behaviors. Numerous studies, especially in married couples, have found that less-happy marriages are characterized by high levels of negative behavior (e.g., expressions of contempt) and low levels of positive behavior (e.g., validation). However, in previous research there has been little control over the selection of topics, and virtually nothing is known about the effects of discussing specific topics.

Dr. Janssen, together with Dr. Uzma Rehman at The University of Waterloo, Dr. Eshkol Rafaeli at Barnard College, and colleagues at The Kinsey Institute and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, conducted a small but unique study on sexual communication. In this study a small sample of newlywed couples were videotaped when talking about sexual and nonsexual issues in order to determine if these interactions could predict marital satisfaction. The findings showed that negative behaviors during nonsexual discussions were not significantly related to marital satisfaction. In contrast, negative facial expressions and nonverbal behaviors displayed during the discussion of a sexual problem were, especially in females, associated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Overall, these findings emphasize the importance of incorporating sexual variables in the study of marriage and suggest that sexual communication patterns may be a particularly good litmus test of a couple’s overall relationship satisfaction.

Rehman, U., Janssen, E., Hahn, S., Heiman, J., Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Fallis, E., & Rafaeli, E. (2010). Marital satisfaction and communication behaviors during sexual conflict discussions in newlywed couples: A pilot study. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, accepted for publication.

What’s in a Name? – Misclassification Bias in Sex Research

New research from The Kinsey Institute revealed that people are not in agreement on what constitutes ‘having sex.’ Using a random sample of adults ages 18-96, men and women were asked to clarify which sexual behaviors fit the definition. The researchers were interested in knowing if men and women had different definitions, or if certain outcomes, such as orgasm in women, ejaculation in men, short duration, or wearing condoms, would change the meaning of the sexual activity.

Generally, there was not a significant difference between men and women, and there was no real consensus on which behaviors qualify as sex.

Though nearly all concurred that penile-vaginal intercourse fit the criteria, two out of ten people did not concur that penile-anal intercourse was sex, and three out of ten said ‘no’ to oral-genital activity, as did half of the respondents about manual-genital contact.

When the question added a qualifier, the oldest and youngest men responded similarly, answering ‘no’ more frequently. And fewer people agreed that having penile-vaginal intercourse without the man ejaculating could be called “having sex.” Findings demonstrate the need to use behavior-specific terminology in sexual history taking, sex research, sexual health promotion, and sex education. Researchers, educators, and medical practitioners should exercise caution and not assume that their own definitions of having ‘had sex’ are shared with their participants, students, or patients.

Sanders, Stephanie A., Hill, Brandon J., Yarber, William L., Graham, Cynthia A., Crosby, Richard A. and Milhausen, Robin R. (2010). Misclassification bias: diversity in conceptualisations about having 'had sex.' Sexual Health 7(1): 31–34. DOI:10.1071/SH09068.

See also, "New IU study finds no consensus in definitions of 'had sex'" from IU News Bureau.

Does it Fit OK? Problems with Condom Use as a Function of Self-reported Poor Fit

In the latest research from the Condom Use Research Team, men who reported wearing condoms that didn’t fit just right also reported a number of related problems. Compared with men who did not have problems with condom fit, those who did had more breakage, more slippage, and were more likely to report irritation of the penis. They also were more likely to report reduced sexual pleasure, and more difficulty reaching orgasm, both for themselves and for their sexual partner. Furthermore, these men felt that condoms interfered with their erection, and contributed to dryness during intercourse.

Finally, men who reported wearing poorly fitting condoms were also more likely to report removing condoms before penile–vaginal sex ended, a problem reported in earlier condom error research from this team, and may have significance for public health initiatives promoting condom use. Researcher Bill Yarber suggested that, "Efforts to promote improved condom fit may increase consistent and correct condom use among men and their female sex partners."

This research was conducted using a convenience sample of men recruited through advertisements and through a condom website. The participants completed a survey on The Kinsey Institute website.

Study authors Richard Crosby, Professor of Health Behavior at University of Kentucky and Bill Yarber, Professor of Applied Health Science at Indiana University, both Senior Research Fellows at The Kinsey Institute, were quoted widely in the press about the need for different sized condoms, and public health campaign to promote correct condom use. You can listen to Dr. Yarber’s podcast about this study on the British Medical Journal website.

Crosby, R.A., Yarber, W.L., Graham, C.A., and Sanders, S.A. (2010). Does it fit okay? Problems with condom use as a function of self-reported poor fit. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2010;86:36-38. DOI:10.1136/sti.2009.036665.


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