GW Researcher Studies Link between Communication, Sexual Behavior

Katrina Pariera recently published a paper that looks at how women talk about sex with their female friends.

Katrina Pariera
Katrina Pariera, CCAS assistant professor of communication, found that women who talk about sex with their female friends tend to be more knowledgeable about birth control and safer sex. (Kristen Mitchell/ GW Today)
November 15, 2018

By Kristen Mitchell

The way people talk about sex has a significant impact on their health and well-being, but a Columbian College of Arts and Sciences researcher says most people don’t learn how to talk effectively about sex or other taboo topics.

Katrina Pariera, assistant professor of communication, recently published a paper in the International Journal of Sexual Health that looks at the way adult women talk to their female friends about sex. Her work sheds light on a under-researched field that plays a critical role in everyday life.

GW Today recently asked Dr. Pariera about her research. Read what she had to say below:

Q: Your work looks at how adult women talk to their female friends about sex. Why is this something you wanted to research?
A: I was interested in this topic because we often receive conflicting messages about sex. Women in particular are encouraged to be sex positive and empowered, but they're also encouraged to be modest and cautious. Talking more about sex does seem to be associated with healthy relationships and behaviors, but to facilitate healthy sexual communication we have to better define the circumstances that make it positive or negative.

Understanding how talking with friends about sex is associated with our sexual attitudes and behaviors might help us better harness peer support and hone the communication skills that make our lives better.

Q: What were some of your most significant findings?
A: One of the big takeaways is that women who talk more to their friends about sex also tend to be women who have higher sexual self-efficacy and self-esteem—meaning they have a greater sense of control over their sex lives and higher self-regard. They’re also more knowledgeable about birth control and safer sex, which I suspect is because women tend to share their experiences with birth control with each other.

Q: Did your work reveal anything that is a cause for concern?
A: Women who talked more to their friends about sex also tended to perceive that risky sexual behavior was more common. It’s not clear why this is—it could be that we tend to talk more about the scandalous and titillating. So there seem to be positives and negatives: when we talk about sex we provide support, share resources and problem-solve, but we might also inadvertently increase pressure and skew norms about sex.

This shows that it’s not just that we need to communicate more, it's that we need to communicate better.

Q: What should women take away from this research?
A: This research is correlational, so we can’t say one thing causes the other. But I think one takeaway is that talking to our friends might help us be more confident and able to assert our needs, but only if we talk in ways that promote sexual agency and assertiveness. This is something peer educators are great at. Trained peer educators are excellent at providing non-judgmental advice and support. This study didn't look at peer educators, but it highlights the importance of our peers as resources. And like peer educators, all of us can use training on how to talk about sex in ways that promote agency and build self-efficacy.

Q: Why do you think there needs to be more research in this field, and what is the next step?
A: As a sexual communication researcher, I know that the way we talk about sex actually affects our sexual health and well-being, but I also know we aren’t very good at talking about sex. Most of us don’t learn how to talk effectively about sex or other taboo topics. We need more research to help us understand the risks and benefits of sexual communication so that we can do a better job of teaching important communication skills to people. Sex is at the heart of many of our most vexing social issues and helping people become better communicators about sex is one way we can address some of those issues.

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