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Sexual Communication - Couple Relationships, Parent-child Relationships

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Areas of Research in Sexual Communication

Early stages of relationships. Some scholars are interested in how sexual scripts (on the cultural level) guide interactions in newly forming or potentially sexual relationships (for a review see Metts and Spitzberg 1996). For example, studies of flirting and the negotiation of initial sexual involvement can be found under the general rubric of sexual communication. This area of research suggests that, in most cases, these episodes are mutually enacted and proceed without incident. Flirting enables people to display their interest in another person and to determine whether their attraction is reciprocated. Sexual negotiation enables people to determine whether and to what degree they will participate in sexual activity.

On occasion, however, these episodes are miscued in some way and the episode becomes problematic (Frith and Kitzinger 1997). For example, when flirting is done inappropriately (e.g., as a display of power in the workplace) and/or is persistent but not reciprocated, it can take the form of sexual harassment (Bingham, 1991; Keyton 1996). Likewise, the negotiation of sexual involvement can become problematic. Given the role of men in many cultures as sexual initiator and the role of women as sexual "gatekeeper," women sometimes adopt a communication strategy of saying "no" when they are, in fact, willing to engage in sexual activity. Charlene Muehlenhard and her colleagues (Muehlenhard and Hollabaugh 1988; Muehlenhard and McCoy 1991) refer to this practice as "token resistance" and suggest that it may be employed by women to avoid appearing "easy" or promiscuous. Indeed, research suggests that this practice is not limited to U.S. women. In a cross-cultural study of sexual attitudes and behaviors, Susan Sprecher and her colleagues (1994) found that almost 40 percent of U.S. and Japanese women reported using token resistance at least once, and almost 60 percent of Russian women reported using token resistance at least once. Although token resistance is not necessarily problematic, it can sometimes be confused with a sincere expression of intent not to engage in sexual intercourse. When a woman says "no" to sex and means it, but a man interprets it as token resistance and continues to pursue sexual activity, negotiation is no longer collaborative but coercive (Krahe, Scheinberger-Olwig, and Kolpin 2000). In these instances his continued pursuit becomes sexual intimidation, aggression, and may even lead to date rape (Abbey 1991; Muehlenhard 1989).

Sexual communication and health. Other scholars who work within the realm of sexual communication direct their attention to questions about how effective communication can contribute to sexual health. As the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV and AIDS, continue to rise, the ability to engage in open dialogue about safer sex practices becomes increasingly important (Amaro and Raj 2000; Quina et al. 2000). In particular, scholars in this area explore the types of communication skills necessary to introduce the topic of safer sex with a new partner (Cline, Johnson, and Freeman 1992) and to convince a possibly reluctant partner to use a condom (De Bro, Campbell, and Peplau 1994). These scholars note that a number of challenges face sexually active individuals who wish to practice safer sex but are given little guidance from cultural level scripts in how this might be done (Edgar and Fitzpatrick 1993). For example, to explicitly and unequivocally insist that condoms be used can imply that the other person is a sexual health risk or that oneself is a sexual health risk. Or, to avoid open discussion of condom use until the passionate moments just prior to sexual intercourse may compromise the levels of arousal for one or both partners. It is not surprising that the types of strategies used by sexually active individuals tend to moderate the directness of the request, for example, by hinting first, embedding it within a humorous exchange, making references to the importance of the relationship or concerns for mutual well being, and providing or offering assistance with the condom (Metts and Cupach 1991), or by incorporating condoms as one element of erotic play (Adelman 1992).

Sexual communication in established relationships. The term sexual communication is, perhaps, most often used in scholarly and everyday discourse to refer to the range of expressive behaviors we find in established couples, both dating and married, that enables them to achieve satisfying sexual relationships. The research tends to focus on two areas: the terms or sexual vocabulary that partners use to discuss sex, and the types of communication skills that are needed to achieve mutually satisfying sexual activity.

Research findings suggest that men and women use different terms to describe aspects of their sexual experience. For example, when speaking to each other, men seem to communicate frequently about a wide range of sexual experience, but with a vocabulary that lacks terms for the quality of the experience. They also tend to use words that are referred to as power slang (Sanders and Robinson 1979; Simkins and Rinck 1982). By contrast, females discuss sex less often in same gender groups and seem to prefer clinical and/or "cute" sexual slang (Sanders and Robinson 1979; Simkins and Rinck 1982). These differences in vocabularies for talking about sex may influence early patterns of sexual talk in heterosexual dating couples. When men use sexual terms, they may sound rough, demeaning, or non-romantic to women; when women use sexual terms, they may sound too cute, silly, or clinical (non-erotic or impersonal) (Cornog 1986; Simkins and Rinck 1982). Thus, the intent to be open about the sexual relationship may be subverted by the need to first build a common vocabulary. This is often accomplished by the creation of what scholars call a couple's unique personal idioms, especially those idioms for genitalia, sexual rituals, and routines (Bell, Buerkel-Rothfuss, and Gore 1987). Because these idioms are spontaneously and jointly created, they represent a couple's shared meanings within their sexual relationship.

Considerable scholarly attention has been directed to the question of how couples use (or fail to use) communication to facilitate the accomplishment of mutually satisfying sexual encounters. One approach to this question is to assess the extent to which partners disclose information about their sexual attitudes and preferences to each other (Cupach and Metts 1991; Metts and Cupach 1989). Based on the findings in this research, some scholars suggest that couples may share a general agreement about their sexual relationship (or believe they do), but may not have fully disclosed their sexual likes, and even less fully disclosed their sexual dislikes to their partner. In a study of dating couples in college, Sandra Byers and Stephanie Demmons (1999) confirmed their assumption that individuals were not necessarily fully disclosive about their sexual likes and dislikes, but also demonstrated that as sexual self-disclosure increased, so too did sexual satisfaction (see also, Ross, Clifford, and Eisenman 1987).

A second approach to the question of how couples use communication to accomplish satisfying sexual encounters shifts the focus from the individual level of self-disclosure to the dynamics of the couple. Typical of this approach, for example, is the position of Anthony D'Augelli and Judith D'Augelli (1985) who argue that people not only need to be able to express their own needs, describe behaviors that increase or inhibit their arousal, and indicate when sexual behaviors are being performed successfully, but also need to be able to solicit this same information from their partner. It is important that they must also be able to accept feedback from their partner without defensiveness or resentment. Engaging in this type of open communication about sex requires high levels of trust and acceptance. It is not surprising that much of the research in this area explores the associations between a couple's satisfaction with their sexual communication and their satisfaction in the relationship. Several of these studies are described in the following section.

Sexual Communication and Other Relationship Variables

Research on relationship satisfaction has found strong and consistent associations between sexual satisfaction, sexual frequency, and relationship satisfaction (for a review, see Christopher and Sprecher 2000). Interestingly, this association seems to be true in sexually conservative cultures as well, such as married couples in China (Renaud, Byers, and Pan 1997) and India (Kumar 1995). Although studies that also include measures of sexual communication and satisfaction with sexual communication are less common, in general they indicate that the quality of communication about sex is related to sexual satisfaction and the overall quality of the relationship. For example, in a study of married As couples build sexual relationships they need to develop a common vocabulary. This is often accomplished by the creation of unique personal idioms, especially idioms for genitalia, sexual rituals, and routines. MARK HANAUER/CORBIS college students, William Cupach and Jamie Comstock (1990) found that sexual communication satisfaction contributes to sexual satisfaction, which in turn increases dyadic adjustment. In a study comparing couples who were in marriage counseling to couples who were not, John Banmen and Noelle Vogel (1985) found that inhibited sexual communication was associated with marital distress. In a similar comparison of couples who were attending sex therapy clinics with couples who were not, Alan Chesney and his colleagues (1981) found that the two groups differed significantly on measures of general communication quality, sexual communication, and dyadic adjustment. Lawrence Wheeless and Lonnie Parsons (1995) found that when persons in dating relationships had high levels of apprehension about sending or receiving sexual messages, they also had lower sexual communication satisfaction. In a study of immigrant and nonimmigrant families living in Australia, Ludwig Geismar (1984) found that ethnicity had little effect on sexual communication, but that verbal communication focused on goals and problems was related to a more satisfying sexual relationship.

Taken together, these representative studies underscore the complicated role of expressive and receptive communication skills in sexual communication. They suggest that sexual communication increases sexual satisfaction only to the extent that it is positive and rewarding to the couple. And this point brings us back to the advice columns in popular magazines. The suggestion to "talk dirty in bed" or to role play sexual fantasies may work for some couples, but for others who have incorporated traditional sex role scripts into their marriage, these practices may be extremely uncomfortable (Cado and Leitenberg 1990). This discomfort may serve to inhibit, rather than facilitate, sexual enjoyment. Moreover, these studies suggest that sexual communication is not only associated with sexual satisfaction, but also with overall relationship satisfaction and adjustment. Because this association is reciprocal, it means that happy couples communicate in ways that make sex enjoyable and thereby further enhance (or maintain) the satisfaction in their relationship. Unfortunately, it also means that when couples are unhappy, they tend to have less effective sexual communication (either as cause or effect) and less enjoyable and less frequent sexual activity, which in turn contribute to less overall satisfaction in the relationship. The cycle is not an easy one to break and some couples seek the intervention of marital or sex therapy to help them develop more effective communication skills (Chesney et al. 1981; Cooper and Stoltenberg 1987).


This entry has attempted to foreground both the complexity and the importance of sexual communication in dating and married relationships. Although early phases of sexual intimacy are relatively constrained by shared culture scripts, as relationships develop, couples find it increasingly necessary to develop their unique interpersonal sexual script. In order to do this, they need to be able and willing to express their own sexual preferences and to appreciate the sexual preferences of their partner (i.e., the intrapsychic or personal level script). When such efforts fail, relationship quality diminishes. Scholarly research has provided substantial information about how this process works, but much remains to be done. Of particular importance is the need to complement the wealth of existing cross-sectional data with longitudinal data (see Christopher and Sprecher 2000). Following the same couples over time would provide researchers with greater detail about the direction of causality (e.g., does poor sexual communication cause lower relationship satisfaction or vice versa?) as well as greater detail about how over time couples discover the types of nonverbal and verbal messages that accomplish their sexual goals without doing collateral damage to the self-esteem of their partner. In addition, greater attention must be directed to those couples who find themselves in the difficult position of negotiating their sexual relationship while at the intersection of different and possibly competing cultural mandates. The work of Jung Ah Song, M. Betsy Bergen, and Walter R. Schumm (1995), investigating the sexual and communicative challenges of Korean couples who have immigrated to the United States, is an example of this type of research.

Finally, this entry has also raised the issue of sexual communication as a critical factor in controlling the level of sexual involvement in dating relationships and implementing safer sex practices. Again, existing research provides extensive information about how couples attempt to manage these episodes. However, there is a critical need to know more about these practices in non-Western cultures, particularly those that privilege male power and status. The recently published research of Brent Wolff, Ann Blanc, and Anastasia Gage (2000) on the negotiation of sexual activity in Uganda, of Bodil Frederiksen (2000) on the transformation of the family system in Kenya, and of Caroline Osella and Filippo Osella (1998) on friendship and flirting in South India are promising contributions. More research of this type will help scholars and practitioners understand the extent to which aspects of sexual communication processes and outcomes are culture-specific, cross-cultural, and subject to historical and political change.


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Adelman, M. B. (1992). "Healthy Passions: Safer Sex as Play." In AIDS: A Communication Perspective, ed. T. Edgar, M. A. Fitzpatrick, and V. S. Freimuth. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Amaro, H, and Raj, A. (2000). "On the Margin: Power and Women's HIV Risk Reduction Strategies." Sex Roles 42:723–749.

Banmen, J., and Vogel, A. (1985). "The Relationship Between Marital Quality and Interpersonal Sexual Communication." Family Therapy 12:45–58.

Bell, R. A.; Buerkel-Rothfuss, N. L.; and Gore, K. E. (1987). "'Did You Bring the Yarmulke for the Cabbage Patch Kid?' The Idiomatic Communication of Young Lovers." Human Communication Research 18:88–115.

Bingham, S. G. (1991). "Communication Strategies for Managing Sexual Harassment in Organizations: Understanding Message Options and Their Effects." Journal of Applied Communication Research 18:88–115.

Byers, E. S., and Demmons, S. (1999). "Sexual Satisfaction and Sexual Self-Disclosure within Dating Relationships." Journal of Sex Research 36:180–189.

Cado, S., and Leitenberg, H. (1990). "Guilt Reactions to Sexual Fantasies during Intercourse." Archives of Sexual Behavior 19:49–63.

Chesney, A. P.; Blakeney, P. E.; Chan, F. A.; and Cole, C. M. (1981). "The Impact of Sex Therapy on Sexual Behaviors and Marital Communication." Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 7:70–79.

Chesney, A. P.; Blakeney, P. E.; Cole, C. M.; and Chan, F. A. (1981). "A Comparison of Couples Who Have Sought Sex Therapy with Couples Who Have Not." Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 7:131–140.

Christopher, F. S., and Sprecher, S. (2000). "Sexuality in Marriage, Dating, and Other Relationships: A Decade Review." Journal of Marriage and the Family 62:999–1,017.

Cline, R. J. W.; Johnson, S. J.; and Freeman, K. E. (1992). "Talk among Sexual Partners about AIDS: Interpersonal Communication for Risk Reduction or Risk Enhancement?" Health Communication 4:39–56.

Cooper, A., and Stoltenberg, C. D. (1987). "Comparison of a Sexual Enhancement and a Communication Training Program on Sexual and Marital Satisfaction." Journal of Counseling Psychology 34:309–314.

Cornog, M. (1986). "Naming Sexual Body Parts: Preliminary Patterns and Implications." Journal of Sex Research 22:393–398.

Cupach, W. R., and Comstock, J. (1990). "Satisfaction with Sexual Communication in Marriage: Links to Sexual Satisfaction and Dyadic Adjustment." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 7:179–186.

Cupach, W. R., and Metts, S. (1991). "Sexuality and Communication in Close Relationships." In Sexuality in Close Relationships, ed. K. McKinney and S. Sprecher. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

D'Augelli, A. R., and D'Augelli, J. F. (1985). "The Enhancement of Sexual Skills and Competence: Promoting Lifelong Sexual Unfolding." In Handbook of Social Skills Training and Research, ed. L. L'Abate and M.A. Milan. New York: Wiley.

De Bro, S. C.; Campbell, S. M.; and Peplau, L. A. (1994). "Influencing a Partner to Use a Condom: A College Student Perspective." Psychology of Women Quarterly 18:165–182.

Edgar, T., and Fitzpatrick, M. A. (1988). "Compliance- Gaining in Relational Interaction: When Your Life Depends on It." Southern Speech Communication Journal 53:385–405.

Frederiksen, B. F. (2000). "Popular Culture, Gender Relations and the Democratization of Everyday Life in Kenya." Journal of Southern African Studies 26:209–222.

Frith, H., and Kitzinger, C. (1997). "Talk about Sexual Miscommunication." Women's Studies International Forum 20:517–528.

Geismar, L. L. (1984). "Contextual Aspects of Sexual Communication in Marriage." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 15:345–353.

Keyton, J. (1996). "Sexual Harassment: A Multidisciplinary Synthesis and Critique." In Communication Yearbook 19, ed. B.R. Burleson. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Krahe, B.; Scheinberger-Olwig, R.; and Kolpin, S. (2000). "Ambiguous Communication of Sexual Intentions as a Risk Marker of Sexual Aggression." Sex Roles 42:313–337.

Kumar, P. (1995). "Comprehensive Sexuality Scale: Its Development and Standarization." Journal of Personality and Clinical Studies 11:1–4

Metts, S., and Cupach, W. R. (1991). "Plans for Seeking and Resisting the Use of Condoms." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Chicago, IL, May.

Metts, S., and Cupach, W. R. (1989). "The Role of Communication in Human Sexuality." In Human Sexuality: The Societal and Interpersonal Context, ed. K. McKinney and S. Sprecher. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Metts, S., and Spitzberg, B. H. (1996). "Sexual Communication in Interpersonal Contexts: A Script-Based Approach." In Communication Yearbook 19, ed. B.R. Burleson. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Muehlenhard, C. L., and Hollabaugh, L. C. (1988). "Do Women Sometimes Say No When They Mean Yes? The Prevalence and Correlates of Women's Token Resistance to Sex." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54:872–879.

Muehlenhard, C. L., and McCoy, M. L. (1991). "Double Standard/Double Bind: The Sexual Double Standard and Women's Communication About Sex." Psychology of Women Quarterly 15:447–461.

Osella, C., and Osella, F. (1998). "Friendship and Flirting: Micro-Politics in Kerala, South India." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4:189–206.

Quina, K.; Harlow, L. L.; Marokoff, P. J.; Burkholder, G.; and Deiter, P. J. (2000). "Sexual Communication in Relationships: When Words Speak Louder than Actions." Sex Roles 42:523–549.

Renaud, C.; Byers, E. S.; and Pan, S. (1997). "Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction in Mainland China." Journal of Sex Research 34:399–410.

Ross, J. L., Clifford, R. E., and Eisenman, R. (1987). "Communication of Sexual References in Married Couples." Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 25:58–60.

Sanders, J. S., and Robinson, W. L. (1979). "Talking and Not Talking about Sex: Male and Female Vocabularies." Journal of Communication 29(2):22–30.

Simkins, L., and Rinck, C. (1982). "Male and Female Sexual Vocabulary in Different Interpersonal Contexts." Journal of Sex Research 18:160–172.

Simon, W., and Gagnon, J. H. (1986). "Sexual Scripts: Permanence and Change." Archives of Sexual Behavior 15:97–120.

Simon, W., and Gagnon, J. H. (1987). "A Sexual Scripts Approach." In Theories of Human Sexuality, ed. J. H. Geer and W. O'Donohue. New York: Plenum.

Song, J. A; Bergen, M. B; and Schumm, W. R. (1995). "Sexual Satisfaction Among Korean-American Couples in the Midwestern United States." Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 21:147–158.

Sprecher, S.; Hatfield, E.; Cortese, A.; Potapova, E.; and Levitskaya, A. (1994). "Token Resistance to Sexual Intercourse and Consent to Unwanted Sexual Intercourse: College Students' Dating Experiences in Three Countries." Journal of Sex Research 31:125–131.

Wheeless, L. R., and Parsons, L. A. (1995). "What You Feel Is What You Might Get: Exploring Communication Apprehension and Sexual Communication Satisfaction." Communication Research Reports 12:39–45.

Wolff, B.; Blanc, A. K.; and Gage, A. J. (2000). "Who Decides? Women's Status and Negotiation of Sex in Uganda." Culture, Health and Sexuality 2:303–322.


Do Parents Talk with Children about Sex?

Although almost all parents engage in informal and superficial discussions of reproduction with their children across the early childhood years, many parents do not talk about sex with their adolescent-aged children. Studies have indicated that adolescents most commonly rely on peers for information about sexual matters (e.g., Thornburg 1981). However, parents also tend to be mentioned as being important, sometimes prominently so (Shields and Adams 1995; Kaiser Foundation 1996). Averaging across a wide range of studies, about 70 percent of parents in the United States indicate that they have talked with their adolescents about sex, whereas about 50 percent of adolescents report engaging in such conversations with their parents. These rates, however, vary considerably from one study to the next. Not only are the rates dependent on who is reporting (parent or adolescent), but estimates also vary as a function of the wording and format of the questions, the specificity of the topic studied, and the year in which the study was conducted.

An important issue in parentadolescent communication is determining why parents fail to engage in meaningful discussions with their children. Research has suggested five classes of concerns that parents express about engaging in such conversations ( Jaccard, Dittus, and Gordon 2000):

  1. Not having the requisite knowledge/skills to explain things;
  2. Concern that the adolescent will not take the parent seriously;
  3. Concern with whether the communication will make a difference;
  4. Difficulties in finding the right time and place; and
  5. Fear of encouraging sexual activity.

Many parents forsake conversations because their adolescents tell them they already know what they need to know. Research has found, however, that adolescent perceptions of their knowledge about sex and birth control is only weakly correlated with their performance on knowledge tests about these topics, suggesting that adolescent claims of high knowledge levels should not be trusted (Radecki and Jaccard 1995).

Just as parents have reservations about talking with adolescents about sex, so do adolescents have reservations about discussing sex with their parents. It is important to identify such reservations for both of the involved parties, as lack of interest by either hinders effective communication. Adolescents sometimes feel that their parents do not treat them as equals and that parents fail to have adequate knowledge about current adolescent lifestyles and peer pressures (Pistella and Bonati 1999). Several studies have noted complaints by adolescents that their parents are not sufficiently open, supportive, trusting, and empathic, nor do parents sufficiently respect their privacy (Neer and Warren 1988; Nolin and Petersen 1992; Warren, 1995). Adolescents also express concern about sexual conversations being embarrassing, both to the adolescent as well as the parent ( Jaccard, Dittus and Gordon 2000).

Do Parental Discussions Lessen Adolescent Sexual Risk Behavior?

Considerable research has addressed whether parent communication with their children about sex actually impacts adolescent sexual activity. Most of this research has been correlational in nature. Early studies tended to find no significant associations between parent-adolescent communication and sexual risk behavior, whereas more recent studies have observed such links (see Jaccard and Dittus 1993 for a review of this literature as well as Jaccard, Dodge and Dittus 2002). The general finding in more recent studies has been that higher levels of parent-adolescent communication are associated with reduced sexual risk taking on the part of the adolescent. In addition, parent-adolescent communication has been found to moderate relationships between other variables and sexual activity. For example, peer norms have been found to be more influential for those adolescents who have not discussed sex with a parent as opposed to those who have (Whitaker and Miller 2000). A small group of studies has found higher levels of communication are associated with higher levels of adolescent sexual activity (Darling and Hicks 1982; Widner 1997). These findings could be the result of parents deciding to talk with their children about sex after learning about or anticipating sexual activity on the part of their child (so that behavior influences communication rather than vice versa). Or, it could be that such discussions encourage subsequent adolescent sexual risk taking. Conclusive research on these alternative explanations is lacking. There are a sufficient number of correlational studies as of early 2002 to conclude with a reasonable degree of confidence that parent-adolescent communication is indeed associated with reduced sexual risk activity in some populations. Further research is needed, however, to permit stronger statements of causal impact.

A Communication Framework

Classic conceptualizations of communication distinguish five core components of a communication: the source of a communication, the communication itself (often referred to as the message), the medium or channel through which the message is transmitted (e.g., face-to-face, written materials, recorded messages), the recipient or audience of the communication, and the context in which the communication occurs. Each of these components of communication has subcomponents. For example, sources of a message (in this context, the parent) differ in their age, gender, expertise, and trustworthiness. Recipients of communications (in this context, the child) differ in their motivational states, their emotional states, their past experiences, and their expectations. The surrounding environment varies in terms of its temporal, physical, social, and cultural features. Variations in the five factors affect how adolescents respond to parental communications. Thus, the impact of a parental message on adolescent sexual risk taking may vary as a function of characteristics of the parent, characteristics of the message that the parent conveys, characteristics of the channel through which the message is delivered, characteristics of the adolescent, and characteristics of the context in which the communication occurs.

Source variables in parent-adolescent communication about sex. Studies of the effects of source variables have focused most often on how the gender of the parent affects communication. Although there are some exceptions, studies have tended to find that mothers are more likely than fathers to talk about sex and birth control with their children (Raffaelli, Bogenschneider, and Flood 1998; Rosenthal and Feldman 1999). Some theorists suggest that gender differences occur because mothers are better at communicating in general, because mothers are the agents of intimacy, and/or because mothers can discuss sexual matters more safely than fathers. Adolescent evaluations of their parents as sex educators tend to vary as a function of the gender of the parent, with mothers being evaluated more positively than fathers (Feldman and Rosenthal 2000). Research on the differential impact of mother and father communication on adolescent sexual risk taking has tended to find that mother-based variables are more predictive of adolescent risk taking than father-based variables ( Jaccard and Dittus 1991; Dutra, Miller, and Forehand 1999). However, there also is evidence that father-based variables account for unique variance in adolescent behavior independent of mother-based variables (Dittus, Jaccard and Gordon 1997).

Demographic characteristics of the source other than gender also have been studied. For example, research has found that Latino parent-adolescent dyads exhibit somewhat different conversational dynamics than European American dyads and that social class is predictive of different communication styles with respect to sexual discussions (Lefkowitz et al. 1998). However, other studies have failed to find consistent relationships between non-gender based demographic characteristics of the source and communication variables (e.g., Raffaelli, Bogenschneider and Flood 1998). As of 2002, this literature is somewhat mixed and inconsistent.

General communication research suggests two source dimensions are of prime importance, the perceived expertise of the source and the perceived trustworthiness of the source. Expertise refers to knowledge, expert status, and familiarity with the topic. Trustworthiness refers to sincerity, honesty, and good intentions. How adolescents perceive parents in terms of expertise has not been explored with any degree of theoretical sophistication. Such judgments are likely to vary as a function of the topic area, with parents being seen as more expert in some areas than others. Studies suggest that adolescents sometimes see parents as being out of touch with current adolescent lifestyles and pressures, hence parental expertise may be undermined accordingly. In terms of trustworthiness, some research suggests that adolescents tend to perceive parents as trustworthy in their discussions about sexual matters. However, adolescents sometimes point out that their parents are judgmental, overly protective of them making mistakes, and that parents often fail to respect their privacy and desire for autonomy. Such factors may undermine the perceived trustworthiness of the parent as an information source.

Message variables in parent-adolescent communication. One of the more widely studied message variables in the literature on parent-adolescent communication is message content, (i.e., what parents and adolescents talk about when they engage in conversations about sex). Characterizations of such discussions tend to differ depending on whether the parent or the adolescent is doing the characterizing. Some studies suggest that parent-adolescent discussions about sex are more often indirect than direct (Philliber 1980; Fox 1981). Other studies indicate biology rather than sexual decision-making are the primary topics of conversation (Baldwin and Baranoski 1990). Studies also report an emphasis on physical development and maturation as well as the dangers associated with STDs and the occurrence of an unintended pregnancy (Miller et al. 1998; Whitaker et al. 1999). Not surprisingly, studies find individual differences in the topics that parents think should be discussed with their adolescents, with some endorsing the inclusion of sensitive topics such as abortion and birth control and others preferring to omit such topics (Silverstein and Buck 1986; Foley 1986). Several studies have found that topics aimed at daughters tend to stress negative, problematic aspects of sexuality more so than communications aimed at sons (Darling and Hicks 1982; Kirby 1995). Adult females who recall their discussions with their parents tend to characterize them as somewhat negative, focusing on rules and warnings. Studies also suggest that fathers tend to deal with less intimate topics than mothers, that is that message content differs as a function of the gender of the source (Rosenthal, Senserrick and Feldman 2000).

One message-related variable that has been the subject of considerable study is the extent to which parents convey disapproval of the adolescent engaging in sexual intercourse (Dittus and Jaccard 2000). Early research on parent-adolescent communication assumed that parents are uniformly opposed to their adolescent engaging in sexual intercourse. Several researchers, however, have argued that parental disapproval of an adolescent engaging in sexual intercourse is a continuum, with some parents being strongly opposed to their adolescent engaging in sex and others being less opposed. Across a wide range of studies, some 15 percent to 20 percent of parents indicate that it is permissible for their teenaged son or daughter to engage in sexual intercourse under certain circumstances (e.g., with a close and steady boyfriend or girlfriend who is well known to the parents). The more the parent is perceived by the adolescent as disapproving of sexual intercourse has been found to be predictive of lower levels of future adolescent sexual activity (Dittus and Jaccard 2000). Adolescents may misperceive the extent to which their parents disapprove of them engaging in sexual intercourse, underscoring the need for parents to communicate effectively their orientations ( Jaccard, Dittus and Gordon 1998).

Social scientists emphasize the importance of the frequency and timing of parent-adolescent communications. Too many parents feel that their job is finished once they have had "the big talk" in early adolescence. Studies suggest that communication needs to be an ongoing process. Many parents rely on fear-arousing strategies to motivate their child to avoid sexual risk taking by emphasizing the negative consequences of unintended pregnancy and the consequences of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Extensive literature in social psychology suggests that such appeals are less effective than parents might think.

Audience variables in parent-adolescent communication. Audience variables focus on characteristics of the recipient of the communication that influence exposure, attention, comprehension, acceptance and retention of message contents. Often, characteristics of the recipient that maximize one of these processes will minimize another. For example, research has shown that intelligent recipients are more likely to comprehend the contents of a complex message, but that they also may be more likely to counter argue its contents and fail to accept it.

Among the most extensively studied audience characteristics in research on parent-adolescent communication about sex is the gender of the adolescent. Although there are exceptions, discussions about sex are more likely to occur with daughters and are more extensive for daughters as opposed to sons ( Jaccard and Dittus 1991; Raffaelli, Bogenschneider and Flood 1998). Research suggests that daughters tend to evaluate mothers more positively as sex educators than do sons (Youniss and Smollar 1985; Feldman and Rosenthal 2000). Sons and daughters, however, have been found to have comparable evaluations of fathers (Feldman and Rosenthal 2000). Research also has suggested that the puberty status and prior sexual activity on the part of the adolescent may impact the nature and extent of parent-adolescent communication (Whitaker and Miller 2000).

An audience variable that has received limited attention in parent-adolescent communication literature is the developmental status of the adolescent (i.e., early adolescence, middle adolescence and late adolescence). Analyses of adolescent development typically focus on five broad areas: physical development, cognitive development, emotional development, moral development, and social development. Adolescent experiences in each of these domains differ for early, middle, and late adolescents. For example, during early adolescence, most adolescents undergo their most dramatic physical changes during the adolescent growth spurt. Most of these changes have transpired by late adolescence. The physical changes during early adolescence often are accompanied by heightened sensitivity to physical appearance, which, in turn, influences the kinds of information and arguments that an adolescent is receptive to. With respect to cognitive development, early adolescents tend to exhibit more concrete thinking. They have difficulty thinking abstractly. This is less true of older adolescents. Memory processes are still developing in adolescence, with older adolescents exhibiting more efficient strategies for storing and retrieving information from memory than early adolescents. Socially, early adolescents are less prone to see things from other people's point of view and tend to have difficulty imagining different perspectives for solving social problems. The nature of friendships also differs considerably for early and late adolescents. In terms of moral development, early adolescents are more likely to blame behavioral transgressions on extenuating circumstances and less likely to accept personal responsibility for their actions. All of these developmental differences have potentially important implications for strategies parents should use to discuss sexuality with their children, yet few studies have explored these implications.

Channel variables in parent-adolescent communication. Channel variables refer to the medium used to convey a message and how this affects message exposure, attention, comprehension, acceptance, retention and retrieval. A common channel used by parents is that of verbal communication through face-to-face interaction. However, there are other mechanisms by which parents communicate information that is sexually relevant, including various forms of non-verbal communication and parental behaviors that the adolescent observes (e.g., television-viewing habits of the parent). Studies have observed associations between adolescent beliefs about the advantages and disadvantages of engaging in sexual intercourse with maternal beliefs about the advantages and disadvantages of their child engaging in sexual intercourse, holding constant the extent to which the mother and child have talked about such advantages and disadvantages (Dittus, Jaccard and Gordon 1999). This suggests that factors other than direct communication may underlie parent-child similarity in belief structures.

Contextual variables in parent-adolescent communication. A large number of studies have examined the impact of the family context on adolescent sexual risk behavior, but relatively few studies have examined how family contextual variables impact parent-adolescent communication. Variables such as family structure (one versus two parent families; blended families; presence of grandparents or other relatives in the household), social class, marital status, presence of siblings, and psychosocial characterizations of the general family environment all are of potential relevance. Several studies have explored the general communication environment in the family and have found it to be associated with effective parental communication about sex (Fisher 1990; Jaccard, Dittus and Gordon 1998; Feldman and Rosenthal 2000; Lefkowitz et al. 2000). However, research on contextual variables and how they affect parent-adolescent communication about sex is limited.


Communication dynamics between parents and adolescents are far more complex than depicted here. The emphasis in this entry is on characterizing communication in a unidirectional fashion in which the parent attempts to convey meaning structures to the adolescent in hopes of influencing the knowledge, values, attitudes, intentions, and/or behavior of the adolescent. However, parent-adolescent communication about sex is an emotion-laden, dynamic, reciprocal exchange of information and feelings that unfolds over time (sometimes unpredictably so). Parents have sexrelated issues they want to discuss with their children and children often have sex-related issues they want to discuss with their parents. Parents and children alternate between the roles of communicator and listener, or "source" and "audience." Sometimes interaction is premeditated and planned by one of the participants. Other times it occurs spontaneously, perhaps in response to some event that has occurred. Communication may be direct or indirect, verbal or nonverbal. It may have persuasive intent and/or informative intent. Adolescents communicate with both mothers and fathers and hear multiple messages about topics. Sometimes these messages conflict, not only between parents but with other sources of information as well (e.g., peers, siblings). Indeed, conflicting messages sometimes occur from the same parent, such as when adolescents are told to abstain from sex while at the same time to use birth control if they do engage in sex.

Recognition of these complexities of communication dynamics, when juxtaposed against the extant literature on parent-adolescent communication, illustrates just how much work is yet to be done to gain a true understanding of parent-adolescent communication in the sexual domain.


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