Communication Currents

Speaking of Sex

February 1, 2011
Interpersonal Communication

What is ethical sex?  How is sex a form of communication?  How might people talk about sex with their partner(s)? How do popular ways of talking about sex help shape our understandings of sex? 

Popular culture does little to prepare people in the U.S. to be thoughtful about sexual relations. Hyper-sexualized mass media and drug abuse are everywhere. Electronic information exchange and virtual reality suggest new worlds of matchmaking possibilities and alternative entertainments, but often promise more than they can deliver. It is hardly surprising, then, that abstinence-only sex education has had mixed results, STDs continue to proliferate, and unintended teen pregnancy rates continue to climb in many populations. At the same time, wholesome, non-commercialized, or even just safe spaces where people can spend time together and get to know each other are disappearing. 

Strict social, cultural, and religious rules about sex and sex-related activities are also now challenged by a whole new collection of dilemmas made possible by fertility drugs and new and improved reproductive technologies. But moving to a new city or trying to escape one’s heritage, or being “born again,” or asking God for forgiveness does little to right wrongs done to past partners and other affected parties, nor does it necessarily or easily solve future sexual, ethical, and communicative quandaries. As always, religious doctrines, legal precedents, and political arenas exist as battlegrounds of sexual/political power with profound personal implications. In response, and as long as human embodied sexuality is still a desirable practice, people will need to make sense of the complicated ethical terrain of sex and sex relations with nuance and honesty, not slogans and excuses. 

Times like these call for a liberal (in the classical sense) and humanistic ethic of sex that can be applied regardless of procreative intentions. Such a focus brings concerns about “good sex,” free will, and responsibility to the forefront, but it does not provide simple or easy definitions of what “good sex” is. What we do know, however, is that communication is essential to the matter. 

Humans are a special kind of being, capable of using speech and reason, cultivating concern for others, and making better rather than worse decisions. With free will comes the need to develop healthy self-discipline, and from this grows maturity and the capacity to make good choices in the future.  Some people fear that paying attention to and talking about sex and sexuality might “ruin” it, and they would rather not discuss sex or think about it at all.  But this is irresponsible to the self and others. Sex is a social, and thereby an ethical, act. It involves at least two people—and many more, if you consider how a person’s sexuality affects friends, family, and others. In other words, talking about sex is part of what makes for “good sex.”

Different ethics of sex, (e.g., “sex feels good,” vs. “it’s consensual” vs. “we like each other” vs. “we’re in love” vs. “we’re married”) reflect different contexts of sex. They may overlap. They may suggest different responsibilities to partners beyond the more general responsibilities we have because of our shared vulnerabilities as human beings. For example, at the lower end of the ethical spectrum, we can consider a person who goes to a bar hoping for a one-night-stand. This person’s primary motivation for sex (sex ethic) might be “sex feels good.” But we would also expect that any encounters be consensual (not rape). 

When consent is the ethic, care for the other would mean being honest about STDs, using effective contraception - and perhaps (also) using barrier methods of contraception since promises between strangers are suspect), honesty about what is and what is not going on (e.g., “This is a one night stand only, not an avenue into a deeper relationship”), and attention to the sexual pleasure for both participants (since pleasure is the main motivation – it is ethical to make sure it is given as well as taken).  Consent ethics are also relevant when sexual services are purchased, except that in these latter instances, the status of the relationship may need less discussion, and congeniality and generous gratuities may compensate for one-sidedness of pleasures. 

Obviously, the encounters just discussed do not rank high in our culture’s hierarchy of ethical behavior, and some people would not engage in them at all. But these encounters do exist in the culture, and it helps to be honest about what ethical behavior in these contexts might be. Furthermore, the ethics of “sex feels good” and “consent” are not irrelevant to couples who are in love and/or who are married.  The ethical necessity of consent and the value of physical pleasure are also part of these contexts. 

Sex can be seen as, among other things, a form of communication. Like dancing, sex is a performance of sorts, complete with posture, gesture, and pacing. These aspects of sex may be meaningful, or they may simply convey emotional states. 

When partners talk about sex (before, during, or after interaction), another layer of communication is added to the mix.  How this is done can have a significant impact on how the sex goes.  For example, despite common calls for clarity and directness in speech, some amount of ambiguity in expressions of sexual interest can be useful.  That way, if a solicited partner is not interested in sex at that time, the overture may be re-defined as some other thing (e.g., a simple gesture of affection) and the sexually interested partner saves face.  Some examples might be a pat on a particular part of the body, or a special kind of eyebrow raise. 

 Euphemisms and care with wording can also be useful.  For example, suggesting a shower together (and meaning it), or suggesting an alternative position may be more effective than criticizing a partner for not having taken a shower. Saying “my hair is caught” may come across less accusatory than “you’re pulling my hair.”

We might also consider the ways we have come to understand what sex is and what sex means from the way it is talked about and portrayed in our social/cultural environment.  Is sex “making it around the bases in baseball”? Is sex lining up prey in a gun sight and “hitting it”? Metaphors like these highlight competitive aspects of sex and hide how sex is cooperative. When sex is understood of as a battle, or a high stakes game, or a sport where the partner is the vanquished team, relationship aspects of intimacy may be thought of and even experienced as mainly adversarial. But altering metaphors of sex a bit yields interesting results  What about trying to think of sex as a game of Tiddlywinks? Or as a feast of many courses from appetizer to dessert?  Or as pairs ice-skating? Or as a carnival? These alternative metaphors still compare sex to games, sports, and familiar experiences where agency and performance are involved, but they lower the stakes of games, and highlight cooperation and aesthetics. The point isn’t to create the perfect metaphor for sex, but to become aware of the implications of popular metaphors of sex, and to consider crafting one’s own more-constructive alternatives. 

Sexual problems are often ethical problems that have as much to do with communication as they do with bodies or psyches. So before heading to the doctor’s office for surgery or pills, or to the therapist’s couch for conversations about unconscious forces, consider how talk about sex – talk regarding one’s own sexual practices and talk about sex in general - contributes to the way sex is being understood and practiced.

About the author (s)

Valerie V. Peterson

Grand Valley State University

Associate Professor