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5.2: Sexuality and Interpersonal Communication

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    • Understand the broad range of sexualities that exist.
    • Identify differences in various terms related to sexuality.



    Sexuality is something that everyone has, and how people define it for themselves may differ. Here’s some of the language being used. Sexual orientation, first, is the “preferred term used when referring to an individual's physical and/or emotional attraction to the same and/or opposite gender” (Tobin, 2017, p. 316). Tobin (2017) acknowledges people do not feel the same way about sex, and that people are often on a spectrum regarding sexuality. Duality is not a necessity, as there are varying degrees of thinking about the definitions.

    Heterosexual, or straight people, have a sexual orientation toward the opposite sex, i.e. women feel romantically attracted to men, and vice versa. Homosexual, or gay or lesbian people, means people of the same sex are attracted to each other. Women are attracted to women, and men are attracted to men. There are not just these two delineations, though, and so it’s essential to define additional notions of sexuality.

    When someone is bisexual, this means a person of one biological sex is attracted to people of either sex, i.e. a woman who is attracted to both women and men. Pansexual is different from bisexual, as it is a bit more inclusive, meaning someone is attracted to people of both sexes, including transgender people.

    Someone who is polyamorous may be involved or interested in relationships or encounters with multiple people, all at the same time and with knowledge of everyone. Someone who is asexual is not interested in anyone romantically, and does not engage in sexual relationships.

    A demisexual person wants to get to know the person prior to having the capability of developing romantic feelings for someone. Romantic attraction will be discussed in a future unit, but sexuality often is discussed along with the topic of developing attraction to someone.

    Along with sexuality, there are stigmas attached to the language and interpretations. For instance, many people have heard the term “homophobia,” which is a fear of gay or lesbian people or the idea of these types of relationships. There is also biphobia, which is the “stigma and discrimination self-identified bisexual individuals face” (Bowling, Dodge, & Bartelt, 2017, p. 87). While there are communication strategies to cope with these phobias, people need to decide whether they will communicate their sexual identity with others. Parents need to decide how to communicate with others and their children, and disclosure may be “an opportunity for parents to pass on values, attitudes, beliefs, expectations and knowledge to their children” (Bowling et al, 2017, p. 87). The suggestion in Bowling et al (2017) is that open-mindedness and discussions in schools about sexuality above and beyond diseases and pregnancy would increase understanding and decrease phobias.

    Recent History of Sexuality

    In the United States, sexuality, until the last 50 or 60 years, has not been a topic of conversation, and people were closeted in most aspects of sexuality, whether gay or straight (Tobin, 2017). Even now, sexuality largely remains a topic expressed interpersonally, between the people involved in the relationship (Tobin, 2017). Freud’s late 1800s and early 1900s studies discussed sexuality as happening in stages, ending in adulthood, where the focus was taken from the self to an interest in the opposite sex (Tobin, 2017).

    Another researcher Ellis, focused on studying both men, women, and same-sex relationships, when it was very controversial, from 1897 to 1928 (Tobin, 2017). Birth control was prohibited in the United States from 1873 through 1918. After that, birth control became more available through the work of Margaret Sanger, and the first oral birth control was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1960 (Tobin, 2017). In the 1960s and 1970s, “sexual behaviors were becoming less about procreation and more about sexual pleasure and satisfaction. Society had changed its once very conservative attitudes toward sex and sexuality to more liberal views,” (Tobin, 2017, p. 323).

    In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis brought sexually transmitted diseases into the limelight, with the focus first on the gay community and then later, it brought about a wider discussion, though with negative connotations, on sex (Tobin, 2017). Tobin (2017) also indicated the Janus Report in 1994 showed more education equals improved and diverse sex lives.

    Sexual dysfunction became a topic of conversation as well, with the introduction of drugs and psychotherapy to treat various disorders (Tobin, 2017). There is more of a hook-up culture now, where adolescents and young adults will engage in sex without the expectation of a relationship, and “young people tend to share information about their sexuality often through social media networking,” (Tobin, 2017, p. 327).

    Hook-up culture was studied at colleges, and the results indicated that hook-ups can vary between cultures, between Greek life involvement, and can also depend heavily on friend groups and their experiences (Berntson, Hoffman, & Luff, 2014). Berntson et al (2014) also found that hook-ups may not be as prevalent as college students think, though they are discussed between friends as if they are the norm.

    People communicate and often sexuality is communicated as part of their identity. Depending upon the situation, the communication may include more disclosure of sexuality, or less. For instance, people may decide to keep their sexuality to themselves if they want to maintain a sense of privacy, or if they sensed danger in telling people. Others will self-disclose with close friends and family only, or even just friends and not family.

    With sexuality being discussed so often in the media now, more people are feeling more comfortable about opening up. Kirkman, Rosenthal, and Felman (2005) wrote about how openness within families is paramount to teens being safer with sex than families that were not open. Gender may be a factor as well, as the authors found mothers tended to be more open than fathers, but they also indicated that sexuality is a topic that many still feel uncomfortable broaching (Kirkman et al., 2005).

    Another study that looked at Puerto Rican men said that heterosexual men do talk about sex, but with other men, and in a joking and derogatory manner, often encouraging machismo, which is male-dominant sexual behavior (Noland, 2008). How might this be different from how other American men, or women, for that matter, discuss sex? Perhaps not differently, depending on the person.

    The study also found men believe women communicate better with other women, and women are often taught to let the men have control sexually, and that the only time men keep sexual relationships private is when they are in a serious relationship (Noland, 2008). However, casual sex is expected and considered natural in the Puerto Rican culture (Noland, 2008).

    Couples sometimes communicate immediately after sex, and this communication can be an “especially important time for couples to reinforce their commitment and fondness for their partners in an aim to maintain their relationships,” (Denes, Dhillon, & Speer, 2017, p. 308). The media often portrays this time in movies.


    Activity 1: Group Discussion: Dating Today. How has dating changed from 20 years ago? What about 40 years ago? Find some examples in pop culture that depict how dating has changed. Also, think about your grandparents’ relationship and dating, and perhaps your parents’ story. How might those differ from your own?

    Activity 2: Sexuality and Coming Out. The ability of people to self-disclose their sexuality has become much more prevalent today. How is sexuality portrayed in pop culture today versus the past, and what roles have celebrities played in the more common occurrence of being out and proud? Brainstorm a list of shows that portray nonheteronormative partnerships, and discuss how the relationships are portrayed in the media. What impact might that have on the way the public views these relationships?


    Berntson, M., Hoffman, K., & Luff, T. (2014). College as context: Influences on interpersonal sexual scripts. Sexuality & Culture, 18(1), 149–165.

    Bowling, J., Dodge, B., & Bartelt, E. (2017). Sexuality-related communication within the family context: experiences of bisexual parents with their children in the United States of America. Sex Education, 17(1), 86–102.

    Denes, A., Dhillon, A., & Speer, A. C. (2017). Relational maintenance strategies during the post sex time interval. Communication Quarterly, 65(3), 307–332.

    Kirkman, M., Rosenthal, D. A., & Shirley Feldman, S. (2005). Being open with your mouth shut: The meaning of ‘openness’ in family communication about sexuality. Sex Education, 5(1), 49–66.

    Noland, C. (2008). “Macho men don’t communicate”: The role of communication in HIV prevention. Journal of Men’s Studies, 16(1), 18–31.

    Tobin, C. T. (2017). Sexuality and Sexual Behavior. In R. W. Summers (Ed.), Social psychology: How other people influence our thoughts and actions: Vol 1. (pp. 315-332). Greenwood.


    Bisexual: A person of one biological sex is attracted to people of either sex

    Demisexual: A person wants to get to know the person prior to having the capability of developing romantic feelings for someone

    Heterosexual: A person of one biological sex is attracted to people of the opposite sex

    Homosexual: A person of one biological sex is attracted to people of the same sex

    Pansexual: A person is attracted to people of both sexes, including transgender people

    Polyamorous: A person involved or interested in relationships or encounters with multiple people, all at the same time and with knowledge of everyone

    Sexuality: A person’s physical and/or emotional capacity for attraction to others

    Sexual orientation: A person’s physical and/or emotional attraction to the same and/or opposite gender


    Multimedia 1: There are several different ideas of sexuality, which are discussed in the following clip. More sexualities and ways to describe them are coming to light as people talk more.

    10 Sexualities To Know About

    Multimedia 2: Over the years, U.S. American television and movies have depicted different sexualities more and more. Have you seen the evolution within pop culture? How was it talked about in your childhood home?

    Then and now: Homosexuality in American pop culture

    This page titled 5.2: Sexuality and Interpersonal Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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