What Your Sexual Vocabulary Says About Your Relationship

Woman whispering in her boyfriend's ear

Being able to talk about sex with your partner is important. As I have discussed in previous articles, couples who communicate more in the bedroom (or wherever it is that they have sex) tend to be more sexually satisfied. But does it matter how you talk about sex? For example, are couples who use very clinical-sounding terms (e.g., “Would you like to copulate?”) as satisfied as those who use sexual slang (e.g., “Let’s screw!”)? A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research sheds some light on what your sexual vocabulary says about the nature of your relationship.

In this study, 293 heterosexual married individuals aged 20 to 73 completed a survey in which they were asked about the frequency with which they use 44 sex-related terms. Participants also completed measures of how satisfied they were with their sexual communication, their overall relationship satisfaction, and the degree of closeness and intimacy they have with their partner.

Before we talk about the results, let’s talk about that list of 44 sex terms. The researchers performed a “cluster analysis” on them, which is a fancy way of saying that they used a certain statistical procedure to see which words formed “clusters.” In other words, this procedure allows you to see which words have something in common and “hang together.” The results of this analysis revealed five distinct clusters, indicating that "sexual vocabulary" doesn't mean just one thing--people can talk about sex in many different ways:

1. Clinical terms (e.g., copulate, cunnilingus, fellatio, scrotum, anal penetration)

2. Oral sex slang (e.g., giving head, going down, boner, clit)

3. Standard erotic (e.g., climax, erection, ejaculate)

4. Crude slang (e.g., screw, blow job, tits, balls)

5. Standard everyday (e.g., nipples, penis, boobs, make love)

Overall, men reported using slightly more sexual terms than women; however, this difference was driven almost exclusively by the fact that men tend to use more slang terms than women. For most of the terms, there were no sex differences, and those differences that did emerge were relatively small. Also, and perhaps not surprisingly, clinical terms were used least often out of all of the words on the list (probably because most people feel uncomfortable using such technical language during sex).

How were the different sets of vocabulary associated with relationship outcomes? For men, use of erotic terms was associated with feeling closer to one’s partner, and use of everyday terms was associated with both greater relationship satisfaction and closeness. For women, all five sets of sexual terms were associated with feeling closer to one’s partner. The female results also revealed that oral sex slang, crude slang, and everyday terms were associated with greater relationship satisfaction, while crude slang and everyday terms were associated with higher communication satisfaction.

These findings tell us that the way people talk about sex is closely related to how they feel about their relationship. In general, the more sex-related terms people use, the more positively they feel about the connection they have with their partner. However, there is an important gender difference here. For men, only certain sex terms seem to matter (i.e., erotic and everyday), whereas for women, all sex-related terms including slang seem to be at least somewhat important. Indeed, many people will probably be surprised to learn that use of crude slang is linked to greater relationship satisfaction for women, but not for men.

That said, there are some important limitations of this research. For one thing, it only considered heterosexual partners. Thus, we cannot make any inferences about what different sexual vocabularies might mean for persons of different orientations. In addition, this research is correlational. As a result, we do not know whether expanding our sexual vocabularies enhances relationship satisfaction and closeness, or whether people who are closer and more satisfied to begin with are just more comfortable using certain sexual terms. Either way, the one thing that is clear from these data is that talking about sex is indeed an indicator of a happier relationship, especially for women.

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To read more about this research, see: Hess, J. A., & Coffelt, T. A. (2012). Verbal communication about sex in marriage: Patterns of language use and its connection with relational outcomes. Journal of Sex Research, 49, 603-612.

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