Abstract: We Talked About Our Hookups: A Diary Study of Sexual Communication Among U.S. College Women

◆ Katrina Pariera, The George Washington University
◆ Brianna Abraham, The George Washington University

For many young women, college is a time when their sexual behaviors and attitudes change. Sexual activity tends to increase during college, with many students engaging in casual sexual encounters and risky sexual behavior (American College Health Association, 2017; Scott-Sheldon, Carey, & Carey, 2010). Communication with others plays a major role in these changes (Gause, Brown, Welge, & Northern, 2018; Zelin, Erchull, & Houston, 2015), yet there is little information about how college students, particularly women, actually talk about sex on a day-to-day basis.
One of the most effective ways to understand daily behavior is through the use of diaries, which tend to result in higher reports of risky or taboo behavior (Fisher & Lee, 2014). To understand day-to-day sexual communication among young women, 96 U.S. college women kept a sexual communication diary seven days in a row, generating 1211 instances of interpersonal communication about sex. Sexual communication was defined as any communication related to sex, including sexual health, sexual behaviors, and social issues related to sex. For each conversation participants recorded the conversation length, tone, medium, and relationship with the interlocuter. They also described the conversation in detail. Content analyses of the latter were conducted to determine topic and function of the conversations.
Most conversations were face-to-face, casual or humorous, and lasted about 15 minutes. The vast majority were with friends. The most common topics were previous sexual encounters, dating and relationships, potential sexual activity, desires and likes, and sex in the media. Sexual assault and sexual health were rarely discussed. Regarding the function of conversations, the most common were sharing opinions, recapping sexual activity, gossiping, exchanging advice, and joking around.
Together the findings suggest that sex appears to be a somewhat common topic for college women, but serious topics and conversations with partners are scarce. The findings are also consistent with research that young women tend to avoid talking about sexual risk (Bowleg, Lucas, & Tschann, 2004; Horan & Cafferty, 2017). This has important implications for health promotion efforts targeted at college students, particularly women. Because women talk mostly to their friends about sex, peer educators may be an effective vehicle for transmitting sexual health messages. Other research has found peer sex education to be effective at increasing safer sex behaviors (Layzer, Rosapep, & Barr, 2014; Roberts-Dobie, Rasmusson, A., & Losch, 2018).
The findings also show that talking about sex has social importance. Women talked to exchange opinions, recap, gossip, exchange advice, and make each other laugh. They also talked about many personal issues, such as sexual encounters and desires. This suggests that young women may be trying to make sense of new sexual experiences and they are turning to their peers to organize and interpret those experiences (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012).
Communication about sex is an important aspect of sexuality. Our study provides a better understanding of how young women talk to each other about sex, which is crucial to developing educational materials and interventions aimed at improving their sexual health and well-being.