Interpersonal Sexual Communication across the Lifespan

by Tina A. Coffelt (Volume editor)
©2021 Textbook XII, 210 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 16


Interpersonal Sexual Communication across the Lifespan traces curious children, eager adolescents, exploring adults, committed partners, and vibrant elderly in their negotiation of sexual development and changes in relationships. Sex and sexuality have been examined at least since the inaugural works of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. These early and subsequent works have been marked by the emphasis on sexual performance, biological, physiological, or psychological processes that impact sexual activity and interaction. This book emphasizes communication research dispersed across several disciplines and would be of value to students in sexual communication or human sexuality courses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Lifespan Communication Theory Approach to Sexual Communication (Tina A. Coffelt)
  • 1. Toward a Conceptualization of Interpersonal Sexual Communication (Tina A. Coffelt)
  • 2. Parent–Child Communication about Sex (Tamara D. Afifi, Callie Parrish, and Chantel Haughton)
  • 3. Communication, Courtship, and the Emerging Adult (Betty H. La France and Jeffrey A. Hall)
  • 4. Strategies and Tactics to Abstain and Delay from Sexual Activity (Tina A. Coffelt)
  • 5. Interpersonal Sexual Communication and Condom Use in Emerging Adulthood (Kami A. Kosenko)
  • 6. Same Sex Couples and Sexual Communication (Madeleine R. Holland and Pamela J. Lannutti)
  • 7. Negotiating Sexual Relationships (Amanda Denes, Chelsea Guest, and Katrina T. Webber)
  • 8. Interpersonal Sexual Communication during Childbearing and Childrearing: Negotiating Relational Turbulence and Interpersonal Closeness during Pregnancy and Beyond (Roi Estlein and Jennifer A. Theiss)
  • 9. Aging Adult Sexuality: Talking through Physical and Physiological Changes (Jessica M. W. Kratzer)
  • 10. Capacity to Consent: Nonnormative Aging, Cognitive Change, and Interpersonal Sexual Communication (G. Joseph Sample, Jennifer A. Margrett, and Gayle Appel Doll)
  • 11. Continuing the Conversation: Additional Directions for Interpersonal Sexual Communication (Jimmie Manning)
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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Thanks to the dedicated staff members at Peter Lang.

Thanks to Tom Socha and blind reviewers of the proposal for seeing the potential in this book.

Thanks to the contributors for their commitment to research that includes some aspect of interpersonal sexual communication and to the many other scholars who embark on this subject matter. Our combined efforts lead to practical, research results that impact the quality of life for countless individuals.

Thanks to anyone who has participated in a research study related to interpersonal sexual communication. The related topics are, by some, perceived as too embarrassing or challenging to discuss even for anonymous or confidential research purposes. Those who have contributed to research help move the U.S. culture along a slow shift that values open dialogue about sexual topics for the betterment of relationships.

Thanks to family and friends who listened to my progress reports on this book project. Your social support is greatly valued and appreciated.

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ADAlzheimer’s Disease
AIDSAcquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
CDCCenters for Disease Control and Prevention
CMMCCommunication and Mass Media Complete
FOMOFear of missing out
HIVHuman Immunodeficiency Virus
ISCInterpersonal sexual communication
LCTLifespan Communication Theory
LGBTQ+Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer
MSMMen who have sex with men
PCCPerson-centered care
PCSCParent Child Sexual Communication
POCPeople of color
PrEPPre-exposure prophylaxis
RTTRelational Turbulence Theory
STDs/STIsSexually Transmitted Diseases/Sexually Transmitted Infections
TGNCTransgender and Gender Non Conforming
WHOWorld Health Organization
WSWWomen who have sex with women
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Introduction: Lifespan Communication Theory Approach to Sexual Communication

Tina A. Coffelt

Consensual sexual experiences are ubiquitous in their enactment by individuals around the globe. In the United States, the cultural norms for sexual activity carry lingering remnants of the Victorian era and Judeo-Christian perspectives on sexual behavior. These influences admonish sexual experiences for pure pleasure and instead, advocate for sexual experiences to be monogamous and procreational. One lifetime partner is purported as the ideal, and the lifetime number of sexual partners is expected to be low. Such beliefs inform cultural attitudes, even though sexual practices diverge from these ideals. Instead, the lived reality of consensual, sexual experience is often exciting, messy, complicated, confusing, exhilarating, experimental, meaningful, or playful, yet always relational.

The cultural norms contribute to a society where sexual communication is often embarrassing or challenging in interpersonal relationships. Talking about sex seems to be a formidable task at various phases throughout life for many individuals. Sex shows the least expansiveness among several topics discussed in family relationships (Baxter & Akkoor, 2011), and some aspects of sexual activity in adult relationships are often considered a taboo topic (Baxter & Wilmot, 1985). Some argue that there is no need to talk about sex because it is a natural and pervasive activity. However, scenarios abound when sexual communication is necessary. Consider, as examples, the parent who is surprised by a child’s questions about body parts, an adolescent’s reluctance to approach a parent about birth control methods, a spouse’s trepidation about expressing dissatisfaction with sexual activity, or the elderly person’s intermittent memory lapses that interfere with granting consent. These and ←1 | 2→countless other scenarios call upon individuals to discuss one of the most private, intimate, and cherished aspects of the human experience.

Nevertheless, individuals in marital and family relationships who discuss sex identify positive relational attributes (Coffelt, 2010; Coffelt & Hess, 2014; Hess & Coffelt, 2012). For instance, sexual communication contributes positively to relational satisfaction in marital relationships (Coffelt & Hess, 2014), and mothers and daughters acknowledge the closeness they experience when they talk about sex (Coffelt, 2010). Moreover, in family relationships, some research supports the hypothesis that talking about sex with adolescents decreases teenage pregnancy, reduces incidences of STDs/STIs, increases condom use, and prolongs sexual debut. Additionally, talking about sex can enhance understanding of sexual processes via education and socialization. Sexual issues can be highly problematic in committed relationships, leading some couples to seek support from sex therapists, where communication is a frequent remedy. From parent–child conversations to romantic involvement to long-term, coupled relationships, sexual communication serves important functions in interpersonal relationships. The functions of sexual communication and content of sexual messages vary by type of relationship and the phase in lifespan development. This book synthesizes sexual communication research in interpersonal relationships at salient moments across the lifespan, relying on the principles set forth in lifespan communication theory (Harwood, 2014).

Lifespan Communication Theory

Lifespan communication theory (LCT) advanced from developmental and lifespan theoretical approaches in psychology and sociology to emphasize the development of communication qualities and their metamorphosis during the lifespan (Nussbaum & Worthington, 2014). LCT outlays lifespan and communication principles separately (Harwood, 2014), thus, the principles distinct to the lifespan are introduced next, followed by a segment on the communication principles. The first lifespan principle asserts that development occurs at all ages and is not restricted to childhood or adolescence. The second principle argues that lifespan changes are nonlinear and multidimensional. The “interplay of stability and change” (Harwood, 2014, p. 10) acknowledges both the similarity of certain developmental processes at distinct phases of the lifespan and the dynamic changes that ebb and flow during life. For instance, puberty and menopause occur within predictable age ranges, exemplifying the stability associated with sexual development. By contrast, engaging in sexual activities shifts from inactive to active and ←2 | 3→back again as life’s circumstances—new relationships, childbirth, divorce, relational conflict, among others—occur. The third principle reminds us that even though some development occurs within a given age range for nearly every human, deviations from the given ranges may operate, and individuals still differ in the ways they experience these changes. In this way, individuals undergo both conformity and autonomy as they mature. The fourth principle notes that aging is an ambiguous term used in myriad ways.

Lifespan communication theory also presents principles of communication, centered on the assumption that communication is a process of human message exchange. These principles portray communication as an independent variable that influences other variables; a dependent variable, in which case it is influenced by other factors; or a mediating or moderating variable that follows or influences paths between other variables. In other words, communication influences aging and aging influences communication, while also mediating or moderating between aging and other variables. These communication principles apply specifically to sexual communication, as well, which is the primary emphasis in this book—the ways in which communication influences sexual developmental processes, sexual developmental processes influence communication, and communication mediates and moderates sexual development and other variables. With these lifespan and communication principles outlined, each will be discussed as they apply to sexual communication.

Development Can Occur at All Ages. Certainly sexual development exemplifies this principle by the ongoing physical and psychological changes accentuated during child and adolescent development and later, during the physical decline in older age. Sexual communication also develops, although its trajectory is not, by design, required to accompany physical and psychological changes. Rather, sexual communication can follow its own developmental ebbs and flows across the lifespan. It is this principle of LCT that makes it particularly useful to synthesizing sexual communication research. There are no designated expectations to introduce aspects of sexual communication at given time points. Rather, individuals are free to interrogate and experiment with sexual discourse when they are ready. For example, individuals in new relationships may negotiate sexual scripts as sexual activity is introduced into the relationships and then be renegotiated as other life events occur. These life events could include the birth or adoption of children, changes in communication style, or a desire for different sexual stimulation practices from the partner. Even though sexual communication development follows its own path, some life events spur interactions about sex. Specific events selected for this book include sexual education discourse between children/adolescents ←3 | 4→and their parents or guardians, sexual debut conversations, sexual negotiation during relationship development, childbirth/adoption and childrearing, sexual functioning challenges brought on by health conditions, and the changes in sexual performance brought on by nonnormative, cognitive decline. These are not the only moments in the lifespan when sexual communication occurs. However, they are distinct turning points that may necessitate or require communication about sex to negotiate the life event. It is the importance of these lifespan events that marks them as moments worthy of inclusion.

Change across the Lifespan is Nonlinear and Multidimensional. This second principle clarifies the first by confirming that these changes do not follow a predetermined nor linear path, and there are multiple facets to all changes over the lifespan. Sexual communication, likewise, exemplifies this principle. Sexual communication may change between relational partners, attain some type of homeostasis, and then morph again. For example, siblings may exchange information about sexual performance during adolescence, but then taper their sharing as emerging adulthood surfaces, then reintroduce reciprocal exchanges about the impact of relationship duration on sexual satisfaction. The chapters herein account for different forms and dimensions of sexual communication, as well as the stability and change that punctuate sexual discourse.

Age Constrains but Does not Control Development. Similar physical and physiological changes occur at designated moments as part of the human experience. Communication abilities likewise develop, materialize, and decline in expected ways. Communication competence, however, evolves as motivation, skills, and attitudes (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2011) coincide with life experiences. Social experiences may prompt individuals to seek information, become willing to change a communication pattern, or alter an attitude about the importance of an interpersonal relationship, for example. Similarly, sexual communication could be avoided during the early months of a new relationship, but then a partner could feel a need to talk about birth control or risk reduction as sexual activity is introduced into the relationship. Such instances are not controlled by the age of an individual, but rather, the life experience. To further illustrate this principle, interpersonal relationships differ from each other, such that, one couple may discuss birth control as sexual activity is introduced into the relationship but another couple does not. Rather, the second couple may be sexually active for some time before deciding to talk about birth control, and some couples may never discuss this practice. Thus, even as bodies age, communication practices may stabilize or change as a result of non-age-related factors.


XII, 210
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 210 pp., 1 b/w ill., 1 table.

Biographical notes

Tina A. Coffelt (Volume editor)

Tina A. Coffelt (PhD – University of Missouri) is an associate professor at Iowa State University in the Department of English and Communication Studies Program. Her research appears in the Journal of Sex Research, Journal of Family Communication, and Western Journal of Communication. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Uzbekistan in 2020.


Title: Interpersonal Sexual Communication across the Lifespan