SexLab Research Results: Flexibility Matters.

“What is sex?” The answer to this question likely depends on whom you ask. Individuals differ in how they define sex; these definitions are known as sexual scripts. Sexual scripts are mental guides to sexual activity, influencing what does and does not constitute a sexual experience—they cover the who, what, when, where, and how of sex. Sexual scripts can be rigid or flexible – some individuals may have sexual scripts that include a wide repertoire of sexual activities, whereas others may require specific acts or behaviours to occur (e.g., penetration, orgasm, etc.) for the sexual experience to be defined as ‘sex’.

What happens, though, when sexual preferences/activities go ‘off-script’? An individual’s preferred sexual script may differ from the script that occurs during sexual activities with a partner. Sexual issues, such as differences between partners in sexual preferences, penetration difficulties, sexual pain, or low desire, are not uncommon in sexual interactions, and the presence of sexual issues may act as a barrier to engaging in one’s preferred sexual script. How are individuals able to navigate sexual issues in their relationship, and does flexibility in one’s sexual script matter?

Unfortunately, sexuality research, including research on sexual scripts, treatment of sexual issues, sexual communication, and partner responses has been conducted almost exclusively within the context of mixed-gender (i.e., heterosexual) relationships. This tendency for exclusion has contributed to a lack of understanding of sexual well-being in individuals in same-gender relationships. Improving our understanding of the unique and shared strengths and challenges that individuals in same-gender and mixed-gender relationships face when navigating their sexual relationships can help inform evidence-based culturally competent care for diverse populations.

For part of my Master’s thesis, I wanted to better understand the similarities and differences of individuals in same-gender and mixed-gender relationships navigate their sexual relationships, and explore if and how sexual script flexibility is related to improved sexual well-being.

But before I delve into what we uncovered from this research project, I first want to send out a huge thank you to all the people who participated in this research – you made this project possible! We literally could not have pulled this off without your participation, so thank you all very much. We are analyzing a lot of data from this massive project and will be periodically posting summaries like this one on the SexLab blog.

Note: For the analyses described below, individuals were grouped based on how they self-identified in terms of their own, and their partner’s, gender.

What are the similarities and differences across individuals in same-gender and mixed-gender relationships?

Results from our study suggest that there are more similarities than differences between same and mixed-gender relationships for sexual communication, partner responses, flexibility in their approach to sexual issues, and sexual well-being. Any differences found were small in size. For example, females with female partners reported slightly more warm affective responses from their partners when they experienced a sexual issue, and reported more flexibility when responding to sexual issues when compared to females with male partners, males with female partners, and males with male partners. This research emphasizes the importance of studying sexual well-being with individuals in ALL relationship types.

How does flexibility in one’s sexual script relate to greater sexual well-being?

Some individuals, may be able to navigate disruptions caused by sexual issues by making adaptations to their sexual scripts. Individuals may explore a range of different sexual activities; by broadening the range of their sexual repertoire, they may find alternative pleasurable activities that are amenable to their sexual issue. Individuals may also change the sequencing of their sexual script (e.g., increase time spent on previously ‘secondary’ or ‘foreplay’ activities), or change the goals of their sexual interaction (e.g., intimacy-focused versus orgasm-focused). As a part of this program of study, we developed a measure – the SexFlex Scale – to assess sexual script flexibility in approaching sexual issues.

We found that greater sexual script flexibility in approaching sexual issues was related to greater sexual well-being through interactions with one’s partner. Specifically, we found that individuals who were flexible in their approach to their sexual issue disclosed more about their sexual likes and dislikes to their partner, and that this disclosure allowed their partners to be better equipped to respond in a positive way that allows for the renegotiation of the sexual script to one that is mutually satisfying. In other words, when navigating sexual issues it isn’t enough to simply be willing to try different things when your typical approach to sex doesn’t work – you also need to communicate with your partner to tell them what they can do that will be pleasurable for you AND your partner has to respond in a positive way to enhance your sexual experience.  Essentially, results from my research study help to emphasize the importance of good communication and engagement between partners in order to successfully navigate any sexual issues in their relationship.

Stéphanie Gauvin, Ph.D. Student, Clinical Psychology

Vulvar Pain: What’s Wrong with Me?

When I ventured into the first forays of womanhood and was introduced to feminine hygiene products for my bodily changes, my mother told me, “Don’t use tampons – they’ll give you TSS [toxic shock syndrome].” This was something I quickly accepted and agreed with, because tampons were dangerous – why would I want to stick something up there? This ideology followed me into middle school, when I declared (influenced by my Christian upbringing) that I was going to remain abstinent until marriage, a rule that I practised during my first relationship. I attributed my reluctance to let my boyfriend go near my genitals as a sign of my commitment, and not anything else. When I watched women in porn touch their vulva and put fingers in their vagina, I flinched. Didn’t that hurt? When guys tried to manually or orally stimulate me, it brought me more anxiety than pleasure, and my grimaces were probably mistaken for the latter. It wasn’t until I was with more sexually experienced partners that I realized that perhaps the pain and discomfort I was feeling wasn’t a common experience shared by most women. I found myself lying about being on my period or making excuses for my “sensitive vagina” so that people wouldn’t touch me down there. Sometimes sexual encounters would make me anxious because I could anticipate the pain, and I felt inadequate that I couldn’t give my partners what I assumed to be a fulfilling and satisfying experience. If I had an interest in someone, I would be deterred by imagining the stress and hassle of having to explain everything and disappointing him. Who would want to be with someone they couldn’t have sex with, whether it was for a few months or for just a night?

I remember crying out of frustration after I spent hours trying to insert a tampon with no avail. My friends told me I just needed to relax – a TV show, candles, tea, ocean sounds, and so on, and they suggested I try various poses to fit it in more easily. They gave me multiple pieces of advice, none of which worked, and I’ve just come to accept that sometimes I won’t be able to go swimming, play sports, or twirl around in white dresses like they do in the commercials.

While it certainly hasn’t been an easy road, learning about vulvar pain and its prevalence have helped me come to terms with my body and try not to beat myself up over it. Treatment options do exist that would combine physical and cognitive therapy, and while I’m not currently pursuing them, I plan to the next time I have a long-term partner. Aside from one particularly pushy gentleman who I had to leave abruptly, most people have been surprisingly accepting and respectful of my boundaries, and I’ve gotten better at (or maybe just more used to) explaining why I can’t have penetrative sex. Oftentimes I’ve found that my female friends can relate, and they share their own stories of sexual or vaginal pain. Where, originally, I was ashamed and embarrassed to talk about my condition, it’s now a disclaimer before any sexual activity – if a man can’t respect that I don’t want to be touched down there, then he doesn’t deserve to touch me at all.

Anonymous guest blogger