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

I like it when you… How to tell your partner what you want.

A little to the right… down…

Down to the left a bit.

Ah…wonderful. Sigh…

Today we’re going to talk about sex, or more specifically, we’re going to talk about how couples talk about sex. Couples engage in many different forms of communication in their relationships, from day-to-day chitchat to negotiating who is going to take out the garbage. Some couples may even spend loads of time discussing what movie to watch or which restaurant to go to. But one type of communication that the average couple doesn’t do a whole lot of is sexual communication. Research suggests that the average couple knows about 60% of each other’s sexual ‘likes’ and 25% of each other’s sexual ‘dislikes’. Sexual communication—and I don’t just mean talking dirty between the sheets—is really important! It includes talking to your partner about what you like sexually, such as what positions, pressure, movements, and activities turn you on, and it also includes disclosing things that feel, well, not so great. Research suggests that sexual communication is special, and that it adds to sexual satisfaction above overall relationship communication. Which means that having great communication between the sheets (or wherever else you want to engage in sexual activity!) is going to contribute more to a pleasurable sexual experience than negotiating whose turn it is to do the dishes over morning coffee.

So how does sexual communication happen? Researchers propose that the more we tell our partners what we like and dislike, the more they understand what feels good (and what doesn't), and the better the sexual experience! But HOW does this yumminess happen? Are partners feeling warm and fuzzy and understood? Are partners making behavioural changes to incorporate more of what their partner likes and less of the things they don’t like? Or is something else going on?

We don’t know, but we want to find out.

Before we start our quest though, we note that most of the research out there has focused on individuals in mixed-gender (e.g., heterosexual) relationships—so what happens in same-gender relationships? Are the processes the same? We really don’t know the answer to this question, but we are trying to figure it out since there seems to be some basis to the idea that there are different processes happening in same- as compared to mixed-gender couples. Studies that have looked at relationship (but not sexual) communication suggest that same-gender couples communicate and negotiate at higher levels than mixed-gender couples about household tasks. This difference may be because same-gender couples cannot assign household chores based on gender roles (where women would be expected to do things like cook, laundry, etc. and men would do repairs, shoveling, lawn-mowing, etc.), and therefore, they have to communicate more about who should do what. As researchers have not taken this research into the bedroom, we don’t know if same-gender couples also communicate better than mixed-gender couples there.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking; all this information is great, but communicating openly about sex is really hard! How do I do it? This is why we’ve consulted our very own SexLab Sexpert Dr. Caroline Pukall to give us some tips on opening up communication.

1. Baby steps. Some people find it easier to break down their big goal into smaller goals. So start small and go slow. For example, if your goal is to bring up trying something new with your partner, you may start by letting out a moan or saying ‘that feels good’ during sexual activity, then, once you are more comfortable you may make specific requests like ‘down a little’. Eventually, as your comfort grows, you can ask your partner if they would like to try a certain activity. But remember, even though you have put in a lot of work to open up communication, if your partner doesn’t want to engage in that activity, don’t take it as a personal rejection and don’t push the issue.

2. Show and Tell. One way to communicate what you want is to take the reins and show your partner! Masturbating in front of a partner can be a fun, sexy, and informative way to show your partner what touches, where, make you hot.

3. Right time, right place. Sex can make some people feel emotional or vulnerable, which makes the time right after sex usually not the best time to talk about sexual dislikes. Rather, it can be helpful to talk about these things in a neutral situation when there is time to talk, like over a cup of tea, or during a walk along the beach. Start with something positive—always. Then ease into one area for improvement. And when telling your partner what can be improved, don’t forget to also tell them what they can change to hit your hot spots. For example, you may say “I’m super sensitive to that kind of touch, can you do X?”, or you may refer back to something they were doing earlier that made your toes curl: “It felt so good when you were doing X--can you do that again (please?!)”

4. Sex it up with tech. Using technology can be a fun, convenient, and sexy way to break the ice. You can use text messages to send a flirty text, or to send a message telling your partner about your likes: “I love it when you do X”, about what turns you on: “It’s hot when you do X”, or about what things you’d like to try: “I’ve fantasized about X”. Feel free to spice up your text messages with (preferably suggestive) emoticons. If you and your partner are into apps you could also try an app like Kindu that asks you and your partner to rate various sexual activities as ‘I like this idea’, ‘I’m open to this idea’, or ‘Not even on your birthday!’ The app then tells you which sexual activities you and your partner match on – the ones that you both want to try.

Talking to our partners about sex can be difficult, and it may be a little uncomfortable at first, however, we hope that our tips help you break the ice. Remember, the only way to get more comfortable with talking about sex is to try it! So this year, instead of chocolates for Valentines Day, maybe tell your partner ‘A little to the left’, ‘swipe right’, etc.

Queen’s SexLab: Addressing the Need for More Inclusive Research

The topic of sexual well-being in diverse relationships is a hot topic at SexLab. We feel that it is important to conduct inclusive research that allows individuals in ALL relationships (e.g., same-gender, mixed-gender) to participate.

This study seeks to understand more about common sexual concerns that individuals in diverse relationships experience, and how their partners respond to these concerns. As well, we are interested in how individuals communicate to their partner about their sexual likes and dislikes. Sexual problems can be distressing for individuals, potentially negatively impacting physical, psychological, and interpersonal well being. We are interested in learning more about the shared and unique ways that different couple constellations negotiate and navigate sexual problems during sexual interactions. We hope this information will help inform sex and couples therapists when interacting with diverse couples who are distressed by their sexual problems.

Eligibility In order to participate, you must be in a committed romantic relationship for at least three months. We invite men and women with or without sexual concerns, to participate. For all participants, you must speak, read, and write English fluently, and be 18 years of age or older.

To participate in the survey please visit: To download more information click on: Sexual Well Being Infographic

Stéphanie Gauvin, MSc Candidate

Caroline Pukall, Ph.D., C.Psych.