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Naked Truths : Nothing makes a person more vulnerable than sexual contact. But that's precisely when honest communication is the most important in a relationship.

October 24, 1994|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The problem isn't getting naked. It's getting candid.

When it comes to sex, nothing is more revealing--and scarier--than an honest conversation with your partner about sexual desires and dislikes, feelings and fears.

Just ponder one revelation in the most recent and, many claim, most reliable national sex study: More than 22% of the women claimed they've been forced into a sexual act, yet fewer than 3% of the men admitted to sexually coercing a woman.

This gap in perception "tells me that there is limited communication about sex between partners," says sociologist Edward Laumann, one of four social scientists who conducted the University of Chicago study of 3,432 randomly selected 18-to-59-year-olds. "It's clear each gender has different ideas about sexual matters."

Which is hard to believe in a society that has turned the unmentionable into the inescapable. We may not talk with our partners about sex, but we can't stop talking about it everywhere and with everyone else.

In a Westwood sandwich shop, two 40ish men debate the pros and cons of giving a vibrator as an anniversary present. In a La Jolla hotel lobby, a pair of 60ish couples compare their favorite sexual positions.

Despite the so-called sexual revolution, "Couples in sexual relationships work too hard to avoid talking about sex on an intimate level," says Judith Wallerstein, who has researched relationship issues for 25 years as founder of the Center for the Family in Transition, in Northern California.

Nothing makes a person more vulnerable than flesh-on-flesh contact. Emotions are raw. Physiological responses--or the lack of them--can be embarrassing, even maddening.

Religious and cultural attitudes about sex often instill shame in the individual and confusion in the couple, says psychologist Tibor Jukelevics, who specializes in relationship counseling and directs the Center for Family in Torrance. "It's hard enough for a lot of people to think about sex without feeling bad. Talking about it seems impossible and very scary."

And, so, one reasons, "Why risk humiliation by telling my partner what my body likes?" says psychotherapist Bonnie Maslin, author of "The Angry Marriage: Overcoming the Rage, Reclaiming the Love" (Hyperion, 1994). "It's much easier to talk about sex when it concerns other people--like John and Lorena Bobbitt."

A 1994 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that adults are becoming more accepting of sexually explicit content in the mass media. In fact, experts say this increasing "overexposure," which thrives in entertainment hubs like Southern California, makes it more difficult for couples to talk about sex.

"Nothing is left to the imagination," explains Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington and former president of the national Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. "This causes some to lose touch" with their sexuality.

Especially when couples compare their sex lives to fictitious ones portrayed by entertainers, says Schwartz, author of "Peer Marriages: How Love Between Equals Really Works" (Free Press, 1994). Then, "they worry about being normal."

They shouldn't, suggests the University of Chicago report. It found that most adults are conservative in their sexual behavior.

"That makes me feel a little more normal," says Don, a 26-year-old auto mechanic who lives in the San Gabriel Valley. "You hear about other people having continuous, passionate, unbelievable sex. Then you feel inadequate when you just have really good sex once a month, if even that.

"You don't say anything because it would be like admitting you're lousy in bed," says Don, who has been married for nine months. "Also, you don't want to hurt the other person's feelings. It's easier to brag to my friends about sex and keep quiet with her."

Don's silence has spread to other parts of his marriage. "We're drifting. We don't have much sex anymore. We can't talk about anything anymore."

He probably bristled at any talk beyond the superficial, experts theorize.

"Simple communication problems affect sexual relationships," says William H. Masters, director of the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis and author of numerous books and studies on sex.

They can also crush relationships. A few years ago, a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers cited lack of communication, including sexual, as a leading cause of divorce.

Marilyn Fithian, co-director of the Center for Marital and Sexual Studies in Long Beach, recalls helping a woman who had an embarrassing problem that ruined her relationships: All her former husbands and lovers became impotent.

The woman, in her mid-40s, expressed her self-anger at her partners by mocking their sex techniques. The men communicated their insecurities physiologically.

"Things didn't improve until the woman talked about her anger," Fithian says. "She had to take responsibility for her sexual problems. Sex is hard work."

Too many people falsely believe good sex happens naturally, Fithian explains. "They feel like something is wrong if they need to talk about it. But that's not always true. Who doesn't want more pleasure? Talking about sex can mean telling a partner what touches bring on orgasms."

Experience taught Maureen Ward that lesson. For years, she endured boring sex with introverted men who ignored her. But 12 years in psychotherapy taught her that low self-esteem encouraged her to select sexual partners who unconsciously confirmed her feelings of worthlessness.

"Now I have a husband I trust," says Ward, who received sex counseling from Fithian's center. "We have no problems talking about sex. And we have great sex."

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