Photo contributed by Kami Kosenko
Keilah Davis | Managing Editor
Dr. Kami Kosenko is an associate professor of communication at NC State. Kosenko has taught courses on human communication theory and sex communication. Her research focuses on topics like stigma, safer sex communication and STI prevention and management. In this Q&A, Kosenko explains sex communication and her latest work on abstinence and sexting.
Q: For those who don’t know, what is sex communication and what does it include?
A: Sexual communication focuses on the communication processes that occur in sexual situations and relationships. It includes the study of sexual education programs, sexual media content, sexual harassment and violence, sexual negotiation and the development of sexual relationships (among other topics).
Q: What got you interested in sex communication?
A: During my graduate studies, I worked in an AIDS hospice, and I watched over 50 people die from the disease in my short time there. When I started looking into the factors that impact the transmission and management of sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV, I was surprised and excited to learn that communication played a major role in HIV prevention. So, I decided to focus my studies and research on the communication issues affecting people who have or are particularly at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
Q: Your faculty page says you’ve done research on women with HPV, among other topics. Is that still your focus, or are there other topics you’re exploring?
A: Actually, I’ve been doing work in other areas more recently, including abstinence and sexting. With regard to abstinence, students in my course on Sexual Communication noticed that there was very little research on the communicative experiences of individuals who have decided to abstain from sex until marriage. So, with the help of three undergraduates, two of whom were in that course, we completed a study involving interviews with individuals who had decided to abstain. We found that communication helped facilitate the wait. In other words, factors such as having abstinence role models and socializing with others who had made the same decision, helped individuals stay abstinent.
Another study that was born out of my Sexual Communication course was a meta-analysis of the literature on sexting. With the help of a graduate student, a colleague, Andrew Binder, and I conducted a systematic review of the research on sexting and sexual behavior. We found that there is a link between participating in sexting and in risky sexual practices but that we don’t have enough information to determine if one causes the other or which one is the cause and which is the effect. Some worry that sexting will lead to unsafe sexual practices, but it’s just as likely that people who already engage in unsafe sexual practices are now engaging in sexting, too.
Q: What have you discovered about the role of stigma in sex communication?
A: Stigma is closely linked to identity, which plays a role in all sexual situations and relationships. Someone experiences stigma when some part of their identity is negatively evaluated by society. Efforts to avoid stigma can affect all sorts of important sexual health interactions—from disclosing one’s sexual history to reporting sexual violence to seeking necessary medical care.
Q: Based on your research, what advice do you have for college students who may be struggling with talking about sex and sexual health?
A: Take my class! Just kidding. I think the best way to get comfortable talking about sex is through desensitization. That means exposing yourself to and engaging in sex talk as much as possible. It’s likely that you are more comfortable talking about sex with some people than with others. Try picking the people who and situations that make you feel comfortable and using those opportunities to talk about sex. Over time, you’ll get more used to talking about it and will find yourself feeling more confident talking about sex in a variety of situations. I’d also recommend using whatever language comes naturally to you. If clinical sex terms sound too cold, then use more colloquial terms. And, it’s okay to laugh! Sex is funny!