Sex Secrets: What We Hide from Our Partners and Why
June 21, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
When people describe the traits they want in a partner, honesty usually comes in near the top of the list. However, despite the fact that we say we want partners who will always tell us the truth, many of us hide things in our relationships—especially things pertaining to our previous sex lives.
So how many people are keeping sex secrets? What are they hiding? And why do they keep this information from their partners?
A new study published in the journal Sexuality & Culture sought to find out. Researchers surveyed 195 college students about their sexual secrets. Participants completed a 39-item online survey about the number and type of sexual secrets they were holding, their reasons for hiding this information, and their previous experiences disclosing those secrets.
It turned out that more than one-third of participants (36%) said they held at least one sex secret in their current or most recent romantic relationship. However, more than half (55%) said they had revealed a sex secret to a partner at some point in the past.
Participants reported having secrets about a wide range of things; however, the types of secrets people held differed based on their gender. For women, the most common things they hid from their partners were: 1) history of sexual victimization, 2) having emotionally cheated on a significant other, 3) interest in BDSM, 4) pornography use, and 5) enjoyment of sex toys.
For men, the most common things they hid included: 1) pornography use, 2) having previously had a threesome, and 3) having emotionally cheated on a significant other.
Men’s and women’s reasons for keeping sex secrets also differed. Specifically, women were more likely to report keeping secrets because they felt their partners would not understand; by contrast, men were more likely to keep secrets because they felt their partner would disapprove of their behavior. Given that men and women tended to hold different kinds of secrets, it makes sense that their motivations for hiding that information would differ.
Other reasons for keeping sex secrets included fearing that their partner would divulge the secret to others, being ashamed, and worrying that it would end the relationship.
When secrets were disclosed, this happened most commonly via a face-to-face discussion, followed by disclosure over phone/text message. However, some participants reported that their secrets were disclosed by others (including friends, family members, and exes), that they surfaced on social media, or were accidentally discovered while going through their partner’s things.
For the most part, people reported positive experiences when disclosing sex secrets, with many saying that their partner appreciated the disclosure and that they personally felt relieved. Although less common, some did report experiencing partner disapproval, feeling regret, and/or experiencing a breakup as a result.
Of course, these findings are limited in the sense that only US college students were studied. It is possible (and likely) that the kinds of sex secrets people hold (and their reasons for holding them) may change with age and vary across cultural contexts.
That said, these findings suggest that it is not uncommon for people to keep sexual secrets in their relationships and that there are myriad reasons for holding certain information back. However, the fact that people reported more positive than negative experiences sharing their secrets suggests that there is often benefit and value in being honest about one’s sexual past.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >