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Relationship, sex issues: What would you do?

By Ian Kerner, CNN Contributor
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
Would you spill the beans to your partner if you had a one-night stand with someone else?
Would you spill the beans to your partner if you had a one-night stand with someone else?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new survey asked thousands of men and women to respond to situations
  • Would you confess a one-night stand to your partner?
  • Participants were also questioned about experimenting with sex

Editor's note: Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, writes about sex and relationships for CNN Health. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

(CNN) -- Your buddy's wife decides to "friend" her ex on Facebook. Your local politician gets busted sending pictures of his private parts to his campaign workers. Your sister tells you her boyfriend wants her to watch pornography with him.

It's easy to offer your two cents in these situations -- but what would you do if they happened in your relationship?

That's the premise of a new survey I developed with my colleague Kristen Mark, director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky.

We asked nearly 5,000 men and women how they thought they would react in 50 different sex and relationship scenarios to get a sense of how the average person would respond when faced with their own fun, adventurous -- and sometimes, anxiety-provoking -- situations. Their answers (and your own feelings on these subjects) might surprise you.

Ian Kerner
Ian Kerner

For example, more than half of participants didn't view a Facebook connection between their significant other and his or her ex as a threat, but more than a third said they would question them about it and 17% said they would ask their partner to "de-friend" the ex.

Coming out -- as a couple

The latter two groups may have the right idea: In my experience, people tend to greatly underestimate the pitfalls of Facebook and other forms of social media. I see many couples who are struggling with emotional or sexual infidelity as the result of new hookups and reconnections with old flames online, where it's easy to romanticize each other.

"Relationships require more negotiation in this technological age around the 'rules' of what is appropriate and respectful and what is not," explains Mark.

When it comes to actual infidelity -- in this case, a hypothetical one-night stand -- 30% of respondents say they would tell their partner right away, while the same number thought they would keep the slip-up a secret. Men were more likely than women to keep quiet about their cheating.

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"The big question to ask yourself is, 'Is telling your partner in his or her best interest -- would they want to know, or are you just trying to make yourself feel better by getting it off your chest?'" says sex therapist Megan Fleming. "If your partner would likely find out, I've found that almost universally, the preference is to hear it from you first."

"You should be able to talk openly and honestly about sex with your partner -- and if monogamy isn't your strong suit, you may want to consider negotiating an open relationship," adds social psychologist Justin Lehmiller. "You don't need to be monogamous to have a good relationship, but you do need to be able to trust one another."

People seem somewhat more willing to spill the beans when they receive unwanted sexual attention from someone else.

Asked to imagine that they were on the receiving end of a sexual text message from their boss, 45% of respondents said they would reply with a message saying it was inappropriate, while 35% would either go directly to human resources to report it or would ignore it completely.

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"I find these results surprising," says Fleming. "I'd like to think that in 2013, people would feel empowered and comfortable to appropriately set boundaries and let their boss or any other co-worker know when they've crossed an unwanted and unacceptable line."

And keeping mum on the situation could backfire: "It isn't easy to be honest and direct with authority figures who can potentially damage your career," explains clinical psychologist Zoya Simakhodskaya. "However, doing nothing can lead your boss to believe that such behavior is acceptable -- and you will feel more and more uncomfortable at work."

On a lighter note, we found that most participants were willing to try something new in the interest of their sex life.

For instance, 70% of respondents said that they would accept a sex toy as a gift and integrate it into their relationship. About the same number -- both men and women -- were game to watch porn with their partner, and to try something in bed that made them blush if it pleased their partner. A third of participants said they would even consider "swinging" with another couple, as long as their partner was involved.

These answers seem right in line with what many experts see as a mainstreaming of certain sexual activities.

"People want to keep things fresh and have new experiences in their intimate lives," says sex educator and entrepreneur Patty Brisben. "You can build a house with a strong foundation, but if you don't decorate it, it's not going to be a very exciting place to live.

"The same goes for relationships: If you don't take the time to keep it interesting and fresh and experience new things in your intimate life, your relationship will suffer," she says. "If you arm yourself with knowledge and communicate openly, both partners can feel satisfied."

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