Talking about sex is a skill
From behaviors to billboards, suggestions of sex and sexuality filter into our lives. Yet having the vocabulary for sex doesn’t always translate so seamlessly into comfortable conversations.
Especially when it’s about what we want from, and even during, sex.
But communication is part of having good sex. The willingness to talk about the kind of sex we have or want to have is a key skill. Kate McCombs, a sex and relationships educator, points out, “When you avoid those vital conversations, you might avoid some awkwardness, but you’re also settling for suboptimal sex.”
By having these conversations, you and your partner’s relationship can have emotional, psychological, and mental benefits. Read on to learn what McCombs and other experts recommend when approaching this intimate topic.
What we talk about when we talk about sex
Intimate conversations aren’t just about pleasure. Other topics about sex can include:
- sexual health
- how frequently we’d like sex
- how to explore unknowns
- how to deal with differences in what we and our partners enjoy
Talking about these topics can also help build a foundation for a better relationship as you learn about each other and explore new things together, all while being on the same page.
It’s also worth getting past the discomfort to talk about health, particularly sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and birth control. Avoiding these vital conversations might be endangering your health and altering the future you’d hoped for.
Talking about STIs is part of owning your sexual health
Discussing your health with people you’re going to be sexually intimate with can be awkward. Asking them to get tested may feel invasive, especially if you’re having it before you have a chance to know each other. But not having these conversations can be worse.
- About 1 in 8 HIV-positive people don’t know they have the infection. In young people, ages 13-24, around 44 percent of people infected with HIV didn’t know they were infected.
- Nearly every sexually active person will get the human papillomavirus (HPV or genital warts) at some point.
- Chlamydia can cause infertility in women and prostate gland infection in men.
- Syphilis cases have been on the rise since the early 2000s, and the rate of new cases of syphilis has risen every year since then.
Knowing your own sexual health status can ease anxieties that come along with certain decisions.
Sean Horan, a Texas State University professor, focuses on communication between intimate partners. He suggests basing conversations about sexual health on affection.
Consider asking your partner to accompanying you when you go. If your partner is hesitant about testing and sharing results, your willingness to open up may help.
Safe sex and birth control
Like STIs, pregnancy affects both people involved. “Men have failed because we don’t step up and do anything about birth control,” admits Dr. Shawn Tassone, an OB-GYN in Austin, Texas. “I mean we honestly can’t with the exception of condoms, until it comes to permanent sterilization.” Condoms will provide some protection against infection and can prevent pregnancy over 80 percent of the time, when used properly.
If you have a relationship where you and you partner have chosen to not use or to stop using condoms, you should start another conversation about birth control.
Birth control is a responsibility for everyone involved. You and your partner share the experience, whether it’s birth control side effects or pregnancy. So why not make sure the end result is what you both want and expected? There are many different types of birth control, so be sure to talk to your doctor about what your options are, and what choice may be right for you.
How can you talk about how much sex you’d like to be having?
Every healthy sexual relationship requires constant communication. It is important to focus on both your needs and the needs of your partner. It’s a good idea to be open about what your needs are and to always keep the communication open.
Timaree Schmit, doctor of human sexuality, also suggests emphasizing the positive.
If you want to ask for less sex, you might try emphasizing their attributes to suggest new ideas. Appeal to your partner’s interests and form a new activity or date around it that the both of you will enjoy.
Asking for more or less sex can bring up vulnerabilities. Carli Blau, a Manhattan sexologist, says: “Sexual preferences should be easy to talk about because they ultimately lead to your pleasure, but they’re often difficult to discuss because we fear judgement.”
Some people don’t want to be perceived as too sexual because they want more sex. Others might worry that asking for less sex could imply that their partner isn’t doing something right. Incorporate your concerns about yourself into the discussion. Talking about sex works best as a two-way conversation.
Remember that both parties should be consenting to have sex. Just because you are having sexual relations with your long-term partner doesn’t mean consent has been given. If you ever feel sexually coerced by a partner, or forced to have sex or be touched in a way you don’t want to, know that your healthcare providers are always ready to help you. You can talk to your doctor or a social worker about any concern you have.
Respectfully discovering likes and dislikes
Talking about how touches, nuances, and even fantasies of sex could progress is less straightforward than talking about STIs, birth control, or frequency of sex.
Sexual likes and dislikes can run on a spectrum. There’s activities you love, ones you can’t even think about, and all the stuff in between. And what happens to things that you haven’t even heard of yet? Or when your desires change? Communicating such intimate needs requires a high level of confidence and trust. At the same time, communication builds that confidence and trust.
Think about what you would be comfortable with and what things you would be uncomfortable with. Remember you can always change your mind. Communicating these things with your partner helps keep things open. Talk to a healthcare provider if you are worried something you want to try could be physically or sexually dangerous.
Opening up the conversation
Sometimes, we’re hampered by a lack of language. “One of the barriers for communication is that the language is either really goofy-sounding or clinical,” says Emily Lindin of OMGYes, an organization focused on communicating about women’s sexual pleasure. “Saying, ‘Do that thing ... a little lower ... a little more pressure…' can kill the mood.”
It’s helpful to start from the perspective of pleasure and affection. Carli Blau points out, “Two partners who are sexually involved with one another ultimately want to pleasure each other.”
Use movies to start conversations and explore
Consider tapping into erotic stimulation from entertainment, if you still can’t find the words or time to say what you want. “Watching movies is a great way to facilitate conversations with your partner,” says Cynthia Loyst, creator of Find Your Pleasure and a co-host of CTV’s The Social. “For example, if you’d like to add a bit of kink in your bedroom, an easy way to bring it up with your partner is to watch a movie together that features it.”
Ask questions to get a sense of how your partner may feel about it. You can ask, “Did you think that was hot?” or “Would you ever try something like that?’”
Loyst reminds that the spirit of conversations like these should be openness and curiosity, not judgement. “If someone discloses that that they find something really sexy that you find really icky, don’t go, ‘That’s disgusting!’ This is tender territory that should be explored gently.”
Pornography offers plenty of inspiration for sexy ideas. For newbie viewers, Paul Deeb suggests watching porn parodies, which are comedic versions of mainstream movies. “They’re the best porn icebreakers,” says Deeb, who directed a feature-length film released in hardcore and NC-17 versions. Marriage 2.0 received acclaim as the Feminist Porn Award’s 2015 Movie of the Year.
- do it when they walk in the door
- do it when they’re hungry or tired
- in bed or before bedtime
- do it before or after sex
It’s perfectly fine not to go forward with anything you’re uncomfortable with. Savage reminds us that in reality, “The odds that your sexual fantasies will perfectly overlap is unlikely.”
That’s why Savage encourages intimate partners to be “GGG — good, giving, and game,” when it comes to sharing and indulging turn-ons.
Where and when to talk
In addition to getting the words in the right order, many relationship experts point out that where and when you have intimate conversations is important.
Talking about sex after sex may come across as criticizing or nitpicking. Talking beforehand might get you uptight about delivering just exactly what your partner wants. When the time is right, Dr. Terri Orbuch suggests giving your partner a heads-up that your topic might be a little out of the ordinary.
Respect and feeling respected are key aspects to a relationship. Using so-called I-statements is a communication technique that helps emphasize the speaker’s experience, without shaming, blaming, or complaining about the other person.
- “I notice we seem to be having less foreplay before we have sex. Can we talk about ways to spend more time making out first?”
- “I really liked it when you were on top of me. Is there anything I can do to get more of that?”
How to navigate differences
If respect is present, you can bridge gaps. But sometimes it’s surprisingly hard to know if that respect is there, especially early on in a relationship.
If your new partner declines to get tested for STIs or to share their results, they may be nonverbally communicating their lack of respect. It’s hard to gauge if that situation will improve with time.
But differences shouldn’t result in an ultimatum. Breaking up isn’t necessary when you and your longtime partner have a conflict in interests. Timaree Schmit recommends going deeper.
“For example, let’s say I want to live in New York and my partner wants to live in L.A. The solution is absolutely not to split the difference and live in Kansas. No shade to Kansas, but both of us will be sacrificing happiness. Instead, we both talk about what attracts us in a location. I may need a city with lots of nightlife and museums. My partner wants a place near the ocean with an international population. The real answer might be Miami.”
A cross-country move is a little more logistically complicated than talking about sex. But both share the same key takeaway: Learn to compromise to find happiness together.
And you get to know someone you care about a bit more deeply, as well as yourself.