Updated: Oct 8, 2022
“Great sexual relationships become a whole lot easier if we are able to talk to one another about sex.” -Julie and John Gottman
As a picky eater, I have developed a few strategies when it comes to eating outside of home. I check the menu, pictures, and read the bad reviews of a restaurant before going. Before going to someone’s house, even if we agreed we’d have a meal together, I’d probably try to eat something just in case I don’t like what is served. I serve myself a little bit to make sure I am not just throwing away food but try to get enough of something I do like to not insult the host’s hospitality. I am positive we all have our own ‘quirks’ and have developed ways to accommodate the outside world’s challenges and, hopefully, communicate them to others when needed.
However, when it comes to sex, most cultures seem to be pretty scripted and provide little for people in engaging in negotiation about their encounters… A very common idea is the depiction of people that barely know each other but somehow seem to have the ‘skills’ to blow off the rooftop of the other’s pleasure threshold. Whether it is a romantic comedy, pornography, or erotic novel, lovers know what the other likes, dislikes, and what makes them ‘tick’ without ever having a conversation about it.
Some of us realize this expectation falls short of reality only after multiple disappointments, sometimes we are puzzled as to why we are struggling with either first encounters or in long-term relationships. For many of us, our difficulties when it comes to talking about sex are a result of implicit and explicit learning experiences growing up. While sensual and sexual images- and jokes- are plastered all over commercials, movies, tv shows, music, etcetera, we seem to have a tendency to sweep sexuality talks under the rug. It seems our thought is "sex is something you do and there’s no reason to bring it up when you aren’t doing it". Furthermore, sex is seen by some as something that has the potential to “perverse the minds of the innocents”, making us uncomfortable about sex education which left us with limited or inaccurate information as well as limited opportunities to practice awareness, communication, and negotiation skills when it comes to our sexuality.
All this may result in a felt unease when we need to see ourselves as sexual beings, express our sexuality, and communicate with others about our sexual experience. Unless we become intentional about it, we might carry these patterns of pretending others can read our minds and feel upset, dissatisfied, and sometimes uncared for, when our needs and desires are not met. If you got to this post, maybe you are looking for a way to practice exploring your needs and/or expressing them with a partner.
Dr. Laurie Mintz, a sex therapist and psychologist, explains her recommendations to go from “Faulty Beliefs to Fantastic Philosophies” in her book Becoming Cliterate. Of the faulty beliefs she mentioned, I think these two faulty beliefs are very perversive when it comes to communicating about sex: mind reading and “not worth it”.
Faulty Belief #1: Mind reading
You might think “I shouldn’t have to say it, they should know.” or “My partner wouldn’t like that, there is no point in sharing my interest”. If you are not used to bringing up sex out of the bedroom- or wherever you like to have it- it can be quite daunting to share your wants, needs, preferences, curiosities, and fantasies with others. However, how much harder is it to read someone else’s mind? How long are you willing to wait until they can read yours? Not sharing what you want makes it less likely that you’ll get it.
Faulty Belief #2: Not worth bringing it up
In long-term relationships, if we were pointing out everything we didn’t like, we, our partners, and our relationship will probably implode. We are bound to encounter difficulties in every relationship, especially if cohabitating. We all have our ways and sometimes they clash with others’ ways of doing things; talking about it, figuring out what is really important and where you can be more flexible, is an essential skill in conflict management.
However, sometimes things do really bother us on a deep level and cause distress, but we avoid discussing them to avoid conflict. I love Dr. Mintz’s analogy of the invisible backpack on our backs and the pebbles… As we go on and things upset us (in our relationships and/or sexual encounters) but we decide not to bring it up, we just add a pebble to our backpack. The backpack starts getting heavier (we start getting tired, cranky, and irritable), resents starts growing, until getting to the point of having to decide what we’ll do with them… In an attempt to lighten our load, we dump it out, getting rid of the whole relationship or staying together unhappy and living parallel but separate lives, or take out the pebbles and start throwing them at each other. Grievances outside of the bedroom can affect your sex together. By not speaking up when you don’t like something during sex (or fake liking it), it is likely to keep happening and be one more pebble in your backpack.
Communication Skills for Sex Talks
1. Give permission to yourself to explore and express
One of my favorite quotes about sexuality is “All sex is good sex as long as it is consensual and pleasurable." You deserve pleasure and have the right to have your boundaries honored (as well as the responsibility to respect others’ boundaries). An important piece to remember is to give the same openness and acceptance you want to receive. All partners need to remember: “Don’t yuck someone’s yum.” It is difficult to share if you are afraid of being judged.
2. Don’t ask questions that aren’t questions
While some enjoy puzzles, most people don’t want their communication to be one. Be straightforward in what you want, share what appeals to you about it, and how the other person can make the experience better for you. Additionally, state your boundaries clearly.
3. Use “I” statements
Consider the differences between “You never go down on me” versus “I would really like you to go down on me”. Your partner(s) is more likely to be willing to participate, and even to get aroused, by the “I” statement (what you want/need) versus the “you” statement that sounds more like reproaching and criticism (which is likely to be met with defensiveness).
4. Communicate about communication
This is known as metacommunication. It can be a form of self-disclosure, “I feel a bit uncomfortable sharing this, but I’d like to try…”. Also, you can note observations if you notice a discrepancy between your partner’s words and their body language: “You said you liked it but your face says otherwise, could you share how you feel about…”.
5. Time-sensitive communication
Research has shown that couples that bring up complaints have happier marriages in the long term. However, bringing up a big topic on the way to a friend’s house or while at the table with the in-laws is not really a good time. Likewise, bringing up past disappointments with sexual issues or concerns when trying to ‘get it on’ may also be bad timing. On the other side, not let too much time pass by. Make time, preferably with privacy and no interruptions, but don’t let too much time pass by (the more time passes, the more resentment might grow or it might just turn more awkward to bring it up!).
6. Be honest
There is not much point in communicating if you aren’t being real, right? I invite you to consider body language, not just words. As Lonnie Barbach says: “By faking, you are training your partner to do precisely what doesn’t work for you.” Additionally, just as it might be important for you to accompany your partner(s) in their pleasure, as stated above your boundaries are important, too. Consent is not “Yes, and done.”; consent is an ongoing process. You can learn more about consent here: open in new tab.
7. Sexy Sex Talks
Let’s reframe the idea that good sex equals spontaneous, out-of-the-blue, passion that overcame you, sex. In real life, talking, planning, and sometimes scheduling can be a gateway to great sex. Sharing with your partner(s) what you like and want doesn’t have to sound like you are ordering food in a drive-through or telling them a to-do list of things to fix. It can be provocative and sexy too! It can build expectancy and desire as you imagine the encounter…
8. Don’t stop at telling, show
Showing your partner what you like is the best way for them to learn what works for you. One to do this is masturbating in front of your partner or moving their hands on the areas you like to be touched (and showing the motions and pressure you like).
Talk, make sounds... find a way to communicate when you are liking something or what you want (as well as if you need a break, need to go slower, discover you aren’t liking something, or need a pillow to feel more comfortable).
10. After Sex talks
Whether it is a one-time encounter, play partner, friend with benefits, or a long-term relationship, you can process an encounter when it is done. What worked, what didn’t, feelings that came up, and maybe how it can be better next time. It is good to have in mind that sex isn't mindblowing every single time (I love the Good Enough Sex guideline) and sometimes one partner may enjoy it more than another, than can be OK, too.
Sex Ed, realistic porn, sex shops, movies, counselors, and coaching, can all help in learning more about bodies and the intricacies of sexuality and sex. As you explore others’ experiences, and your own, try new things, and most importantly bring play and creativity into your sexuality, you’ll discover the expansive power of your sexuality.
Imagine that! One of the keys to creating a more pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling sex life is communication.
Thaina Cordero is a Certified Sexologist and Care Coordinator at Cypress Wellness Center. She has an MS in Educational Psychology, is a trauma-informed yoga teacher, and doctoral student of Clinical Sexology at Modern Sex Therapy Institute. She has completed Levels 1 and 2 of Clinical Foundations in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She helps individuals and couples explore their sexual expression, needs, fantasies, preferences, curiosities, and difficulties as they create more pleasurable, satisfying, and fulfilling sex life and relationships. Click here to request an appointment.