by Heather Corinna
You can read everything from the Kama Sutra to The Joy of Sex, watch porn vids until your eyeballs fall out, have a ton of sexual experience or psychically channel Mata Hari or Casanova, but if you don’t know how to openly communicate with your partners, with your words, chances are neither you nor your partner are going to have really healthy, beneficial and satisfying sexual experiences, especially in the long-term.
Communicating clearly and well about sex and relationship issues, before and after you become sexually active with someone -- the whole works, not just when whispering sweet or saucy nothings into a lover’s ear -- not only puts you in a place where you can have satisfying sex and sexual relationships, short and long-term, and feel good about them, it helps keep everyone safe and sound both physically and emotionally.
If you have a car, you know that you’ve got to keep a pretty good eye on the oil in the engine: if you run out, no matter how great of shape your car is in, it’s not going to keep working, and may well explode in your face. Solid communication is the oil that keeps the engine of your sexual relationships running smoothly.
How to Talk About Sex
Talking with your partner about sex isn’t just about asking what one person has or hasn’t done before, wants to do, or about what gets everyone hot under the collar. Talking about sex with a partner also involves discussing what pace you’re comfortable with, your sexual health and your partner's health, what you want or need to be comfortable engaging in a given sexual activity, how you masturbate, how you feel about your body, what feels good and what really doesn’t, safer sex and birth control, your sexual ethics and beliefs, relationship model negotiation, the works. Good sexual communication means you are creating and maintaining an environment in which you and your partner(s) can really talk openly about sex -- in and out of bed -- even when what you have to say isn’t very sexy or isn’t what the other might want to hear. It means being able to say no and having no be accepted and easily respected without pressure to say yes: it means being able to say yes knowing it doesn’t mean you or they have to say yes every time.
It’s no big shocker that talking about sex openly and intimately isn’t very easy. Most of the media around us doesn’t portray sexual discussion realistically or wholly: we’re shown either only the super-fantastic earthshaking stuff or Very Big Problems, not all of the shades in between that make up most of our sexual experiences. Most of the talking about sex we see in the movies only happens when people are having sex, and tends to consist of little but monosyllables or the standard “That was great,” after sex is done. And it isn’t just teens who have a tough time with sexual communication. Many adults in long-term sexual partnerships don’t have the hang of it, and plenty still prefer to avoid sexual discussions rather than practice them. A rare few of us grew up in households where sex was discussed healthily and openly. Good sexual communication generally requires more than a single word response. For a lot of people of all ages, honest and open sexual communication is brand new terrain.
Before you become sexually active with someone, take a look at how you communicate with them about other things. Are you able to talk openly and freely about your feelings for each other, about relationship models, time management, previous romantic/sexual relationships and peer and family relationships, and deal with crises? Are you friends: do you talk like friends? If not, it’s wise to take a pause and evaluate if that partner is a smart sex partner for you yet: after all, if you don’t feel comfortable talking about needing a little more time together (or a little more space) or what’s going on with your family, it’s going to be a serious challenge to talk about wanting to be touched more here or there, to need to change how the two of you are practicing safer sex or birth control, or about having a yeast infection. If daily communication, especially about things which are very close to your heart, doesn’t feel pretty easy just yet, work on that first, or consider that that person may not be an ideal partner for you.
Look at your own existing sexual communication in other parts of your life. Are you able to discuss sexual issues with your friends or your physician with a decent level of comfort and honesty (even if things sometimes feel a bit awkward)? Can you use language for sexuality – like the correct words for your sexual parts, or real terms for sexual activities – comfortably?
If you’re already at those points, then you’ve got a great foundation for sexual communication. You can lay it down from the onset – before you have any kind of sex at all -- just by saying something like, "Before we have sex together, I want us to aim to always talk about sex honestly and freely, even when it seems weird. I feel like that’s important for both our physical and emotional safety as well as so that we can have really great sex." Just making your intentions clear like that opens the door, allowing both you and your partner permission to talk about sex with maturity and be honest when you do.
Want to try on a few basic conversations one might have with a partner or potential partner that are pretty common, just to get an idea of how we can have them, and how hard it really ISN’T? CLICK HERE, and have a look at how some varied talks about sex with a partner can go.
Those sample conversations don’t have to be literal scripts for you, and my vernacular may not sound like the way you and your partners talk: I’m 37, and you’re probably not. "Gag me with a spoon," and "Like, totally, that’s grody to the max," were part of my teenage lingo: thank christ, they’re probably not part of yours. But the basics remain the basics: sound sexual communication is all about being honest (even when it feels awkward or embarrassing -- but, if you’re going to be naked and/or sexual with someone things are going to be awkward and embarrassing sometimes, no matter what), being forthright and open (which anyone can do while still being kind to the other person), owning your own stuff (and the other person being able to do the same), and accepting that sometimes, because we need to communicate important things, sex might not seem so sexy for a bit, and we may even shelve sex we were going to have in exchange for talking about it. Even if that seems like a bummer at the time, I can guarantee you that it’ll mean the next times you DO have any kind of sex, it’s far more likely to be emotionally, interpersonally and physically better.
Where to have a talk? Pick emotionally safe, neutral spaces to talk about sex in. Often, it’s best to talk about sex in-depth when you’re not in the middle of having sex, when no one is naked (since most people feel more vulnerable that way), and when you’re not in an environment which can make it feel like having sex is more important than talking about it. Obviously, too, talking about sex between two people very personally isn’t a conversation for when you’re in a big group, hanging out with friends, or in the busy halls at school, where even the walls tend to have ears.
Suffice it to say, there will be times that it either feels just fine to talk about sex while in bed, and times when it’s also unavoidable. For instance, if you’re setting a limit on what you want to do in the midst of your partner starting to do that activity without asking, you need to set that limit right there and then. Or, if you two are laying around after sex and strike up a conversation about your sex life and it feels safe and comfortable for you to have it then, then no problem.
Check out some general themes we usually see in productive and communicative sexual conversations:
- "I" statements. In other words, "I feel that…" rather than "You make me feel like..." Or, "When you do X, I experience Y," instead of "You do Y to me." "I feel ready for sex," not "My friend Joe is having sex with HIS girlfriend." When you’re speaking for yourself and about yourself, frame it that way. Even if you are calling out a partner on their behavior or actions, people tend to stop listening when an expression sounds more like an accusation.
- Acknowledge the awkwardness. In so many ways, anything sexual between people IS awkward, and talking about it often is, too, especially when those conversations are being had for the first time. You can let a lot of the air out of the balloon just by saying that you feel awkward, and by being okay with that: it helps make it okay for your partner to feel awkward, too.
- Same goes double for accepting that sex talk can be loaded. As a longtime sexuality educator – completely outside of my personal life – I’m acutely aware that people can fly off the handle pretty easily when talking about their sex lives, and that most people are pretty hypersensitive about sex. That’s unsurprising: sexuality is very personal, it makes us feel very vulnerable and exposed, and there’s an awful lot of pressure in the world to be sexually perfect, no matter how unrealistic that is. Prime the pump (as it were) and make sure your partner is in the right headspace to have a discussion about sex at a given time, just by asking if they are, and if they’re not, just make clear you need to soon, and would like them to let you know when it is a better time for them. Reinforce care for them by letting them know that you love and care for them and that you like being with them: you just want things to be as good between you as possible. Be aware of their personal sensitivities and insecurities and speak with kindness. "I think maybe your penis is too small," for instance, is not a sensitive thing to say (and probably not even the real issue). "I’m feeling like this would feel even better with something fuller, maybe your hands?" is a serious improvement. "I’m having a hard time working out the difference between our reality and what I see in porn," is far more accurate, sensitive and productive than "Why can’t you do what everyone in porn does?"
- Watch your language.Part of communicating well (whether you're talking about sex or something else) involves using terms which both people know the meaning of and are comfortable with. You may hit roadblocks to productive sexual communication if, say, you’re talking about "tea bagging" or "fingering" and your partner has no idea what you’re referring to (hint: when you say tea-bagging and they ask if you prefer herbal or black tea, they don’t understand you), or if your partner calls your genitals a "pussy" or a "prick" and those terms seriously turn you off or are gross to you. Be sure that when you are talking about sex, that you do so without making too many assumptions, and with care to what language you are using to express yourself; be open to making changes or clarifying in order to better that communication. Ask about what words work for your partner; tell them what words and language feel best to you. Everyone also has different levels of comfort when it comes to pillow talk -- talking about sex during sex. Some people may like a partner to "talk dirty" during sex who either isn’t comfortable with that in general, or who is comfortable with that, but not yet. Plenty of people have a hard time -- or just don’t like -- talking about sex during sex, for the effect of heightening arousal, in general. Again, these tend to be matters of compatibility, and by discussing them -- even in advance of sexual activity -- even partners with some divergence of opinion can often find middle ground that works for both of them.
- Make sexual communication an ongoing process. In other words, don’t expect one talk about one thing to be the only talk you’ll have or to net instant results. Most people tend to need time on their own to mull talks about sex over, since partnered sex can be so complex and sometimes tough to sort through, and a lot of the time you won’t have "The" talk, you’ll have a series of evolving talks about any given issue. As well, folks may not want to have a six hour gab-a-thon about a sensitive or emotionally loaded issue. It might be better to talk a bit about something one day, then suggest you go do something mellow and unloaded and talk about it more in a few days.
- Expect the Best. If you walk into a sexual conversation anticipating that it will go poorly, it’s much more likely to. You’ll probably be more timid than you would otherwise, won’t do the best job of really stating your case, and may be less likely to be honest. If, instead, you walk in with the expectation that what you have to say is productive and important, and your partner can absolutely handle talking about sex (and if they’re having sex, they’d better be able to talk about it, too!) and listening to you, you’re more likely to communicate well and most honestly, and your partner is going to hear your confidence and trust in them in your voice.
- By all means, accentuate the positive. Unless you’re talking with someone who is being abusive or is not minding your boundaries, when you have an otherwise positive sex life with someone, you can make them feel at ease and secure by being sure that even in areas you may be being critical, you’re also acknowledging the good stuff. For example, let’s say that you really enjoy sex with your partner, but their utter lack of communication makes you feel clueless as to what to do to be sure they’re enjoying it too. To keep positives in there, you might say something like, "I love being with you, and I love how you give me clues about what you like with your body. I think things could be even better, though, if you could also tell me, with words sometimes, what you like or want."
- Don’t ditch your sense of humor. Obviously, there are some conversations in which humor just isn’t appropriate – like when a partner is seriously stomping over your boundaries, or a partner needs to talk about previous sexual abuse with you. But in a lot of conversations about sex, it’s fine to have moments of lightness, and it’s helpful to inject a little laughter to help everyone feel more comfortable.
There are some people who strongly feel that any kind of talking during or about sex kills their buzz. Trouble is, we just HAVE to talk about sex at least sometimes, and if we’re really fully present with sex, then talking about it shouldn’t be a huge bummer. Someone who feels that way may also not be in the healthiest headspace: maybe talking kills things for them because they’re trying to pretend something is fine when it really isn’t. Maybe they’re trying really hard to avoid being vulnerable or close (in which case it’s mighty silly for them to be having sex, which is all about that), or want the sex they’re having to be more about a fantasy than the reality. Maybe they don’t want you to talk because they don’t want to leave you real room to say no or have a say. Maybe they’re really just not ready for sex with someone else, because being able to communicate is a big part of being ready.
If it feels to you that sexual issues cannot be discussed by you or your partner -- either because you don’t feel ready, or because you think talking about them will spur on anger, upset, jealousy or massive insecurity -- then you might want to wait for partnered sex with that person until you both do feel able to talk more comfortably, and have more practice doing it outside of bed, where any conversation tends to be a lot more loaded. Suffice it to say, if it feels patently unsafe to ever talk to your partner honestly about anything to do with sexuality, that’s just not a safe person to be with sexually at all.
Often, it also takes a few tries -- and sometimes more than that -- before we meet someone whose needs and wants are compatible with ours, or can work with a partner to find middle ground that works for both people. Because of that, it can be tempting to try and let things go unsaid we really need to be talking about, like limits and boundaries that aren’t being respected or communicated, wants or needs that aren’t being met, relationship models we know we can't deal with, or sexual velocity that is just going too fast. Resist that temptation if it happens: you don’t want to set patterns or precedents for things that aren’t okay with you or aren’t working for you, because that makes it even harder to work them out in the long run. Put your limits and boundaries onto the table as soon as they come up. Even if it’s difficult, awkward, or feels risky to do, it’ll be a lot easier to set limits earlier rather than later, and taking risks to better understand each other is always a healthy risk to take with a good chance of delivering something positive and healthy.
Once you have some basic solid communication practices and dynamics down, it’s just a matter of basic care and feeding: if and when you do start having partnered sex, you’ll keep talking to one another, all the time, and it should become second-nature to always be communicating, sharing ideas, feelings and experiences without trying too hard. It’s not unusual, when you first start having partnered sex to go without heavy verbal communication for a while, because it’s new (and that newness can make things so exciting that even sex that isn’t physically so great is made better by the rush of something new), because you’re both caught up in all the things that feel good, and because things that aren’t yet as you like them, will just take more time. But over time, not only are you likely to need to talk more, you’ll both probably want to talk more, too.
Partnered sex is one of those things that tends to get better the longer you do it with someone, but part of why is communication that increases over that time. So, communication is important, but the sex you’re having also doesn’t need to feel like a lecture series to be healthy. You’ll probably find – as most people do -- that when you start from a place of open communication, and keep communicating regularly and as needed – just opening that door not only makes communication become easier and easier over time – and when you get good at it with one partner, it tends to get easier with other partners over time -- those regular habits will allow you to have more times when body language and monosyllables do you both just fine, and all the better than they would have if you didn’t have great verbal communication, too.
(Adapted and expanded from S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College)