“Why speak up? Substantially better sex. University of Texas Researchers analyzed forty-eight studies of 12,145 couples’ sexual communication. As mutual coaching increased, both men and women reported enhanced desire and arousal. Women noticed more self-lubrication. Men enjoyed better erections. Women reported less pain during intercourse. And everyone was more likely to have orgasms and report sexual satisfaction.” Michael Castleman, “Sizzling Sex for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Maximize Erotic Pleasure at any Age.”
Re-read that. And again. Contrary to cultural messaging, taking about sex doesn’t “kill the mood,” it enhances not only the mood but the experience of pleasure for everyone involved.
Yet, talking about sex—sharing ideas about how we want sex to go, about how we like to be touched, about things we might want to try, about how long we want foreplay to last—and so on—is one of the most challenging things for people to do. In a culture that presents so many bizarre and conflicting messages about sex, that does not teach about how to share pleasure, that shames genitals and sexual expression, it’s no wonder that so many people struggle with even the most basic of sexual conversations. Add an overlay of prolific pornography, in which many viewers mistake entertainment for education, it’s no wonder that people find sexual intimacy intimidating and fraught with landmines.
So how do we—one person—one couple at a time, learn to communicate about sex and intimacy so we can create connective, pleasurable and spicy sex that remains strong over time? It takes some doing and undoing. It takes willingness to feel awkward at first. It takes willingness to admit that we don’t know everything about sex, our partners, or even ourselves—and to allow that to be ok. Get started by getting a reality check.
Acknowledge that beyond New Relationship Energy (“NRE”), good sex comes from mutual engagement and effective communication. Sex in most new relationships is easy. Neurotransmitters and hormones run hot and evolution has designed them to promote bonding. For most new couples, the sex “just flows.” When NRE inevitable fades (it typically has a shelf-life from 6 months to three years), willingness desire replaces spontaneous desire, asking that couples mindfully work together to create great sex. It’s understandable to want sex to “just flow,” but it’s an unrealistic expectation for long-term relationships.
Drop the expectation that your partner (if they really loved you) should simply “know” what to do without you telling them. Your partner is not a mind-reader. Expecting a partner to know how you want to be touched without any coaching from you is unrealistic and frankly unfair especially if they are asking for guidance. Any number of factors can feed this expectation:
Lack of sexual self-awareness: a person may not know what they want or like. This is incredibly common for women raised in a culture that discourages and shames sexual self-exploration in girls and women. It can be hard to speak up if you’re not sure what you want!
Discomfort with using sexual languaging: we don’t learn how to talk about sex in this culture, so it can be hard for people to say even the most basic of sexual words; the thought of asking a partner to spend more time stroking their labia before moving on to the clitoris feels almost impossible to say out loud. It’s easier to be left wanting than to speak up.
Strongly holding onto the unrealistic belief that a partner should “know” what to do without any input from you, or that sex should be “easy” because it’s “natural.” Sex for procreation is easy and pretty “natural” but sex for mutual pleasure is a shared responsibility.
Inability/unwillingness to help a partner overcome awkwardness: an inexperienced partner can be awkward, and yet, through patience, practice and gentle coaching, that partner can become confident, attuned and a proficient lover. Never discount a partner’s ability to learn without first trying!
Feeling shame over asking for pleasure/fear of being branded a slut: for women raised or acculturated to believe that they are not supposed to like sex or sexual pleasure, speaking up is incredibly challenging, yet learning to do so can be the difference between having enjoyable sex or wondering what all the fuss is about. And waiting for a partner to “get it right” without giving that partner information is unfair to you both.
Fear of hurting a partner’s feelings: some people are afraid that directing a partner’s actions will hurt the partner’s feelings, thus sacrificing their own pleasure at the altar of their partner’s ego.
Drop the expectation that you should be an expert in all members of the gender type you prefer to have sex with. Many lovers don’t want to ask for or receive feedback because they carry the unrealistic and shame-based belief that they should know what to do, or the arrogant belief that they are already great lovers. Everybody and every body experiences pleasure in a different way. Touch that works great for one partner, may be a flop for another. Believing that you should know what every potential lover likes is naive; believing that you do know what every potential lover likes is arrogant. Learn to ask. Learn to respect differences without shaming. Never, ever tell a lover that “every other person I’ve been with likes this or has an orgasm this way.” That is horribly shaming and ignores human differences.
We know through research that communication and mutual coaching helps couples to co-create hot, satisfying and pleasurable sex lives together. In Part II of this series, I’ll give you some guidance on how to overcome the above limitations, and to get started in learning how to talk about sex, how to show up with openness and curiosity, and how to create a mutually satisfying, enduring and hot sexual connection—even if you’ve been partnered for many years.