Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
For many people it’s hard to talk about sex. No matter how much you think you know about the “how-to” part of sex, and the “techniques” for giving and receiving pleasure, none of it is helpful if you aren’t able to talk to your partner about sex.
Because you have different brains and are in different bodies, it’s impossible for your partner to know how to please you sexually without conversation and feedback.
But before you start talking about sex, practice doing some self-soothing to calm yourself down. Only when you’re more grounded will you be able to speak in a moderate and respectful way about this complex subject.
Below are six reasons why it’s hard to talk about sex.
1. Lack of good sex education
Given the negative messages that many of us received about sex when we were young, most people find it hard to talk about sex. Unfortunately, lack of sex education means many of us don’t even have correct basic information.
Too many of us don’t know how to talk about sex and sexual health with our partners, friends, children or doctors. As a result, relationships and health can suffer and important information doesn’t get to the people who need it the most. Relationship research shows that unrealistic beliefs and misinformation about sex can be particularly damaging.
What to do
For adults, The Kinsey Institute and SexSmartFilms are a good place to begin to get research-based sex education. For teens of any gender or sexual orientation, sex ed in the real world is found on Scarleteen. For young heterosexual adults Dr. Paul Joannides’ website is full of useful information. If you’re older, having helpful information about sexuality in older people dispels myths about sexuality in later life. Older people still want to experience sexual pleasure, whether in partnered or solo sex. And if you’re not so interested anymore, that’s fine, too.
It’s important that everyone, especially young people, have access to good, accurate information about sex. Please be aware that sex education is not found in porn.
Porn is entertainment for many people, but is based on fantasy, not facts. It totally lacks the context of intimacy. People hold many unproven myths about porn, which then give rise to endless myths about sex. Promoting tolerant, inclusive attitudes towards everyone, regardless of their sexual preferences, gender, identity or orientation is key to good sex education.
2. Guilt and Shame
Unfortunately, many people feel guilt and shame about their sexuality.
Sex can be a sensitive and awkward topic that raises feelings of embarrassment, shame or inadequacy. Because talking about sex involves a degree of risk, doing so can make you feel vulnerable to judgment, criticism or rejection.
Revealing your sexual wants and desires to your partner can be scary, especially when your partner’s reaction is not positive. This can make you feel ashamed or humiliated. There is also the fear of hurting each other’s feelings which holds many people back.
What to do
Good sex education helps us feel less guilt and shame about what turns us on sexually. These turn-ons are generally acquired very early in life, often in unconscious ways according to Dr. Jack Morin. Sex education also helps us understand that mutual consent is a priority, before engaging in any sexual activity. Start with telling your partner who you are, where you’ve been and what does and doesn’t feel good. It’s especially important to do no harm to others & to avoid any sexual exploitation.
Practice self-compassion in your relationship, especially about sexual issues. If you don’t have a partner, start by practicing self-acceptance of your unique sexuality. Read what Dr. Marty Klein has to say about sexual shame and secrecy. Dr. Kristin Neff has some wonderful free resources for self-compassion.
3. No shared vocabulary about sex
You’re not alone if you’re uncomfortable saying sexual words and phrases out loud. Your ways of thinking about sex, body parts and sexual activities may be very different from your partner’s.
So, get together to create a shared vocabulary about sex. A shared vocabulary will make it much easier to talk about body parts, sexual activities, what you like, want and don’t want.
What to do
First educate yourself about female and male genitals and sexual function with these short videos by sex educator Dr. Paul Joannides. Create shared names or terms for your genitals and some of your sexual activities. Take your time, it’s not always easy to do. Partners do not intuitively know what you want without you saying it to them.
This short video interview with Dr. Laurie Mintz talks about the large orgasm gap between men and women. In general men have far more orgasms than women, during both solo and partnered sex. 80%-95% of women do not orgasm through intercourse alone. The vast majority of women mostly need direct clitoral stimulation to orgasm.
Become familiar with what you look like. Your genitalia are as unique as your face. Unlike men, whose genitals are external, many women have no idea what their vulva looks like. Find out about the types of touch and activities you like for yourself. If you don’t know what gives you pleasure, you can’t tell your partner what you like. They can’t know what you like because you’re unique. This lack of knowledge is anxiety- producing for both of you. Read what Dr. Emily Nagoski writes about what 60 years of research says about women’s masturbation.
Once you know what you like and don’t like, practice telling your partner. Also practice listening to your partner’s likes and dislikes without taking it personally. What they like and don’t like is not about you. Practice being curious instead of furious, embarrassed or defensive.
Have you noticed how much practice is involved in becoming a good sexual team? Sex with others is a team sport which involves play and fun. Sometimes it “works” and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re learning as you go.
Being up-front, respectful and honest about your needs and desires is a far more effective way to get what you want than hoping your partner can read your mind.
4. We don’t want to look ignorant.
No one likes feeling clueless about anything. And that seems truer of sex than of many things. Because sex may not have been talked about in your families, people often think that sexual information is something you’re supposed to “just know” or figure out for yourself, rather than something you can actually learn about.
You’ve learnt many things throughout your life. You had to learn to walk, talk, read, write and drive. The only way to learn anything is by practice, repetition & learning from what didn’t work. There are no short cuts! Becoming comfortable to talk about sex takes learning, asking questions, listening and plenty of practice and repetition.
What to do
Go back to point 1 – get some good sex education. I can’t stress enough the importance of good sex education. Read my blogs on Myths about sex, Myths about orgasms, Talking about sex, What to do about sexual disappointment, Mindful sex, and Myths about porn. Each blog has links to many good resources about sex and how to talk about sex.
5. Knowing about sex doesn’t “come naturally”
Many people believe that sex is something that “comes naturally”, and we should just know how to be good at it. This just isn’t true! We needed to be taught how to behave in our families, schools, workplaces and communities. But somehow, we’re just supposed to “know” about sex.
In real life the key to becoming a good lover is to have good general communication skills with your partner. Talk about what you each like and are interested in and what you don’t like and are not interested in. Be open, non-judgemental, and honest.
Talking about a lack of desire can bring partners even closer together. Desire fluctuates though the course of your life & relationship for many reasons, many of which are discussed in the previous link. Fear of rejection, not “performing” well enough, body insecurities, relationship unhappiness or anxiety about disclosing any unusual sexual desire can stop you from communicating freely.
Sex is not a performance. It’s an activity you voluntarily co-operate in for the purpose of connection and pleasure. It’s a place you go to, by yourself or with others, not just a thing you “do”. If you don’t feel connected, and/or there is no pleasure, that’s a sure sign you need to learn and talk about sex.
If you can’t communicate effectively about your differences in other areas of your relationship, you certainly won’t be able to talk about your differences in sex!
What to do
Ask, listen, be curious – about yourself and your partner. Tell, explain, show – all without blaming and shaming. Practice, practice, practice, with yourself and with your partner. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument and then jamming with other musicians. Here’s a short video on jamming with sex.
Everyone’s body is different and everybody’s pleasures are different. Our bodies and sexual organs are as different as our faces – although obviously they have common structures. The shapes, sizes, colours, position and textures of those structures are unique to you. No two people look the same.
Don’t assume or mind read. The more you know about yourself, the more you can let your partner know about what works or doesn’t work for you.
6. Learn to give, take and receive
As Dr. Esther Perel says, we need to learn how to use these seven verbs in our sexual relationships – to give, to take, to receive, to ask, to share, to refuse, to play/imagine. Learning to say no firmly, kindly and unmistakably is how you refuse to do anything that doesn’t appeal to you. You also need to learn to hear no with good grace. This takes practice, patience and perseverance.
Your partner does not have to engage sexually with you just because you want it. Their body is their own. You must learn to respectfully ask for what you want and learn to accept their answer without taking it personally. Sex is not a “duty” you need to do for others. It’s an experience you voluntarily engage in for the purpose of connection, pleasure and/or procreation – should you desire that. Most importantly, your sexual needs are your responsibility, not your partner’s.
Some couples have good sex at the start, and then it wanes. Other couples may take months or even years to find what satisfies both of them. Most couples report differences in desire levels, as described in this short video with Ian Kerner. It is common for desire levels to rise and fall over the course of your relationship and your life. Communication skills are key in being able to discuss this.
What to do
Practice having respectful discussions about what interests you or what doesn’t (and why), what turns you on or off. If you don’t do this, it becomes more difficult the longer you’re in a relationship. Without talking about them, sexual desires become hidden. And then we can feel embarrassed or shy about mentioning things that we would have eagerly done in the early stage of a relationship.
If you’re not learning to talk about sex, after a while sex has no room to grow. Things break down when you take them for granted, and once they have fallen apart, the process of fixing them may be hard. Prevention is better than cure here.
Research on sexually happy couples
Research on sexually happy couples by Dr. John Gottman shows that couples who talk constructively about sex have more satisfying sex and generally happier relationships. Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually. Creating intimacy by sharing thoughts and feelings about sex often ends up getting you closer to a truly satisfying sexual relationship.
Even though it’s hard to talk about sex, having ways to constructively explore sexual issues is the secret to being happy in your sex life.
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