Social Minefield: How To Talk To Your Partner About Sex

We all know that communication is the key to great sex — but knowing just how to communicate isn't always so easy. Today, Social Minefield goes deep to help you get off.

If you read any sex advice at all, you've probably been told that the hottest, safest, and most mutually fulfilling sex requires honest and open dialogue. But some things are easier said than, um, said. Some of us grew up learning that sex was very bad and would definitely kill us, which doesn't exactly make it easy to talk about. Some people, especially women, get the message that what matters is pleasing your partner, and that speaking up for what you want somehow detracts from that. Some are just shy. And even those lucky enough to have experienced a sex-positive upbringing can use some specific pointers from time to time. Let's get busy:

Value your own pleasure, safety, security, and fun.

As part of our "fucking while feminist" series this weekend, Megan referenced Sady Doyle's excellent post at Tiger Beatdown. Doyle wrote,

I started out my extremely sexy life as a sexually active lady who has sex as a woman who was extremely uncomfortable with saying the word "no." Or "ouch." Or "would you please," or "would you please stop."

And:

I had sex with people like I was a customer service representative for the First United Bank of Sex: Obliging, friendly, and more or less impersonal. Always willing to go the extra mile! Oh, no, no trouble at all! That's what I'm here for!

I asked her how that changed, and she explained,

[I]t wasn't an all-at-once or immediate progression. I was pretty bad at boundaries when I started out; I couldn't even insist on using a condom if my partner was pressuring me to be, like, cool about it. I actually benefited tremendously, though, from my college experiences; I went to Antioch College, which notoriously required explicit verbal consent at every point throughout the process. And I'd heard people make fun of this, but the people who taught it to us pointed out that what we were actually being asked to do was to say what we thought would be really hot and to express our desires during makeout sessions; our college had an official policy requiring dirty talk during sex, basically. What I came away with was the idea that creating verbal boundaries during sex could be hot. And that you didn't have to feel shame about it. You're already naked in front of this person and expressing a desire to touch their underpants region; why should saying stuff about that be MORE embarrassing or MORE vulnerable?

Setting boundaries and asking for what you want are not only not shameful, they're praiseworthy. If everyone treated sex less like a bank transaction — one person dispenses gratification, the other takes it — the world would be a better, hotter place. The first step toward making this happen is accepting that your feelings about sex matter, and that they matter enough to be explicit about them. I also talked to Jessica Wakeman of The Frisky (who spoke with Megan over the weekend about her thoughts on sex). Here's her philosophy:

I think I deserve sexual pleasure and so I'm going to do whatever I need to get it. The best partners, especially sexual partners, are the ones who want you to be happy.

Oh, and if someone's pressuring you to "be cool" about contraception and/or protection, it's time to be blunt:

Just say no. "No" is a powerful word. Use it and don't let yourself get bullied into relenting.

Beyond the obvious risks involved, anyone who tries to bully you out of using condoms is not going to be a good partner in other ways.

Be specific.

Author and sex educator Tristan Taormino gave me this advice:

The thing that everyone has to realize is that it's all about all the details and it's all about the specifics. You can't even assume that when you say "I like this," like "I like it rough," what that even means is going to be different for every single person. So you've really got to get specific. [...] You can't ask open-ended questions. You can't say things like "What you do think of our sex life?" or "What do you like to do in bed?" These really generalized questions can easily get you an "Everything's fine" answer, and then it's like, the conversation's over. So I think you have to ask more pointed questions, like "Did you like it when I tugged on your balls when I was blowing you," or "How do you like your clit played with? Do I do it too hard, do I do it too soft? Would you show me how you like it?"

And it's not just about finding out what your partner likes — if you want someone to play with your clit, actually asking them to play with your clit is way more effective than assuming they'll figure it out, or saying something vague. Being specific doesn't have to mean being clinical: Doyle says her sexytimes include "asking for what I want in the sexiest, dirty-talkiest way possible." Telling your partner exactly what you want done to your body can be very sexy. Also effective, assuming this works for your and your partner's boundaries, is the direct approach — says Wakeman, "You can also just grab their hands (or take matters into your own hands!) and show them the texture and the velocity you want."

Talk about sex when you're not having sex.

Everyone I talked to recommended this — talking about fucking when you're just sitting on the couch can be a great way to open up and get comfortable. Says Wakeman,

It's a less vulnerable time, so it may not kill the mood. I also think talking about "housekeeping" kinds of things when you're fully clothed is a good idea, too, because sometimes in the heat of passion people may not always remember you asked them to stop wiping lube in your hair or whatever.

Taormino has some tips for introducing sex topics when you're not actually boning. She recommends sharing porn or erotic short stories as a way to bring up new ideas or desires (obviously you can enjoy porn/erotica during sex also), and using the images or words as a "jumping-off point to get into specifics." She also says,

My friend Ducky Doolittle, who's a sex educator, likes to tell people [...] to get a sex ed book, and each of you read it with different colored highlighters, and highlight passages in your color.

Then, says Taormino, if one of you highlights, say, "dual-action vibrators," the discussion can take off from there. In terms of introducing a kink or toy, Wakeman says, "If you're bold, straight up ask, 'Would you like it if I dressed up like a nurse?' or 'Would you like to cum on my face?' or 'Try a butt plug?'" But she also outlines a roundabout approach that still gets the job done:

[A] good way to ease into it would be by asking your partner, "So, what have you done before in past relationships? Have you ever done XYZ?" Regardless of whether the person says yes or no, they will likely intuit that this is something that interests you. I'm not advocating that you play games, but just suggesting that you work from where they are.

Or, says, Taormino,

If you feel really shy, and you aren't a person who has a direct communication style, then you could bring things up in a more neutral way. So instead of saying, "Honey, I want you to go down on me for a lot longer than you do," you can say, "I was reading this article online the other day, about how most women like oral sex to go on for at least twenty minutes. What do you think about that?" So there's no criticism there and there's no direct, "I want this from you now," but it's like, "Hey, what do you think about that?" It's a little less direct but it still could open the door to you guys talking about whatever it is you want to talk about.


If something doesn't feel good, approach the situation positively.

Taormino says that "stop doing that now" can be "a little bit of a mood-killer" (although if you're feeling unsafe or in pain, you should feel free to say it). Instead, she says,

Put it in positive terms, which is, "You know what I'd really like you to do to me right now?" and then fill in blank. And that way you're actually not commenting at all on what's going on right at that moment. You're not saying, "that's not really doing it for me," or "I'm bored." [...] You're just shifting gears entirely, and it's like, "hey, I'd really like you to do this to me," which sounds encouraging, which can be sexy if said in a certain way, and which keeps the whole vibe positive.

Wakeman concurs:

[S]traight up say to them, "Let's try ..." or even better, "I would really love it if you ..." It helps to preface that with "sweetie," "baby" or "honey" in a sweet voice to be more sensitive. Some people get prickly if they think you're implying their technique is bad. A better way to package it would be by telling them what would drive you wild, [rather] than criticizing the foul move.

She adds:

If we're talking about kinky play, most couples use a "safe word." A safe word is what you say when you want the play to end immediately and your partner is supposed to honor that request. I always just always used "stop," but other people say "red light" for stop and "yellow light" for slow down. You should always clarify what the safe word will be beforehand because sometimes in bed people say "Stop!", "No!" or "Ow!" but they still actually like it. If someone is going to gently pull your hair or spank you with a paddle, they need to know that "Nooooo!" means "Keep going!" and "Red light" actually means cease and desist. Actually, "cease and desist" would be a funny safe word.

Be a respectful and accepting partner.

This doesn't mean doing things you're not comfortable with, but it does mean listening without belittling or shutting down your partner. Says Taormino,

We have to approach sex with an open mind and without judgment. When people feel really comfortable telling partners about their fantasies, part of why they feel comfortable is because they've established a level of trust with them. [...] So I think you've got to establish that right off the bat, this kind of welcoming, open, nonjudgmental environment, because if you are constantly like, "that is totally fucked up, I would never do that," that's going to just shut down your partner from ever telling you any fantasy ever again. People are allowed to have their opinions, and they're also allowed to have their dislikes, but there can be no absolutes, because the truth is all kinds of fantasies can be switched around and revised and reimagined to work for both partners.

She adds, "when someone shares something with you, that's a gift, and the way that you react is actually really important." Communication obviously goes both ways, and being open to your partner's desires can help you feel more comfortable sharing your feelings too. Bonus: learning to talk frankly about sex can help you communicate better about all subjects, with your partner and with other people in your life. So there's no reason not to speak up — and to listen!


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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Fucking While Feminist: A Conversation, For Ladies And Selected Dudes! [Tiger Beatdown]
First Time For Everything: Getting Spanked [The Frisky]
Girl Talk: I Wanted To Be Dominated [The Frisky]
Tristan Taormino's PuckerUp! [Official (Adult) Site]

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