How Do You Talk About Sex?

Specifically, how to talk to our partners about it.

How To Talk About Sex | A Practical WeddingI’ll be honest: when we posted our open thread on sex a few weeks ago, I really just wanted an excuse to do a sex toy roundup. I wanted you guys to flood the comments with requests for thebestvibratoromghowdoifindit, so that I could turn around and say, “See! The people practically demand that I go shopping for them!” And while that was definitely part of the comments we received (and I’m now aware my job is done for me, because you introduced me to the genius of NSFW Oh Joy Sex Toy), what I really got out of the conversation is that we need to talk about how to talk about sex. Specifically, how to talk with our partners about it.

Our culture is, pun intended, pretty fucked when it comes to talking about sex. And I’m not just talking about the parts where sex is abjectly misrepresented in popular culture, in porn, and pretty much everywhere except the bedroom. It’s in the fact that we’re not even supposed to acknowledge the realities of sex; it’s just supposed to happen, and be perfect, and never warrant discussion. There’s a part of me that misses the gossipy nature of early sexual exploration, of running home to tell girlfriends about that thing I did for the first time and how it was totally weird/awesome/not what I expected at all. Because the older I get, the more these conversations are shoved into the bedroom, leaving us all alone to figure out how things are supposed to work. And while I know that there are issues of privacy and propriety at work in this shift, the bigger issue is that I think we’ve been taught to leave our partners out of that conversation too.

In our open thread, many of you asked, “How do I approach my partner about [insert topic here]?” And while my standard answer would typically be, “Just talk to them!” I understand that it’s more nuanced than that. Talking about sex, even with your most intimate partner, can be uncomfortable. (Unless it’s the dirty kind of talking about sex. For the record, I think that’s fun.) No matter how long you’ve been together, there’s always that nagging fear that this might be the day you get rejected. Since Michael and I basically introduced each other to sex, we’ve had a long time to hone our communication skills in this area. (If we were half as good at talking about finances or chores as we are at talking about sex, I’m pretty sure our house would be spotless and we’d have a financial plan to write home about, but I digress.) So today I’m going to share some of the lessons I’ve learned that have helped take our sexual relationship from fumbling teenagers to smoothly running sex machines. But since I can only lend my experiences to this conversation, when I’m done I want to turn it over to you guys again. One of the best things to come out of the conversations in both the open thread and Rachel’s post about porn was the list of resources I walked away from the conversation with. So when we’re done, please add your best links to the mix so that we can create a comprehensive resource list of all the best NSFW websites.

And now, here’s all my best advice for how to have conversations about your private parts:

Just Do It: Let me preface this by saying that I don’t think every sex talk needs a big conversation. Sometimes the best way to talk to your partner is to lead by example. So let’s say you want to create a sexy inspiration Tumblr account, as someone suggested in the open thread, the best approach might be to just create it and start posting to it, then let your partner in on the action. Or if you want to introduce a new item into your sex routine, it may take some of the pressure off if you go ahead and buy it first and let the conversation be, “Hey, look what I bought.” Often the talk is whole lot less scary when the reality of the situation is presented instead of the hypothetical.

Get Brave: But what if you aren’t ready to lead by example? Or you really just want to talk, but aren’t sure where to start? First, I suggest you stop what you’re doing and go listen to this song. This is everything you need to know about getting the conversation started. Because here’s the thing: some conversations about sex are fun. And others are…not. But talking about sex is not the time for beating around the bush (how many puns can she put in this post? Nobody knows!). Lots of the hesitation I hear about talking about sex stems from not wanting to upset a partner, or fear that a partner is going to shut down if the conversation happens, or concern that a partner is going to think you’re a weirdo if you suggest something outside the box. But you know what? That’s okay. Steel your resolve. It’s perfectly fine if the conversation is uncomfortable (I mean, you don’t want it to be traumatic, but uncomfortable is okay. I get uncomfortable talking about money; others get uncomfortable talking about sex. It doesn’t mean the conversations don’t need to be had.) But if you want it to go anywhere, you’ve got to start by getting brave and just letting the words fall out.

Use What You Know: Listen, not everyone is great talking about sex. Don’t beat yourself up about it. No couple is good at talking about All The Things, and some conversations are going to be more emotionally loaded than others. But don’t let the fact that you’re talking about sex trick you into thinking you have to treat the conversation any differently than you normally would. Instead, use what you know and model your conversation after what you are most successful talking about. Pretend you’re talking about chores. Or retirement planning. Which makes me think that maybe Michael and I would be more successful navigating our finances if we were naked.

Be Clear: Sometimes when I’m not sure how Michael is going to respond to something, I’ll preface the conversation with, “I want to ask you about something, and I need you to listen to me before you say anything, and if you try to make a joke about it, it’s going to hurt my feelings.” (Michael said I should reference the trust tree scene from Old School and tell everybody that you have to be in the trust tree when you’re talking about sex.) By speaking bluntly, it opens up the conversation to a more natural dialogue and removes any of that ambiguity that causes hurt feelings. Ideally you want to be able to talk about what you need from your sex life with as much clarity and confidence as you talk about what you need for groceries that week. (And no sarcasm. Nothing kills vulnerability faster than sarcasm.)

Timing: When it comes to sex, timing really matters. You can’t have a logical discussion about sex mid-arousal. Plus, doing so has a pretty good chance of ruining what could otherwise be a lovely roll in the sack, and what a shame that would be. So here’s what works for me:

  1. During Sex: My rule? I only say things during sex that have to do with the sex I’m having, and for obvious reasons. I mean, sure, I may introduce a new position in the moment or offer subtle directives, but anything more than that is usually falling on deaf ears. Plus, Michael and I both say things during sex that we’d frankly never like to happen in real life, but are part of our pillow-talk, so it’s best if we just chalk anything said in bed up to that.
  2. Immediately Before/After Sex: For me, there’s a cognitive middle ground that lives somewhere between foreplay and intercourse (and similarly right after sex). I’m usually still thinking rationally, but I’m also less inhibited in this mind state, so I’m open to new ideas. Maybe I’ll introduce a new toy or suggest sex on the kitchen floor, but since we’re not caught up in the moment yet, Michael still has the opportunity to take pause and say no and it won’t kill the mood.
  3. When No One Is Aroused: My favorite time to have big philosophical sex conversations is on long car rides because we are relaxed and isolated and stuck with each other for a few hours, so we can talk freely and uninterrupted. This is where I have the most success with heavier topics like, “How do you feel about threesomes?” and “Do you feel like we should be having more sex?” But you don’t need a long car ride to have these kinds of talks. The point is just to have them when emotions are level and nobody is aroused. If you’re more time-strapped, try sneaking it into innocuous everyday activities, like when you’re unloading groceries or making dinner. Having the conversation when you’re working on another task can also keep the conversation more casual so that ti doesn’t necessarily turn into A Big Talk.

Approach: Most of the questions in the open thread fell under the category of “How do I approach this?” And the thing is, I think this has more to do with ourselves than with our partners. Sex puts people on the defensive. It’s hard not to hear suggestions or criticisms and take them as personal attacks, but it’s equally hard not to approach the conversation already defensive ourselves, preparing for rejection or a fight. I combat this by consciously opening myself up to whatever way the conversation might turn, and reminding myself that we’re on the same team, just trying to learn about ourselves and make an awesome part of life more awesome.

In our house, an open anything-goes conversation is the way we keep the sex talk productive. But our way is only one way, so leave your best sex resources in the comments and let’s talk about talking about sex.

Photo by APW Sponsor Kelly Benvenuto

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