How Do I Get My Partner to Talk about Sex?

Think Sex Talk 101

couple kissing under water

When it comes to talking about sex, my partner and I grew up in two different households (which are possibly on two entirely different planets). In my house, sex was just another normalized human activity. I don’t mean that we were a naked house, and we didn’t rampantly bring up sex casually at like, 8 a.m. over coffee, but none of us have ever shied away from the topic. I still regularly discuss all manner of sex questions and topics with my mom, for example, and it’s super… casual.

My partner, though, had the opposite experience. Far from being something that you could easily discuss, sex was treated as if it just… didn’t exist. And it’s not like my partner’s family is very religious or particularly uptight, they just didn’t talk about sex, at all. To the point that if childbirth comes up, my in-laws have to dip out of the conversation because it means that somewhere, sex was involved.

We’re several years into our relationship now, and while my partner has opened up about sex privately (and is definitely not a prude when it comes to what happens within the wall of our home), it’s still a challenge to just sit down and have an open conversation about our likes, our dislikes, what we’re curious about, and so on and so forth (and you can FORGET even pretending like we could watch feminist porn together—I might never have sex again if I bring that possibility up).

A few years ago, APW hosted a giant conversation about talking about sex and it was great. In fact, it was pretty stellar, even. But a lot of the advice (example: make a private Tumblr where you both share sexy photos, or texting your partner illicit photos during the day) would never fly.

Since we’re in this for the long haul, and I enjoy talking about sex and want my partner to, also, I feel stuck.

How do you get your partner to open up about sex? What works when your partner can barely entertain the idea of talking about sex—and what doesn’t?

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  • Alyssa

    My partner and I have struggled with this too (and I’m the one whose family won’t acknowledge anything remotely sexual). I found an easy segue into talking about it more was to start talking about sex openly immediately after sex. Somehow because it’s a more vulnerable time where it’s just the two of you (and it JUST happened), it made for a safer space to actually be open about it… and the more we talked about sex afterwards, the more comfortable I got, and the easier it was to talk about in a casual way. Good luck!

    • Shirley Schmidt

      Seconding this idea! When we first got together, my partner and I had what we termed the “post-sex debrief” where we talked about what we’d enjoyed about what we’d just done, which went nicely into what we’d like to do or try next time. Neither of us is particularly prudish, but it was still a good way to get used to talking about sex in a relaxed environment.

    • Jess


      For those who are already a little sheepish about sex talk, the topic can feel more awkward out of context – like, if we just wrapped up talking about what errands we need to do this weekend, I’m probably going to get a little whiplash if you bring up wanting to watch porn together or if you toss out “So, what secret fantasies do you have?”

      A great way to be more comfortable with using words about sex is to start using dirty talk during and after sex activities (eg: making out and talking about a fantasy when you breathe and use your hands, or saying something like, “It felt really great when you [thing partner did], next time we should definitely take that further by doing [thing you want partner to try]”) It seems like the more we do stuff like that in the moment, the more comfortable it has been to talk about it not in the moment and the more R has felt comfortable bringing up something to me.

  • Ooooh that’s a tough one. In my eyes, sex is such an important part of the relationship, and I consider myself quite lucky to have a partner who I can talk to about anything—what kinks I like, when I’m uncomfortable, fantasies, etc.

    If I were in your position, I suppose I would go at this with the long game in mind. One conversation isn’t going to solve the issues and miscommunication problems. But after sex a “Hey it really turned me on when you did this,” or when things are getting exciting to tell your partner “I’ve been thinking about this all day,” etc. could be a good start.

    And I value honesty a lot, so I don’t think it’s totally off base to go to your partner and be like, “Listen, I never want to make you uncomfortable. But sex is a very personal thing, and if we are going to be intimate together I want to be able to talk to you about it, and vice versa. How can we make that possible or work towards that?”

    Your partner is obviously not dating you just for sex—but it can feel that way when this person won’t open up and be emotionally intimate with you regarding sex. It requires a level of trust and openness that is scary and vulnerable. I think that if your partner knows this is important to you and you are both willing to take it small steps at a time, then it will be important to your partner as well!

  • My first impulse would be to have a conversation about how you want to communicate verbally about sex more (saying more or less what you did above) and trying to strategize ways to make communicating easier for your partner — Talking after sex, writing things down, getting tipsy first, etc.

    That said, that might only work if they are generally comfortable talking things out & could add pressure if they’re already uncomfortable? There’s always the time-honored coming at it sidewise, like “I read an article about X, what do you think about that?”

    But this is an important thing for you to be able to discus with your partner, and I think the upside of directly letting them know that is likely to be worth any short-term awkwardz.

  • A single sarah

    Even if watching things is off the table, reading together might not be. Pull out your sexiest book/blog (maybe even podcasts). Reading a book aloud to each other can be a great way to get reactions.

    Guide to getting it on (book) and Savage Love (column) have been two of my go to resources. (Albeit at vastly different times.) Curious if other people have suggestions.

    Anything from the practical smut people?

    • Alyssa

      Upvote for Guide to Getting it On. I read that in one of my grad school courses and it was awesome.

      • A single sarah

        It was the standard among my college friend group. I definitely pull it off the shelf for friends who have sex questions. Sometimes I even let them borrow it ;)

    • Jess

      I am super into smut books but not into reading aloud, so I am not helpful on the read-aloud advice.

      However, I would very much like to try some more informational books in a read-together-and-practice way to work on adding certain kinks into the bedroom. Maybe I’ll come back and update comment on how that goes!

      • Jessica

        Smut books = more sexy times in my house.

        There has been a dearth of them recently, for obvious reasons.

        • Jess

          I’m sure no academic studies have been performed on this, but I would wager a lot of money that this is a universal truth.

          • Jessica

            One can only hope.

      • A single sarah

        And I’m not especially into smut books. But know that there are times where reading about other people’s questions provides a space to talk about issues.

        Totally curious if you find fun instruction manuals! Please report back :)

        • Jess

          Will do! :)

    • toomanybooks

      I agree, reading feels like more of a private and introspective thing that the partner might be okay with. I feel like when I was a teen it was also easier to talk about potential “embarrassing stuff” over IM and maybe something like that, or letter writing, would be easy because the partner doesn’t have to cross the hurdle of saying things out loud. Maybe they could even list things they like and don’t like on paper? Yes/no/maybe lists could be good because you don’t even have to independently think of stuff, you can just like, print one out and have the partner mark yes, no, or maybe (perhaps by color coded highlighting).

      I remember hearing on a podcast that it even helps to just have the partner repeat things that you say?

    • Danielle

      If anyone IS into watching movies, I’m kinda psyched about the HUMP film festival: A bunch of short movies that seem pretty diverse in many ways; I hope to find something I like!

      • Ashlah

        Oh, I always find out about this right after it comes through town. Thanks for the heads up! Looks like we’ll make it this time!

  • Sarah

    I’m definitely the more sheepish one. This is going to sound silly, but my fiance started to do it and it really helps. When we’re in bed together in the morning or at night, he’ll pull the covers over both our heads and hold me, and tell me to whisper (so no one else can hear) to him the answers to some of the sexual questions he has for me- likes/dislikes etc. It is totally not rational, but it helps me feel safe when I’m at my most vulnerable.

    I’m not saying this would work for you. I think the thing to remember is that just as how it is important to you that your partner try and do this for you, it is also important that you try and make talking about sex as positive for your partner as possible. Basically, I am of the belief that the best way to get more of something you like from your partner is to figure out a way for it to be something they like as well- or at least something that is miserable for them to provide to you.

    • Jess

      This is super cute.

    • LW-123

      I’m shy about sex too and a lot of times, while talking about sex, when things get too awkward for me I have to hide my eyes and whisper what I’m trying to say.

      It’s sooo dumb but it really helps me for some reason. Better to say it in this weird way than not say it at all!!

    • Anonymoose

      Yes, we definitely started out being able to talk about sex by having whispering conversations in bed not making eye contact.

    • Colleen

      “…he’ll pull the covers over both our heads and hold me, and tell me to whisper (so no one else can hear) to him..”

      I love this. It sounds like an incredibly considerate and sweet way to effectively increase important communication that might otherwise be uncomfortable. It’s like you guys are in a secret club of just the two of you. I just love it.

  • toomanybooks

    I’m wondering if this gets reflected in the actual act itself and its frequency etc? Or if it’s literally just talking about it that’s the problem?

    • A single sarah

      I wondered about that too. And what the ideal end goal for them would be.

      Is it for lw’s partner to talk about sex with lw? In what settings? Or does it include talking to other people too? (Sound as like parents won’t happen. What about partner’s friend group? I have groups that are very open and others that…studiously avoid the topic.)

      • Jess

        Right? Like, is it just in information you want to get or is it just general comfort with sex as a conversational topic that can go right next to my story about a silly coworker?

  • Cleo

    Question for everyone…

    My previous partner was not enthusiastic about or skilled at performing oral (I assume one goes along with the other). When I tried to correct him or lead him about how to do what I wanted, he wasn’t good at following directions, so I eventually just decided that wasn’t going to be part of our sexual relationship.

    I’m out of this relationship now, but when I get into a new one, I don’t want this pattern to repeat itself, so… what’s the best way to correct/guide someone during the act, especially if you can tell you aren’t being clear about it. At a certain point, too much “no, do that!” will ruin the mood.


    • Leah

      I of course know absolutely nothing about your previous relationship (other than its absence of good cunnilingus) so if I’m way off the mark here, I apologize. BUT, in my experience, when a partner isn’t interested in taking instruction during sex it’s a sign of other issues as well – someone who isn’t a good communicator or who is easily frustrated or is insecure.

      Far from ruining the mood, being told what makes you feel good can be really sexy for a partner who wants to please you. I think there are a lot of people out there who would LOVE you to give them precise instructions during sex, and would be turned on by that (win win, right?).

      So maybe it isn’t so much about ‘how to correct someone’ as finding someone who is eager for correction – cause chances are that person will be a pretty awesome lover.

      And for folks who are shy talking about sex, a little bit of ‘do this, now do that’ can be a great way to get some conversation going…

      • Cleo

        “someone who isn’t a good communicator or who is easily frustrated or is insecure”

        Yes. This is true about the ex.

        Thanks for your perspective!

        I’m “naturally” (read: as a woman, been conditioned my whole life to be) a people pleaser, so thinking about “finding someone eager for correction” is a novel idea and very helpful advice.

        My romantic past is wholly populated by closed off men. Time to break the pattern.

        • Kara

          “Time to break the pattern.” — Go you!

          Find someone who likes to give and receive in all aspects of your relationship–and likes to “give” not as a way to control or our to say “look at me”.

          Basically, I hope you can find a good partner :).

    • emmers

      Sometimes stuff in the positive helps, like “that feels so good!” (in the moment), or “when you do x, it feels/felt awesome” (after). Also stuff like moving your partner’s hand where you want it. And also afterwards, a really brief “I didn’t love xyz position, but xyz position felt great!” may help.

      • Cleo

        Thanks. I tend to use a lot of negative language (this I think has nothing to do with social conditioning), so this is a good reminder for me about phrasing – keeping it positive.

        • AtHomeInWA

          I’m going to go on record here: While it is admirable to phrase things in positive language, if something hurts IT IS OKAY TO USE NEGATIVE LANGUAGE.

          It seems to me that women are often tasked with making sure the expression of their feelings doesn’t hurt their partner, even when women are expressing that their partner has hurt their feelings. It is important to have good positive communication between partners, but women should not be solely responsible for that task and men should learn to withstand the occasional “OW! Not so hard!” without completely shutting down.

          • Jess

            YES. Totally. I have certain areas that are no fly zones, and make me feel really gross (no idea why), so the ability to say, “Whoa, NOPE.” and then continue doing other things is key.

      • Jess

        Absolutely. Also an in-the-moment, “could you move down just a little… MMMmm Yes! There!” or if he changed from doing something you liked to something you liked, “please… go back to doing that, it felt great”

        I’m also a big proponent of physically moving somebody to where you need them, since I struggle to find clear words. There are also non-verbal ways of communicating “Yes, I like this!” so you don’t feel like you’re constantly going “yes, do that! nice job! [high fives]”

    • idkmybffjill

      Something I think is really helpful is actually physically guiding (so moving his hand or head or using your hand to show him where you want something to be happening). Sometimes I think verbal direction can be challenging to absorb in the heat of the moment, and if you’re working at something you’re not great at. So making it feel like, “let’s do this together” makes it hotter while simultaneously teaching him what works.

  • Jessica

    I don’t want to hijack this thread, but I have a related-ish topic.

    How do you get back to having sexy times after a partner is unfaithful? Or after dealing with serious mental health issues?

    • Anon for this

      Give yourself lots of time and don’t expect to just go back to how it was before. It was hard for me to feel attracted to my ex when I spent so much time in a caretaker role for him. I felt like his mom half the time. So for me, I had to break myself of my contribution to that cycle in order to see him as an equal again. And then I addressed it in therapy, on my own as well as with him in couples counseling. Honestly, this was a huge challenge for me and I’m sure it’s different for everyone. Have you read Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton? It’s her memoir of her husband’s infidelity, and how she came back from it. She’s very candid about this aspect of it. I found the whole book beautiful and moving and very relevant to my situation.

      • Jessica

        It is on my “To Read” list now. Thanks!

        I’m trying hard to not be a caretaker so much as a supporter of Good Decisions in my husband’s path to recovery. I don’t want to split up with him, but it may turn out that way, and he needs to know how to handle this shit on his own.

        But damn, infidelity is a boner killer for me.

      • anon for this

        A good friend of mine has had similar challenges with her husband (infidelity and mental health issues). Initially they had their pastor set out ground rules (for communication, child support, and a commitment to therapy individually and at a certain point (6 weeks into separation or something), therapy together. Never a commitment to staying together. Gradually they worked with a therapist and set up a situation for them to live together and they still go to therapy together and individually. I am really rooting for them but know that they both wanted to be back together, but it was not forced on them by therapist or religious leader, and had huge therapy support to get there.

      • marmoset

        I am two weeks out from discovery of my husband’s infidelity and will add this book to my reading list. Thanks for the rec. (And big hugs to you Jessica)

    • idkmybffjill

      Have you read “Broken Open”? It’s this book about growing from hard things. It’s sort of hippy dippy but it really helped me in a past relationship dealing with infidelity. Essentially there’s a whole part about…. embracing what’s now known. Like you can’t have the fantasy perfect version of your partner anymore, but you can have the raw version – and you can work with that. It helped me a lot to reframe things after infidelity.

  • savannnah

    My fiance grew up in a Catholic cult (they are rare but do exist) and his mom taught him that looking at a girl lustfully was akin to raping her and his dad never mentioned sex-ever. He didn’t learn about what sex was until he was 15 and had sex twice before he met me at 25. Which is all to say there was a lot to unpack and its been a long 3 year road and we are still working on our stuff. I have a high sex drive and he does not and his sex drive is moody as hell. But the key with us is that our sex life is a very important part of our relationship and we talk about it all the time. At first he wasn’t so into talking about it but we discussed that his discomfort around sex talk matched my discomfort about all of the no sex talk and that was a better framework for us.


    One thing my husband and I started doing is he (with a much more active imagination than me) would tell me about all the fantasies he had that week about us. They range from outdoors, indoors, at work, in public and a variety of sexual acts to make things interesting. Sometimes he’ll even tell me about when he fantasizes about threesomes or other acts that aren’t a part of our usual repertoire.

    Typically I masturbate while he tells me these fantasies and then we have some steamy sex. The first time we did this we were very drunk and he had some trouble keeping it up, but it was a lot of fun so we repeated the ritual.

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  • LW-123

    I am pretty shy with talking about sex, and here’s a conversation starter that worked for me & my husband. <– You & your partner take a quiz about things you are interested in trying in bed, or would be open to if your partner wanted it.

    It made me feel more comfortable because it only shows results that BOTH of us indicated at least a little bit of interest in. So I was able to put out some interests I was embarrassed about because I knew we'd only have to talk it through if he had indicated willingness to try it.

    Obviously this is just a conversation starter, not a solution to your problem. For me the solution was to just to keep talking about it, and over many convos I've become less shy and more comfortable with the whole topic. So that's why I suggest this as another place to start from.

    • Jess

      This is interesting and not a thing I knew was out there!

    • Hayley

      Honestly, what a brilliant idea.

    • Ashlah

      Ooh, neat! Thank you for sharing!

  • raccooncity

    Ok, so I am reading a lot of sexy suggestions down here but Mr. RC (who just doesn’t really like talking that much, period) and I generally talk about sex in a completely unsexy way. That might help?

    Contrary to what some others have said, I try to do this when sex isn’t about to happen or recently finished so that it doesn’t seem like an audit of a real moment we had/are about to have. So when we’re alone, often on long drives, I’ll just be like “how’s sex going for you right now? how are you feeling about our sex life?, etc etc.” SOMETIMES I’ll mention things I want to try and see if there are things he’s interested in, but lately it’s been more like “how do you feel about our dwindling 3rd trimester/newborn sex times? are your needs being met?”

    I always tell him that he doesn’t need to say anything but I’m going to keep opening the door to the conversation periodically in case he does. Sometimes he brings things up, often not.

    • I think there was a study done a while back about people talking in cars, and it found that people are more likely to have uncomfortable conversations in cars than other places, because you’re both facing forwards and you’re in a private bubble. People are more comfortable with awkward topics when they don’t have to make eye contact.

      • louise danger

        also you can’t just peace out of the conversation on a highway – that conversation is going to get finished because not finishing it results in miles and miles of Awkward Crushing Silence™ lol

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  • marmoset

    My husband and I have instituted a weekly Talk Time (it’s on the chore chart and everything) to talk about issues including our sex life. We’re doing this because he had an affair, wish we’d started sooner and maybe none of this would have happened. O.o

  • Carrie Wilmont

    Sex is a big part of a relationship and it’s really important to know how your partner feels. Surprisingly, my boyfriend hates talking about it, he’d rather just do it. I did some research and came across, Wendy brown who is an author and a individual/couples therapist out of Toronto. She has a few books like “The Six Passions of the Red-Hot Lover”, so I sent the site to my guy. Maybe he’ll learn a few things and be more willing to chat. Thanks for the article!