Taboo quilt
A "Taboo Quilt" made up of sex terms and body parts by Roxie Carpenter (cc)

Talking About Sex With Your Partner

By OBOS Sexuality & Relationships Contributors | October 15, 2011
Last Revised on Sep 12, 2014

We all face that moment in sexual situations, whether it’s with a date, a longtime partner, or a spouse: Do I want to be sexually close with this person now? If so, in what ways? What if I don’t know — can I say “I’m confused”? Can I communicate clearly what I want and what I don’t want?

Talking about sex can be challenging, whether you’re using anatomically correct terms, such as vagina, penis and penetration, or whatever slang you’re comfortable with. (If you find slang degrading, be creative and come up with your own affirming language.)

Sometimes the vagueness of expressions can lead to miscommunication if both partners are not clear on the meaning. Finding a common language that you’re both comfortable with can help.

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You may want to find a time to talk with your partner(s) when you are not having sex and there’s no pressure to respond right away. You can practice saying what feels good while exchanging massages, for example, when the atmosphere is less intense.

Communicating about sex includes not only talking about sexual techniques or preferences, but also discussing safer sex and, if necessary, birth control. These conversations don’t have to kill the mood. Incorporating intimate, honest discussions into sexual play can be hot — and can lead to heightened intimacy.

Body language and the sounds we make are also important. Speeding up or slowing down hip movements and placing a firm hand on the shoulder to say, “Let’s go slow,” are all ways of communicating:

Be aware of the relationship between words and body language. You may be verbally saying yes to some sexual activity, but your body is pulling away or tensing up. Or you may be saying no to going farther sexually while continuing to stimulate yourself or your partner. It’s important to communicate what you really want, to stop immediately in the face of any mixed signals from your partner, and to expect your partner always to do the same for you.

Communication is a continuous process. A woman who had found the courage to talk with her partner about their sexual relationship asked in angry frustration, “I told him what I like once, so why doesn’t he know now? Did he forget? Doesn’t he care?”

One woman describes the trickiness of discussing what feels good:

Negotiating how and when it is okay for me to relinquish control over my physical movements — for example, when it’s sexy to have my girlfriend restrain me and when it makes me feel slightly panicky — has been a complicated process. I feel bad that I can’t give my girlfriend clearer cues about what feels good when, particularly since she tends to retreat pretty quickly when I say, “That didn’t feel good this time,” to, “Well, then I’ll stop doing it altogether.”

That either-or response comes from (I think) not wanting to do something that I don’t like, and not wanting rejection, but there are times when I want a little pain, want a little domination, and I feel bad that I can’t give her a clearer sense of when and in what circumstances certain activities feel good and when they don’t.

Another says:

He would come almost instantly when we began to make love after marvelous kissing. A little while later, we’d make love again, when I’d be more aroused—aching for him, in fact. I never knew how to alter this pattern, never dared talk about it, and later on found out that he had resented “having” to make love twice.

Even in the best relationships, asking for what we want may be difficult, and we may feel inhibited about asserting our sexuality openly and proudly. We’ve been conditioned to think that sex is supposed to come naturally, and talking about it must mean something’s wrong.

We may hold back from communicating about sex for any number of reasons, including:

  • Feeling embarrassed by the words themselves.
  • Feeling embarrassed by desires, thinking they might be taboo or a partner will be judgmental.
  • After having sex with the same person for years, it feels risky to bring up new insights or desires.
  • Communication isn’t going well in other areas of the relationship.
  • A partner seems defensive and might interpret suggestions as a criticism or a demand.
  • Inexperience or confusion over what you want at a particular time.

If you do ask for what you want, you may be relieved and gratified to get your desires met. However, if your partner has different preferences, you may have to do some negotiating or look below the surface and figure out the underlying needs.

For example, say that you want to spend long hours in bed on a Sunday morning having sex, but your partner wants to get up and go for a run. What are your needs that aren’t being met? Do you want more intimacy? Do you need time to unwind? Do you want more sexual attention? What are your partner’s needs? Expanding the focus can open up more possibilities of fulfilling both partners’ underlying needs.

One woman recalls the difficulty she and her partner had identifying their needs:

We had a wildly passionate sex life for a year and a half. When we moved in together, sexuality suddenly became an issue. It turned out our patterns were very different. She needs to talk, to feel intimate in conversation, to relax completely before she can feel sexual. I need to touch and to make a physical connection first before I feel relaxed enough to talk intimately. I’d reach out for her as we went into the bedroom, and she’d freeze. We battled it out for months, both feeling terrible, before we figured out what was going on.

Learning to talk more comfortably about sex is sometimes easier when you’re doing something enjoyable with your partner or with friends. Here are some suggestions:

  • Visit a woman-owned sex-toys shop; the employees tend to be knowledgeable, helpful, and nonjudgmental, so don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. Or check out sex-toy shops online such as Good Vibrations, Babeland and Eve’s Garden.
  • Host a sex-toys party (like a Tupperware party, but seriously more fun). Look online for woman-owned companies that will put together a party for you and your friends. In some states, laws are in flux about the legality of selling sex toys, so it’s best to go through a professional company if you have any worries.

If the problem feels bigger than what you can manage, you might want to talk with a certified sex therapist (go through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists for recommendations), or consider joining or creating a support group. The Self-Help Group Sourcebook offers tips on how to find or start self-help groups online and in your community.