Talking about sex can be really hard.
Part of that has to do with the norms we have around sex. Traditionally, many cultures have framed sex as something that’s “private” or “obscene,” maybe even “shameful.” Not something to talk about in polite society. Sex also touches on so many of our deepest insecurities as individuals, from how we feel about our bodies to how successful we’ve been at finding love to our very identity as a man or a woman or neither. Taken together, that larger context around sex can make admitting what you like or don’t like in bed feel not just awkward but vaguely terrifying.
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A team of sex researchers led by Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., MPH, recently asked 1,000 women about their experiences communicating about their sexual desires. More than half of them (55%) reported experiencing situations in which they had wanted to communicate with a partner about how they wanted to be touched, what they desired, or what they fantasized about—but decided not to say anything. About one in five women didn’t feel comfortable or confident talking about their sexual desires at all.
The most common reasons for choosing not to say what they wanted in bed:
- “I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.” (42%)
- “I didn’t feel comfortable going into detail.” (40%)
- “I would have felt embarrassed.” (38%)
- “I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted.” (35%)
One of the most depressing findings in the study? One in 10 women “had yet to feel that their sexual pleasure mattered to a partner.”
“Sexual double standards continue to limit female sexual expression, inhibiting some women’s sexual communication and in particular their comfort level in receiving or asking for sexual pleasure,” Herbenick and her team write in their paper on the findings, recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. “Young women are often not supported in learning how to give voice to their sexual desires or pleasures, which can impact adult sexual development and experience.”
Talking about sex matters, and not just because it’s nice to be able to share these things—research consistently shows that communicating about sex is very much tied to how enjoyable sex is in general.
While 60% of the women said they’ve faked orgasms in the past, 67% said they no longer do that. (Hurrah!) But among those who do still fake it? They were more likely to be embarrassed about talking about sex with their partner in explicit terms. Those who don’t feel comfortable going into detail about sex were also significantly more likely to have less satisfying sex. Meanwhile, people who do feel comfortable with sexual communication reported much more pleasurable sexual experiences.
“Sexual partners benefit by sharing detailed directions or preferences with one another in order to guide stimulation on distal parts of their bodies,” the researchers explain. “Feeling capable, comfortable and/or confident communicating with a partner in sexually explicit ways likely builds on a variety of knowledge, experiences, and skills.”
If you’re someone who really tends to feel awkward, uncomfortable, or embarrassed talking about sex or talking in detail about what feels good in bed, consider making improving your sexual communication skills a new goal to consciously work toward if you want to have better sex.
A few ways to make talking about sex feel way easier:
1. Try the “felt sense” method.
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“The felt sense is our nervous system’s interpretation of what’s happening,” psychotherapist and sex educator Andrea Glik, LMSW, explains to mbg. “It is texture and temperature and color and basically any descriptor word we can think of. So instead of saying, ‘That feels so good,’ we say what is actually feeling good! This is also a way of incorporating ‘dirty talk’ into sex. The formula goes, ‘When you do blank, it feels so blank, and I feel it in my blank.'”
2. View some erotica together and discuss.
“Simply share with each other some of the scenes that really flip your switch,” certified sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman recommends. “Talk about which parts are the hottest to you and which parts are irrelevant to your response (and ask for their thoughts as well!). View a few clips or read a few lines from a few different erotic stories to give a full picture of the themes that underlie your eroticism.”
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3. Make it into an experience.
There are so many great workshops and events being held all year long for couples who want to work on their sex lives. You can take an online course run by a reputable sex educator, or look to local community organizations (like women’s centers, LGBTQ groups, health organizations, or even sex toy shops) to see if they’ve got any interesting upcoming events. Or if you want something you can do from home, the KinkKit is sex ed in a box, designed specifically for couples.