Almost no one starts out feeling comfortable talking about sex, not even sex therapists.
“I had a very conservative Baptist upbringing,” says Rotach. “When I was training to become a sex therapist, I had to confront my own roadblocks to talking about it. I’m like the Hair Club for Men guy. The president of the club appears in their commercials and says, ‘I’m not just the president, I’m also a client!’ Well, that’s me.”
Still, we can acquire the necessary skills to initiate meaningful conversations with a partner about sex — and then we can practice and perfect those skills. This expert advice can help you get those conversations rolling.
1) Get in touch with your desires.
There’s that classic bedroom moment: You’re in the middle of a passionate embrace and your partner whispers and says: “What do you want?” “A lot of people will just freeze up and think, I have no friggin’ idea what I want!” says Marin.
Until you’re in touch with your own desires, any conversation you initiate with your partner about sex probably won’t be productive. You’re likely to approach them with sky-high expectations and zero specifics, which sets up both parties to lose.
It’s OK to take some time with yourself first. “A lot of us never take the time to explore our own curiosities and interests because we feel so much shame,” Marin says. “Exploring your desires is a really powerful process, even if you’re not in a relationship, in order to discover more about yourself and what makes you tick.”
If you feel unclear about your own desires, take some time to learn about what interests you. Use books and movies to spur your imagination. Try making a list of three things you know you like, no matter how small, and build from there.
2) Make a date to have a conversation about sex.
Because discussing sex can bring up so many anxieties, one way to ease into it is to schedule a conversation. Simply propose the idea of talking about your intimate life together, then set up a time to do so. Having a plan allows you to ensure that you’ll be in a comfortable, private place; it also increases the chance that you’ll follow through.
If you feel nervous, be honest about it by saying something like, “So, I’m feeling a little nervous to bring this up, but I really value our intimate life together — I’d love to pick a time to talk about ways we could make it even better.” (Here are nine open-ended questions to ask your partner about sex and intimacy to help you get started.)
3) Lower the stakes.
All our insecurities, vulnerabilities, and fears tend to crop up around the topic of sex, which can make any conversation about it feel existentially risky for the relationship. It can help to make a pact with your partner before you talk. Vow that your relationship will be safe, even if the conversation gets thorny.
“One of the most important things we can do is let go of the idea that everything is at stake and remind ourselves that solid relationships do not end because of a sexual difficulty,” says Nagoski. “You’re not going to lose each other just because you had a difficult conversation about sex.”
4) Simply acknowledge that you and your partner are in a sexual relationship.
Just saying this out loud can be an easy way to begin your first conversation. “You’re not making any complaints,” says Marin. “You’re not trying to solve any problems. You’re literally just getting comfortable with the topic.”
As you begin to have more in-depth conversations about sex, try sticking with a single topic at a time to keep it simple. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, be ready to take breaks. A slow-and-steady approach can help make the topic feel less overwhelming.
5) Accept the awkwardness.
“It seems strange, on some level, that you can be more comfortable having sex with someone than you are talking about sex with that same someone,” says Nagoski. “Taking off your clothes is less intimate than having a face-to-face conversation about taking off your clothes.”
“Taking off your clothes is less intimate than having a face-to-face conversation about taking off your clothes.”
The best way to deal with any awkwardness may be to expose it to the light of day. “Just own the awkwardness right from the start,” suggests Levkoff. “You could say something like, ‘I haven’t spoken about this in a really long time, and I’m uncomfortable even bringing it up, but I adore you and I’m excited to have this conversation.’”
6) Frame the conversation as a way to deepen your relationship — because it is!
Having the courage to initiate a conversation about sex signals how much you value the relationship and care about making it better. If your partner becomes insecure or defensive, you can remind them that you’re starting a conversation not because something is wrong, but because your feelings for them are oh-so right. “If we’re talking about sex, it usually means we want more of it with that person,” says Levkoff.
7) See yourselves as a team.
“One of the best things you can do for your relationship is think of you and your partner as teammates, working together against whatever is getting in the way of having the sex life of your wildest dreams,” the Marins write.
Need a foe to fight against? The fairy-tale version of sex and romance is a worthy adversary — and can be a lighthearted place to begin. When you and your partner stand up against it, you’ll feel a camaraderie that can help make your conversations easier and less fraught.
8) Keep it personal and positive.
Because it’s easy to slip into insecurity and defensiveness during any conversation about sex, Nagoski suggests using “I” statements and opening and closing conversations softly — that is, with compliments, positivity, and affirmation. Statements might be something like the following:
Here’s what I really loved about last night . . .
I really love our physical connection and I’m interested in doing everything we can to make the most of it . . .
I love you so much, and I’m so attracted to you that I’d love to try something new together . . .
I trust you so much that there are a couple things I’d like to try together . . .
“We are all so tender and sensitive around these issues that we need to put an effort into active kindness and buffering and making sure the other person knows this isn’t personal,” explains Nagoski. “This isn’t a judgment of them as a human being.”
9) Process negative feelings separately.
Feeling some resentment or frustration around sex is normal, but leading a conversation about sex with these sentiments is likely to shut communication down. Nagoski suggests addressing hurt feelings in their own separate space. If you’re struggling with anger or resentment toward your partner about sex, find a trusted therapist who can help you work through it.
10) Ask questions.
Over time, we may start to assume that we know what we like, what our partner likes, and what we like to do together. But sexuality isn’t static. Interests can change over time, so it’s important to stay curious.
This applies to sex and sexuality, of course, but it also helps to remain interested in your partner — and your partnership — in their entirety. “We forget that there are other conversations that get us to the sexual-intimacy conversation,” says Levkoff.
Try asking questions about new adventures you’d like to share with your partner — traveling or playing pickleball or ballroom dancing. Remember that play and adventure also help infuse relationships with a sense of eroticism.
11) Expand your definition of sex and sexuality.
Mainstream culture sells us primarily one image, and one image only, of sex. “When someone says they haven’t had sex in a while, we somehow all understand that they’re talking about a specific act,” says Rotach. “But my definition of sex is different than yours is different than your neighbor’s.”
What’s more, as our bodies and interests change, our old definitions of sex might no longer work for us. Expanding how we define physical intimacy can make talking about it less fraught, as we realize we have a range of choices. “It can be touching. It can be taking a bath together,” Rotach points out. “I encourage couples to define what sex means for them.”
What might sex look like if you expand your definition of it? Well, it can look like anything you and your partner want. Even if you like the fairy-tale version, it’s worth asking what else you can permit yourselves to explore.
12) Put energy into your own social life — and encourage your partner to do the same.
Whole people are sexy people. “Having a social life outside your romantic partner is really important,” says Levkoff. “It’s important to be able to go out and have fun and remember who you are outside of whatever life stage you’re in — just going out and having a pressure-less good time.” Platonic interactions and adventures also help us build self-esteem and embrace joy, two key elements in any productive, loving conversation about sex. “We bring that back to our relationship because we’re feeling good about ourselves,” Levkoff says.
13) Keep the conversation going.
Once you’ve begun discussing sex with your partner, it will get easier over time. Just make sure you pace yourselves to avoid overwhelm, and don’t let the topic return to the back burner. Sex and sexuality will inevitably evolve, so any good conversation about sex will be an ongoing one.
“Real, actual human sexuality is seasonal,” says Rotach. “It regenerates and goes through phases. That’s normal. We’ve been taught that sexuality is sort of an autopilot thing, and that’s where we get into trouble.”
To learn more about initiating a conversation with your partner on this important yet often avoided subject, see “How to Talk About Sex With Your Partner,” the article from which this was excerpted.