If you listened to FM radio in the ’90s, you probably heard Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.” It’s a catchy song — just try not singing along when it comes over the speakers:
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Let’s talk about you and me
Let’s talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let’s talk about sex …
But if you’ve ever heeded the song’s call to action — if you’ve ever sat down with your sweetheart and had an open, honest conversation about sex — you are one in a million.
“It’s extremely common for couples to not talk about sex,” says Vanessa Marin, LMFT, coauthor with her husband, Xander Marin, of Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life.
Simply put, talking about pleasure and intimacy with a partner is hard. There are numerous barriers, including cultural taboos and fears about hurting your partner’s feelings, and helpful advice is scant.
Characters in romantic comedies rarely talk about what they like or don’t like in the boudoir. When they head to the bedroom, everything is magical from beginning to end, no discussion needed.
Life offscreen typically follows a different script, and good communication is central to sustaining satisfying relationships. By sharing your desires and talking openly about sex and pleasure — and listening while your partner does the same — you can unlock the gates to a richer, more rewarding, and more intimate physical and emotional relationship.
If the prospect of communicating openly about sex with your partner feels fraught, take heart. We’ve asked experts to share what they see as the biggest obstacles to these conversations — and their advice for overcoming them.
Why It’s So Hard to Talk About Sex
Understanding the most common roadblocks to talking about sex can help you identify them — and navigate around them.
The mother of all obstacles may be the expectation that great sex should just happen. “When I ask people to describe their ideal sex life, the most common word I hear is ‘natural,’ ” explains Marin. “We crave that feeling of effortlessness we’ve witnessed on the screen countless times. Except that’s not how it unfolds in our own relationships.”
“Part of the reason we fear these conversations so much […] is because we’ve bought into the story that if you have to talk about sex, that already means there’s something wrong.”
Our culture supports this illusion at every turn. Few of us ever learn how to talk with a partner about sex. As adolescents, we might get the “sex talk” from our parents or a slightly embarrassed health teacher, but those conversations tend to focus on disease and pregnancy prevention. Topics like pleasure and desire — let alone how to know (and share) what makes you feel good — are rarely addressed in any curriculum.
Hollywood stories about sex and romance don’t help. In many movies, TV shows, and books, physical intimacy is depicted as seamless. Vanessa and Xander Marin dub this the “fairy-tale version” of sex and relationships, in which sex always unfolds spontaneously and effortlessly, couples have instant chemistry, both people experience maximum pleasure from intercourse, and everyone is satisfied.
There are also other common misunderstandings that get in the way of discussing sex openly.
⋅ Talking about sex signals a problem. One common misconception is that the very act of talking about sex means you are somehow doing sex wrong. “Part of the reason we fear these conversations so much — either beginning them or hearing our partner begin them — is because we’ve bought into the story that if you have to talk about sex, that already means there’s something wrong,” says Emily Nagoski, PhD, author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. “We have this idea that sex is supposed to be easy and quote-unquote natural, right? And just the fact of having to discuss it is evidence of our failure.”
⋅ You’ll hurt your partner’s feelings. Another stumbling block is the fear of upsetting your partner. “We have a tendency to assume that if we talk about something we want, or if there’s something new we want to try, our partner will automatically think it’s about them,” says sex educator Logan Levkoff, PhD.
It’s a justifiable fear. Because we grow up steeped in the fantasy that our self-worth is connected to our ability to be naturally, irreproachably amazing at physical intimacy, any hint that we’re not (even if it has nothing to do with us!) can trigger our defenses.
“If you dare say something as benign as ‘a little faster, a little lighter, a little to the left,’ there’s a risk you could hurt your partner’s feelings, making them feel criticized and judged, when all you’re trying to do is advocate for your own pleasure,” says Nagoski.
⋅ We don’t know what we want. For many of us, advocating for our own pleasure is impossible because we don’t really know what feels good. “I think there’s a huge roadblock when it comes to believing that your pleasure and your needs matter enough,” says sex and relationship therapist Carise Rotach, MA, LMFT.
Because sexual activity for pleasure and connection is rarely discussed in sex education, we may grow up believing that the pleasure part of the equation isn’t worth investigating. Cultural shame around sex and pleasure takes care of the rest. We don’t explore what makes us feel good because we’ve internalized the cultural message that doing so is wrong or bad.
⋅ It feels too risky. The familiar rhythms of daily life can also get in the way. As relationships progress, routine takes hold, says Levkoff. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if at some point you’re looking for something else, it’s hard to get out of those patterns when they’ve come to feel so safe. And if you do work up the courage to shake up your routine, it can feel vulnerable and risky.”
Any of these obstacles can discourage us from talking about sex. “The mistake most people make when it comes to talking about sex is we don’t do it,” says Vanessa Marin. “We wait until something is really bad or wrong or frustrating with our sex life and, at that point, it just all comes spilling out and it’s very uncomfortable. If it turns into a fight, it just reinforces this idea that sex is something that we shouldn’t talk about.”
On the other hand, if you can find a way to communicate regularly about sex with your partner, those feelings, concerns, and curiosities don’t get all bottled up and mixed with resentment, which makes them much less likely to explode. And so …
Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”