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 Vanessa Marin, LMFT, coauthor with her husband, Xander Marin, of Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life. “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.
1) 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.”
2) 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.
3) 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.
4) 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.
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.