Most articles about being a good lover begin and end with “How to Please Your Man” directives.
This assumes 1) a heterosexual relationship and 2) that it is the responsibility of the woman to please her man. And, of course, if she isn’t doing something right, then she can surely expect her man to discard her.
A woman’s value here is based on her ability to sexually satisfy her assumed male partner.
There are also some popular literatures on “How to Please your Woman,” which oftentimes claim to know the secret to female orgasm — as if there’s a secret in the first place. If you can give your woman an orgasm, then you will inherit the secret power over the female body and sex.
Of course, this again assumes 1) a heterosexual relationship and 2) that though it isn’t really your responsibility as a man to give your woman an orgasm, if you do, you will have control over her body, her pleasure, and ultimately, her.
The problem is: Neither of these approaches actually thinks about each person’s power over themselves and pleasure.
For some people, pleasure is not always gained through orgasm. And orgasm is not always something you can give or make someone else do.
Neither of the above approaches actually gets to the heart of being a good lover, which starts with communication and self-awareness.
Consent is key. Yes, you should always be checking in with your partner(s) about what feels good and right because people’s needs, wants, and desires change — even within a single sexual session.
What felt good last week might be unbearable today. Everyone has a right to say, “Hey, I don’t like this.” And it’s always okay to say “stop” at any time.
So here are a few more pointers that I’ve developed on how to be a good lover. There are surely more things to add, but this is a start to a feminist approach to good — and hopefully great — loving.
1. Take time to figure out what you like, what you love, and what you strongly dislike (and everything in between).
A lot of times, people who have been socialized as women, or who identify somewhere along the feminine spectrum, have been taught that sex is all about pleasing your partner(s).
It’s not uncommon to read cover stories of major magazines with cover headlines like “How to Keep Your Man at Home” or “How to Keep His Attention.”
All of these how-to articles make the assumption that women are only here for men’s pleasure, even in magazines directed at female consumption.
These articles also reproduce the notion that men only stray if women are sexually unavailable. This reflects multiple disavowals. The first is of women as anything other than heterosexual sex objects. The second is the idea that a faithful man, or a man who is interested in relationships that are founded on more than or something other than sex could exist.
It is important for all people to take time to check in with themselves and figure out what it is that they like, but this might be especially difficult for women and feminine people who have been taught that their desires are secondary to whomever they are having sex with.
This might also be a difficult thing for men who have desires that are considered “non-masculine.” But there is room for you, bottom and switch brothers, gay, straight, bi, trans*, and queer.
You must take time to get to know your own body. What sensations do you like? What kind of touch do you like? This kind of exploration could be fun and also meditative because sometimes you just need to sit with yourself.
Once you are able to talk to yourself about what you like and don’t like, you have taken the first step to becoming a great lover.
Of course, this is an ideal situation because a lot of us don’t figure out what we like and what we don’t like until it’s already happening. In that case you have to be able to say “stop” — but we’ll come back to that!
2. Have a conversation with your partner(s) about your desires. And listen!
Once you have figured out what it is you like and don’t like, you have to create the conditions to articulate those desires. Be sure that when you have this kind of conversation that you use “I” statements.
“I like to be kissed here.” Or “I never want to be touched here.”
The point is to make sure that your partner(s) know that this is about you and not them.
It is easy to take these things personally if you are not clear about these being the things that you need. And still it may be difficult for a partner to hear something like “I really only like to have sex after we’ve both showered.”
Your partner might think that you are insinuating something about their own hygiene, so reassure them that this is just what you need — from anyone.
Now, as the listener (and you should always take turns listening and talking), you must try to be present to what your partner is saying to you, without taking it personally. If you feel like you need a break or what is being said is triggering, ask for a break.
And remember: Just because your partner asks for something different doesn’t mean that you’re a bad lover. It just means that they want something different.
Every person is unique and desires different things at different times. What may have worked with your last partner might not be what this partner likes.
3. What if my partner wants something that I feel uncomfortable with?
When you have the discussion about likes and dislikes, it might become apparent that you and this person are not sexually compatible. At that point, it might be a good idea to walk away from a lovership.
Not everyone is sexually compatible, and that’s okay.
It’s up to you to decide the difference between comfortable boundary-pushing and a situation that makes you scared or anxious.
And you should never do something that makes you feel like that.
Trying something new? Yes! Try new things!
But remember: if you don’t like it, stop.
4. Use safe words.
Safe words are always important because it’s a fast way to let your partner(s) know that something isn’t working for you or in the case that words like “stop” and “no” are being used as a part of the preconceived sexual script.
Choose a safe word that all parties will remember. It should be a word or phrase that can’t be easily misread as part of the sexual script. It shouldn’t be a multisyllabic word because that might be hard to hear and difficult to say.
Something like “iPhone” or “yellow” might work, but you can experiment with this.
For some, establishing a non-verbal safe physical signal might be helpful, especially if the situation is triggering, words might be difficult to access.
Remember though: “Stop!” can always be used if you haven’t had the time to develop a safe word or signal.
5. Be sure to process.
Sometimes processing after can be helpful.
Maybe you did something that really wasn’t that good for you, but kept doing it anyway.
Maybe you were trying to please your partner and forgot about your own needs.
Maybe you couldn’t really figure out if you liked something or not in the moment or didn’t want to stop.
At this point, you want to revisit steps 1 and 2. Talk it out. What didn’t work for you? What hindered you from using your safe word/signal?
When you bring this information to your partner(s), it’s important to articulate what was coming up for you.
And remember that you can wait to have this conversation until you feel ready and comfortable. It doesn’t have to happen right after sex.
As the person on the receiving end, it is important that you listen to your partner without being defensive: “Well, you told me it was okay? Now you want to change your mind?”
Reactions like that aren’t appropriate.
You might feel guilt about doing something that your partner didn’t like, but remember that this isn’t just about you. It’s about relating to another person, which is about balance and communication.
Ask yourself: Was there something that I sensed? Could I have asked if this was okay?
You should always check in with lovers during your loving sessions. It’s just good practice. It helps you both to be present, and it lessens the chances of doing something that your partner(s) aren’t comfortable with.
Sex can be a fun a journey with yourself, your body and other people. The best way to make the trip is to make sure that you always carry a self-awareness and communication tool-kit.
Kai M. Green is a filmmaker and a spoken word poet who examines through film and poetry questions of gendered and racialized violence and a PhD candidate in the department of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. Kai is committed to creating consciousness-raising art and scholarship. Learn more about him on Youtube and his blogs, Kai’s (Bi)Weekly Jams and In The Darkness: My Dissertation Journey. Follow him on Twitter @Kai_MG. Read his articles here and book him for speaking engagements here.