I have a confession to make.
Despite writing about sex on the Internet, facilitating workshops about consent and sexuality for dozens or hundreds of people, and being openly queer, feminist, and polyamorous, I sometimes choke up when it comes to talking about sex with one of my actual partners.
I want to tell them what I want, or to set a boundary around something I don’t want, but all of a sudden, words completely fail me.
I feel like a hypocrite – but I think there’s more to it than that.
Even in spaces that emphasize celebrating rather than stigmatizing sex, such as feminism and LGBTQIA+ communities, people often have trouble putting their ideals into practice and opening up when talking about sex with partners.
Being part of a sex-positive community can create a lot of pressure: If we’re really sex-positive, shouldn’t we be ready to spill all our deepest fantasies to whomever we want to sleep with?
If you have a hard time talking about sex with partners, you’re not alone.
There are a lot of reasons why people might have difficulty with it, and many of them apply across cultures and subcultures. After describing a few ways in which our experiences and the society we live in can make talking about sex challenging, I’ll suggest some strategies for making it a little easier.
5 Reasons Why Talking About Sex Is Hard
1. Internalized Sexual Stigma
Even if you really want to believe that there’s nothing shameful or inherently dangerous about sex, it’s not always easy to internalize that when you’ve grown up in a society that stigmatizes sexuality, especially that of anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man.
This can make talking about sex embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, and it doesn’t mean you’re a “prude.”
2. Not Knowing the Words to Use
Sometimes talking about sex is hard because most of the words we know sound either cold and clinical (like vagina and erection) or vulgar and pornographic (like cunt or pussy).
Of course, there’s nothing about these words that makes them inherently wrong or weird to use, and many people do enjoy using them. But if we’re used to seeing them in the context of a high school health textbook or a terribly inappropriate OKCupid message, it might be hard to use them in a more positive way.
3. Cultural Scripts About Sex
In romantic films, the couple usually has an amazingly passionate and satisfying first hook up without ever talking to each other about what they like in bed.
Although we understand that movies aren’t real life, many of us nevertheless end up believing on some level that there’s no need to talk about sex explicitly, and that if the couple “really” clicks, they’ll automatically connect sexually without any prior discussion.
That’s just one example of sexual scripts and how they influence our behavior.
4. Bad Previous Experiences
Some of us are initially enthusiastic about discussing sex openly with partners, but after some bad reactions from others, we lose that openness.
I’ve had partners shut down in response to my attempts to tell them what I like or ask them what they like, or respond with “Uh, that’s weird.”
If this has ever happened to you, I can see why you might not feel too confident about talking about sex anymore.
When it comes to setting sexual boundaries, you may fear that the person will get angry or push you away because that may well have happened in the past.
5. Past Trauma
If you have a history of sexual trauma, sex may not be a topic that you can discuss casually, even with someone you’re close to. Conversations about sex may be triggering or just deeply scary and unpleasant.
But whatever the reason discussing sex is tough for you (whether it’s one of these or one of many more), the good news is that there are ways to make it easier.
Here are a few you can try.
5 Ways to Make Talking About Sex a Little Easier
1. Use Checklists
Checklists are common in BDSM/kink communities, where potential partners may need to specifically discuss and negotiate many different acts before they play.
While this sort of specificity is especially important when it comes to potentially painful, dangerous, or triggering sex acts, it can be helpful even in the most vanilla situations.
My two favorite checklists are this one from Autostraddle and this one from Scarleteen. Both of them include not only lots of different possible things to do with a partner, but also things like preferred terms for different body parts, gender pronouns, and more.
Using checklists helps you remember to talk about things that you might not have thought of otherwise, and it provides you with the language to do it.
It also takes a lot of the stress out of setting a boundary or saying no to something because you can do it in advance rather than in the moment.
2. Ask Them What They Like – And What They Don’t
Sometimes it’s easier to start this conversation by asking someone about their sexual preferences rather than by stating your own.
Of course, this only works if your partner is a little more comfortable being upfront, but who knows – they might’ve been waiting and hoping you’d ask!
As your partner tells you about their turn ons and turn offs, you might find common ground that makes it easier to open up (“You like having your hair pulled? How convenient, I love pulling hair!”).
Even if it takes you a while to feel comfortable sharing your own preferences and boundaries, at least you’ll have learned more about your partner in the process.
3. Share Erotica or Porn That You Like with Your Partner
Some people are totally comfortable showing their partner things that turn them on even if they can’t necessarily put it into their own words. If that describes you, erotica and porn can help your partner learn more about what you’re interested in.
You can use erotic media to suggest specific things for the two of you to try, or just to show them the types of scenes and moods that you like.
If it’s something you’re into, writing erotica can also be a really personal and powerful way to share your sexual self with a partner in a way that creates a little bit of safety and distance.
It’s a cliché nowadays that pornography is not realistic, but that’s an important thing to keep in mind if you’re going to use it to teach a partner about your interests.
Mainstream porn often relies on racial tropes, misrepresents queer female sexuality, and generally presents a very narrow image of what sex looks like.
If you show your partner porn that you like, make sure to be clear with them about which aspects of the scene don’t apply to you or don’t represent how your body works.
4. Take the Conversation Out of the Bedroom
When you’re having sex (or just about to) isn’t the only good time to talk about sex. In fact, that can sometimes make things stressful.
If you’re hooking up with someone and they’re looking at you with a grin and saying, “I really want to go down on you. Can I?” you might feel really awkward about saying, “Um, actually, I don’t really enjoy that.”
Of course, ideally, you would feel free to say that even if it “ruins the mood,” because what really ruins the mood is feeling like you have to do things you’re not really into just to keep your partner happy.
But while you’re working on getting comfortable with that, setting boundaries outside of the immediate hook up situation might be easier.
Ask your partner when would be a good time to talk about what you’d both like out of your hook ups, or let that discussion evolve naturally if sex comes up in conversation.
5. Remember That Sex Doesn’t Have to Be Awesome Right Away
Good communication sometimes gets presented as a cure-all for bad sex, whether with a committed partner of many years or a one-night stand you just met. If only you tell your partner exactly what you like and have them tell you exactly what they like, you’ll have a great time, right?
That’s not necessarily the case.
Sometimes people are incompatible sexually no matter how much they talk about it. Sometimes people’s bodies aren’t capable of doing what they want with each other. Sometimes sex drives differ.
Besides that, though, it’s a lot of pressure to put everything on the table the first time you hook up with someone.
It’s okay if it takes you a while to be comfortable enough (or simply find enough time) to get into detail with your new partner about your sexual fantasies. It doesn’t mean you’re “sex-negative” or boring if you have a few totally average hook ups before you start to open up about what you’d really like to do.
That said, consent is always, always crucial. Learn more about getting consent here.
Speaking of consent, I want to emphasize that the suggestions I provided above are for people that you trust to take your autonomy and safety seriously. With some people, no amount of clear communication will result in having your boundaries respected, because these people do not intend to respect your boundaries.
It’s normal and okay for a partner to be confused about something that you like or don’t like, or to ask you more questions about it. A partner like that might say, “Can you help me understand what makes this a turn on for you?” or “I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do, but if you’re okay with sharing, I’m wondering why you set that boundary there.”
What’s not okay is for a partner to dismiss or ridicule your interests or boundaries.
A partner who keeps pushing you to do something you’ve already said you don’t want, or who makes hurtful assumptions about you based on what you’re into, is not a safe person.
Gaslighting is a common abuse tactic to watch out for, and it comes up a lot in discussions about sex: “How could you be into that?” or “Oh, come on, you don’t really mean that you don’t want that.”
You might find your own ways to make talking about sex with partners easier.
Sexual stigma affects almost all of us because it’s so pervasive in our society, so it’s no surprise that we can’t magically get comfortable with talking about sex the moment we discover feminism or sex-positivity.
So give yourself a break. We’re all works in progress, and things like this get easier with practice.
Miri Mogilevsky is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a recently graduated with a Masters in Social Work and is starting a career as a counselor in Columbus, Ohio. She loves reading, writing, and learning about psychology, social justice, and sexuality, and is working on her cat photography skills. Miri writes a blog called Brute Reason, rants on Tumblr, and occasionally even tweets @sondosia.