Try this next time you’re in a supermarket or bookstore.
Walk over to the magazine section, and see how long it takes you to find an article telling you “how to please your man/woman in bed.”
I’m betting it’ll be less than a minute.
It’s not hard to find a resource telling you exactly what will please your partner sexually.
And I used to read these eagerly.
After all, I was new to sex, and I desperately wanted to be good at it. I wanted to roll into bed with a new partner and amaze them with my skills.
Fortunately, I had several early partners who were great about communication, and I learned quickly that all of those articles were worse than useless – they were actually harmful.
But when there was open conversation between my partners and me about what we wanted and didn’t want, the sex was way better than when we were both trying to work from “guaranteed pleasure tips” we’d picked up somewhere.
It took me longer to realize that sexual communication is a feminist issue – but it totally is!
For one thing, general advice about “how to have good sex” tends to be very binary and gender stereotyped.
It assumes that all men and all women have the same turn-ons, pleasure centers, and anatomy – and that only men and women exist in the first place.
Communication is also the foundation of consent. Building a consent culture means we have to be able to talk about sex. We have to be able to check in, to say “yes to this, no to that.”
We have to create an environment where it feels natural and comfortable for each person to ask for what they want and don’t want.
A feminist approach to partnered sex means treating ourselves and our partners as individuals, not gendered stereotypes. It means affirming that our desires and boundaries matter – and so do the desires and boundaries of our partners.
And the only way to have sex that honors the boundaries and desires of everybody involved is to talk about it.
“Okay,” you might be saying, “I get it. Communication is important. But I’m not sure how to start talking to my partners about the sex we’re having. It’s easy to say, ‘Communicate!’ but what do you actually do?”
I’m with you.
There are a lot of barriers of awkwardness and embarrassment around talking about sex. Talking about sex is literally my job, and I can comfortably converse for hours with my friends about orgasms and clitorises.
But when it comes to talking with a person I’m actually having sex with, I still sometimes freeze.
For today, I’m just going to look at communicating with someone you’re in an active sexual relationship with – someone you’ve knocked boots with before and definitely plan on doing so again – broken down into various situations you might encounter with them.
So let’s talk about some concrete, practical ways we make communication happen.
1. Plan and Brainstorm
At first, the idea of planning sounds pretty un-sexy.
Sex is spontaneous and passionate! Planning means lists and schedules, and who wants that in the bedroom? (Actually, I know a few people who would be way into that, but that’s beside the point.)
I do love a good spontaneous, thrilling, hit-us-like-a-lightning-bolt roll in the hay, but there’s also a lot to be said for doing some talking and planning ahead of time.
The more you discuss ahead of time, the more creative and adventurous you can be. You don’t want to spring something new or unusual on your partner without checking in to see if, when, and how they’re interested.
And it’s easier to come up with ideas – and do any explaining or negotiating necessary – before you’re in the middle of things.
If you know you want to get it on later – be it later this evening, later this week, or at a sexy vacation you’ve planned – you can take the time to have a really in-depth conversation about what you each want.
You can even use some outside resources if you’re struggling with words or ideas!
A worksheet like this one is great, whether you’re with a new partner or someone you’ve been with for years. It’s got a huge range of sexual and sensual activities. So it’s a pretty good bet that there’s something on there that you wouldn’t have thought of, but would like to do.
Another idea, if talking in words is hard or feels awkward, is to use drawings. This is a great way to introduce a newish partner to your erogenous zones, and learn theirs.
You can print out pictures of bodies and draw on them. Mark symbols for “yes, please,” “don’t touch,” “gently,” “firmly,” and so on.
Or you could color them in like a heat map, with the areas you like to be touched in red, orange, and yellow, areas that don’t do much for you in green, and off-limits areas in blue or black.
Then you can exchange pictures and walk your partner through them, to make sure you’re both interpreting the drawings the way you meant.
It’s okay if you get a little bit giggly or silly. It’s a good way to loosen up any awkwardness you feel about sex discussions.
If you want to take it in a more sensual direction, you can lie down naked together and take turns going from head to toe, telling or showing your partner what kind of touch feels best on each part of your body.
Bonus: This can quickly become pretty intensely erotic!
Talking about sex right before you have it sometimes feels awkward because it’s not typically the way we do things.
But how often do you worry, during sex, that you’re not doing what your partner wants? We all feel that!
Having the conversation ahead of time gives you each the assurance that you’re doing just what your partner expects and loves.
2. Talk in the Heat of It
So you and your sweetie are getting hot and heavy. Whether you’re making out on the couch or fully naked and horizontal, this is not the time for a long, detailed discussion of your erogenous zones.
You want to tell them what you want, but how do you keep it short, sweet, and sexy?
When you like what’s happening, let your partner know! “Yes, right there,” “that feels so good,” or just happy moaning are all ways to tell your partner to keep doing what they’re doing.
Men and masculine-identifying people sometimes avoid making sounds of pleasure because they associate it with femininity.
But as a woman who’s been partnered with men, I can tell you that it’s really hard to keep going with a sexual act that I’m hoping my partner will enjoy if I’m not sure he’s really into it. Even a gruff “that’s so good, baby” goes a long way!
Women and feminine-identifying people sometimes have the opposite problem. Porn has taught us that part of being good at sex is making lots of noise. And some of us have had partners who didn’t understand women’s pleasure very well, but got caught up in their egos if we didn’t act like we were enjoying it.
For both of those reasons, many feminine people – myself included! – develop a habit of making happy sex noises even if we’re only kind of enjoying ourselves.
I encourage you, my sisters, to break that habit! If you’re moaning indiscriminately, your partner has no way of knowing which touch is really sending you over the edge.
So save your expressions of pleasure for when you really mean it – but then let them out, if you’re comfortable!
When you want your partner to do something, the simplest way is to ask them. You can start a sentence with “I’d really love it if you…” and most of the time, that will keep you both in the mood and flowing from pleasure to pleasure.
It’s also okay to stop the flow! Sexy magic doesn’t disappear if you take a minute to talk more explicitly about what you want.
Try “I want to ask you something. I really love [describe specific desire]. Would you be up for that?”
That gives you a break to discuss exactly what you want and what your partner feels good about doing, and then you can resume feeling confident that you’re on the same page.
Sometimes stopping the flow is not just okay, but essential. If you or your partner has said no to something, or expressed hesitance or discomfort, you both need to stop what you’re doing and take a minute to check in.
What did that “no” mean? Was it “no, I don’t want oral right now” or “no, not like that” or “no, I’m suddenly not sure I want to be having sex at all?” Whatever it is, you want to make sure you’re both clear – and that means backing off and using words.
It is always okay to say “Hey, can we shift? This position feels awkward” or “I don’t want to be touched there right now” or “I’m not up for that today.”
A partner who cares about your pleasure and consent will stop immediately.
If they push back or try to persuade you, it’s not you making things difficult – it’s them.
You have every right to stop the sexy action the second they cross over a boundary.
No matter what you discussed ahead of time, you both may find that your desires and responses change in the moment. So listen to your partner, and let them know what you’re feeling!
3. Check In Afterward
I think it’s a shame that more people don’t talk about the sex they’ve just had.
Not only is a post-sex chat a nice way to keep feeling close after the immediate fuzzy glow has worn off, but it’s often easier to talk about what you like best and what you want to avoid when you both have a clear memory to work off of.
And you can start the conversation while you’re still in bed cuddling, or when you’re up making yourselves a snack, or the next day.
For a quick check-in, you can simply ask, “Is there anything I did that was uncomfortable, or that you’d like me to do differently next time?”
Even if it was a great time overall, one of you might have little things you wish had gone differently – maybe a lighter or heavier touch on genitals, or more nipple action, or a sideways stroke instead of an up-and-down one.
Most partners will ask you the same question back, and if they don’t, you can go ahead and volunteer your own feedback.
Letting them go first sets the tone. You’re not telling them they did something wrong. You’re just having a conversation about how to give each other more pleasure next time.
Another good check-in question is “What was your favorite part?” My partner’s answer often surprises me, and it creates a great way to learn a little more about what kinds of things delight them, both physically and mentally.
When I do have some feedback that could be interpreted as negative, like “I actually don’t like having my earlobes kissed,” I make sure I’ve got some positive notes to offer, too. As hard as we try to be cool about receiving “constructive criticism,” most of us have a lot of insecurities when it comes to sex.
I feel a hundred times better about an “actually, please don’t do that” comment when my partner’s also told me a couple of other things that they loved. So I try to do the same thing for them, and always end on a positive note.
But no matter how well they phrase it, it can be hard to take negative feedback without becoming defensive. We often think of sex as something that a person is “good at” or “bad at,” like a sport or talent. If a partner didn’t like our favorite trick, it’s easy to worry that we’re not that good after all.
Great sex, though, is much more about being tuned in and compatible than about being skilled. A light touch and teasing attitude may have one partner writhing and begging for more, while leaving a different person bored and annoyed.
So when your partner says “I don’t like that,” it’s not a blanket dismissal of your skills. It just means that it doesn’t work for them – however great it might have been for a previous partner. You don’t need to justify it, and you definitely don’t need to tell them how many other people you’ve been with that enjoyed it – something I’ve had a partner do more than once.
We’re not trying to establish who’s right and who’s wrong here. We’re just working on finding that sweet spot of things we both love doing and having done.
Even when I don’t have anything specific I want to talk about, I always like to check in with new partners about the sex we just had. It lets them know that I’m open to discussing our sex life any time, and makes it start to feel more normal to have these conversations.
All the practical tips in the world won’t overcome the initial feelings of awkwardness and shyness when talking about sex. So my overarching tip is this: Embrace the awkwardness! Don’t be afraid to laugh and blush and fumble for words.
As long as you’re expressing yourself and listening to your partner, you don’t actually need to be smooth and cool as ice. The sex I have when my partner and I are openly communicating is worlds better than the sex we have when we’re both trying to play it cool.
Ginny Brown is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism, as well as a speaker and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She writes for various publications and has her own blog here. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her poly family and three cats. Follow her on Twitter @lirelyn.