As a sex educator, I often hear questions of this type: “I’d like to start doing this thing. How can I talk to my partner about it and maybe get them to try it?”
Because I’m polyamorous and open about it, the “thing” people ask me about is often some form of non-monogamy, from polyamory to the occasional threesome. But it can also come up when there’s a particular fetish or kink activity someone wants to practice, or even if it’s just a new sex act, like anal sex.
It can feel really scary and vulnerable to confide a new sexual desire. What if your partner laughs at you? What if they think you’re a bad person for wanting this? What if they can never look at you the same way again?
Our culture – and many cultures around the world – imposes so much shame on sexuality. Everybody is expected to be “normal,” which means wanting these things, and thinking those things are gross and unnatural.
The truth, as anybody who’s studied sexuality in depth can tell you, is that there’s an enormous range of “normal” for sexual interests.
As long as the sexual practice doesn’t violate anybody’s consent, there is nothing wrong or perverted about sexual desires that go against the narrow range of what’s considered “normal” in any one society – and they’re a lot more common than most people would think.
The freedom to explore and express our sexual interests is a feminist issue, because of the ways patriarchy shames and constrains women, men, and non-binary people into a narrow range of desires and tells them all others are off-limits.
Patriarchy says that if we ask our partners to try something we’re interested in, they will judge us for it and they’ll be right in doing so. As feminists, we reject that message.
The whole idea that you could be a “bad” person for having a sexual desire goes against what we know to be true – that sexuality and desire don’t actually fit in with society’s oppressive and narrow ideas. So you don’t deserve those judgments.
As feminists, though, we also prioritize consent, which includes not pushing people’s sexual boundaries. Too many times, I’ve seen one partner argue another into trying something that they didn’t want to do. That’s sexual coercion, and it’s not okay.
So as we approach a conversation about a new interest, we need to walk a fine line between affirming our right to have the desires we have, and making plenty of space for our partner to express their own feelings and desires about it. Then we have to work together to find the solution that’s best for both of us.
It’s a tall order, but here are some steps that will help.
1. Get Comfortable with Your Desires
Before you even start a conversation with your partner, you need to have a level of comfort with the desire you have.
Otherwise, you may go into the conversation needing their approval or affirmation that it’s okay for you to want this.
That’s an unfair burden to put on somebody who may not even have thought about this until you bring it up! And you need to know that your feelings are valid, regardless of how your partner reacts.
So find some sources of affirmation for yourself first. BDSM and polyamory have large online communities where you can read stories by people whose relationships and sense of self saw wonderful improvement.
For any particular sex act or toy, you can definitely find articles online by people who love it (you will also probably find articles by people who hate it – nothing is for everybody!).
Looking inside yourself is important too. Do you believe this will be good for you? Does thinking about it make you happy? Those feelings are valid!
You have a right to pursue a sexual life that satisfies you, even if others don’t understand it.
Go ahead and tape that to your mirror, if you want. In a world that tries to shame us for every deviation from sexual “norms” (even when many of those sexual norms are pretty harmful and consent-negative), it bears repeating.
You have a right to pursue a sexual life that satisfies you.
2. Get Comfortable with Their Right to Have Different Desires
Here’s the flip side of the affirmation I just gave: Your partner doesn’t owe it to you to satisfy your desires. They also have a right to a sexual life that is healthy and satisfying to them, and sometimes their desires are going to be very different from yours.
Sometimes, when we find something that really fulfills us, we become downright evangelical about it. If only more people knew! we think. If more people saw how great this is, they’d be so much happier!
It’s very natural to move from, “This is bad, nobody should do it” to “This is awesome, everybody should do it!”
It’s a lot harder to stay with our own experience, to say, “This is awesome for me. I don’t know how other people will feel about it.”
This is even true for things that are considered “normal.” Some people don’t enjoy receiving oral sex. Some people discover that marriage and settling down isn’t right for them. Nothing is for everybody.
You don’t need to figure out how your partner will feel about this desire, or whether it will be good for them. That’s their job, and they might not know until they’ve thought about it.
Your only job is to give them the space and the information they need to figure it out for themselves.
3. Recognize Any Inequalities That Might Create a Power Imbalance
In a perfect world, we’d be able to talk about our wants and needs with our partners and know that they are advocating for their own wants and needs just as strongly.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world. Social inequalities mean that often one partner feels they have less power in the relationship, including less freedom to say “no” to something they don’t really want.
For example, women dating men often feel that they don’t have the right to say “no,” because of the way they’ve been socialized to cater to men’s needs and wants. Their partners need to be more deliberate about creating space for them to communicate their feelings.
The last thing you want is for your partner to agree to something not because they want to, but because they don’t feel they have the right to say “no,” or because they can’t afford to lose your support.
This conversation needs to be about you working together to fulfill both of your desires, not about one of you using your power to get the other to agree to something.
4. Talk About Surrounding Desires, Not Just the Thing Itself
I don’t believe that all sexual desires have some big psychological secret meaning behind them. I do, however, believe that in a lot of cases a specific sexual desire – say, wanting to try group sex, or bondage, or installing a sex swing – is more like a school of fish than a single whale.
What does that mean?
A school of fish moves like a single bigger organism, but it’s made up of a bunch of individual fish. A sexual desire can also be made up of a bunch of individual wants that came together for you into one burning desire.
For example, for one person, wanting to try group sex could include: a low-pressure opportunity to try same-sex contact, excitement at the idea of watching and being watched during sex, wanting to feel sexually adventurous after years of routine, and the appeal of how cool it would sound to tell friends that they did that.
For another person, the desires that make up an interest in group sex could be totally different.
Not wanting to do a specific sexual thing can also be made up of a bunch of individual wants.
Say your partner is immediately unhappy with the idea of group sex. For them, it might mean performance anxiety, not enjoying sex with new people, and fear that this is just a step on a road to you leaving them for someone else.
When you focus on the big desire – the school of fish as a whole – you’re much likely to reach gridlock with “I want this”/“I don’t.”
If you can talk about the needs, wants, and desires behind each of your feelings, you will understand each other better and be able to work on a solution that meets both your needs.
5. Respond to Their ‘Yes’
So you’ve started the conversation and your partner has said yes! Maybe they’ve been secretly fantasizing about the same thing… or maybe they’re not sure they’ll like it, but are willing to try.
This is the ideal outcome of the conversation, but that doesn’t mean the conversation is over! Make sure to keep communication channels open as you begin exploring.
Expectations aren’t reality, and it might be that either or both of you finds this new sexual activity isn’t for you. It sometimes even happens that Jamie convinces Kim to try something, and afterward Jamie finds out that they don’t really like it, while Kim is hooked and wants more!
Whether you’re the partner who initiated the idea or the one who said “yes” to it, it’s totally fine if your feelings change after giving it a try.
Maybe you’ve learned that this is something that’s hot for you in fantasy but not so great in reality. Or maybe you need to try a different approach, different circumstances.
There’s no shame in having different feelings than you expected, or needing to re-negotiate or make some adjustments. It happens all the time. It might help to talk to other people who’ve been there: “Our first try at polyamory was a disaster” or “Using that sex swing we bought was so awkward” are stories a lot of people have.
Whatever happens, stay flexible and tuned in to each other, and have some sexy fun!
6. Respond to Their ‘No’
As you’ve already prepared for, your partner may say “no.”
A “no” can be anything from “nope, never” to “I don’t know if I want to try that.” Anything that’s not a “yes,” you need to treat as a “no,” at least for now.
You can always invite them to tell you if they change their mind, or ask if it’s okay to bring it up again six months from now and see what they think.
The conversation doesn’t end with “no,” though! Hopefully, they said “no” without shaming or judging you for having the desires you have, and you responded to it without guilting or pressuring them.
If not, you probably want to step back and work those issues before coming back to the sexual conversation. If you try to have it with the shadows of shame, guilt, pressure, and judgment, it can create serious hurt and distance, rather than bringing you closer together.
If you’re able to communicate with mutual respect, the first question you might want to ask is whether there are compromises that would work for both of you.
Go back to point #4 and talk through what “individual fish” wants you both have. Many partners are able find a compromise solution that makes both of them genuinely happy.
Sometimes, though, there’s no compromise that will work – your desires are too different.
If this is something you wanted to try but isn’t essential to you, that’s the end of that. As long as you’re getting your sexual needs met overall, not getting to try something you thought would be fun is one of those relationship compromises we all have to live with sometimes.
If you’ve come to the conclusion that you need to pursue this sexual interest to be sexually fulfilled, you may need to either end or restructure your relationship.
The idea of ending a relationship over a sexual incompatibility is scary and comes with its own kind of stigma. Many friends and family will blame the person who left because their sexual needs weren’t being met.
I personally believe that it’s healthier to separate than to live for years and years feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. So if that’s the way abandoning this desire will feel, a separation might be worth considering.
Opening the relationship or maintaining a platonic partnership (usually, but not always, so that you can continue to raise children together) are options that don’t involve a full breakup and that work very well for some couples dealing with sexual incompatibility.
Looking back to point #3, if your partner depends on you for financial or other physical needs, you should work to figure out how to keep supporting them or help them find other sources of support.
Otherwise, they may cave in and agree to try what you want because they feel powerless and afraid – which is not what either of you wants.
It will probably take some time – weeks, months, sometimes years – to figure out the solution that’s best for you both.
Staying respectful and kind to each other is the best way to ensure a good outcome, even if that outcome is separation. Remember, having conflicting sexual desires doesn’t mean either of you is doing something wrong.
In a world that tells us our desires are shameful, affirming our right to feel the way we feel is courageous. Opening up and sharing our desires with our partners is even more courageous!
If both partners approach it with mutual respect, the honesty and vulnerability of such a conversation can be great for your relationship – no matter what happens.
If this article has helped you, you might even want to start the conversation by asking your partner to read it, so that you can both be on the same page.
Whether your desires line up or are as different as can be, you can talk about them together without creating shame or guilt for either of you. Instead, you can work as a team to create the sex life that makes you both happy and brings you closer – and that’s what sex in a relationship is all about!
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.