Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex

Written by Kendall McKenzie
Sex is something that we love to have but hate to talk about (at least with our intimate partners). It’s OK, according to our culture, to use sex to sell products, or exploit women, or make babies, but it’s not OK to educate our younger generations about ways to have safe and mutually satisfying sexual relationships. Not to sound like a pearl-clutcher, but raising kids on a steady diet of media-fed exploitive sexuality AND refusing to discuss healthy sexuality results in a generation of uninformed, ignorant, hornballs. Terrifying. It’s time to reclaim healthy sexuality and bring back honest, accurate discussion.
Sex is something that we love to have but hate to talk about (at least with our intimate partners). It’s OK, according to our culture, to use sex to sell products, or exploit women, or make babies, but it’s not OK to educate our younger generations about ways to have safe and mutually satisfying sexual relationships. Not to sound like a pearl-clutcher, but raising kids on a steady diet of media-fed exploitive sexuality AND refusing to discuss healthy sexuality results in a generation of uninformed, ignorant, hornballs. Terrifying. It’s time to reclaim healthy sexuality and bring back honest, accurate discussion. For me, it’s simply a respect issue: I respect my partner(s) and myself enough to have a difficult conversation because it will inevitably result in safer and more satisfying sex. I don’t know about you, but experiencing sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and shitty sex scares me WAY more than a potentially embarrassing discussion.

The first rule of good sexual communication is confidence. If you don’t believe you’re entitled to safe sex and earth-shattering orgasms, then you shouldn’t expect anybody else to give them to you. A healthy sexual self-esteem makes communication a million times easier, but as we all know, being completely comfortable with our sexuality is easier said than done. Masturbation is a good first step. Self-pleasure is the best way to raise your sexual confidence and self-worth, which ultimately leads to better sex; masturbation helps you become more comfortable with your sexuality, and you have a better awareness of what satisfies you, which you can ultimately communicate to your partners.

Immersing yourself in sexually open situations and atmospheres can also help destigmatize sex and allow you to break through the discomfort barrier. Try going to a sex store and asking one of the employees to help you pick out a toy. Sex-shop employees are the easiest people to talk to about sex—discussing sex is their job; they’re nonjudgmental, and believe me, they’ve heard it all. Many sex shops (such as Babeland and Good Vibrations) also offer a multitude of wonderful workshops that are often incredibly educational and liberating. If privacy is more your thing, try listening to or watching some sex talk shows (Talk Sex with Sue Johanson is a classic, and I love Planned Parenthood’s Speaking of Sex podcast), or perusing some sex blogs, which are part erotica and part education (Violet Blue, Tristan Taormino, and Madeline in the Mirror are some of my favorites). If you really make an effort to let go of unnecessary guilt and shame and embrace sexual openness, talking about dildos and rim jobs and condoms becomes as easy as trading recipes for cookies.

As comfortable as you may be with talking about sex, it’s a fact of life that some situations are trickier to communicate in than others. Many people find it most difficult to talk to a partner that they’re just beginning a relationship with—you’re not at the comfort and disclosure level that comes with a long-term relationship, yet you care about this person’s feelings and opinion of you more than you might with a one-night stand. The STD and sexual history portion of this tends to be the most nerve-wracking: having to disclose the fact that you have or had an STD, being afraid that your partner had or has one, and fear of being judged on your number of past sexual partners or certain kinks and fetishes are legitimate concerns.

The overwhelming majority of experts say that it’s best to have these conversations in a neutral, nonsexual setting (i.e. not in the bedroom and certainly not in the middle of sex). They also suggest trying to keep them casual and relaxed (hint: “We need to talk” is probably not a good way to start). I know it can seem almost impossible to bring up sexual history spontaneously without it feeling forced, but there are ways to broach it in a more natural manner. You can use current events as a launching pad: “Did you see the study that says one in five people has an STD? That’s pretty scary—I should probably get tested soon. When was the last time you were tested?” Or mention conversations you were having with friends (true or not): “My friends and I got totally faced at happy hour and were guessing each other’s ‘magic numbers.’ Can you guess mine? What’s yours?” A little creativity goes a long way, and if you work it correctly, the conversation can turn into a fun bonding experience rather than an unpleasant and awkward dialogue.

Sometimes, however, we don’t exactly have time to wait for the perfect time and place to talk about sex. Ah, the good, ol’ one-night stand has so many uses: ending a dry spell, restoring sexual confidence, satisfying an urge with no strings attached…but that being said, it’s also one of the most risky sexual situations, typically because communication is often nonexistent. Ideally, boundaries are set, protection is discussed, and history is acknowledged before you even leave the bar; however, we all know that’s not usually how it goes. Genitals tend to come flying out before we have a chance to even think about having the conversation, and by then it’s a little too late to find out their favorite brand of condom. I understand it's difficult to talk to a brand-new partner about protection before you start messing around since it's not always clear that sex is on the menu for the night, and you don't want to be presumptuous. It's OK to wait until you've done a little bit of kissing so you're confident you're both on the same page, but safer sex should be discussed before second base is rounded and you totally lose yourself.

The one-night stand is one of the few situations in which I think it’s best to be blunt. It's difficult, yes, but if you spend two seconds thinking about the potential consequences, you might find it easy to spit it out. Again, what's worse? Five minutes of awkwardness, or an incurable STD from a guy/girl you spent twelve hours with? This is a time when communication doesn’t have to be subtle, gentle, or carefully crafted. I don’t ask one-nighters to wear condoms, I tell them to. No condom = no sex, and if they truly can't get off with a rubber, a handjob is the best they're going to get. Partners typically aren’t offended or even surprised*. When the arrangement is casual sex, most people don’t have a problem with safer sex being mandatory, and many appreciate the other person taking the initiative to protect both parties in a no-nonsense manner simply because it saves them the trouble of having to tiptoe around it themselves. And remember: as fun as it is to have a little tryst whilst wasted, drugs and alcohol can severely cloud your judgment and limit your ability to effectively communicate or take a stand against risky behavior.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, committed relationships afford people a comfort level that often makes talking about sex much easier than it would be with a newer partner, but a long-term relationship offers up a new set of challenges, mostly centered around sexual satisfaction. Oftentimes we know there are simple alterations that would make sex infinitely better, but we are afraid to tell even our closest of partners because we don’t want to hurt their feelings or we’re afraid they will be taken aback by our newly-exposed sexual desires.

The first thing you really need to get through your head is that your partner is not a mind reader, and would probably actually appreciate a little direction. After all, they love you, and they want to please you—if they are not at least open to considering what would greatly improve your satisfaction, well, why are you with them then? In fact, the biggest gripe about being given instructions is often that they weren’t offered sooner. Personally, I find it really frustrating when lovers finally give me direction in bed after I have been sleeping with them for a while. The first thing out of my mouth is usually, "Why the hell didn't you tell me this earlier?!" Keeping quiet about sexual pleasure is frustrating for everybody—
not satisfying your partner sucks just as much as not being satisfied yourself. You and your partner(s) owe it to yourselves and each other to communicate.

You do, however, want to protect your lover's ego, and this can be a delicate line when it comes to discussing his or her ability to please you. Probably the most tried-and-true piece of advice is to keep your comments constructive and positive. Instead of "I don't really like ______," make it "I love it when you _____, though _____ doesn’t necessarily do it for me." Every once in a while we do find ourselves having to be more direct than we want (like if something is painful), but I usually just deflect the hurt puppy look with a "don't worry—nobody gets it right unless I tell them."

Another good way to find out what makes you both tick is to jerk off together. You're essentially showing each other what feels the best (who knows you better than you?), and it's learning on a really fun and sexy level. Pay attention to things like speed, pressure, specific areas, if they’re touching other erogenous zones, and what their physical response is before they come. This is a nice trick for people who really do have a hard time verbalizing what gets their rocks off, and it takes the pressure off both parties—you don't have to ask, they don't have to tell, and vice versa.

Communication doesn’t have to be separate from sex—you can totally combine the two. Dirty talk is totally a legitimate way to communicate. What better way to explain what you want than to make it part of sex itself? When you're in the middle of a totally intense fuck sesh and you whisper a blunt suggestion to your partner, you're both so wrapped up in what's going on that odds are you won't feel super awkward and they won't even blink—they'll probably actually like it! If, for some reason, your partner recoils in horror, blame it on the moment, and then dump him/her immediately. (Just kidding…kind of.)

I personally tend to find that it’s easiest for me to talk to my more serious partners during after-sex cuddling. When you’re lying in the crook of their arm and basking in that postcoital glow, you’re able to bring up things that you liked and/or disliked easier because they’re still relevant and you can easily hide them in “holy-fucking-shit-that-was-so-good”-type compliments, and then extrapolate. For example, you could say something like, “That thing you did with your thumb made me come so hard I thought I was going to black out. Direct clit stimulation always feels the best for me.” I guarantee he or she will pick up on the cue and incorporate more of what you want in future sessions. My partners have always really enjoyed rehashing the best moments of the sex we just had (and laughing over the worst), and it can be a really great and easy way to open the lines of communication and become truly comfortable with your partner. After all, how embarrassing can it be to talk about if you just did it?

It is crucial to remember that, while pleasing your partner and receiving pleasure yourself is important, nobody should have to do something that they're legitimately uncomfortable with. There is a fine line between loving compromise and doing something you really don't want to because you felt pressured—the former is fine, the latter is not, and only you can determine what's really going down. If your partner suggests something that you are not okay with, you have every right to say no, but it might be a good idea to ask yourself why you feel that way. Some of my most favorite sexual activities were once on my sexual blacklist, but my partners' suggestions often opened my mind, and I discovered I love things I never thought I would. Everyone's history is different, however, and experiences like sexual assault or a particularly guilt-ridden upbringing can really fuck with one’s ability to be experimental. Being open, nonjudgmental, and compassionate is key in order to really have healthy sexual communication.

Talking about sex is one of the hardest things for folks to do, but it really is essential for both your health and pleasure. You're not going to have good sex if you're worrying about getting pregnant or contracting an STD, and you're certainly not going to have it if you are unable to communicate what you need to be satisfied. The hardest part about sexual communication is simply starting the discussion, but the more you talk, the easier it becomes, and you'll find that the majority of people out there have a lot to say themselves but are simply too afraid. My final piece of advice on how to talk about sex, the one everybody hates but knows is the best way to go: just fucking say it. Whatever it is, just say it. Really, what’s the worst that can happen? If your lovers balk at the idea of using protection or revealing their STD history or think you’re a freak because you want a little anal action, then is this really the type of person you want to be sleeping with? I didn't think so.

*In case my condom hint-drops were too subtle, let me clarify: communication or not, with a one-night stand, you MUST use a condom and/or a dental dam (for oral sex). No excuses, even if you're using an additional form of birth control. If you're allergic to latex, have a stash of polyurethane (plastic) condoms handy. Sorry to harsh your buzz kids, but HIV/AIDS and other STDs totally, totally suck.

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