Let’s Talk About Sex

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By UB’s Michael Maloney, LCPC

This post will be talking about adult materials, but not about the acts in and of themselves, but how to learn how to talk about it.  

Couples often get frustrated when it comes to the topic of intimacy and sex.  Sometimes one or both partners don’t feel good about their bodies and it becomes a barrier.  There might be situations where you can’t get out of your own head to enjoy the experience of sex. Maybe you are the one always trying to initiate sex and are feeling needy, turned away many times, or unwanted.  What makes these situations even harder is that we don’t learn to build a language in talking about sex.

How do we bring to words what we are looking for? Sex is a very physical act and the more we can build conversations about it the more you can create a language between you and your partner. So let’s start on some topics to talk about sex.

Let’s Talk About Meaning

What does sex mean to you?  This is a very big question.  Sex can bring up multiple issues for us.  We can talk about how we were raised culturally to see sex.  We may have been brought up that it is all important or even not important at all for a relationship.  We can learn that sex needs to be amazing or it can be disgusting based on different aspects of culture.  What did your culture teach you? What did it teach your partner?

Sex can also mean expectations.  Expectations can bring up multiple issues such as how will I perform, will my desire ramp up, what if I turn them away, what if they/I don’t climax, and so on.  Sex might mean having to perform to someone else’s needs. These forms of expectations often make it difficult for a couple to engage. If you are expected to perform sex, then there is an added pressure to it.  It may be helpful to talk to your partner about this.

Sex might be a way to say how close you feel to your partner.  When we notice a lack of the activity, we might feel further from our partner.  Sometimes this happens for one partner and the other feels pressure to perform. Understanding that it is closeness that you want, you can obtain that in various other forms of intimacy.  

Sex can be a form of play.  In play we get to feel safe and not be upset if we make mistakes or be a little clumsy.  Sex can be about letting out steam from stressful day. Sex can also be monotonous or feel like work.  It might be helpful to explore what types of activities make it feel like work for you and when it feels more like play.  

Sex can have multiple meanings based on the context of your history, culture and current/past relationships.  It may be healthy to explore all this and talk about it with your partner.

Let’s Talk about Safety

Safety is a key topic when it comes to sex.  Some people have had bad experiences in their past either in sexual acts or just pressures about their bodies.  Safety might not even have to be physical. Engaging in sex is a vulnerable state for us and when we don’t feel safe it is hard to be in the moment with our partner.  

What are the things that make you feel safe or unsafe? Many couples build in “safe words” which makes clear boundaries of when to stop the act if it feels unsafe. Talking about what you need for consent is also important and should be explore.  

Let’s Talk about Fantasies

Many of us have fantasies of what sex or intimacy could look like.  In some of these fantasies we might be more empowered, feel more safe, and be more adventurous than we are in our day to day lives.  In fantasies we get to control and feel safe in a situation that we might or even might not want to explore in real life. It is important to note that fantasies are perfectly acceptable to leave within the imagination if safety, self-image, or other issues prevent those items.  Just because one has those fatasties means that it needs to be enacted. I make this point because when talking about fantasies it should be clear that these might not be a request that you or your partner might want to be fulfilled.

However by sharing fantasies you can share themes of what you like and what are turn ons for you.  Understanding each others fantasies can help create a dialog on creating a mutual fantasy that you both might want to explore.  

Apps such as Kindu and UnderCovers offer a list of sexual activities that a couple might be interested.  When is helpful about going through such a list is that both partners explore for themselves what they might want to do and can then share it with their other half.  Even is there are activities that one partner would like to do and the other is a hard no, it is okay to share if there are no expectations. Again this should be a conversation of exploration and less judgement or pressure in how to think or behave.  

Let’s Talk about Drive

We all hear the words “sex drive” all the time.  Some people might identify themselves as ‘not sexual’ or have a slow sex drive or maybe my hormones are out of whack (For the hormones, check with you doctor if you want to get that evaluated.)  It may be helpful to talk about your sex drive as two different part. If your sex drive was a car it has both accelerators and brakes. Both of these components are important for your sex drive.   

Your sex drive brakes are anything that stops you from engaging in sex or wanting to slow down.  Often these things are involved with feelings of safety. These might be external items such as fear of consequences or noticing a lack of consent.  The also might be internal as we feel the pressure of evaluating our bodies or questioning our performance. There are some folks who use alcohol or other substances to help bring down their inhibitions (aka their brakes) in order to engage in sex.  If this is the case I recommend being able to find other tools to help quiet your brakes and even consider talking to a therapist.

Your sex drive accelerators are the things that turn you on.  For some people this may take more of a ramp up. They might need a longer tease to bring up their drive, while others have very sensitive accelerators and can quickly get in the mood.  Whatever your brakes and accelerators are (Sensitive, average, or slow to react) they are part of how you work. Understanding them and sharing it with your partner can help them to activate your accelerators and know what your brakes are.  

Let’s Talk about Feedback

Often people will turn away a partner who initiates sex.  This can often make the initiator feel unwanted or having done something wrong.  It is important to share what make you turn them away. Maybe you were too preoccupied thinking about all of the current stressors in your life, maybe you didn’t feel comfortable in your body/clothes you were wearing, maybe you feel the pressure to having to perform, or maybe your partner didn’t approach you in the way that you needed.  Sharing this information, or even asking for it, helps the initiator learn what might help for future attempts.

Your partner might also do something that is unwanted or makes you feel uncomfortable.  It is important to make sure that you are sharing this information as well.

I have a phrase I usually say which is “not here, try there.”  Or you can rephrase that as “Not that, try this.” In its simplest version it can be a place in your body that you don’t like being touched at, but you can guide your partner to places that you would like to be touched.  If you tell your partner what not to do, make sure to share something that you want them to do. This can take multiple forms. Maybe a partner want to dive into sex, and you need more time to ramp up, so asking for actions that help you.  Maybe you aren’t in the mood for sex, but you would be up for cuddling or some other form of affection. These forms for feedback help give your partner a road map to your sexuality and you do’s and don’ts.

All these categories are large areas to discuss with your partner.  If having these conversations are hard, it can helpful to attend therapy.  Individual therapy can offer a time to process how each of these categories might mean for you.  Couples therapy can offer you and your partner a place to discuss these things within a structure time and might add in some added safety.  Talking about sex can help build a language to it and a better road map into what intimacy means for you. Each of us is different and we need to understand those wants and needs.  Talking about sex is about talking about so many other things than just the deed.