Communicating About Sex: You Know It Matters, But How To Do It?

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We all get it: talking about sex is critical for safer, more pleasurable sex. But how do you actually do it?

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Photo: Katie Tegtmeyer

What does a healthy relationship look like?

When I teach human sexuality classes or guest lecture about sex in other professors’ classes, students always ask for tips about how to talk to their partner about sex.

They’re smart – and they know that if neither one of them talks about birth control, then they’re not going to feel confident about the extent to which they’re protected from pregnancy. And if they’re feeling worried or anxious about pregnancy risk, then odds are that they’re going to enjoy being intimate together less so than if they felt adequately protected.

The same is true about other conversations about sex, such as conversations about:

  • whether you or your partner feels ready to have sex
  • your values about having sex
  • your feelings for each other
  • your expectations about what it means for your relationship if you have sex
  • your expectations about exclusivity/monogamy
  • your definition of “cheating” and what’s okay/not okay for your significant other to do with others (e.g., flirt via text, kiss, facebook poke, make out, oral sex, intercourse, etc)
  • STI testing

… and on and on and on.

We all get it: talking about sex is critical for safer, more pleasurable sex. But how do you actually do it?

Do It Sooner Rather Than Later

First and foremost, try to talk to your partner (friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever you want to call them – we’ll just say “partner” for simplicity here) sooner rather than later – as in, before you’re in the midst of being sexual in a way you haven’t talked about or don’t feel ready to be.

Setting matters too. Many people find that it’s easier and more comfortable to talk about sex when you’re not in a sexual situation, such as when you’re hanging out watching tv, playing video games, shopping, on a walk, or at a coffee shop.

That way, if emotions run high or either of you gets upset, your intimate experience doesn’t hinge on that. You are also relieved of the pressure of feeling like you’re “ruining the moment” if you want to talk at length about your ideas related to sex.

Be Gentle, Caring, Compassionate

Try to approach a conversation about sex from a gentle, caring, compassionate perspective. Sex is hard for many people to talk about. After all, we don’t have much practice talking about it in heartfelt ways – often the way we’ve been raised to talk about sex centers around jokes, judgments or stereotypes and it can be uncomfortable for many people to communicate their very personal ideas and feelings around sexuality, relationships and love.

You might open a conversation by saying something like, “I know it can be awkward for some people to talk about sex, but it’s important to me to talk about our ideas around sex before we go any further.” That lets your partner know that (a) you understand the potential awkwardness and (b) this conversation is important to you.

Clarify Your Feelings

Even if you think you know how your partner feels about something, a sex talk can be a good way to clarify each of your feelings. You might try to keep the conversation fairly open-ended and fluid. Some examples of how to do this include saying things such as:

  • “What do you think about the different birth control methods available to us?”
  • “What do you think about how partners share costs and responsibilities related to birth control?”
  • “What’s important to you to talk about before we have sex?”
  • “How do you think our relationship might change if we have sex?”
  • “What are your feelings about wanting to be exclusive versus be with other people?”

If you’re not certain you understand your partner’s response, use this opportunity to make sure you know what you mean. For example:

  • “So, am I understanding correctly that you like me a lot but you still want to feel like you can hang out with other girls/guys?”
  • “It sounds like you’d be most comfortable if we used condoms and some other type of birth control, like the pill, since neither one of us is ready to get pregnant. Is that right?”

These are just some starter tips to get your sex talk going. Learning to communicate effectively about sex takes time and practice, and everyone has to start somewhere.

Further Reading

You can learn more about communicating about sex from the Advocates for Youth web site and from the book S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College.

Dr. Debby Herbenick (M.P.H., Ph.D.)

is a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and author of several books including Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
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