How to Initiate Sex Without Feeling Awkward

Some advice for keeping it cool when things are heating up.
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Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
Advice on the finer points of having great sex.

Whether you’re with a potential one-night stand or a person you’ve been dating for a while, initiating sex can still be tricky. Even when you feel that the moves you’re putting on someone will be well-received, it’s sometimes unclear how to actually make the first move without sounding awkward, pressuring someone, or risking rejection. (A word to the wise, though: Rejection isn’t the end of the world!)


Why does something with the potential to feel so good occasionally feel so fraught? Sex counselor Finn Deerhart said that many people lack the understanding, emotional intelligence, and relational skills necessary to make initiating sex feel truly hot. “Everybody is a little bit dysregulated around sexuality,” Deerhart told VICE—meaning, it’s normal for a lot of people to feel like they’re swimming in the dark when it comes to managing their desire for sex and how they go about having it. According to Deerheart, this can lead to “fear, inadequate language to describe what we’re feeling, [and] inadequate language to ask for what we want.”

Being slightly uncomfortable with making the first move isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Cyndi Darnell, a sex therapist and author of the book Sex When You Don’t Feel Like It: The Truth About Mismatched Libido and Rediscovering Desire, said that initiating sex is usually bound to feel at least a little weird. As she puts it: If it doesn’t feel weird, we’re likely running the risk of making it all about our own horniness and not thinking about how the other person might take it. That’s obviously not a good thing, especially if we want to have sex with them.


OK, so with the understanding that weirdness can and maybe should be a crucial part of getting laid: How do you initiate sex? 

Talk about sex outside of the bedroom first

Plenty of people think that hookups “just happen.” But Darnell said it’s useful to make a point of discussing your turn-ons and expectations with your potential partner. Talking about these things outside of the bedroom and well in advance of your actual hookup helps minimize the risk of confusion, hurt feelings, and violated boundaries. 

Whether you’re hooking up for the first time or making a move on a long-term partner, it comes down to being clear about what you want, making an effort to find out what your partner wants, and seeing how those can come together. “This can help not only build erotic tension, but also help you decide if your dynamic with this person will be fulfilling, whether in a one-off or a more frequent arrangement,” said Darnell.

For example: Deerhart explained that you might want sex that makes you feel free and uninhibited, while your partner might want more gentle sex that makes them feel safe, close, and connected to you.

Before things get blurry in the bedroom, ask a few simple questions: What are you in the mood for right now? Do you like rough sex, or gentle? Are you looking for a one-night-stand, a fuck buddy, or a relationship? Are there some things you want to do, and other things you’d rather not?


Set the mood before sex

Be aware of—and do your best to create—the right mood for making your move. According to Deerhart, this is all about engaging your and your partner’s senses. You may want to dim the lights in the room, light some candles, and put on a sexy playlist. It’s also a good idea to take your laptop off your bed and put your phone on silent so they don’t distract you or your partner before you even get down to it. 

But… none of this matters if the timing is off. If your partner is clearly stressed or tired, or is busy with some other (probably less exciting, but still important) task, it’s probably not the right time to initiate sex. Even if it does happen, it will more likely be rushed, mindless, or only enjoyable for one of you. Darnell suggested having sex during the day on weekends, for example, instead of saving it until night, when you and your partner might both be tired. 

Read your partner’s body language

Darnell advised paying attention to body language, which can give you both go and stop signals that your partner isn’t verbalizing. 

Smiling, leaning in, eye contact, and mirroring can all be signs of attraction, but you should also pay attention to clues that your potential partner is uncomfortable and uninterested, like not making eye contact or turning their body away.  


Of course, you also have a body, and you can use it to communicate your own signals to your partner. If you’re just about ready to heat things up, and if your partner is showing signs of the same, try a little prolonged eye contact, a hand on the forearm or thigh, or even some neck kisses. 

Be direct and appreciative when you make a move—and never pressure your partner

When initiating sex, a lot of people are concerned about crossing boundaries and pressuring people into things they may not want to do. Those are good concerns to have, said Deerhart, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of making your intentions clear. “We need to be direct,” said Deerhart.

He suggested leading with honesty and telling your partner how they make you feel. For example, you can say something like, “I’m feeling really excited about being with you right now. I want to show that to you physically, and I wonder how that lands with you.” 

None of this should come off like you’re demanding a certain action from your partner. Instead, it’s about communicating how you feel and what you want. “It’s like an invitation to join you in a space that you’re feeling, not an action that you’re asking for them to do or perform, because that’s how people feel like they’re just being projected upon,” said Deerhart. This way, initiating sex becomes an open-ended question that allows your partner to decide what they want, too. 

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