"I found out I had chlamydia when I was 18," says Mariah Johnson, an activist and peer sex educator based in Virginia Beach, when I ask her to recall what she remembers from past sex ed classes.
”I was under the impression that [my partner] had used protection, but he hadn't. The situation would have been different if we'd put an emphasis on the importance of using protection and getting tested. He just didn't know. He'd never gotten tested, so he didn't think [using protection] was important."
Stories like Johnson’s are all too common in the United States—and if people aren’t learning the basics of using protection, they certainly aren’t learning how to talk to their partners about it. Thankfully for Johnson, that’s changed: Now, when she becomes sexually active with someone new, she always brings it up.
"I'm 22," she says, "and I still have to explain to people that using protection is important." But the conversation isn't always an easy one to have. "Before, I didn't realize how uncomfortable I was with talking to someone," she says. "[Teachers] don't tell you how to walk away from [sex] if somebody doesn't want to use protection."
Communication is essential when it comes to your sexual relationships, but a lack of communication goes beyond just the threat of STIs. Why is it so important to be able to discuss sex with your partner? "Because mind reading is a skill that probably 99.9 percent of the population doesn't have," says Logan Levkoff, a New York City-based sexuality educator. "We anticipate that people know what we want, that they know what we need." Unfortunately, most of us are just fumbling around in the dark.
Because so many of us struggle to talk about what we want and need in the bedroom — physically, emotionally, and otherwise—the National Coalition for Sexual Health has created an online resource containing concrete tips and scripts people can use. Called the Five Action Steps to Good Sexual Health, it is a roadmap intended to help people improve their overall sexual health. And while communication is just one part of that roadmap, it's an important one.
So how do you talk about sex with your partner? Some of the experts involved with the Five Steps initiative, plus other professionals working within the realm of sexuality, share a few tips.
Start the conversation early
"Start communicating about sex early in a relationship and to do it frequently," says Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist, sex researcher, and author of the forthcoming Tell Me What You Want. "Try to establish a norm that it's okay to talk about sex and it's okay to talk about desire early on because the longer you wait to introduce that, the more awkward the topic can become."
Own the awkward
"Media and pop culture present so much swagger and bravado around conversations about sex," Levkoff says. "Sex is awkward. Talking about sex is awkward. You don't feel cool. You feel super awkward and embarrassed. But you can get through that. My biggest tip is to own the awkward. Don't be afraid to say that this is a hard conversation for you to have. Because the costs of not having them are pretty significant."
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"I think the radical honesty approach is a good approach," adds Brianna Rader, the founder and CEO of Juicebox, an app that connects users to sex and relationship coaches. "You can start by saying, 'I have something I want to share with you but I'm a little hesitant or scared.' This allows your partner to really empathize and understand where you're coming from."
Learn what you want so you know what to ask for
"We lack the skills and the courage to find out what we really want or need, and to ask for it," says Patti Britton, a Los Angeles-based clinical sexologist and sexuality educator. "We don't know who we really are sexually because we've never been shown or systemically prepared to be a sexual person with somebody else. We learn that through trial and error. But before you can ask for what you want, you have to know your own body."
Practice asking for what you want and need
"Part of the deadening and boredom in bedrooms today is because we don't know how to ask for what we want, like, and need, or don't want, don't like, and don't need," Britton says. "It's about not having the ability to form language or not even feeling worthy."
"Good communication is really about practice," adds Los Angeles-based clinical sexologist and sex educator Shan Boodram. "There are a million different places we can stand up for what feels good to us. The stakes are especially high in a romantic relationship, so it's going to be exceedingly hard to ask for what you want in a romantic relationship without practice."
Don’t be afraid to ask for (more) help.
"There are dozens of books you can pick up, online tools, yes/no/maybe lists, things you can fill out together," says Stella Harris, a Portland-based certified sex educator and coach (for Juicebox and elsewhere), and author of the forthcoming Tongue Tied. "Starting from scratch can feel really hard when you don't know what the options are. When you don't know what to ask for. This is often an area when getting some help can really make a big difference. Going to classes at a sex-positive sex shop. Going to a therapist who specializes in that stuff."
Don't assume you know your partner's mind
"Don't just make assumptions about what feels good for your partner and what they like to do," says Shula Melamed, a New York City-based relationship coach with a background in human sexuality. "Conversely, don't assume they're not doing things because they don't want to or don't know how to. Maybe they don't even realize they have the permission to explore." Likewise, always confirm that consent has been given. "Ensure you have mutual consent established and that you're not accidentally going past anyone's boundaries or comfort zones," Lehmiller says.
Approach the conversation with positive curiosity
"Find a way to make [the conversation] fun and inviting and light and enjoyable," Boodram says. "Reframe your mental approach to it. Think to yourself: I wonder what they think about this or I wonder what turns them on. Make it fun. At the heart of it all is a really positive intention, so the conversation should feel really positive, too."
"Use the old age-old technique of the positive sandwich," adds Britton. We're very vulnerable when it comes to sex. We need to learn how to do that in a mindful way. In a respectful way. In a way that really focuses on the positive. No blaming. No complaining. No negative criticism. Learn how to deliver your message with a lot of positivity and respect."
Incorporate the conversation into your sex play
"A lot of times, people find it less awkward in the moment to say, Oh, does this feel good?'" Melamed says. "Afterward, you can ask about what worked, what didn't work, and what they might want more of. Somebody's going to have start the conversation and be brave, so it might as well be you, because you're going to feel good about it in the end."
Pay attention to nonverbal cues
"I think people need to level up their skills at being body readers," Britton says. "There's a lot of silence in bedrooms because people don't want to talk about it. They don't know how to without feeling shame. But I also think there's a place for silence in sexual encounters and especially when a person is in a highly aroused state or engaging in some form of power play, then how do you read the body? That's an overt form of communication."
Practice nonverbal communication
"Communication can be both verbal and nonverbal," Lehmiller says, "and if you're not as comfortable vocalizing certain things, nonverbal communication can be an effective way of communicating what it is that you like and encouraging your partner to do certain things more than others. For example, moaning and groaning during sex can form a positive reinforcement for your partner to keep doing what they're doing or trying that again in the future."
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