How to talk about sex
We’re told communication is the key to a healthy and happy sex life – but how do we actually approach that conversation?
It’s one of life’s strange ironies that talking about sex with a partner can make you feel a whole lot more vulnerable than actually, well, doing it. Whatever your situation, from a lost spark to a desire to turn good sex into great sex, advice like ‘just talk about it’ really doesn’t cut it – particularly when you’re worried about causing offence. As a result, many couples resign themselves to a sex life less than they deserve, or simply split up. ‘The latest British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles showed that the strongest predictor of both short- and long-term sexual problems in any type of sexual relationship is a lack of effective communication,’ says sex educator, co-host of BBC Radio 1’s Unexpected Fluids and script adviser for Netflix’s Sex Education, Alix Fox.
‘Clear, compassionate and ongoing conversations about sex are essential if you and your partner are to feel optimally comfortable and satisfied with your love lives,’ Fox adds. ‘The toxic myth abounds that if two people “have good chemistry” or are “meant to be”, they’ll “just know” what each other’s desires are – but that’s simply untrue. It’s natural for our moods and tastes to shift over time, and there’s a very limited amount that can be gleaned about someone’s wishes and emotions via non-verbal communication like body language. So how do we navigate the conversation?
Take it outside the bedroom
‘Assessing sex straight after it’s happened, when you’re both naked, tired and vulnerable, isn’t always the best time,’ says Fox. ‘Telling someone you’d like them to change the way things are is likely to go down better if you broach the subject at a calm moment when neither of you is rushed, and outside the bedroom – so the space doesn’t become associated with awkwardness and tension. Making a pact to check in about your love life over a cup of tea at least once a week, even when things are going great, helps normalise chatting about sex, and makes it easier to do so if you encounter a bump in the road.’
Beware the ‘genie in the lamp’ dilemma
‘Just like Aladdin was restricted to asking the genie for just three magic wishes, lots of us feel like we can’t ask for too much between the sheets, lest we be viewed as picky, greedy or tough to please,’ says Fox. Worrying about not wanting to seem ungrateful is a big problem, so couples should make it clear to one another that they won’t take feedback and direction personally, says Fox. ‘“I’m here to learn, I learn from hearing and I’m excited to do both,” should be your motto.’
Make ‘sexcuses’ if they’re necessary
If you’re in a long-term relationship and haven’t always been honest about sex, it can be deeply difficult to tell your partner that, actually, that “special move” they do is more “ouch” than “ooh”,’ says Fox. But there are lots of outside influences that can legitimately change sensuality: ‘Menopause, pregnancy, the side-effects of medications and contraception, stress, what point you’re at in your menstrual cycle, tiredness – the list goes on. If it’s a choice between using one of these as a neat scapegoat to explain why you are suggesting switching things up, versus staying schtum and suffering, then use that sexcuse.’
Turn to some saucy resources
‘Sex-themed podcasts can be great conversational ice-breakers, especially as you can Google one that addresses a topic you’d like to broach, then just happen to have it playing next time the two of you are cooking/washing up/whatnot,’ says Fox. She recommends Where Should We Begin?, recordings of couples’ counselling sessions with psychotherapist Esther Perel, and the Meg-John & Justin Podcast, hosted by the authors of the book Enjoy Sex (How, When And If You Want To). Or you can head to modernmann.co.uk to anonymously submit a question to Fox – she answers listener queries on the Modern Mann podcast.
Try the ‘care, air, yeah, share’ framework
‘My technique is designed to help you bring up delicate topics in a sensitive way, that doesn’t feel like an attack,’ says Fox. ‘First, show you care about your lover’s needs and concerns – for example by saying, “I know that work has been stressing you out lately, and I want to support you.” Next, air what’s on your mind in as inclusive a manner as you can manage. For example, “I’ve noticed you’re often too tired for sex, but I wonder whether being intimate more often could be a good stress buster for us both.” Now comes the “yeah” – talk about something positive you’ve enjoyed that they’ve done recently, to boost their self-esteem. Then, invite them to share their thoughts – “Is there anything you think could help, or you’d like to try together?” This way, talking feels like a collaborative, two-way process, and you can agree positive ways to move forward as a pair.’
‘A great way to learn about each other’s fantasies is to each set up a wish list of items on a sex toy site then take turns to buy your partner a gift from their selection every other month or so,’ says Fox. This can be an easy, low-pressure way to initiate discussion about your likes and dislikes. ‘Looking at your partner’s choices can teach you a whole lot about what types of fantasies have been playing on their mind,’ points out Fox.