“But it’s not sexy if we talk about it.”
Humans are special. We build cities, make art, stand erect (excuse the pun). But if there’s one area in which humans are not special, it’s sex—right? All sorts of animals have sex!
Obviously all sorts of animals have sex, and in all sorts of awesome ways; just ask anyone who has taken Biology of Sex. But human sex is different in several ways, one of which is completely essential. Humans have language: the language to talk about the sex we’re having.
Everything I have written about in these columns, everything I will write in future columns, and every sex question anyone has ever asked me, comes back to communication in some way. Yet people are often concerned that talking about sex will take the fun out of it. As someone who talks about sex more than probably any other topic, I assure you that I still think sex is very sexy. Whether I have scared away some near-strangers with my lack of regard for social norms is another story. I’m not saying that talking about sex is always easy; if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this.
Good communication happens before, during, and after sex. By “before,” I don’t mean two minutes before, when you’re already in your bed and half-undressed. I’m talking about communication in a nonsexual setting. This is obviously primarily applicable for consistent or repeated sexual partners, although you can pull this off before your first or only sexual encounter with someone, and I offer you the highest of fives for doing so.
Before sex, you can communicate about what you want and need from the sex you’re having—things that turn you on and off, needs, desires, limits, fantasies, and how you are going to enact them. And just because the conversation is not happening in a sexual setting does not mean you can’t be sexy about it. A well-timed “How do you feel about tying me up later?” text message can work nicely—or else a note slipped across the table at dinner, or across the desk in class.
Conversely, if sexy talk is difficult for you, this is the perfect opportunity to bring up your needs in a matter-of-fact way without feeling like you’re being all business in the bedroom (although that can be fun too). If you talk to your friends about sex, you can ease in by replicating the tone and ease of those conversations when you bring it up with your partner. Bring it up during dinner, doing laundry together, or to make that third-wheeling friend uncomfortable enough to leave. And again, writing things down can be an incredible tool and can help you to think about what you want to share before the conversation even happens. Yes/no/maybe lists are useful, especially for those of us who struggle to put things into words or to come up with new ideas (Scarleteen and Becca Brewer each have comprehensive lists, but you can find others or create your own). Also check out Reid Mihalko’s difficult conversation formula to help you figure out how to say or write what you want to share.
For those who worry that this will take all of the mystery away, it’s true that mystery and surprises can be fun. But some things simply cannot be left to mystery. Surprising your partner by waiting in their bed covered in chocolate syrup, only to find out that they are deathly allergic to chocolate, is not fun. Introducing your favorite toy during sexual play and then discovering that your partner is uncomfortable using sex toys with other people is not fun. It is also not fun to be the partner in either of those scenarios, or in the dozens of others I can present to you if you’re unconvinced. Plus, how are you going to successfully enact your threesome, or your role-play fantasy, or your kidnapping fantasy, or your submission fantasy, without talking about it beforehand? You can’t.
If the concept of communication before sex was hard for you to wrap your head around, hopefully communication during sex is more familiar. A lot of people communicate primarily physically during sex, and while physical communication can be very useful, words are a whole lot clearer. Shifting your body around until someone hits the right spot is less straightforward than telling them where you want them to touch you. Dirty talk is an endlessly useful tool here, if all parties are okay with it. If you feel embarrassed or awkward dirty talking, try practicing in front of the mirror while you’re home alone. My guess is that your mirror has seen and heard weirder things from you in the past.
Safe words or safe gestures can also be a helpful way of communicating during sex, although these do need to be discussed beforehand. They are popular for scenarios in which “no” does not actually mean “no,” but they can also be useful for maintaining clarity if you have trouble talking about sex in a direct manner. The red/yellow/green system works well, in which “red” means stop, “yellow” means slow down or pause, and “green” means go or keep going.
You’ve probably heard of affirmative consent, or “yes means yes,” by now; part of what that means is that you don’t just keep going until you hear a “no,” but rather you ask for a “yes” (and the same applies to your partners). It means your sex will not only be consensual, but also that you can feel secure in your partners’ enthusiasm and that you won’t be relying on some fictional natural progression of sex acts, like the one put forth by the baseball model (see Al Vernacchio’s fabulous TED talk for a new metaphor for sex).
After sex, processing is important. This is somewhat intuitive because in real sexual scenarios, every single thing you do will not be discussed beforehand or during. Afterward is a great time to say “I liked it when you dug your nails into my back” or “I didn’t love this one word that you used during dirty talk.” It’s also a great time to revisit things you talked about beforehand: What worked well? What went wrong? What made this part so good, or this part so unsuccessful? You can talk immediately after, or at another point in a nonsexual setting.
The thing about communication is that we’re already doing it. As humans, our ability to communicate our needs and feelings and questions is one of the most valuable tools we have, and we use it constantly in different ways. Many of us recognize the necessity, in any type of sexual or romantic relationship, of addressing what the nature of the relationship is. Think of this in the same way—and maybe even incorporate it into the same conversations. Most importantly, be honest with your partners, and believe what they are telling you as well. Without communication, at best we don’t get to explore all of our desires and needs, and we have some mediocre sex. At worst, we participate in the destructive, pervasive epidemic of sexual assault and rape culture.
My mother used to tell me that if you can’t talk about something, you shouldn’t be doing it. This wasn’t just about sex, but I cannot think of any category to which it applies better. Sure, it’s not always easy to talk about sex directly. We’ve been taught not to have these conversations, and we have inherited many complex taboos surrounding them. Transcending those taboos is difficult and often uncomfortable. It’s also mandatory. So far in this column, I’ve written about things that are important or necessary for good or better sex. Communication is necessary for good sex; it is also necessary in order to have any sex at all.
Baurer is a member of the class of 2015.